What element of your work were you most proud of in your Change-Maker work at Duckie?
It’s hard to pick just one as I feel like I grew so much in many aspects of my work over course of the programme. There was a moment at the panel discussion that we held at Rich Mix at the end of my placement with Duckie where the speakers were warmly and confidently discussing many of the things that I had been working through with Duckie and that made me feel really proud. That we had come to a place where we could talk like this together. The panel was also made up of a number of people who had been really significant parts of my work through Change Makers and it was a real pleasure to see them all together - Nike Jonah, Campbell X, Abid Hussain, Ricardo Peach and Simon Casson, as well as Change Maker co-rider Elijah Cushnie. I felt that it showcased all of the different areas of the work we had been doing and wrapped it all up in a way that I was really comfortable and happy with.
Another significant moment was when something really catastrophic happened to my family and the way that the core team at Duckie handled it made me proud to be associated with them. I felt that this went beyond the work we were doing- the discussions, the politics and became about us as human beings. I had to step away from some of the things that we had planned for a few weeks and the company gave me the space and time that I needed, whilst checking in with me and being hugely supportive. Every member of the team reached out to me with care as human beings and that made me most proud – that the team put the work aside and looked after me as an individual. It was very clear that how I felt and how I was coping was more important than anything else and that made me feel part of the company in a really profound way.
Finally, I would say that working with Campbell X to create the film Visible was also a highlight of the programme for me. I loved all of the events and training – but here I got to explore another area of my creativity and I really enjoyed working as a film producer alongside being an events producer. We made the film and then showed it at the last Family event with a Q and A, followed by a curated performance programme and a club night and I was really proud of how it went. It was really exciting to have been involved in making some of the creative content as well as producing the event - It really woke up my film production side and I loved it. Filming, arranging, post production, presenting and discussing the work, curating performances to follow – brilliant.
Change Makers was about pushing the limits of my practice, learning and juggling so many hats. It was stressful, and brilliant. So many highlights – I could go on for a while!
What part of the work was the most rewarding?
I would say that the most rewarding part was when I heard Simon Casson saying things that he wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t have met me. I know that if you haven’t done things before there will be natural resistance but I am really proud that what I said to him had real traction and I can see a real difference in attitude in his behavior and in his work. Simon is reading lots of books and is really open to things that he is uncomfortable with now. He asks questions. For example, I know that Duckie wanted to do something on the day of UK Black Pride on our old site and rather than just programing something in our place without thinking about it or discussing it with us – he thought really clearly about what a white organisation stepping into our space might mean and what message it might send out. He contacted us immediately and talked to us openly. He said if it was bad, or if it would look bad or if it would be challenging for us then he just would not do it. He didn’t try to argue or persuade us and this meant so much to me. There was no negotiation, no arguing, no back and forth, no compromises suggested, he just asked us, listened to us and supported us. I don’t think this would have happened before. He just listened to what we said and accepted that it was right. Now that is progress.
Also, recently Simon invited me out to watch a piece by a Black playwright at a mainstream theatre and Arts Council NPO and he was like ‘I want you to come and bring your partner and to talk about the play with me so we can see what we make of it together’. Really interesting evening - none of us liked the play but I was fascinated that Simon’s interpretation of what he saw was so different from what I think he would have said before the Change Maker programme. It was so much more nuanced – he sees more, understands more and it also meant a lot to me that he values my opinion so much as an individual.
Also, I think that my ongoing relationship with Duckie as a company and with the networks that I have made over the last 2 years with people like Abid Hussein, with Nike Jonah and Ricardo Peach were built during and because of the Change Maker programme and these will be long lasting. I have met some brilliant people and I know we are going to go on to do some really interesting things together in the future.
Finally, I found producing Family, the series of events that I co-curated with Campbell X, to be a really rewarding project, that met my aims of building an intergenerational space for QTIPOC to come together creatively and culturally. There are some very different cultures represented in the community think it was really important that we explored different peoples’ backgrounds and heritages and that we got a broad range of people along to the events. I also got a strong sense of how much need there is for QTIPOC programming elsewhere as well. Some people travelled a long way to attend the events and many audience members sought me out to tell me how much they appreciated and needed this kind of space and whether I would think about creating something similar nearer to where they lived.
