London Regional Meeting
Standing on the right side of history: Anti-racism in the arts
The London Regional Meeting was hosted by the AMA’s Member Engagement Officer Lewis Roden and the AMA’s Regional Associate for London. The meeting facilitated discussions on anti-racism in the arts, with input from Abdul Shayak, Artistic Director and joint CEO of Tara Arts.
Phoebe Cleghorn, Digital Marketing Manager for HdK who supported the meeting, summarises the discussion.
The London Regional Meeting served as a network event for AMA members around allyship and anti-racism in the arts, eight months on from the significant resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020. The AMA’s Regional Associate for London encouraged members to be open, understanding and sensitive in their discussions surrounding what can sometimes be a difficult topic. The priority, though, was for AMA members to come together and offer their thoughts on some of the many ways arts organisations can do better in their anti-racism and inclusivity work.
Abdul Shayek on how we can create real change within our industry
Before member discussions took place, the group heard Abdul Shayek, Artistic Director and joint CEO of Tara Arts, speak about his journey within the industry.
Founded in 1977, Tara Arts was the first Asian, Black and ethnically diverse led theatre company in the UK. Since its conception, Tara Arts has delivered world-class productions that endeavour to challenge the status quo, and support and develop artists with a particular focus on those of South Asian heritage. To this day, it is the only such company with its own building — something Abdul is proud of, but keen to change. At the end of his time with Tara, Abdul wants to be able to reflect on the industry and see more Artistic Directors and CEOs that look like him and more companies like Tara having their own spaces.
Abdul then spoke about how real change can be made within an organisation and, on a larger scale, within an entire industry. At the beginning of his time as founding Artistic Director and CEO of Fio theatre company, the only Asian, Black and ethnically diverse led theatre company in Wales, there was only one such organisation out of 67 funded by the Arts Council. In a What Next Wales meeting, Abdul initiated a conversation about the challenges they faced, which led to a meeting of around 50 members to discuss how this culture could be changed.
They started by looking at the barriers to change, with one being that creatives and freelancers couldn’t afford to give up their time for consultation, so one way that they could combat this was fundraising to make sure they could be paid. In 2 weeks, they were able to raise £30,000 in funds, with the idea not only to be that the individuals were paid for their time, but also to encourage the larger organisations who donated to invest in the process. The next stage of Abdul’s work was to create a steering group of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse people to come together and drive this change, as well as receive funding for projects.
Beyond specific discussion of his work with Fio theatre company and Tara Arts, Abdul touched on the many ways that we can create a culture of anti-racism and inclusivity within the arts. These included:
- Making our spaces more welcoming
- Encouraging buy-in from everyone in the industry, particularly in large organisations
- Creating transparency and openness
- Ensuring each organisation has its own set of values specific to addressing anti-racism and inclusivity, internally and externally
- Taking on join responsibility and not leaving it to senior management to implement change
- Facilitating steering or advisory groups so that we can create programmes of activity that are more holistic in their approach, going across a range of issues that affect different communities
- Creating more porous programming that audiences can travel between
After hearing from Abdul Shayek, the AMA’s Regional Associate for London split members into groups so that they could come together and discuss specific topics relating to anti-racism in the arts.
Correct terminology to use
Members discussed how generalisations are unhelpful. The use of abbreviations such as BAME is unacceptable, because they are blanket terms that don’t consider the individual’s experience. A solution to this would be providing opportunities for people, such as employees, artists or producers, to self-identify. Being open and transparent in this way provides people with an opportunity to describe themselves, rather than categorising them on their behalf. It was also discussed that while it would be helpful to have an external standard/guide, these decisions must be self-owned by organisations.
Holding space for people of colour in an organisation
Groups shared that it’s important to instil a culture of communication that’s safe, open and transparent, and enables people to have avenues to talk about things they need or want to talk about. It was also suggested that having a policy in place enforcing that the organisation does not accept racism leaves no room for uncertainty, and would ideally also provide team members with details of how to proceed if they do experience issues. In spaces that can be traditionally unwelcoming, it’s important to make changes from the top down, so that expectations are set of how members of the organisation must speak to people. It can also be valuable to provide team and community members with access to board members with no executives present, so that people can talk candidly and provide feedback on changes that can be made.
How to make audiences welcome
When it comes to audience members, the groups suggested that organisations can shift their space’s positioning to be seen as belonging to those who enter, rather than the facilitators. It’s a case of putting audiences first and listening to what they have to say. Having clear values and messaging in place, both internally and externally, on things your organisation does and doesn’t tolerate, will help audience members know that they are welcome. It’s also important not to rely on marketing teams to communicate this, organisations can make initial spaces that audience members walk into (foyers, for example) more welcoming, with staff who are accessible and friendly.
Writing copy and what not to write
Members agreed that there’s a fine line between organisations wanting to make certain communities feel welcome and excluding other groups, by marketing in a way that suggests only certain groups would be interested in certain topics. It was also said that it’s important to not make any assumptions that people will understand the terms you use, like ‘the box office’ or ‘at the half’, and endeavouring to be as accessible as possible. When working on marketing materials, organisations can always consult with the writer or artist to ask how they want to be spoken about and pay community or industry members for consultation.
Avoiding racial and moral compasses within an organisation
Groups discussed how it’s possible to avoid racial and moral compasses within an organisation by ensuring that you educate yourself first, rather than referring to non-white colleagues for guidance. There are a lot of resources available for training, including podcasts, articles, books and courses.
How we respond to the Black Lives Matter movement – an appropriate response from an organisation
It was agreed that there was a real variety in terms of organisations in the arts getting their responses to the Black Lives Matter movement either right, or very wrong. Instead of simply making a statement, organisations could acknowledge things they need to improve on as well as providing, and following, a plan of action which should be reviewed ongoing. Social media managers can also be provided with training to talk about this subject in an appropriate way.
Navigating awkward conversations with colleagues
Members discussed how awkward conversations can be addressed and avoided. It’s important to encourage a call-in culture within an organisation and let team members know that, if they don’t feel able to do this in the moment, there are ways and people that they can follow up with to flag the issue when they’re ready to do so. Difference consciousness training was recommended, which looks at taking a gentler approach than cancel culture and suggests openness to hearing people’s perspectives. If only non-white members of the team are responsible for taking such action, they can be seen as aggressive or as though they’re complaining, so having a structure in place that must be followed if something does happen, helps let team members know that the organisation takes racism seriously.
In summarising the discussion, the AMA’s Regional Associate for London described how now is a period of change. We’re currently as an industry having to make dramatic changes to the way we work to be more digitally-focussed due to COVID-19, so now is a good time to continue to question and change our culture and ask what we can all do to improve things in our industry.