Despite years of cultural diversity training programmes and initiatives, a critical problem persists. Black, Asian and ethnically diverse people are not making significant inroads into senior leadership positions and when they do, they rarely stay.
I had just become one such statistic when Clore Leadership Executive Director Hilary Carty approached me to shape one strand of Inclusive Leadership delivery, prioritising activities to address gaps in diversity in cultural leadership.
I had left a senior role at the BFI after it became clear that the organisation was not culture-change ready. After 30 years working within the UK culture sector, the issues that presented themselves had a depressing Ground Hog Day quality to them. The vastly progressive cultural world outside the institution seemed to barely touch the protectionist world inside it.
A lot can happen in a year though. A global pandemic destabilising the sector, Black Lives Matter movements poking the vulnerable orifices of the cultural mainstream and exciting changes of leadership at the BFI and beyond - all potential for some of that calcification to crumble.
Brilliant Routes is designed to confront some of these pervasive issues while providing a supportive space for senior Black, Asian or ethnically diverse leaders in all contexts. This six-month programme will not replicate or compete with existing programmes, rather allow Clore Leadership’s expertise to help strengthen roots within, between and into the sector.
The four key issues that Brilliant Routes will address are:
THE 'ONLY ONE’ BURDEN
Many Black, Asian and ethnically diverse senior leaders find themselves the only person of colour within organisations and sometimes in their entire sectors. I have been the only Black person in a senior leadership position within an institution and one of a handful within the entire European film industry. Only One’s are saddled with extra responsibilities, expectations and the burdens of representation, sector education and cultural translation on top of already pressurised roles. These are unpaid, unacknowledged, amount to an additional role and are carried out in a vacuum of profound loneliness.
'If only qualified Black, Asian and ethnically diverse leaders existed, we would hire them'. This old chestnut. Diverse talent comprises a dynamic part of the UK’s creative identity so a perception gap must exist. That gap lies in segregated networks. Dynamic African, Caribbean, South and East Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and other movers and shakers don’t always operate or socialise in the same networks as white middle-class cultural leaders. There are very few points of connection between these networks which leads to an unchanging, mono-cultural professional sector.
Make no mistake, diverse leaders have been transforming the UK arts and cultural sector for generations. Any shifts in the sector have been hard won like the increasingly diverse leadership of London’s theatre scene or the apparent boom in Black UK literature. However the strengths, strategies, resources and insights, in other words, their brilliance, have remained unmapped. When addressing diversity, we focus on the problems and not the brilliant strategies that Black, Asian and ethnically diverse pioneers have developed to bring these shifts into being. These memory gaps cripple future generations who re-learn strategies all over again in an Only One vacuum.
SECTOR NOT CHANGE-READY
Hosting a party and inviting others to dance - a popular Inclusion descriptor - is not the same as handing over control of the decks to another who boasts a completely different taste in music. When Black, Asian and ethnically diverse senior leaders join an organisation, some level of cultural handover needs to happen. The organisation must attune to new sounds and learn new dances. For us to thrive, the sector needs to move from limited ideas of diversity and inclusion to fully embracing cultural change and expansion. It is at this final hurdle that many organisations falter.
During the recent Black Lives Matter uprising, my inbox blew up with offers of work - the first time I experienced such professional interest in my 30 year career.
My “over-night fame” was mirrored by many others who suddenly found themselves courted for the first time in long careers. It seemed the entire sector had dug out our fading business cards from the back of their wallets. This tragic moment pointed to a dark truth at the heart of the sector. It took a Black man to die for our skills to seem critical.
The impact of these issues is a profound sense of ‘cultural neglect’; troubling levels of isolation; lack of support for our taste, cultural perspectives, histories and identities; various mental and physical health issues, burnout, disillusionment, boredom. Not everyone wants to be a pioneer but that’s where many of us find ourselves asking - is it worth it?
Brilliant Routes will pilot and test different ways to address some of these questions through thematically programmed conversation-based events, co-supportive kinship circles using Action Learning tools, intergenerational mentoring and an online learning zone and podcast.
After working for 30 years in culture, I believe I’m getting to the heart of it. Culture is the way we test new ways to be together in an evolving world. A cultural sector has to then allow itself and its’ people to evolve. Each of us must have the space to make tentative, progressive steps. Maybe that’s what progression means in this instance. Above all we hope Brilliant Routes allows space for that.
Gaylene is a Clore Fellow and the curator of Brilliant Routes. She is an artistic director, writer, broadcaster, facilitator and coach with twenty years leadership experience in the cultural sector. Through her company The Space To Come, she designs interactive art projects and spaces that generously connect us with ourselves, each other and the world. She is also a Cultural Ambassador for London.