By Thea Stanton, Communications Co-ordinator at ITC
Diversity: In the past few months, it seems that this term has been raised and discussed in the UK Performing Arts Sector more than ever before. In the past few weeks alone, Arts Council England announced a funding boost in their Sustained Theatre and Change Makers programmes bringing the total amount that they’re investing this year through Diversity programmes to £11.8 million. The recently launched Family Arts Conference 2017 has placed inclusivity and diversity at the very heart of the agenda and at the Diversity in Theatre Conference at the Curve Leicester whilst it was agreed there was still much more work to do, there was hope and pride that in the past fifty years progress has been made.
Sadly, in the world beyond theatre, in the streets of our cities and villages, in our daily lives and in the media, and perhaps worst of all in our political leaders it feels like the complete opposite. There is the sense that the idea of an open melting pot society that this country has built has been whipped out from under our feet and we have been taken back at least fifty years in term of diversity and racial harmony. The U.K has become a scarier place for people who are not ostensibly British (i.e. not white or speaking with an accent). I know this first hand. I am a Chilean born 28 year old British woman. I was adopted and brought to the UK at six months old. I have always been used to people asking me where I come from, because the colour of my skin and usually such questioning has been motivated purely by curiosity. It is intrusive and occasionally upsetting that I can’t just ‘be from’ Clapham – where I have spent my whole life growing up, but essentially it has never caused too me too much bother and certainly never fear. But in the past months I have beenscared of being told to 'go home' particularly when I travel to the more rural pro Brexit areas of Britain. Even worse at some point down the line, I am scared of government regulations forcing the companies I work for to make a note of the fact I am not British born and of a different ethnicity, and of my future children being singled out by school officials, purely because of their ethnic heritage. Whilst Amber Rudd’s proposal was met with encouraging criticism, and has thankfully been snuffed out, the fact that we currently have a political climate where senior ranking politicians feel able to make such suggestions, (and even more ridiculous ones about refugees dental records – David Davies I’m looking at you!) must surely still be a cause for concern. I am acutely aware that this sensation of racial hostility, of anti-diversity must be much worse for people who don't have all the privileges and 'white middle class' upbringing that I have been fortunate enough to have, and even more difficult for refugees and immigrants, who lack supportive family networks around them.
It feels as if we have arrived at a turning point, with two possible futures, one that is open and one that for most people just won’t be liveable. With the worrying surge, not just in hate crime, but in hateful, racist language and attitudes permeating all forms of media, and even more worryingly of these attitudes being accepted and placated by the government, we are in real danger of this becoming the status quo. I do believe that there are divides in this country that need to be healed, but whilst I am fully in favour of trying to understand one another more, I know that racial hatred, or any actions fuelling racial hatred need to be called out and stopped now, before it goes any further.
So what can we do?
Keep the channels of communication open whilst giving an honest critique.
In the immediate aftermath of Brexit there was a shocking revelation of how divided our country had become and how unheard and isolated certain groups of our society were feeling. Naturally there has been a rush to bridge that divide, with more listening, communication and empathy towards the disenfranchised fringes of our society. This still remains vital. However, the sentiments that some individuals are using to express their discontent are unacceptable, and need to be called out as just that. Unfortunately a lot of people are worried that naming and shaming such sentiments will further divide the country and make these groups feel even more unheard. This is not true and the issues at play must be separated. We need a two pronged approach where the communities hardest hit by austerity are listened to and their desperation and worries about their livelihoods are seen and heard. But also, as importantly we need to condemn any hostility and racial hatred directed towards refugees, immigrants, or UK citizens is recognised, and put emphasis on supporting the victims of such abuse, not on the perpetrators and understanding their needs. Theatre can play a huge role in facilitating this – perhaps more so than individuals. Dangerous situations can be conveyed, behaviours held up and critiqued, empathy for multiple characters and viewpoints can be developed, and everyone’s voice can be heard – all within a safe neutral space.
Communicate your diversity values with your financial and in kind partners and ask them to lead by example.
A highly successful campaign group called ‘Stop Funding Hate’ have realised that whilst certain media outlets are fuelling and legitimising hatred do not care what the the more open of us think, their advertisers do. Reminding companies who support your work of your diversity values and asking them to lead by example by supporting openness and inclusivity could help make the spreading of fear and division bad business and costly.
Ensure your boards reflect the values you want to promote in your company.
A wide range of perspectives, not merely token representation, is critical to effective corporate governance. Having a Board that represent all of our society will help them become greater advocates for diversity as they have more direct beneficial experiences with it. For more information see upcoming event, 'Diversifying London's Theatre Boards' at the National Theatre, in association with ADF, BAC and ITC.
Don’t forget to spread good news.
We are starting to take steps to get it right within our own sector, and we should be loudly communicating this good news! Of course we are just at the beginning; we need to be doing better with BAME workers both onstage and backstage, colour blind casting is unfortunately still more of a novelty than ordinary practice, but at least we’re recognising this, and having conferences about it, and are open to improving! There are many wonderful companies out there giving voices to refugees and minorities, such as Theatre Sans Frontieres, Good Chance Calais, and the many excellent ventures funded by Creative Europe’s Refugee Integration Project to name just a few. This work needs to be celebrated. The challenge now is to share and spread these attitudes far beyond the borders of our own industry and into the angry and hostile corners of our nation, and fortunately the act of effectively and imaginatively communicating ideas and concepts is one of main reasons theatre exists. So let’s get to it!