Dear White People: Use your Privilege



Keynote address for the El Sistema Symposium at Duke University January 2018 

Beyond honored to be here…I can’t even tell you. Thank you, Katie and the entire team, for all the hard work you’ve put in for this exciting weekend.  My name is David France and I’m the founder and Executive Director of Revolution of Hope where our mission is to transform the lives of inner city youth giving them confidence, resilience, and endurance through an intensive, joy-filled, conservatory-level music program.

I wanted to give this talk a provocative title so this morning’s talk is called: Dear White People…..use your privilege.  Through this talk I’d like to address the question:  Will the future be like the past?

6 years ago, after graduating the Sistema Fellows program at The New England Conservatory of Music, I was invited to go on a concert tour of Poland. I was asked to learn a piece by a polish composer, so I chose to learn a piece I’ve wanted to learn since I was in high school: Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor. I Arrived in Poland and after one of the concerts it was announced that I was available for lessons, master classes, or any other collaboration. About 10 minutes after the show I noticed a few of the kids in the high school were pushing this kid towards me. He was incredibly shy and didn’t speak but this group spoke for him…and they told me he was a pianist and he wanted to play with me. I gave him the accompaniment to the piece and there we were… I was this BIG black guy with a violin and there he was, this scrawny polish kid sitting at the piano; and we started playing while everyone in the auditorium carried on their conversations. Eventually the loud conversations after the show dissolved into silence and maybe even shock at what they were seeing and hearing.

I couldn’t speak any polish and he couldn’t speak any English but CHOPIN, the music became this BRIDGE that connected us. That experience taught me that when people share common interests all other barriers have a chance to become less significant

This morning I want to look at 2 issues regarding racial equity as it relates to our work with social action through music:

·       How can we diversify our network of teachers of color?

·       How can we Identify what our students might be up against and be a part of the solution?

A recent study released by the Pew Research Center highlighted the divide that persists in Black-White relations in the United States.  The study showed the stark contrast in perceptions of the current state of race relations in areas such as:

·       discrimination,

·       professional upward mobility,

·       relations with the police, and

·       applying for a loan or mortgage

I don’t think it’s worth trying to figure out which side is right, but the worth lies in the truth that in the  

21st century blacks and whites still don’t see eye to eye.   Differing views on the journey toward racial equality not only leads to potentially conflicting solutions but can lead to an even worse predicament;  

Where there is no perceived PROBLEM there is no need to support efforts to remedy systematic racism

Here are some of the Perceptions found in the study

·       In the Pew study blacks were more likely than whites to believe that the future wasn’t very bright. 

·       The study said that “43% of blacks are skeptical that the country will eventually make the changes necessary for racial equality.”   

I’ve recently read numerous comments from my friends in the “social sphere” showing that many believe that racial equity in this country is worsening because the media is choosing to focus on it. The solution posed is that if we would just not talk about race so much, things would get better.  But would this solution work in the fight against other historical injustices?   Imagine saying this to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Corey Ten Boom!!  

Could the Holocaust have ended if we had just ignored it?

The study isn’t surprising however.  The Huffington Post recently reported that

91% of the average white American’s closest friends and family are white with just 1% being black.

Blacks don’t fare much better with

83% of their close friends and family being black and 8% of their friends being white.

While not having black friends doesn't make someone racist it does make one more likely to unintentionally stagnate racial progress.  The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 63.4% of workers use informal job finding methods to land employment.   When coupled with another study showing that 60-90% of jobs are found informally through friends, the fallout from segregated friendship groups is staggering. 

How is this relevant?

When we dream about the future for the kids in our programs. I wonder if their future prospects and barriers are hinted at by how we interact or don’t interact with our colleagues who come from the same demographics as the students we serve.

At events like this, I always hear a few people asking how we can diversify the teachers in the programs we have around the country.  I have no doubt that if you’re in this room you believe that improving diversity is important.  Maybe one answer lies with us.  What might this field look like if everyone in this room made a commitment to diversify their friendship circles with colleagues from the demographics and backgrounds that we serve.