Following the success of Family, we did some research to see if there was a need for similar sorts of things nationally - speaking with QTIPOC in Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester and the message was strong and clear that they definitely wanted to see events like Family in their city. People actually travelled from all over the place just to have the chance to tell us this- that’s how urgent the need is. One guy came to our Bristol event and then came to the Manchester event as well as he said there was just nothing for him in Bradford. That was rewarding. Seeing QTIPOC coming out to see the work- meeting them, listening to them and hearing that they wanted more. That was rewarding.
What part of the work was the most challenging and difficult?
Producing the pilot for Family Dinner - our pilot event interrogating the intersections of art and culture and QTIPOC mental health was the most challenging aspect of the programme for me. A lot of the time when I am developing work or producing films or events I might be dealing with traumatic subject matter but I don’t necessarily feel vulnerable because I am not ‘in it’ if you know what I mean? The Family Dinner event made me feel really exposed. I wanted to bring an event to the community that shone a spotlight on QTIPOC mental health and I researched, hosted, curated it – but when I was actually there- listening to other peoples’ traumas that mirrored my own - it was a little bit too triggering for me. Hosting and chairing the space whilst holding others needs as well made me feel really vulnerable because the things that were being disclosed are part of my story too. We have to be careful when we are producing work as part of our lived trauma that we don’t create situations that are too triggering, too exposing or too harmful in the process. I was OK but I definitely struggled with this.
I learned so much from it though. I learned that there is a need and an audience for these events- but when we do it in the future I will continue to be present and to hold the space – but I will support someone else to host and chair the discussions.
Do you think that we could have prepared you better for this event, or offered more support?
I do think that Duckie supported and prepared me adequately - I made it very clear that I didn’t want the company to do anything but follow my lead and you could have not foreseen how I was going to react – as I didn’t foresee it myself– but we have learned and we will do it differently in the future. As you know we are going to go forward with developing Family Dinner into a longer series of events – with the good ingredients staying in and the bits that didn’t work so well staying out. This is the process; this is the work. We learn and adapt.
One of the other things that I found challenging and difficult was the fact that Duckie already had a relationship with Arts Council England and I didn’t have a key person at ACE of my own. I would have liked my own person (or team of people) that I could have spoken to about the placement. 3 or 4 of the other Change Makers had some existing relationships but most of us didn’t. I sorted this out in the end by arranging my own meetings with them and finding my own contacts – but I think I should have met Duckie’s Relationship Manager much earlier than I did and that I also should have had my own key contact. It’s not that I wanted to moan about Duckie or anything but it just feels that the power is a bit stacked against you.
Finally, at the beginning of the programme people in the QTIPOC community were questioning me about why I was working with white organisation. They questioned whether was I being used and what Duckie’s motives were etc. But by the end of it – lots of people thought that Duckie was my organisation, that it was a QTIPOC company. I think it was positive that people thought this because Duckie staff were so low-key but I also think that on the flip side- those people who knew the company already thought that my work was done by the Duckie team –which was frustrating. If there is more QTIPOC programming at Duckie it should very clearly be in partnership with a QTIPOC leader rather than ‘Duckie’s QTIPOC programme’. Duckie shouldn’t be in the title at all as its confusing for people- I think that this is really important actually. Visibility and representation of QTIPOC is key.
Can you make a list of the kinds of things you learned during this process?
Probably the most important thing that I learned was that I don’t have to be good at everything. A few of the things that I was doing through the more formal training parts of the programme, I am never going to be good at as they are so specialist. I am never going to be a fundraiser; I am never going to be a Finance Manager and that’s totally OK!
My confidence has also grown – I am saying yes more, hiding less. I am speaking on panels, taking part in discussions and I gave a keynote recently, which I have never done before. I still have a lot of anxiety and I have to make sure that I am not pushing myself or making myself sick but the Change Maker programme has definitely improved my confidence to say yes to these things.
