Please miss, how can we be more diverse?

A photo of a single melting icebergEarlier this week I was asked for some advice – what do you do when you have a cultural programme or project that works well technically, but which keeps attracting the same ‘kind’ of people. How do you diversify those you reach?

It got me thinking. I reckon it’s a great ambition and yet hard to do properly. To truly embrace those who are ‘different’ we have to be prepared to rip up the rulebook and start again, or we simply widen the funnel minutely and pat ourselves on the back thinking we’ve done enough.

The sea around all this is littered with political icebergs, big and small. How do we make an opportunity equal? In this instance it was about providing placements and specific work-based opportunities for people within mainstream arts sector venues and organisations. In such opportunities how do we stop the perception that the big orgs are being magnanimous to share their learning with those who are different, and acknowledging the reality that often the ‘big boys’ are those with most to learn.

How do we persuade those on the outside that those on the inside really mean it, and aren’t just playing tick box checklist games to satisfy funders?

How do we challenge the myths that if you are black/disabled/gay/transgender then that’s what all your work, your audiences, your experiences will be too?

As I see it, there are two initial so-called problems – how to find ‘diverse’ people and how to work with them.

Locating people seems easy – we just advertise through ‘their’ media channels and they come to us. But this won’t happen unless people trust the organisation, so the first thing is how to raise the question, raise the dilemma, put the feelers out and really engage with people. How? How about writing articles in relevant publications, or finding opportunities on platforms where this intension can be raised? How about networking more widely and seeking out new voices and perspectives? How about engaging board members, staff members, colleagues and friends for their input?

From this, the tables may turn. People may start to come to you offering support – often those who have been there and done that. These people may not need what you are offering but will resonate with the issue you identify.

They are the people who will be able to tell you how to find people, who will have the networks and the roots down into the communities that you want to reach.

Which brings us to the second so-called problem – how to work with ‘diverse’ people (basically, the answers are as diverse as the question!).

I don’t think it’s so much a question of which structure might work, but more about finding the individual solution for the individual person. You can look at the very obvious needs – i.e. access requirements for a wheelchair user or time to attend to religious observances for someone following particular religious teachings – but that’s not really the main issue. Different people like to do things differently. If you actually want different people to do things in the same way as the people you already support, then you can do that, but the net won’t get spread much wider.

Working with difference, managing difference is both a delight and difficult. A delight in that it’s a genuine space to learn and explore; difficult in that, if you are doing it properly, it challenges everything you know about how to/what to do – and there is simply no formulae for it.

I’m not offering a simple solution or model – each organisation needs to work out what it can and can’t stretch to, what it does and doesn’t want to deliver.

The nation could be forgiven for thinking that the recent news that Cameron is cutting the concept of Equality Action Plans and Impact Assessments means that equality as a concept is heading off the agenda. I hope instead that it means organisations are freed from creating tick-box listings of small (and often pointless) actions and instead can now focus on the real business of diversifying who they work with, for and alongside.

Photo by Drew Avery and remember if you have enjoyed this and want to read more, you can subscribe to Jo Verrent’s blog by email.

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