I believe the future will be just like the past……. UNLESS we change the present.

What can we do? 

We can build relationships. Here are two ways to begin building these relationships 

Shut up and listen!  

I believe that active listening might be the clue to building meaningful bridges across these misunderstandings and may even serve as the missing catalyst toward greater progress in race relations.  

How we can start actively listening?

·       We can start by asking a leading question: What do YOU think about X,Y, or Z?

·       Ask clarifying questions for deeper understanding

·       Let the other person have the last word

Asking questions removes the temptation to assume someone else’s position and by focusing on your next question you can create a stronger bridge across a potential ideological divide. 

Make some black friends

In a recent conversation with a friend he pointedly asked me, "So does that mean if I don't have black friends I should find some???”  My simple answer was…..Yes...but with a qualification.   All forms of networking are more useful to everyone involved if they are authentic.   

Here are 3 potential things to look for to make it easier to form a friendship with someone of another ethnicity:

·       Do you have similar interests or profession?

·       Do you have mutual friends that will give you multiple opportunities for casual interactions?

·       Amicability: Do you actually get along! 

Inequality has been built into the national fabric intentionally and won't go away unless we are equally intentional about undoing its intricate Web.  

Closing the gap

We are here because we want to close so many gaps for our students.  Last year this study was released in Boston showing: 

The household median net worth of Bostonians:  2017

Whites — $247,500
U.S. blacks — $8
Caribbean blacks — $12,000
Puerto Ricans — $3,020
Dominicans — $0

Many believe these gaps will be closed by the time our students grow up. However, we must ask, how do these statistics currently affect the people in our field who might look like our students. These gaps and truths are their CURRENT REALITY.

I learned a few principles that might help through an article my students studied last year. There was a widely shared blog called: "My 11-year-old son auditioned at Juilliard, and we both learned a lot about how top performers practice."   I loved it and wanted to share it with my students. I didn't realize the real lessons for my orchestra would be found between the lines of the article.

A few of my students dream of going to Juilliard so it made sense for us to read it together. I hoped the article would be a window into what it takes to get into a world-class Conservatory; instead it turned my students into detectives and they began poking holes into what they read and started asking deeper questions that weren’t answered by the article.  

Here are the 5 lessons we Lessons learned from Article:


The gap between the haves and the have nots isn’t one that can be measured merely by the size of one’s bank account or by the renown of one’s alma mater. Equal access to opportunities sounds noble but that access alone might not make the playing field as level as it appears IF part of the advantage is in the form of information. If this is the case, the disadvantage becomes harder to recognize and even more difficult to change. In the article the author’s son had insider information into the Audition process:

·       What repertoire he should play

·       Where to get a high-quality instrument that would be suitable for a Juilliard audition

·       And more

In these cases, being outside of the “information” loop IS the disadvantage. The more WE as educators know what gaps are missing for our students WE can fill in these gaps.


If we want to truly level the playing field our students need to know what they are realistically up against.

In order to “leave no child behind” that child and their family must first know how far behind he/she actually is in order to properly prepare to climb the mountain ahead. When my students read the article, it said the author’s son was playing the Saint-Saens cello concerto. My students had never heard of that piece let alone how much more advanced it is than Twinkle.


The road to Carnegie Hall or any future career is usually a bit more complicated than just practice, practice, practice. As we read the article my students started shouting out the hidden costs based on the assumptions made in the article. 

·       “Oh, so he has private lessons, they must have money!” 

·       What about the cost of a good instrument. 

·       Who are the teachers that can prepare you to get into a top school and how much are those lessons?


My students found out that the boy in the article was homeschooled; giving him the flexibility to embrace a rigorous practice regiment. Built into our programs IS this important element of TIME but I then noticed another hidden advantage.