I learned that whilst you all work hard – you don’t all try to do all things for all people. I really learned this from the way Duckie’s three core staff work together. It’s very interesting how you all slot together- it was a real eye opener actually and I can really understand how you get so much done now. In the past I kept trying to do everything, and you taught me to not do this- to accept you can’t do everything and to build a highly skilled team around you to share the load. Simon taught me if you have good people around you it leaves you to concentrate on what you need to do. I don’t think I would have got this experience in any other organization to be honest. Duckie hides nothing – it’s all there on the table, you talk about everything, you are completely transparent and don’t hide any of the work away. The three of you really let me see the work and I learned so much from that.
Also, I learned very quickly that I could call any of you, at any time for advice and support. It gave me a massive insight as to how Duckie works, why it works, who is doing what and that there is so much trust and friendship between you that you just let each other get on with it. No one is managing anyone else- you are just working on your separate bits- but together, with it all out front.
I also learned to pay attention to who you work well with. One of the best things about it was having Sally Rose, the project coordinator to work with me- she really understood how to work with me. She took away all of my stress, she was amazing. She knew what to do and how to help me. She just knew her craft so well and she did her job so well. I just loved working with her and realized what a great partnership it was.
Finally, in terms of addressing structural exclusions I realised that visibility is absolutely key and that people knowing who you are is a really important part of this world and getting on in it. I am told I have a reputation now with ACE and across the arts sector - that people and ACE funded organisations and venues know who I am and it just makes things so easy! Like the tour that we did to consult with QTIPOC – I just contacted a series of NPOs and asked if they would like to be involved and just got ‘yeses’ across the board because now they know who I am. I have been legitimized - it just happened with no stress or bother.
This change was very marked actually – in the way I was received and it has made me feel that one of the things I need to work on now, as part of my activism is how to create visibility for QTIPOC artists without a profile now that I have this visibility.
Continuing on visibility, I also think that ACE should have made a bigger deal about the Change Maker’s work throughout the programme. For instance, if we were doing Family at Rich Mix we could have taken over the ACE Instagram for the day. Picking one or two people to speak at conferences or to go on TV is great BUT it should have been bigger, better, louder. They should have shouted about our work and us themselves - but also given us access to their socials and other platforms in an un-edited way to let us speak properly and authentically about our work.
I also learned how deeply embedded the exclusions are for people without very strong professional writing skills to access funding for their work. I was supported through the Change Maker programme to have you (Emmy) and Sally Rose writing the funding bids to support my ideas but not everyone has or even knows a fundraiser, so not everyone can access this money. We have to change the way that this is done and this change has to come from the Arts Council. Why can’t we make video applications where we can talk about our work and what we want to do? We could easily do this in partnership with organisations that can help us handle the money. It’s just a massive barrier to working class people, people with dyslexia or just people who don’t want to spend years working out how to navigate the funding system. Those skills- those professional writing skills, the admin skills, the ability to see your work in a wider context of artists – that’s all about being middle class and having access to education and resources. It’s a joke. It’s still a system that keeps people who are not upper or middle class out of the system and these amazing and talented people are still being structurally excluded.
They are being excluded because of their access to education and they are being excluded because the taste of the assessors are that of white, middle class people. Not difficult to see why they award most of the money in the way that they do.
You have to ask - do they really want to change, or do they want to just appear as though they want change?
It does make me feel so despondent and it’s so redundant of the times. Honestly, we get it. We get how it is when these things are being set up. We get it. These programmes of work are not new. Change Maker is not new – it’s just got some new packaging. What’s it going to lead to? Not much probably. No change in ‘taste’. No change in the application process. We are missing all of this great work. I do have to ask- we have to ask – the people at the top are intelligent, smart people. We do have to ask – what does this say about their true intentions? If everyone is still white or middle class at the top – what does this say? I mean how much have they really changed? Even when you have black and brown coming through into these institutions they are still middle and upper class and they just tend to slot right into the old boys’ club, then they become the gatekeepers and around it goes. Around and around it goes.
How do you think your input changed Duckie as an organisation and what work still needs to be done?
