Equality and Diversity
Our continuing commitment to equality
Arvon was founded on a belief in the power of the imagination and the benefits of creative writing, and it continues to be driven by a conviction that these benefits should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or circumstances. As our founder John Moat said, an Arvon writing house should be a ‘Freehouse of the Imagination’, which is not owned by anyone, but belongs to everyone who passes through it. It is central to our mission that we work towards equality of access, opportunity and participation in all our programmes.
For so many people in our society, equality has not yet been realised. Disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, Black people and other people of colour, people from working class backgrounds or who live on low incomes: all face numerous and interconnected barriers to participation including (perhaps especially) in the arts. As a charity we seek to place diversity and inclusion at the heart of our strategy, our evaluation and our programming, underpinned by a determination that no barrier, whatsoever, shall exist to the inclusion of all: that Black lives matter; that Trans rights are human rights; that our houses, both physical and virtual, will be accessible and welcoming to everyone, spaces in which there will be no actual or perceived impediment to participation.
In the past we have pursued a range of actions, with the aim of making our activities more accessible and of diversifying our audience. These have included:
- Course grants and bursaries to prevent cost being a barrier to participation, and funded partnerships with young people and adults from disadvantaged communities across the country
- Strategic grants to offer writers of colour and other marginalised groups such as disabled writers free places on our public residential courses
- Partnership courses aimed at specific marginalised groups such as writers of colour or disabled writers either in ‘closed’ groups or open for public bookings
- A consistent focus on diversity in our programming across all our activities, whether with schools and groups or public courses for adults
- Renovating our facilities to be more accessible to disabled people, with accessibility a key aspect of the Hurst redevelopment in 2013, as well as our plans to redevelop Lumb Bank in the coming years
- Regular training from external organisations to help our staff embed accessibility, diversity and inclusion in our practice
- Action plans for equality and audience development, underpinned by robust external evaluation and equal opportunities monitoring with ambitious KPIs for participation
- Commissioning additional evaluation by consultants such as Words of Colour, who researched in depth the impressions writers of colour held of Arvon and its programmes
Our responsibility to Black writers
This year we have been moved by the Black Lives Matter movement, and by the searching conversations and institutional self-reflections it has provoked in this country and around the world, to more deeply interrogate our own actions and responsibilities. This renewed focus on the enduring impact of racism, on challenging the structural conditions that sustain it, and on centring the voices and experiences of Black people, has prompted us to ask if we, individually and collectively, are doing enough, and how we can deepen our commitment to tackling racism in our sector.
It is crucially important that the arts sector in general, and the publishing/literature sector in particular, acknowledge the barriers Black people face in gaining access to opportunities in our field (as participants, practitioners and administrators). These barriers are inseparable from a system that devalues Black lives by, not least, persistently silencing and delegitimising Black voices, Black stories and Black experience. We know that the UK publishing sector continues to struggle to offer Black writers and Black professionals equality of opportunity or appropriate recognition; as a writer development charity we are part of that ecosystem and we share a responsibility for working to ensure marginalised voices are given the support they need.
We pay tribute to the talent, skill, professionalism and tenacity of all the Black writers, who in spite of these barriers have achieved success in their art and elevated the practice of writing in this country, particularly those among our outstanding network of tutors. Black writers are artistically essential to Arvon’s programme; it could not exist without them and it would not be where it is now without them. They are central to all aspects of our work, not least our most challenging and sensitive partnership courses with young people or vulnerable groups, which we see as the core of our mission.
