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Reflections from the ISM Diversity Roundtable

Written by Tej Adeleye, Sound Connections Programme Coordinator

On Thursday 29 March at ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) HQ in west London, a host of music organisations came together to discuss diversity and inclusion within the sector. It was an excellent morning, full of what ISM’s Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts (who chaired the session brilliantly) referred to as ‘active thinking’. Here were the key takeaways:

  1. We need to break out of our sector bubbles

A recurring theme at the roundtable was the need to move out of the affirming bubble of our sector networks. The language we are slowly starting to adopt – ‘equity rather than equality’ – has been around for a long time and, whilst Rome wasn’t built in a day, we will be missing vital opportunities to do the best we can by young people if we don’t work to change who is sitting at tables to make decisions and lead agendas. Change means being willing to move outside our comfort zones, trying new things and admitting what we don’t know. This means working in new ways with new people: it won’t always be comfortable, but it is necessary. The morning had an added jolt of dynamism because it was an intergenerational space, didn’t lean in on hierarchies of job roles and included voices from different parts of the sector: mutual learning and sharing is the way to go.

  1. We need to diversify curriculums

Attendees commented on the absence of diverse composers and musicians, particularly within classical curricula. Not only does it matter for young people to see themselves reflected in their education, it is an imperative of social justice that we work to reverse the erasure of diverse histories and push against the historical biases that inform the way we come to position music, musical influences and the narratives we craft about music from around the world. All of the above has an impact not only on how we speak about music from different parts of the world, but also how much intellectual value we place on different forms. Crucially these biases also impact on funding, and following the Sound Connections Social Justice Conference in November 2017 there has been much talk about the imbalances of long term, sustainable funding across different genres, and the need for this to change.

  1. We need to be working in collaboration with communities and diverse leaders

We’re all familiar with the meetings we attend where we puzzle over how to reach the ‘hard to reach’, without stopping to consider how damaging that term is, and that perhaps we are the ones who are hard to reach. There are brilliant grassroots organisations teaching music and creativity in their local areas, who have built trust and relationships over long periods of time. One thing we can do as a sector if we care about supporting the most vulnerable – especially as we move through the worst of austerity, with cuts to youth centres and local authority provision – is to build the capacity of the work being done at local level, and develop collaborative partnerships. There are groups who have no access to funding or organisational networks, but are working to meet the needs of their local areas: we are in a position to help, and to learn new practices in the process. This would also help to solve the persistent challenge of joining together different stakeholders working to support young people across different sectors.

  1. We need to build in support for people of colour

Removing barriers is only half the work. When people of colour arrive in organisations or institutions that have not historically been diverse, then new challenges begin. People at the table spoke about having to work with the burden of representation, isolation, mental health stress, micro aggressions to more overt racism, dealing with the defensiveness of colleagues and more. We cannot underestimate the pervasiveness of racism and its effects: to take this seriously, we have to face up to how we arrived at the point in the first place. Our well-intended ways of talking about diversity are ineffective and we need to go back to basics with structural oppression and anti-racism training, so we can all take an active stance in building a more equitable world. Politics isn’t ‘over there’, it’s here shaping our sector and impacting opportunities.

  1. We need to think about class and the trouble with assimilation agendas

At our conference last year, youth worker and filmmaker Daniel Renwick stated that organisations and educational institutions shouldn’t be trying to ‘fix’ people from lower income backgrounds. Too often at sector meetings we make presumptions about people’s intelligence, behaviour and capabilities (intentionally or not) because of their class or the areas they live in. This dynamic needs to end. We want to open up opportunities and diversify our efforts, but not with the aim of forcing middle class values on everyone. People can be themselves and excel professionally, whether musically or in other parts of the sector. This excellent article talking about class in theatre is applicable for our sector too.

  1. Being specific helps

We’ve developed an unhelpful way of talking about diversity and inclusion. There were some conversations in the plenary about the way different modes of exclusion can be competitively pitted against each other. It is possible to think about class, race, disability and regional disparities without it being a case of either or. We need to develop a more rigorous, honest and cohesive assessment of the inequalities in our society, the consequences of those inequalities, and how those are replicated across our sector. If we can do this, then building an embedded, intersectional approach to funding, programming and consultancy should become common sense.



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