Honestly? I think that remains to be seen – I’m not sure yet, I would say that it may have changed Simon as an individual and that this may impact on the change of Duckie as an organisation as he is very clued into the importance of his behavior as a leader and how this impacts on the company as a whole.
But long-term? I don’t know, this remains to be seen. For too long people do things like Change Makers and at the end they give out a questionnaire and they want answers right now about the impact of their intervention. It is actually going to take a while to see what the impact is and this is actually OK. It’s OK for us to think about small steps that we can take now, and take further steps tomorrow and further steps later. There is work happening now that was not happening before and that is great. That is progress. However, there are many more risks to be taken and much more discomfort to be felt. All of these things are ingredients that will lead to change but it is going to take more work, more investment and it will take time.
I would like to see Duckie do more QTIPOC work but I would like to see more QTIPOC people to be in the leadership team. I don’t think that this necessarily needs to be a fulltime post – it could be a consultant or a number of part-time staff, there are many ways for POC to feed into the decision making of the organisation on a senior level. I do think that Duckie have taken this on board and I understand that they are going to take some time to find the right resources – and the right person or people with the right expertise to make this happen.
Supporting and programming QTIPOC arts practice is a good and positive development but it’s about pushing through what we are comfortable with and looking at the other areas of the company that needs work. The youth theatre that we have set up- the QTIPOC Creatives might be the thing that becomes the permanent fixture at Duckie that pushes for structural change. It’s not just about making work and giving opportunities to artists. It’s about supporting and training marginalized people to be confident, visible and to have real power and agency. One of the things that I will be doing moving forward is to have a more active role in programming what the young people will be exposed to and making sure that I stay close to this work and to ensure that the participants become part of my network.
But as I said, these things take time. As I have an existing relationship with Duckie, this ongoing work will be part of my legacy. It’s pretty tough- finding the way forward and there are no hard and set guidelines. For example, at the beginning of the Change Maker’s programme Simon wanted me to look at diversifying Duckie Saturday nights with him. This is Duckie’s oldest and most established project and it is very male and very white. When I walked in the venue I immediately felt uncomfortable and then I was asked if I was the act. Because why else would a POC be in the space except to perform? You know it wasn’t that the Duckie team didn’t want me there – the staff welcomed me warmly but it was the audiences that didn’t want me there. Duckie Saturday night event was created by white gay men - this is their space, just leave them to it. This was the beginning of my journey with Duckie – that this work does not have to be about losing spaces for other communities- it us about finding spaces that serve QTIPOC. And if we are creating that, who is leading on it? Who is choosing the acts? Who is doing the promotion and marketing? Who is in charge of the budget? We have to have QTIPOC people in control and this is why the QTIPOC Creatives will be run by myself and Aakash with Duckie there as our back up.
In many ways, we are in a good place right now. The Duckie team respect us and understand that we have to be able to produce our own work and that their role is just to stand behind us. If we hadn’t taken part in the Change Maker’s programme I don’t think Duckie would have learned this. If you are not from a group or don’t know people from that group, then how are you going to know? It is, of course, fine to be surrounded by people who look like you – BUT if you are in a certain position then it’s important that you get out there and listen. And think. If Duckie is going to be doing QTIPOC work it has to be led by QTIPOC and QTIPOC alone and that there should be no compromises on that.
What work opportunities have you had since Change Maker?
I have been working on lots of different projects since Change Maker including:
Artistic Director at AZ Hub
Chief of Operations at AZ Magazine
Trustee at the Marlborough Theatre
I secured an ACE grant to conduct some research and development work with QTIPOC communities across the UK in partnership with Arnolfini, New Art Exchange, Impact Hub and Manchester Pride
I am Operations Director at Wahalla! Film Fund
I am Logistics Director on the book tour for Patrice Colours (co-founder of Black Lives Arts Matters in the US)
I was a Key Note Speaker at Roehampton University and a panel guest at a discussion at the Victoria and Albert Museum
I also work as a Consultant for a range of organisations such as the Central School of Speech and Drama and the Vrystaadt Festival in South Africa
I am a Video Producer for the National Trust
I’m also in talks with Battersea Arts Centre and Hackney Empire about future work
AZ Magazine is doing great things in the fight for QTIPOC visibility and changing the conversation around taste. It’s definitely been important to have a publication solely centring QTIPOC. AZ Magazine has been doing excellent and unfunded work since 2015 and it was my honour to join their team as Chief Operating Officer. This is the unfunded work I continue to do and is my way of still giving back but not doing so much that I burn out. I’m no good to anyone then. The work is too important not to adapt in a way that works with the changes in my career but still keeps to the grassroots based work I’ve been doing all these years.