If her son is playing the Saint-Saens cello concerto at 11, maybe he might know a bit more than other kids his age

When we discussed this my students quickly realized that posting his age could be misleading since although he is much younger than they are he could quite possibly be almost a decade more advanced. One of my youth then yelled “She wouldn’t have written the article if she didn’t think he would get in!” I quickly fired back saying NO she’s writing about the process and for her that makes for an interesting blog regardless of the outcome. 

Then a quick google search answered THAT question. His cello teacher is on the faculty at Juilliard. When we re-read the first paragraph, passing the first-round video audition made more sense knowing he was prepared for the audition quite possibly by the person who would be listening to the recording.

#5 Our student’s biggest obstacles may be their greatest ADVANTAGE 

Connection to our Community

When I started the orchestra 4 years ago I didn’t have a dime to my name…only a vision and willingness to hustle.   I went to the Berklee College of music and stopped students with instrument cases that looked like violins, violas, or cellos and asked the students if they had an extra one and if they wanted to donate it to a kid in Roxbury. A month later we had 28 donated instruments.  Once we launched we needed spaces to perform so I got on my bicycle and met people all over Boston.  I kept in touch with many of them and over time those who were throwing events wanted live music and I was the only person they knew with an orchestra. Now, in the last 5 years they have played over 50 concerts for over 10,000 people all over New England. The MUSIC was the bridge connecting so many communities that previously had NOTHING to do with each other and now they are not only co-existing but have become a part of the lives of my students. This has given my youth a deeper connection to each other and their city!

Intrinsic Motivation

The young people in our orchestra have found their way into the American dream through music and they are empowered by the fact that THEY choose to be there every day.  Intrinsic motivation is the true goal of education. Can we create an environment where students are internally motivated to learn?  Every day I feel as if I’m sitting on a gold mine because my students have found that inner drive.


Our needs have given us a unique opportunity to build leadership capacity in our youth. The way in which we’ve responded to these NEEDS has given our students more ownership of the program and has turned them into leaders. The other day one of the students asked, 'Mr. France, why do you make me serve the snacks to everyone?' and I said to him "I’m training you to be the boss…don’t you want to be the boss?" Another student then asked when you retire, which one of US will run the program? I said you all will as a team.   So many programs that start with all the resources they need can bring in outsiders to run the program; but our students see themselves as the future of the program


Sometimes the most profound lessons aren’t the ones written explicitly on the page. My student’s questions and insatiable search for answers showed us that maybe we have more resources on our side than we might realize. The perception divide highlighted by the Pew report finds its roots in the same soil as most other forms of relational misunderstandings: lack of communication.    

And while listening and new friendships sounds like an oversimplified solution it just may be what we’ve been missing.   Seeing obstacles as opportunities allows us to re-imagine our circumstance and to realize that our community is our greatest resource. What’s often missing on the page might be the most valuable piece to the puzzle for our students and we can build those bridges for them. 

There’s a lot of talk these days about privilege and in particular “White Privilege” and while I do believe White privilege exists…the truth is WE ARE ALL PRIVLIEGED

And I believe:

Humans are “privileged” in different ways SO THATWe can harness those privileges for the JOY and benefit of others.

The future will be just like the past, we will make no progress in correcting histories injustices unless we make intentional efforts to change the present.  Positive change can only be accomplished if we work together.  Within our grasp we have something incredibly powerful, MUSIC! Music is a bridge to many things but one bridge we MUST spend more time intentionally building is USING music to build bridges with adults in our profession who look like the students we work with.

Final words

This week started with a commemoration of MLK birthday, so I would like to give him the closing words:

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."    -Martin Luther King 

The dedicated group Martin Luther King is addressing, is all of….US!

May WE move the needle forward in this vision for America

Thank you!


David France is the author of Bestselling book Show Up: Unlocking the Power of Relational Networking, he is a Speaker, violinist, string pedagogy clinician, and Founder and Executive Director of Revolution of Hope, a music for social change initiative transforming inner city lives through the arts. He believes that joy in this life is maximized when you Give your life Away. You can also follow him on twitter