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Inspiring Diversity

Gospel Ensemble strikes a chord in putting diversity, inclusion into action.

Ohio Northern University’s Gospel Ensemble has proved that diversity and inclusion are themes that stand the test of time. The singing group, which was founded in December 1987 for a one-time performance, will perform its 30-year anniversary concert on April 2 in the McIntosh Center Ballroom.

“It began with the notion of starting a group with African-American students that would give them an opportunity to express their spirituality and have a voice in a community where they often felt like strangers,” said Adriane Thompson-Bradshaw, Ph.D., the group’s founder and leader as well as vice president of student affairs at ONU.

We wanted to find a way to come together and do something that felt familiar for the students,” Thompson-Bradshaw said. “It was somewhat of a safe space for our students.

The 16 founding members of the group were all African-American students who assembled and rehearsed for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day performance on campus in January 1988. It then became one of the chapel outreach programs, and the group has since established itself as a mainstay on campus.

The group has included a mix of ONU students, faculty and staff over the years and currently numbers about a dozen members. More than half of its members are not African-American.

“I do not know the answer to our diversity, but I find it both ironic and inspiring,” Thompson-Bradshaw said. “I think much of the answer is found in the essence of gospel music and its evolution. Over the years, gospel music has become more mainstream, and you now find white singers recording it. Also, with gospel music, it is all about the message and not whom it comes from. It comes from the soul and has an authenticity that people can relate to and connect with.”

The group’s longevity has both exceeded and confounded expectations.

“It is kind of organic how the group grew,” Thompson-Bradshaw said. “I learned that I just have to go where it takes me. This is not precisely my original vision, but I am not at all opposed to it being so multicultural. In many ways, it reflects the campus environment. For example, two years ago, one of the officers of the Black Student Union was a white male.”

While times have changed, the group’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion remains intact.

“In the beginning, we mainly performed in rural, white churches, and now we are sometimes taking a mixed group to African-American churches. In any regard, it has stretched people on both sides, both the singers and those in the congregation,” Thompson-Bradshaw said.

The group performs 10 to 12 concerts a year, including two to three on-campus events annually.