Finding our feet with equality, diversity and representation — a reflection

Watching my young daughter recently learn how to walk, I remember there was a period of time, before she finally took those first few unsupported steps, when it felt like her brain was telling her she needed to walk but her body wouldn’t follow. Amongst all our positive encouragement willing her onwards, her face gave away a fervent desire to move forwards unaided, yet her body hadn’t yet learnt what was needed to make this happen. Stumbles, falls, frustration, exhaustion followed.

It struck me how the cultural sector is perhaps at a similar stage in its desire to realise equality, diversity and representation across the sector. It feels, in more recent times, that we have begun to share a belief in its importance and a desire to pursue it, yet just like my daughter as she pondered the space in front of her, we are still unsure what we need to do to make it happen. When we do try, we often stumble.

How can the sector be supported to begin taking positive steps forward? That’s a challenge we’ve been focusing on at Culture24. This blog post is intended to be an open and honest reflection on some of our approaches, including a very practical way for you to support our ambition to increase the diversity of attendees at arts and heritage workforce events and conferences, so they are representative of the UK as whole. Keep reading to find out more.

As a newly funded Arts Council England SSO (Sector Support Organisation), we have a responsibility not only to advocate for equality, diversity and representation in our own internal governance, workforce, procedures and practices, but also for the sector as a whole. This is not easy — as if anyone thinks it is! Yet in exploring how we do this, the responsibility has become a privilege, one that recognises our position to effect change. Reflecting on our existing work reveals opportunities around how we can begin doing this.

Our SSO programme of work focuses on supporting arts and heritage organisations to respond to digital change. Much of this is about building digital understanding, challenging existing assumptions about digital practice, its interpretation, value and impact. It’s interesting to see how certain tenets of our approach also apply usefully when directed at equality, diversity and representation, rather than digital change.

Challenging existing language

Words are loaded with unexpressed assumptions. Adopting an informed and critical use of them is vital. In our work on digital change, we’ve shifted from explaining terms to also challenging their context and use (‘digital’ is not a noun by the way!). Diversity in particular is a problematic term. It’s much better to use ‘representation’. As the actor Riz Ahmed put it recently, “diversity sounds like an added extra, it feels like the fries not the burger… I prefer to use representation. We all went to feel represented, to be seen and heard and valued”.

Understanding value

Much of our recent work around digital practice in the cultural sector is about exploring its social value, not only the operational or economic value perspective that it is usually seen from. Conversely, much of the established narrative around representation is about social value, but it’s also important to highlight the fact that it makes good business sense. For example, research shows that a representative workforce is better positioned to innovate and ensures that there is a larger pool of knowledge, skills, life experiences, perspectives, and expertise to help an organisation face today’s challenges more effectively and efficiently. It’s important to put these valid arguments forward too.

Being responsive and relevant

The pace of digital change requires agility in cultural organisations in order to adapt to the latest developments. Key to this is remaining responsive and relevant at all times. Perhaps the landscape isn’t changing as fast when it comes to equality, diversity and representation, but neither is it fixed. It’s important not to have a set view over time on what representation means and who the likely beneficiaries of any appropriate related policy or practice is. For instance, there can be a tendency to focus equality, diversity and representation practices towards people with disabilities and ethnic minorities. As someone from a minority ethnic background I can definitely say that much work still needs to be done in the cultural sector to be fully representative of people like me. However, people from lower socio economic backgrounds are also hugely underrepresented and it’s important for these practices to be responsive and relevant to them. With the make up of the UK population changing continually, it’s essential to keep checking in to see if other groups are becoming underrepresented in the sector.

Interrogating digital assumptions

As digital technology opens up the opportunity for cultural organisations to engage a wider range of audiences than those that visit, there can be an assumption that digital practice inherently promotes equality, diversity and representation. We need to challenge this. Digital technology can indeed provides great opportunities, but it needs work. Digital inclusion is a real issue, and far more complex than a question of access to good broadband or being too old to understand its use. Digital content strategies also need to explicitly address principles of representation. The technology is not going to do this automatically.