What are your desires and ambitions for your future work with Duckie?
I would like to continue my relationship with Duckie in the long-term and we have a couple of things in the pipeline for 2019 such as the development of Family Dinner – my participatory arts event which explores the intersection of arts, QTIPOC experiences and mental health and the development of QTIPOC Creatives – our youth theatre. There will be other projects and events as well – these are just the main projects that we are working on at the moment.
What are your desires and ambitions for your future as a freelance arts activist?
I think I am at the stage now where I don’t want to be freelance anymore. I am putting my work into long-term projects and have created a diverse portfolio of work and now I want to do some permanent long-term programming in multiple locations. I am working on a strategy to support this moving forward but I want to support the visibility and career development of QTIPOC artists and arts workers and the development of audiences across the UK and am looking for a permanent position where I can do this as part of an organisation.
Would you take a job with another arts company, if so, what kind of company and what kind of role?
I would like to work at a company like Duckie with a small and supportive team. I don’t know of any other arts organizations that have the scope, reach and political position that this company has that are queer led, innovative and influential. It’s a difficult balance to find and I realise now how unusually effective the company is for its size.
What do you make of the term 'diversity'?
It’s just bollocks. Because diversity means different things to different people and different things to different organisations. Just saying you are diverse is such a bollocks thing to say. Having a woman in an all-male team does not mean you are diverse – listening to her, taking her views on doesn’t mean you are diverse either. The arts and cultural sectors are institutionally racist, there are significant barriers to people getting in and getting on and this runs through the fabric of the way everything works. Until we address this properly at a really fundamental level with proper, radical change then the sector will never be diverse and inclusive. There are so many more things to say and the barriers that keep people out through racism, sexism and homo/transphobia so much more nuanced and complex than can be solved by talking about ‘diversity’.
What is your view about the landscape and health of Black queer arts in the UK?
I would say that there are a few organisations and individuals that are emerging with some visibility now. There has been a surge in groups making work but this doesn’t mean we get to relax. This happens all the time and it’s important that we don’t get complacent and stop fighting. There are always times where bits of work are to the tastes of the people in control, this doesn’t mean that things are changing. Right now, we have a few highly visible people that are doing really great work -Lady Phyll, Travis Alabanza, Monroe Bergdorf - they are out there being seen - but at what personal cost? Every time they stick their neck out, people are racist and abusive – especially on social media and it’s really tough to continue in the face of that kind of pressure. So, I think things may be changing slowly- but it is at a really high cost to those on the front line.
We are aware that you do quite a lot of unpaid volunteer work in the community - what are your feelings about this?
I have started to say no actually – I can’t be everything to everyone; this was one of the things that I really learned through the Change Maker programme. There have also been some quite difficult situations around my voluntary work that have arisen recently- people saying that I am their mentor when I am not, people using me as a reference without my permissions and so on. How do I feel about that? I feel like as I have become more visible and I have moved into undertaking different roles after my work with Duckie, I just can’t afford the time to do it anymore. My work at AZ Magazine is my way of making sure I’m still giving back but in a more manageable way. I’ve burned out too many times by taking on too much.
Any last thoughts?
If the ACE is going to do Change Makers again they must include the Change Makers in the planning for this and pay them for their time. I think the Change Makers should have some say in who the new Change Makers are - we should be part of the entire process. How else do we start to dismantle this idea of taste and get to break some of the barriers of access? Change Makers should be engaged to be mentors for the new people.