Desmond Bratton

3+ Year Master’s Student, School of Music, Theatre & Dance

Desmond is a Specialists Degree student at SMTD devoted to music as a service, particularly to vulnerable and disinvested people. Desmond plays double bass in spaces that are not usually considered for music performances, including, but not limited to, parks, prisons, laundromats, hospital rooms, and corridors. In addition to his studies, he is currently working through the “Gifts of Art” program at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor, and previously at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida. He is connected to and involved in supporting folks who are unhoused. Desmond is also trained in Zen Meditation, and he leads unique and powerful Musical Healing Workshops at SMTD and at other academic music institutions through practices in mindfulness, meditation, movement, listening, and improvisation. He is a model and mentor in SMTD – demonstrating the power and technique of music as service. We commend your ability to blend arts and activism.

Being your best DEI self: Think of a time when you were at your best at advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. What happened? Who was there? Why did you feel at your best?

“While there have been many examples where racism and the university system have collaborated to present me with opportunities to push back, therein advancing DEI on a fundamental level, there was one time in particular that I can say that I advanced DEI as I imagine it is being spoken of in this question.
I was taking an HR training at Cornell University as an adjunct faculty member called CCOR or Creating a Community of Respect. It was facilitated by 3 inspiring women who led us through various discussions and exercises to help open hearts and allow for conversations centered on the underlying social experiences and social identity profiles that were the bedrock of our privileges and so-called, “blind spots.” Ultimately things made community interactions and decisions less communal and less respectful.

Following the new information I learned from this week-long all-day training, as well as the openness and love for others I felt by doing its practices, I was faced with an aggressive email from a white colleague who was in charge of appointment at the University. While I later found out that he had no authority over me or my position, at that time I was intimidated by his position in the front office of the music school, and his race, because I had been in situations with white authority figures for the entirety of my educational career, and his age, because I was newly hired adjunct fresh out of graduate school. The email basically hinted at the notion that if I didn’t respond to an email within a certain timeframe I could possibly be fired, or as the administrator said, “these are the sorts of things that keep people from getting reappointed.
While my first response to this email was tightness and fear, my secondary response was anger after realizing that I had experienced a form of threat. I decided to reflect for a bit and then chose to call an in-person meeting with a said supervisor to formally check out the implications of the content of his email. When I approached him in a transparent manner that addressed the feeling of being threatened he immediately walked back his comments and said that he was only joking and that he had no real power to alter my appointment in any way.
Using the skills I had garnered from the CCOR training I calmly “called him in, rather than call him out,” as was taught, and explained to him the nature of the power dynamic between him and me on the levels of race, age, and position, and how from my perspective I experienced his ‘jokes” as slightly veiled threats. I expressed that I felt it would be of great benefit to the continuity of the feeling of community in the music school that he keeps this in mind when writing administrative emails.
I felt I was at my best as an advocate for DEI at this moment because I took the skills from a DEI training and fearlessly implemented them directly to address inequity in a situation that involved me as its victim but could ultimately have implications for others in my work community.”

In envisioning the future, how would you describe progress in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion? What might it look like?

“I think it begins first with what one sees. As a person of color entering the university, it was very obvious to me that I was vastly in the minority as far as representation. Because of this fact, I believe that I and people of color, in general, have been in the tradition of, be it conscious or not, conforming to the expression of intellect that predominates the university system, and consequently forgoing or hiding aspects of their own respective cultures and their inherent cultural intelligence in order to assimilate to notions of ‘higher education.

But, in my imagination of what a diverse, equitable, and inclusive university could look like, there would be a significant uptick in other cultures’ representation, which will give people with varying forms of intelligence a sense of bolstered voice and belonging. Also, I would say that DEI has to honestly address capitalism in the university and hear the voices of people who have been systematically kept out, namely, the poor. Often I have noticed that DEI addresses race, but doesn’t always remember that race is not a monolith, and that increasing the number of middle-class POC with neoliberal ideals in a neoliberal institution does nothing to really reshape a sense of equity or inclusion, but can potentially do harm because change can appear to happen without really addressing oppressions that have led to the need for DEI work in the first place.”

What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the MLK Spirit Awards?

“To be nominated for this award means someone has taken notice of the principles that I feel can not be compromised when it comes to being an active citizen in both the university community and the community at large, as well as the skills that I have been seen to possess that help makes those principles alive in a community. Those principles and skills are; the honest seeing of people around me who are in need and who are often overlooked, the ability to speak in many different forms of expression, and to use that ability to translate the needs of the overlooked to the owner class, and finally, an unabashed willingness to speak truth to power when I feel the expressions of wanton aggression and greed have become the bedrock of the status quo.”