When it comes to Equity, Diversity, Justice and Inclusion, Amanda Parker shares what happens when you fail to read the room – and what you can gain when you get it right.
Government’s push to shape the culture of the UK is in full throttle. From the furore over attempts to instal Paul Dacre to lead Ofcom, to the controversial board appointments at the National Portrait Gallery and the vetoing of proposed appointments at Royal Museums Greenwich, it’s clear that Government understands perfectly that the shaping of a national mindset starts with careful curation of a nation’s leadership across all areas of influence.
Who you put in the room determines what’s said in the room.
The most effective leaders are those paying close attention to the zeitgeist, engaging in open, genuine dialogue with consumers, voters, audiences – and avoiding the reductive approach favoured by those who wish to sideline inclusion narratives into false binary opposites.
Redressing the harm caused by social inequity
Inaya Folarin is one of the appointments that attracted opprobrium. A new trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, she’s also the founder of The Equiano Society. Its website states it aims to ‘promote the values of freedom, humanism and universalism in contrast to the climate of racial tribalism and identitarianism’.
She’s also actively involved in the Free Speech Union, which describes itself as a ‘non-partisan, mass-membership public interest body that stands up for the speech rights of its members’.
Folarin’s appointment is a useful reminder that it’s not the preserve of any political persuasion to argue for inclusion. Nor is the notion of free speech the preserve of any particular sector of society. We all sign up to the values of freedom and humanism – but redressing the harm caused by societal inequity has nothing to do with notions of ‘racial tribalism’ whatever that is.
Let’s avoid oppositional camps
When it comes to building a more just and equitable society and sector, what’s needed is a constancy of thought, care and consultation to work towards cohesive, positive outcomes. When it comes to equity and justice, let’s not be drawn into oppositional camps.
Inclusion is the opposite of this. Those who, whether by accident or design, reduce anti-racist and inclusive action to an inaccurate and irrelevant conversation about ‘racial tribalism and identitarianism’ are doing us all a disservice.
The changes taking place in how we work collectively towards inclusion renders any attempt to control the narrative as increasingly anachronistic. We’re all a lot more sophisticated than those wishing to foment binary dissent would like to believe – and the ‘either/or’ approach to equity is out of step with the voting majority and out of step with others we wish to engage with.
Playing the long game
The Old Vic’s decision not to stage the planned revival of Into the Woods demonstrates the seriousness of the theatre’s commitment to inclusion. It’s also a clear example of how thoughtful leadership can make positive, inclusive change much more than just an ambition, but a reality. It’s a case study in how nuanced and sustained dialogue can help boards reach consensus.
It was no easy decision for the Old Vic’s board and leadership, given the challenge the sector faces in rebuilding audiences and pulling in revenue. And the appeal of artistic involvement from someone of Terry Gilliam’s stature is all too evident from the reports that other theatres are in discussions with the show’s producers to pick up where the Old Vic left off.
But the Old Vic played the long game. By responding to issues that matter to its staff, audiences, and society more widely, it has demonstrated its commitment to being relevant to current and future audiences. By taking an active and systemic approach to inclusion they accrue social, moral and reputational benefits alongside the financial benefits to come.
Their collective decision to consciously decouple from Terry Gilliam is an exemplar of active allyship that highlights the arts and cultural sector’s relevance to society. The implicit message is: ‘This is what we – the board, leaders, audiences and staff – believe our brand stands for. A community that cares for those within it.’
Allyship is a vital part of inclusive change
The contrast between the leadership’s intent in this case and the well-intentioned but confused stance of the English Touring Opera (ETO) could not be clearer. In ending musician’s contracts, the ETO adopted the unfortunate line of implying ‘the Arts Council made us’. Despite positive intent, they missed a trick by failing to engage in a sustained, inclusive dialogue and collaboratively build inclusive change.
And if anyone has any doubt that allyship is a vital part of inclusive change, let’s remember a few egregious examples. Talawa Theatre continues to lobby YouTube to remove racist content that explicitly references the company; Ballet Black continues receiving vile abuse online when touring; Arts Council Wales’ appointment of a critical friend to support inclusive action attracts a racist diatribe online; and English Heritage is subjected to ill-founded outrage in response to their artists creating sensitive, thoughtful art exploring current issues of inclusion.
From these examples it’s clear that there’s never been more need for full engagement with the thorny reality of what it means to be equitable, just and inclusive to all. And why it’s more important than ever for leaders and boards to understand the long-term impact of their actions around inclusion.
“I’m done with doing the work for them”
The conversations I’m having with existing ethnically diverse board members is causing me some alarm. Far too many superbly qualified people, who have contributed to the nation’s most high profile and influential arts and cultural boards, are reaching the end of their tether and bowing out of board involvement.
One well-respected artist (who prefers to remain anonymous) who has served on some of the UK’s most prestigious arts boards said: “After the past two years, I’m much more likely to tell leaders how it is and how it needs to be - in words of one syllable. But I’m done with doing the work for them and I’m winding down my board commitments.”
We need expertise, not just lived experience
This chimes with our thinking at Inc Arts. It’s vital to have the contribution of creative workers in the decision-making process, especially when those decisions affect people like them. But creatives are being asked to shoulder the burden of an organisation’s inclusion strategy and colour it in with their own lived experience perspective.
This is both an embarrassing use of their time, and risks producing an organisational strategy that fails because it’s built on a very small group of individuals’ personal experience and thinking. Instead, a strategy requires EDJI expertise and consultation – practices which are routine in Inc Arts’ work.
If we fail to find the means for collaborative and inclusive dialogue at board level, we risk being drawn into binary narratives about the principles of equity and justice – principles that are relevant to us all. Adopting an oppositional stance is the surest way to get what you least want.
Amanda Parker is the Director and Founder of Inc Arts UK.
This article is part of a series from Inc Arts UK, a national collective that champions the creative, economic and contractual rights of the UK’s African diaspora, Asian diaspora and ethnically diverse workforce in the arts and cultural sector.