Leading best practice at our events

Culture24 also runs events, seminars, workshops and conferences for the cultural sector, where we collaboratively discuss best practice in a number of areas. In order to draw upon the largest pool of knowledge, perspectives and experience it’s imperative that we have a representative mix of people attending those events. This is tricky, as we can’t directly influence whom cultural organisations decide to represent them at these events. Yet it’s not enough to use this as an excuse. We need to try and do more.

One approach is to ensure a proportion of places at our events go only to under-represented groups in the cultural sector workforce. To test this out we will ensure that twenty tickets for our next major sector event — Let’s Get Real Conference 2019, taking place at Wellcome Collection on 30 January — will be free for under-represented groups in the arts and heritage sector workforce. This would include people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but we are keen to hear from people who don’t fall into any of these categories and still feel they are under-represented in the sector.

It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this, so we’re sure there will be some challenges along the way. Cost is one of them. As a small not for profit organisation, we don’t receive separate funding for running the conference besides what we can generate from ticket sales and some small sponsorship. At the same time it’s important to keep tickets competitively priced. That does make it hard to do what we feel is the right thing and still make the numbers add up. Also, whilst offering these free tickets attempts to ensure we have a representative mix of people joining the discussion at these events, it’s unclear how this approach positively influences cultural organisations’ own diversity and representation practices. After all, the benefit of a free ticket is much less for an organisation than an individual.

That’s why with these two particular challenges in mind, we are framing this free ticket offer as part of a ‘gifted’ ticket scheme. We are encouraging any other organisation (or individual) who shares Culture24’s ambition to increase the diversity of attendees at arts and heritage workforce events and conferences, so they are representative of the UK as a whole, to purchase a ‘gifted ticket’ at a heavily subsidised rate. This purchase will fund a place for someone from an under-represented group in the arts and heritage sector workforce, who will be able to attend for free. Culture24 is leading this initiative by covering the cost of three places and ensuring the cost of the other places is heavily subsidised.

We hope that other organisations or individuals ‘gifting’ tickets will enable us to fund these places and, arguably more importantly, provide a simple, worthwhile opportunity for others to join us in advocating for best practice in this area. If you share this ambition, here is a chance for you to do more than talk about it. You can find out more at the conference website, including how to purchase a ‘gifted ticket’. You don’t even have to attend the conference to get involved. We’ll also be sure to give you a shout out for joining the cause.

We’re aware that there are clearly still gaps in our approach. Twenty free tickets to our conference only represents 13% of our total capacity, which, looking at this from a BAME and disability perspective only (where representative statistics are easier to compile), is not representative of the UK as a whole. 16% of people are from a black or minority ethnic background, 20% of the working age population identify as disabled. Whilst we are ensuring that the conference is hosted at Wellcome Collection, which has excellent accessibility provisions, the gifted ticket scheme doesn’t cover the cost of travel and accommodation — often a hidden ‘access issue’ for under-represented attendees.

Both of these issues can be addressed with more funding, which comes from greater awareness across the sector, so that more cultural organisations or funders are happy to financially support these types of initiatives. We don’t yet know how many organisations will support this by gifting a ticket, so we need to be a little conservative with our allocations at the moment. We hope that our trial of this ‘gifted’ ticket approach will create the necessary support and interest across the sector to build on for future events, when we can hopefully provide a greater proportion of free tickets as well as bursaries for attendance.

Keep on moving forward together

We’re aware that the opportunities outlined above represent small steps. We don’t know what will work, we are sure we have made some mistakes and, of course, we could be doing more. But we are willing to keep trying and keep learning. We’d love to hear your suggestions about how we can do this and we’d really appreciate your support with initiatives such as the gifted ticket scheme.

We know there is great work going on by others across the sector. It’s imperative for every organisation and individual to explore their own unique position to effect change. Together we can create a culture of best practice in this area, a culture that is open and honest about challenges while at the same time coming up with positive ideas and suggestions to move forward. If we do this then collectively we can find our feet to ensure a fully diverse and representative cultural sector.