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Chantal Herbert: these events must reach a wider audience

Chantal Herbert is a Young Women’s Network Coordinator at the Angelou Centre. She is also an Audio Producer and the Founder/Director of Sister Shack CIC. Here she shares her reflections on the North East Culture Partnership’s Annual Forum.

Throughout the global pandemic, I have attended several zoom conversations around culture, diversity, change, growth, and other jargon words that don’t mean a lot when the people behind them are in privileged positions of power.

When I use the term privilege, I am not referencing a white, Cisgender person without disabilities. I am referencing people like myself who have been work, savings, a property, the ability to be employed if they choose to be and have been through higher education. Yes, I am a Black British womxn in the cultural sector, but I hold a position of power and privilege over many others.

When I registered to attend the North East Culture Partnership Annual Forum, I was excited, hopeful and interested. My initial reaction to the range of speakers was that they were diverse, inclusive and engaging. After attending the forum in its entirety, I felt that the people crucial to its growth and longevity were not heard and left behind. Covid-19 has affected the cultural sector in so many ways. The coming together of minds, ideas and experiences felt timely paramount to its growth and continuation, but the diverse applauded programming did not fully resonate with myself and others.

At the end of the forum, I saw much back-patting and kudos swapping, but what did this achieve?

While “diverse” and inspiring, the hosts and speakers were the same diverse people put forward repeatedly, which is not reflective of the wider community. The speakers were well-chosen and topical, but there is still room for further representation. This predictability in choices offers little change to what we have seen many times over. How can we address change when the same individuals and organisations have the platform over and over again? While they may be diverse and inclusive choices, who do they represent? The cultural sector is shifting and changing rapidly, but the representing voices are not. The idea of collectively working together will not work if we don’t hear the voices of those who are continuously left behind. I left the forum thinking, where are the young people? Where were the people from rural communities, and why are they not on these panels talking of their experiences and struggles within the sector and the pandemic? Why are their hopes and ideas for change not heard by the people in this forum or those who hold power positions?

In my employed role, I run a young person’s network for Black and Minoritised womxn. To not programme voices like theirs at such an important event was a travesty and a missed opportunity to forefront those who are often not given platforms to make or inspire changes. Reaching outside of one’s echo chamber is essential, and it is the responsibility of those at the top to make sure this happens.

If this forum aimed to widen the NECP’s reach, I could not confidently say that this was successful. The discussions were not live-streamed; therefore, only a limited amount of people could attend (gatekeeping?), and the recordings were shared with delegates only.

What is the point of sharing ideas, offering solutions and trying to come together as a collective, if only those able to attend can see the progression? The same set of people are responsible for changing the sector, without the voices of those continuously left behind. Championing ideas and actions in the cultural sector should not be accessible to the elite few.

At the forum, I did feel that I had seen some productive and impactful ideas for change, but action cannot be measured simply by buzzwords and lip service. The most thought-provoking conversations seemed to happen in the chat, the small round tables lunches (which were sadly unattended but fully booked) and outside after the forum. Audience interaction was minimal, more Q&As and fewer speakers may have given much more scope for constructive ideas around change.

The forum encouraged me to readdress my ideas of diversity, intersectionality and inclusion. It also inspired me to make sure that those who are underrepresented in social change, in future, will get the recognition that they deserve and importantly what is needed if the cultural sector’s survival and growth. It also highlighted my privilege and the position of power that I hold in the North East as a confident cultural sector worker and reinforced my need to represent those who may not have influence.

The speakers had stimulating words and positively championed ideas and actions. It was particularly wonderful and inspiring to hear Stella Hall’s passionate talk about leadership especially with her comment that “Unless we as individuals recognise and name our own qualities and put ourselves forward and until we as a sector recognise and celebrate where leadership lies, as so many of our speakers have already said, it will continue to be perceived lying solely in the hands of those of us with the titles, the gatekeepers, or the caretakers depending on your perspective.”

Listening to Vici and Caroline’s experiences in the Adapt, Respond, Reach and Impact session was the closest I felt to an ignited fire and activism taking form. Their ideas around change, hearing their challenges and general challenge facts in the cultural sector were passionate and engaging. Stories such as these should be heard from various diverse speakers, not only two white older women (although disabilities were discussed at length) and white women facilitators.

Andrea Carter’s words following words resonated, “Our role is to bridge perspectives and needs of partners, participants, the community that we form and the importance of understanding and acknowledging vulnerability in that position as a means to continually question our actions and make better critical decisions together.” As a cultural sector and of us that have chosen to be in positions of authority and power, whether we are programming events/forums, offering work, support, guidance or ideas of change, we have to see that we are not always doing justice to those of whom we meant to be representing. We are often not reaching outside of our own collective experiences and groups to gain other perspectives, nor are we giving those unrepresented groups a chance to tell their stories and ideas of the change they want to see.

The next annual forum should strive towards more actual activism, further, demonstrate the changes it has made and still has to make. It should strive to make organisations accountable for where they are going wrong and most importantly offer diverse programming, that does not rely on a particular demographic of “privileged” speakers. The thoughts of young people, those from a lower socioeconomic status, people who have left the cultural sector (to hear why), people from rural communities and “alternative” groups and individuals, would be welcomed and are needed.

Most importantly, these forums must reach a wider audience by allowing the public to watch and rewatch and have a way to engage and interreact afterwards.

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