Just over two years ago, I posted an update on Facebook about a longstanding frustration.
“I’m fed up. I want to see more Black producers, curators, programmers, directors, editors, executives, publishers, practitioners, enablers making shit happen. I want to see work representative of more than one bloody narrative. I’m going to do something about it. Anyone care to help?”
My frustration wasn’t about the shortage of Black artists visibly making work. I understood then, as I do now, that there were and are are many of us. Also acknowledging that many producers are also artists, many aren't and I wanted space to discuss this. My concern was about the marginalisation, the forcing into the fringes, the requirement to wear all the hats, just to ensure counter-narratives remain visible. And to remain visible, that voice needs to be present and heard on stage and backstage, on screen and behind the lens, on and off air, on boards, in executive rooms, in writing, in decision-making roles.
I was frustrated at how those independent Black and non-white “producers” – many of whom, I knew (myself included) – became so out of necessity, not choice per se. In needing to carve out those spaces and provide opportunities for themselves and their peers, in order to create, they had to become producer, curator, programmer, director, editor, publisher and everything else. With little capacity, little resources, little support. Hurrah for autonomy and creative agency and independence, but where inequality has been the instigator for much of this DIY-ness, it's not something that has sat well with me.
Like many other practitioners working in the field, I have long been aware of the challenges we face just to do what we do. But it also became very clear that many of us have been instinctively creating our own solutions, that then become so saturated, isolated and disconnected, it can often feel counterproductive. Sure, the internet helps and everyday new platforms are being created in cyber space and in real time to address something. But with everyone unpicking the problems they face and creating their own solutions, I find this both brilliant and challenging - without collectivity en masse, we are finding ourselves having the same conversations that have been had in the arts for at least the last 20-30 years.
Some time since my initial Facebook post, “diversity” became a buzzword. A distraction. A negation of responsibility. A way to reframe accountability. A shallowness. And when Arts Council England placed it as their priority, suddenly it became what everyone was about. The problem? The diversity agenda has too easily become a glorified form of ‘damage control’ with no requirement for deeper thinking on what this means. We haven’t got the time in this post to unpick the problems, but here’s some suggested reading if you’re interested:
Decolonise, Not Diversify – Kavita Bhanot
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race-9781408870570/
Diversity Initatives Don’t Work, They Just Make Things Worse – Anamik Saha https://mediadiversified.org/2017/02/16/diversity-initiatives-dont-work-they-just-make-things-worse-the-ideological-function-of-diversity-in-the-cultural-industries/
Diversity is Dead and Whiteness Killed It – Shane Thomas
I spent the following 12 months being gently fobbed off by a number of arts organisations across Birmingham, who were either already working on a “diversity project”, or didn’t find the idea as sexy as an artist-led hotel: a reminder that sometimes, in order to do what needs to be done, you have to do it yourself. I could no longer afford to rely on the organisations not prepared to acknowledge the systemic prejudices that have enabled such inequality to continue.
Thankfully Impact Hub Birmingham, an organisation committed to "building a better Birmingham" gave us some space to host a conversation. In collaboration with Tobi Kyeremateng of BAMWorks, a nationwide resource-sharing network for BAME producers, we hosted a meet-up on the 24th July 2017 to learn, exchange ideas and piece together solutions with a regional focus. Most importantly, MAIA or BAMWorks didn’t want to dictate methods of supporting producers of colour. This needed to be a space to explore what might be possible.
*Yes, there was a little backlash on announcing that this would be a space exclusively for people of colour (see: DM’s, comments, replies, emails), but we will continue to be unapologetic about this.
30 producers came along, from backgrounds in theatre, broadcasting, poetry, film, events, visual art and beyond, each with a breadth of experience, resources and ideas.
We did not want this space to exist solely to rehash age-old problems we know exist, but rather space to explore the possibilities of coming together, across sectors and experience. We saved space to vent and share with each other our frustrations (see: tokenism/fair pay/cafe+safe spaces and more below).
We then were able to focus on how we could best utilise the expertise and insights in the room. We spoke about:
· the parallels between the grassroots movements of the 80s and 90s and the DIY nature of POC artists/producers in 2017. What does this mean if the dialogue hasn’t changed?
· how Birmingham sits within this national and international context and not wanting to focus attention on London
· the resources we already have and how we could find ways to effectively share this
· networking and socials as an integral part of developing/strengthening audiences for each other’s work
· how important knowing, beyond belief or thought, but a tangible knowledge that we create culture and value and as such, must not be afraid to own this or charge accordingly.
· the importance of advocacy and the need for lobbying to be part of a collective’s agenda
· not waiting or expecting solutions from the institutions and frameworks that have long excluded us. Instead about uniting to empower, equip and support each other’s endeavours and livelihoods.
· creating own spaces and platforms but finding opportunity to join and collaborate with existing platforms, so as to not saturate, duplicate and lose meaning for what already exists.
Looking forward to seeing how this builds. We will be hosting another meet-up in October. Keep in touch for details.