Changing the culture: Stanford Band, one year later

June 3, 2021, 8:39 p.m.

At their last in-person football game, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) played in ponchos and wore shoes soaked in red dirt so watery it looked like Thai iced tea.

This rainy day performance stands out to Hana/Connor Yankowitz ’22, who has played in the Band for three years. 

“I’d been trying to get shots of people smiling for the whole season, and they just always looked super serious,” they said.

Not this time. “Every photo that I took — everybody in it was smiling.”

A year and a half has passed since that game.

In March 2020, COVID-19 conditions forced the Band to transition to a virtual platform. Last June, as the pandemic raged on, Band leadership was accused of systematically mishandling internal allegations of sexual misconduct and assault.

“It’s been a year of looking at ourselves and our traditions with brutal honesty and addressing the flaws we found,” Yankowitz, who is now the band manager, wrote. The Band’s professional staff and undergraduate leadership, also known as the “band staph,” have spent their quarantine grappling with deep-rooted flaws in Band culture and working toward organizational change.

“I feel that there has historically been a misplaced value on Band as an entity, divorced from its members, that has resulted in a glorification of symbols that represent its history and traditions,” Elijah Vela ’23, the Band’s internal operations officer, wrote in an email to The Daily.

“First and foremost, we’re here to serve our band members and the Stanford community,” they added.

Band leadership said they have focused on creating a cultural shift toward prioritizing student safety and restructuring the band staph into committees to better support student leadership.

Drum major Yanal Qushair ’21 M.S. ’22 said these recent changes are more drastic than past efforts, which translated to little “long-lasting progress” in ending the status quo of a “hypersexualized” culture. 

“Enough gradual change,” Qushair said.

A culture of empowerment

LSJUMB’s norms and values are outlined in a two-page document created last year by student summer committee leaders as the Band grappled with a need to formalize new expectations and boundaries.

Originating as a response to broader cultural problems but shaped by the sexual assault allegations that surfaced last June, the living document is intended to be a “guide for all members to recognize problematic and unwelcome behaviors” that might occur in the Band.

“It was made pretty clear that reading and agreeing to the norms and values was a baseline requirement for continuing to be a part of the band,” Abby Taylor ’22, who has been with the Band as a general member since her freshman year, wrote in an email to The Daily.

One value, “student well-being and safety,” states that the Band should be “a safe space for students to come together and enjoy music, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability or socioeconomic background,” adding that “sexual misconduct, bullying and any activities that endanger other students will not be tolerated.”

For band director Russell Gavin, who also teaches in Stanford’s music department, setting these boundaries is a crucial first step in shifting Band culture.

“These are the things that we absolutely will not tolerate. We’re not going to shame people here. We’re not going to make fun of people. We’re not going to push boundaries of hypersexualized innuendo in a way that makes people feel personally attacked,” Gavin said.

Structural changes accompany the shift away from what Yankowitz calls “clinging too tightly to traditions” — traditions that originated from the Band’s predominantly white, male, cisgender past. The Band’s move to the University’s athletics department in January 2020 gave professional staff such as Gavin more power to proactively prevent and respond to threats to student safety, including sexual misconduct and assault — a responsibility that once fell on the shoulders of student leadership.

As part of its efforts to protect students, the Band also created an internal anonymous feedback form that includes a list of people to contact — including section leaders, band manager, drum major and band director — with any concerns, including instances of sexual assault and threats to student safety. Only the band manager and director can access form responses. As band director, Gavin is a mandatory reporter, which means that he must report any allegations of sexual misconduct he is made aware of to the proper authorities, such as the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Education (SHARE) Title IX Office.

The form also lists general mental health and sexual assault resources on campus and clarifies the Band’s reporting mechanisms and accountability procedures for students — the kind of outreach Gavin found lacking in past years. 

Despite the Band’s best efforts, propelling a cultural shift during a pandemic is difficult.

Sophie Opferman ’23, who oversees recruitment as the Band’s external relations officer, said that the combination of virtual onboarding and the typically transient nature of the Band’s existing general members — given the organization’s relatively low commitment requirements — means that many potential new members are waiting until in-person performances are possible to join.

As a result, conversations with new members about Band culture and sexual assault and misconduct have not occurred “on the level that [they] will” upon a return to campus, according to Gavin.

Still, some returning members have found ways to engage with the cultural changes on their own terms. In the past year, general member Kylie Holland ’22 said that she has had informal conversations with band friends about the organization’s culture, though not as often as she did before the pandemic because she is less exposed to the culture in a remote environment.