This summer, in order to better engage with these issues, we decided to accelerate the work of our Equality and Diversity Working Group, which is now meeting every two weeks. Our own process of reflection has highlighted a number of areas where we know we can do more. We have resolved to interrogate our language, and we aim to avoid using aggregate terms like ‘BAME’ where possible, instead being more specific when discussing issues that affect Black people in particular. We know that certain preconceptions about Arvon can prevent people from taking part: perceptions of Arvon as an elitist or exclusive organisation. We can do more to challenge these assumptions and give the clear message to Black writers that Arvon is a place for them, where they can feel safe and welcome. We will keep working to create an inclusive and supportive atmosphere on every course, and we know we can become more assertive and confident in calling out stereotypes, prejudice or any form of racism when we see them, even if supposedly ‘minor’ or ‘well-meaning’. We know we have work to do in diversifying our staff team and our Board, and in making Arvon an organisation that more talented Black candidates want to be a part of. Above all, as so many have recently observed, we know that it is no longer enough to be non-racist; we must be antiracist, both as individuals and as an organisation.
Planning for ongoing reflection and change
The work of advancing diversity and inclusion in the arts did not begin this year and will not be over once the year is out. The movement to affirm that Black lives matter is not a ‘moment’. It is a long-term struggle against the racism and prejudice that exist in every corner of our society. Our response is inevitably imperfect, and the work of refining and improving that response will never be complete. But we are in this for the long term, and we hope to take the urgency and the reflective spirit of these times as an impetus to push ourselves further and accelerate processes of internal change that may previously have been in danger of stalling.
The points below outline the steps we have taken or that we will begin in the coming months:
- Governance and staffing: We have appointed a new Equalities Lead from our Board of Trustees and resolved to ensure issues of diversity and inclusion remain regularly on the Board’s agenda. We are working with our HR consultants to find proactive ways to diversify our workforce.
- Changing our language: We want to avoid using aggregate terms like ‘BAME’ where possible, being more specific in our discussions around diversity and inclusion and identifying the issues and barriers that affect Black people in particular.
- Changing our policy: We are rewriting and updating our Equality and Diversity Policy to be more specific, more comprehensive and more practically useful to our staff. Once revised, we will make this publicly available along with our other organisational policies.
- Offering new bursaries: A number of supporters have committed to sponsoring course places for Black writers and other writers of colour, and we will continue to seek and/or ringfence funding aimed at engaging a Black audience.
- More diverse programming: We will continue to seek out talented Black writers and other writers of colour, trans writers and writers from the most diverse possible range of backgrounds, and explore how barriers either in our procedures or in publishing and the media may distort or obstruct our view of the talent we should be engaging.
- Deepening our learning: We have booked training for more of our staff team in how to recognise unconscious bias, and how to build inclusive programmes and embed antiracism in our organisation. The Equality and Diversity Working Group will continue sharing insights from our reading and research with the wider team, helping each of us to deepen our understanding of issues related to racism and inclusion.
- Fostering inclusive practices: We have prepared advice for our staff on how to challenge racist behaviour, stereotypes or microaggressions, and resolved to communicate clearly to our tutors the importance of referring to a diverse range of example texts in their workshops. We will work with publishers to seek donations in order to diversify the range of books in our on-site libraries, to better reflect the diversity of modern British society and to showcase new and diverse voices.
- Partnerships and collaboration: We will develop or renew partnerships with writer development agencies, community organisations, publishers and partners across the arts and beyond – in particular organisations supporting Black writers and other writers of colour – to see how by supporting them or by combining our efforts, we can reach new audiences and help marginalised voices find the support they need to succeed and grow.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we want to make clear that if there’s something you didn’t want to mention during your course or include in an evaluation form or a tutor report, or you have thoughts on how we can improve, where we may have gone wrong, or how we’ve not lived up to our own values, we want to hear from you and we will do our best to address your concerns, whether you’ve taken part in our programme or not. We don’t want to ask people to do our work for us, but our doors and our minds are open to any criticism or feedback that can help us improve and be a better and more inclusive champion for writers. You can contact the following people in confidence:
Andrew Kidd, Chief Executive and Artistic Director: firstname.lastname@example.org
Natasha Carlish, Director, The Hurst: email@example.com
To Black writers we say: Arvon, the home of creative writing, is a home for your writing, and for you. Our writing houses – Freehouses of the Imagination – belong to you as writers, and in each one you will find allyship and solidarity and be heard.