As a child, Darin Conley-Buchsieb dreamt of taking up ballet but couldn’t convince his military veteran father to let him pursue the dream. After years working on behalf of prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as juveniles, he became a labor negotiations for the City and County of San Francisco. He has now come full circle – today he is the Director of Human Resources and Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at … the San Francisco Ballet!San Francisco Ballet, In Space & Time – © Erik Tomasson
From prison rights justice to inclusive ballet
“As a teenager, I saw many of my friends and family members being unjustly treated by the police and the court system. I became aware of laws and policies disproportionately targeting the black community.” These experiences convinced Conley-Buchsieb to pursue a legal profession so he could change some of the injustices that he was witnessing. He then decided to transition to labor negotiation, and eventually became HR Director at the San Francisco Unified School District. It just so happened that his office window looked onto his neighbor’s space: the San Francisco Ballet rehearsal studios. “I could just look out the window and enjoy my own private show, watching the dancers rehearsing.” Conley-Buchsieb ended up “crossing the road” one day for a job interview and joined the San Francisco Ballet as Director of Human Resources and Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Why diversity matters for the future of art institution
To Conley-Buchsieb, diversity and inclusion bring multifaceted benefits for art institutions. First, profitability: “it’s sheer numbers,” he argues “you will reach more if you include more.” As an HR director, Conley-Buchsieb believes that being more inclusive starts with considering whom you employ. “Your employees shape your audience,” he says, “and bringing more diversity to the board, to the leadership team, the performers, the ushers, and so on, will lead to better numbers.” Beyond numbers, advocating for more diversity is, according to Conley-Buchsieb, “simply the right thing to do if we are to tear down systems and institutions of discrimination.”
The second benefit he mentions is a surge in creativity and appeal. “Having a more diverse team will push your institution into different thought processes, it will encourage risk-taking and it will avoid having the same stories being told over and over again.”
As for many cultural institutions, storytelling is central to the San Francisco Ballet. During the interview, Conley-Buchsieb draws my attention to the other side of the storytelling coin: “Who are we leaving out in the stories we tell as we continue to cater to the same audiences? Without a diverse and inclusive approach to storytelling, our art becomes boring; it is the same stories that we told last year, and the year before that, and the decade before that.”
SF Ballet School students // © Erik Tomasson
Learning from others how to bring more diversity and inclusion
Conley-Buchsieb is used to working at the intersection of many sectors. When I asked him about institutions he uses for inspiration he immediately mentioned local start-ups. “They are putting more than just words, they truly grasped that diversity is going to be an important thing for the survival of their business.” Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, have sat around the table with the Conley-Buchsieb and his team to share stories of what went right or wrong when implementing their inclusion and diversity initiatives. “It’s a plethora of knowledge,” he enthuses, “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just need to take what’s out there and build upon it.” Since Conley-Buchsieb joined the San Francisco Ballet almost two years ago, they have had a dozen of similar meetings to share good practices with startups. A practice he encourages his fellow art professionals to bring to their institution.
Darin will be talking about diversity, equity and inclusion at Communicating the Arts in Montreal (October 8-10), Communicating the Arts Sydney (November 12-14) and Culture Business Sydney (November 21-22).
If you wish to spark a conversation with him during the conferences, it might be useful to know that beyond his thoughtful career, he is a volunteer Zumba instructor and a huge Beyoncé fan.