Gavin said that since the Band staph is not currently operating at full capacity due to the pandemic, requiring staph-wide training this past year was not feasible. Restructured onboarding and robust mandatory leadership training have already been planned for next fall. There will also be a new membership agreement for students seeking to join the Band, with a specific addendum for those who want to join the Band staph.

The Band’s commitment to student safety extends beyond student-student interactions. Band alumni, for example, can no longer visit and play with the Band whenever they would like — a decision that, according to Opferman, created some backlash from alumni. Besides “an articulated number of events every year” that specifically invite alumni back, “there will be no alumni in the current band,” according to Gavin.

Opferman attributed the new policy to the limitations of holding some non-student perpetrators accountable under Title IX. Alumni who have no other affiliation with the University are not covered as potential perpetrators under Administrative Guide 1.7.1, which lays out University policies regarding sexual violence and applies to all “students, faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars, affiliates and others participating in University programs and activities, on or off-campus, including overseas programs, or providing services to the University.” As a result, alumni who have no other affiliation with the University cannot be investigated through SHARE and Title IX procedures.

Redistributing power, delegating responsibility

Since last December, the Band has also engaged in discussions about restructuring the Band staph into five committees based on different categories of leadership responsibilities. The initiative is almost fully implemented.

“The fundamental purpose of the restructuring of the leadership in the band is to make sure students in those positions are clearly empowered and supported in ways that make their jobs both accomplishable and sustainable,” Gavin said.

In previous years, much of the work fell on a few student leaders, including the band manager and drum major. Yankowitz and Qushair, who currently hold those positions, agreed that the burden could cause burnout. New policies, such as ending the two-year commitment for the manager position and creating a conductor position that takes on some of the drum major’s duties, align with the purpose of the new committee structure: to compartmentalize and delegate responsibility.

Yankowitz said that delegating responsibility has helped the Band be more inclusive, one of the organization’s community norms. Band members now have “more autonomy” to work on different projects that interest them, they said. The focus on inclusivity is also reflected in other changes, such as rearranging Band practice space to be more evenly distributed amongst sections.

“We haven’t done a good enough job making everybody in the band feel like equal members of the band,” Gavin said. Inclusivity is closely tied to student safety and whether members feel they can “comfortably express their discomfort,” according to Gavin. Moving forward, Gavin hopes the committee structure will support the Band’s cultural shift — first defining the limits of students’ roles, and then helping them know where to turn when they reach those limits. The new committees will operate at full capacity once the Band is in person again.

Work in progress

Some members of the Band are playing music again: In-person rehearsals are socially distanced in the stands of Stanford Stadium.

Safety precautions are taken — bell covers for the instruments, masks for their musicians — though none for the ears. “It was a little bit rusty, for sure,” Qushair said. Still, it was nice just to hear “the sound of [music] live.”

The period of readjustment is not confined to the realms of rhythm and pitch.

In Opferman’s view, the pandemic provided the chance to “experiment and test out our new structure.” But as Yankowitz sees it, the pandemic has also meant that those still involved in virtual band are usually staph members and “directly a part of a lot of the conversations that are happening.” They want to ensure that these conversations remain as transparent as possible for others in the organization.

As general members, Holland and Taylor are both aware of the new norms and values document and anonymous feedback form, having received emails and Slack messages about them. Holland also attended an optional virtual town hall hosted by Gavin, during which students — many of them general members — could ask clarifying questions about upcoming changes.

When asked what they feel the biggest cultural changes will be once in-person Band activities fully resume, Holland pointed to the new limitations on participation for the historically “very engaged, very enthusiastic” community members and alumni, while Taylor highlighted the effects that rearranging Band space will have on section culture and relationships among sections.

Looking back, Gavin is proud of student leadership’s commitment to change, calling them “very brave students” who allowed themselves “to really examine the organization for what it is.”

“It would be a better campus if there were more students like the ones who have stood up in the Stanford Band and said, We’re going to make it a better place,” Gavin said.

Looking forward, Qushair is optimistic.

“The students are the people who build the culture, and if the students’ minds have changed, then I can be pretty confident that everyone at least is going in with the serious intention of making positive change, and that will translate to the right outcome,” he said.

And in Yankowitz’s view, while the Band may be a “flawed organization,” it is still one that brings the Thai iced tea type of joy to many. “We’re striving to make sure that it truly is inclusive, welcoming and accessible, and that every generation that passes through it leaves it better than they found it,” they said.

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