If we’re going to build a more inclusive Britain, we must stop shaming those who get it “wrong” along the way
Amanda Parker founded Inc Arts with the goal of championing inclusive change across the creative industries – here she tells us about her vision of a future that collaborates, rather than calls out.
With an Oxbridge degree and a career spanning 20 years in the arts – including more than a decade at the BBC – RSA Fellow and RSC board member Amanda Parker is about as much a member of the UK’s creative establishment as it’s possible to be. And yet, she has continually found herself working in spaces where her perspective as a black woman felt like that of an outsider. Even as mainstream awareness of workplace inclusion issues grew in recent years, Parker watched arts organisations grapple ineffectively with change, while their ethnically diverse staff were burdened with becoming the subjects of their industry’s learning process.
In January of this year, she founded Inc Arts, an organisation committed to supporting both organisations and individuals as they work towards building a truly inclusive creative sector. If the goal doesn’t feel radical, the approach certainly does; because in a society that can be quick to attack those who don’t get anti-racism “right”, Inc Arts prides itself on positive and collaborative thought, working with businesses and policy-makers, rather than pointing fingers at them.
“Whilst we hold organisations to account we don’t publicly call out individual behaviour for the very simple reason that business development and growth requires you to bring people along with you, and work with them to help them understand what change needs to be made,” Parker says. “I have yet to find the individual who is motivated by pain. I don't think shame is a useful motivator but I do believe organisations need to be kept transparently accountable.”
Inc Arts’ compassionate approach to organisational change is framed by the optimism Parker herself has about individuals’ attitudes. She believes that the vast majority of people in the creative sector and beyond try not to offend or hurt others – and that they too want the UK to be a “place of welcome”.
“There's such a fear of misunderstanding – of not using the right terminology and causing harm without realising it – that often people feel paralysed,” she explains. “And Inc Arts works very, very carefully to set up safe conversations and to create a space of welcome so that others can see how to create a space of welcome. I don't think people should be penalised for ignorance. It doesn't make sense to make people feel bad, ashamed, or embarrassed or defensive for not knowing something; it’s not how we grow and thrive.”
It’s hard to argue with the ideals, but as Parker herself points out, Inc Arts works with a sector that is facing an even greater economic challenge than most – and making strides towards being more diverse and inclusive can cost money.
“Doing something equitable does require resource and that’s a real concern [for organisations], but I always say: ‘If you think you're taking an effective, expedient shortcut by doing something that's inequitable, look at the narratives that have gone before you around ESG.’ It's not a shortcut, because down the line, reputations will suffer. People do see and care about what you do, and how you treat others.”
Given the financial constraints faced by the sector, it’s little wonder so many organisations have signed up to Unlock, Inc Arts’ free toolkit aimed at museums and galleries, as well as theatres, music, dance, festival and combined arts organisations. The peer-led programme covers everything from hiring through to leadership, dealing with policies, pay, training and development – and the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and Lyric Hammersmith are amongst the organisations endorsing its use across the sector.
“Unlock is a sector-wide measuring and tracking tool that shows what action is taking place where, across all practices. It’s about taking measurable action, in a way that's both transparent – because it’s a whole-sector response – and discreet, because the organisations themselves own and lead on what they want to do and when they need to do it.
“So we protect their confidence, but we also very usefully make transparent changing trends. It gives us a way to amplify best practice; it's a virtuous circle of sharing resource across the whole sector to see what works – and it also provides really helpful tracking of trends over time.”
While Unlock caters to organisations, Parker is keen to stress that many individuals in the sector also need support, perhaps more so than ever since the death of George Floyd last year.
“The weight of explaining to people who, with the best intention in the world, are saying, ‘I didn't understand before; tell me more,’ places an additional burden on ethnically diverse workers. They not only have to articulate what they're going through, but they have to nuance how it lands with the asker – and the weight of explaining how I feel without upsetting you is a burden. Having a spotlight on my lived experience is also a burden – and having that spotlight on my ethnicity over and above my work is another burden.”
To help ease this unsolicited responsibility, Parker has created Inc Arts Minds, which offers free therapy and mental health resources to anyone in the arts who has a lived experience of racism. Inc Arts Minds free counselling recognises the toll that marginalisation takes on people’s emotional wellbeing, as well as the pressure of suddenly being treated as the office “expert” on diversity.
“Having to be the EDI manager or the equality spokesperson and the theatrical producer is a burden that others don’t have to bear. It’s not just difficult and complex; it’s unfair. Inc Arts helps the sector take action without that responsibility resting on individuals, because they’re here to create – not to do EDI. Conversations with those diverse individuals are welcome and necessary, but they shouldn’t be doing all the work – the responsibility for change sits with others.”
Despite the clear challenges, Parker remains optimistic about the appetite and potential for change across the sector and among the wider UK public – and she’s confident that what some have called the Government’s “war on woke” won’t derail progress.
“I would urge caution around the rhetoric of “wokery”,” she says. “It’s a phrase that is being co-opted by extremists who aren’t activated around learning, knowledge, collaboration and all the other values that I think are very British. In fact, those who use the word “woke” as an insult or as a term of criticism or mockery are doing the wider UK public a disservice.
“We’re a creative culture and a creative nation; we grasp the new and we’re ready to explore. We always have been. I think the Government is clever enough to resist that kind of co-opting by stealth, and canny enough to look at who is dressing ignorance in the language of fear.
“The Government realises that the population, by and large, welcomes debate. We have a fine tradition of informed dissent and we’re a nation that really enjoys learning about our rich history and understanding other perspectives. All of those things are exactly what advocates of anti-racism want to achieve.”