The Case for Culture North East
Annual Forum 15 February 2021
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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 2021.

Throughout the global pandemic, I have attended several Zoom conversations around culture, diversity, change, growth, and other jargon words that do not hold value 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 working, have savings, own property, and can be employed if they choose to be and have been through higher education. Yes, I am a Black British woman in the cultural sector, but I hold a position of power and privilege over many others.

I was excited, hopeful and interested when I registered to attend the North East Culture Partnership Annual Forum. My initial reaction to the range of speakers was that they were diverse, inclusive and engaging. After attending the forum in its entirety, the people crucial to its growth and longevity were not heard and were left behind. Covid-19 has affected the cultural sector in so many ways. The coming together of minds, ideas and experiences felt timely and paramount to its growth and continuation, but the diverse applauded programming needed to resonate with myself and others fully. 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 does not reflect the wider community. The speakers were well-chosen and topical, but there is room for further representation. This predictability in choices offers little change to what we have seen many times. How can we address change when the same individuals and organisations have the platform repeatedly? While they may be diverse and inclusive choices, who do they represent? The cultural sector is rapidly shifting, but the representing voices are not. The idea of collectively working together will only work if we 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 about 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 in positions of power? Jesse Jackson states, “Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.” This quote resonated with me throughout the forum.

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 one’s echo chamber is essential, and it is the responsibility of those at the top to ensure this happens.

If this forum aimed to widen the NECP’s reach, then this was not entirely 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 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 saw some productive and impactful ideas for change, but action cannot be measured simply by buzzwords and lip service. The most thought-provoking conversations happened in the chat, the small round tables, lunches (sadly unattended but fully booked) and outside after the forum. Audience interaction could have been 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 for the cultural sector’s survival and growth. It also highlighted my privilege and the position of power I held 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 excellent and inspiring to hear Stella Hall’s passionate talk about leadership, especially with her comment that “Unless we as individuals recognise and name our 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 and 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, including 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 question our actions and make better critical decisions together continually.” As a cultural sector and of us who 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 following annual forum should strive towards more meaningful activism and 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 interact afterwards.

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