On being an ally for diversity

Being an ally means being prepared to do the difficult work towards structural change.
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Allyship means having skin in the game; image from Interwoven 2019, photo by Shane Carey.

Last month, Diversity Arts Australia released its seminal report Shifting the Balance: Cultural Diversity in Leadership within the Australian Arts, Screen and Creative Sectors. As leaders of colour, we welcome the report despite its sobering truth: that leadership across these sectors remains persistently monocultural.

The report provides, for the first time, evidence of the homogenous state of leadership in the arts, and is a lamentable validation of something those of us arguing for increased diversity have known for a very long time; we have a long way to go, and changing status quo is the business of leaders.

It is terrific to see the Australia Council responding to this agenda with a much-needed injection of funds into a segment of the arts sector that has been under-resourced for a long time. The announcement of $13 million per year in the latest Corporate Plan, to be invested in projects by First Nations and culturally diverse artists, is an incredible start. We applaud this measure which recognises, in the Australia Council’s own words, that ‘…Australia’s diversity is not yet fully reflected in our arts’. This, coupled with other diversity KPIs, sends a strong message to the sector that the Australia Council is serious about change.

Who is driving equity?

It’s important that we are all engaged in this conversation. We need to ask how we embed practices that lead to a sustained cultural shift. Perhaps we start by asking who is doing diversity and inclusion well? How they have done it? And, perhaps more importantly, who is in the driver’s seat in our journey to great cultural equity?

Shifting the Balance recommends adopting the diversity indicators used in the UK. However, according to Clive Nwonka, Arts Council England’s annual report on diversity does not point to a success story. On the contrary, it reveals painfully slow progress, many failures and a system that is ‘still steeped in inequality’. Are we sure we want to replicate this model in Australia?

We agree with Diversity Arts Australia that we need quotas, as well as new policies and programs to support diversity. However, the processes to design these interventions cannot mimic existing models. It would be naive to expect that an unequal system can deliver equality.

Addressing systemic barriers

Neither should we assume that a system that has resulted in widespread homogeneity will deliver tangible diversity outcomes. This has been the lesson from the UK. Unless we address the systemic barriers that impede diversity, and at the same time create new frameworks for cultural equity, we will not disrupt current leadership trajectories. We will be destined to go down that well-travelled path: delivering policies and programs that tinker around the edges with little or no change.

If we are serious that diversity and inclusion are worth pursuing, for the benefit of us all, then we must understand that they are also the means to arrive at that destination. Diversity and inclusion are both the process and the prize. Naturally, this poses a fundamental challenge. Those who understand diversity and inclusion, and have the capacity to lead change, are not in charge.

This leads us to the most critical question: if most arts leaders are white, and diversity is the business of leaders, what is required of our leaders to effect change?

We contend that change will come, in part, from a stronger and more nuanced understanding of allyship. Plainly put, we need leaders to become allies and commit to the process of cultural change. An ally is someone for whom this work is a personal and professional imperative. Beyond just rhetoric, allied leaders make decisions that advance the cause of diversity, beginning with a fearless interrogation of their own relationship to power and privilege and the way these systems manifest in their organisations. Being an ally is about making choices to open spaces for a diverse workforce, and divesting oneself of power in order to enable others to lead.

Putting skin in the game

Being an ally means having skin in the game. Too often, we hear people express their allyship to the cause of greater diversity, but their choices belie these statements. As soon as it costs anything, be it personal or organisational reputation, opportunities, relationships or funding, their support may falter. Organisations may profess values of diversity and inclusion but respond with defensiveness and fragility when called to account for racist, ableist or exclusionary actions.

Allies accept feedback with openness and gratitude, even though it may be hard to hear, because they recognise that it takes courage to speak against institutional behaviour. They do not weaponise their language, emotions and actions to silence and shame those who speak out. And they don’t use their good intentions to obfuscate the reality of the harm they have caused, however unwittingly.

The real work of solidarity has a price, and allies are prepared to pay it. This is critically important. The work of structural and systemic change is hard and often messy. We will not always get things right, hence the need to listen and learn with humility and generosity.

Those who are our critics in this journey may well be our best and most important supporters, though we may not recognise it at the time. We acknowledge there is no roadmap for this kind of work, although we do have incredible signposting from First Nations people, people of colour and allies who have been doing the work of decolonising the arts and dismantling oppressive systems for generations. Their work is largely invisible to the mainstream, but it is there, and beginning to gain broader understanding through publications on solidarity and allyship.

Diversity means equality

Diversity is fundamentally about equality. It’s not enough to say that our sectors are not diverse; they are unequal. This inequality results in social, cultural and economic disparity, with permanent and negative consequences for everyone, but particularly for those who are under-represented. In our view, the job of the ally has one essential component: when you hold out a hand to lift someone into leadership, as leadership is so often transmitted, person to person, hand by hand, ask yourself who is on the receiving end of this gesture? Will that outstretched hand advance the cause of equality, or perpetuate the status quo? Because this work can never be done by allies alone.

We also need allied leaders to co-invest in a vision where diversity and inclusion are at the centre of a new arts and cultural ecology. It is time to recognise the productive power of the diversity of cultures that coexist in Australia to engage in new and iterative ways. Art and nature do not thrive in singular systems. Complexity, diversity and chaos are all part of the dynamics of creation. Allies understand that diversity is how we future-proof the arts, and their commitment to this comes with the recognition that change will require giving up some things.

Diversity is the wellspring of our creative evolution. Diversity offers us new ways to articulate our individual and collective experiences and find meaning to our existence. It cultivates our humanity and our capacity to imagine and manifest hope. At a time when we face intractable and wicked problems that are threatening our very existence on this planet, it is more important than ever to turn to the power of creativity and to try new ways of doing things, of organising, and of leadership.

Shifting the Balance is indeed what we need, but we won’t shift anything unless we make a collective commitment to change. Our future depends on it.

Source: Diversity Arts Australia, BYP Group, & Western Sydney University. (2019). Shifting the Balance: Cultural Diversity in Leadership Within the Australian Arts, Screen and Creative Sectors. Parramatta, NSW: Diversity Arts Australia.

The authors note they are among a rare 10% of CEOs and 6% of Chairs of colour in the arts sector (underrepresented by 29% and 33% respectively). 

Pilar Kasat and Veronica Pardo
About the Author
Pilar Kasat has occupied various leadership roles on arts organisations and on boards and is currently the chair of Art on the Move in Western Australia. Pilar has a Master of Sustainability and Social Change and is presently completing a PhD in cultural studies at Curtin University. Veronica Pardo is CEO of Multicultural Arts Victoria, the state’s leading organisation on diversity in the arts. She has spearheaded campaigns relating to social justice and equity for? the inclusion of all people in arts and culture, as audiences and cultural innovators.