CAAP Longhouse #1 @ Carriageworks

Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP) hosted their first Longhouse event for the year at Carriageworks on Thursday April 20th, using as a starting point for discussion the brilliant article in Arts Hub recently by Tania Canas, Diversity is a White Word.

The panel was comprised of Tim Roseman, Artistic Director of Playwriting Australia (PWA); Lena Nahlous, Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) and Kate Cherry, Director/CEO at NIDA; all chosen for their experience in working with artists identifying (or identified) as ethnically/linguistically/culturally diverse (CALD) and for their work in advocating for better representation of these artists in the arts and cultural industries.

I went along to hear Lena, especially, as I’ve been following her work through DARTS since it the organisation was re-imagined from it’s previous iteration as Kultour. It was also a really nice opportunity to catch up with friends in the crowd afterwards. With only about 90 mins at their disposal, it was too short a time for the panel to detail in any depth the work they are currently doing in this space but it was just enough time for the audience to capture the essence of their positions on how best to address the imbalance in representation and to hear some examples of their activities.

Here’s the summary:

Kate talked about being struck by the contrast between the river of students flowing in through the gates at UNSW each morning and those walking in through the main doors at NIDA – literally across the road – wondering how NIDA might attract more students from CALD backgrounds. She thinks research is a good place to start. Understanding the reasons behind the imbalance is the first step in a trajectory that goes something like this, to paraphrase Kate: Ask questions. Collect data. Plan for change. Educate without dominating.

Lena agrees. Diversity Arts Australia has a research and policy focus, Lena explained. Only newly formed, DARTS is still very much in a phase of reckoning – of understanding and working out its direction and strategy, though the organisation’s focus and mission is clear. From the  DARTS Facebook page: ” Diversity Arts Australia advocates for an arts and cultural industry that represents the cultural diversity of Australia”. This clarity of purpose is met in equal measure by sheer will, it seems. In response to facilitator Jenevieve Chang’s question about what the biggest barriers to rectifying the imbalance in representation are, Lena replied “will”, reflecting on the unwillingness of people in positions of power to do differently. These structural inequalities need to be combatted by setting up alternatives in her view.

Tim had some great things to add on this point. His advice on working towards “equal access that has been systemically denied” was totally refreshing: “fundamentally, it is about getting out of the way”, he said. Refreshing also was his intentionality around the language used to discuss cultural diversity. He has “banned” diversity as a word, adding that at PWA they used to have a role titled “Outreach Coordinator”, which then became “Diversity Programs Coordinator” and is now called “Programs Coordinator”. Fist pump moment #1. Now this was music to my ears! A concurrent example of revolution/change in language brought about by necessity and the changing environment; and an example of the powerful part that language plays in social revolution. I reckon its the writers that have the biggest part to play in the revolution towards fairer representation. I have my hopes pinned on them.

While Tim talked about his intentional avoidance of words such as “diversity” and the substitution of “representation” and “rectifying imbalance”, Lena called for a reclamation of the word “diversity” rather than the discarding of it. She asked the question: “is the word ‘white’ or has it been appropriated?”. For her the challenge is in how we reclaim it, positing that the meaning of the word and our usage of it needs to encompass a “critical intersectional diversity” that encompasses multiple identities. Fist pump moment #2.

Fist pump moment #3 came when Kate brought the focus down to the bottom line: “if you’re working towards quotas, are you investing the money in the same ratios?“. Beneath this question lurks another in my mind: Are you just trying to tick the “diversity box”, or are you actually invested in and committed to change? (Financial is but one type of investment, of course.) Ultimately, it comes down to self-awareness and investigating our own conscious and unconscious biases. To quote from Tania Canas’, Diversity is a White Word“The industry needs to critically check its intention, positionality and ultimately, its ego. Asking what the aesthetic and epistemic assumptions are carried?” I couldn’t agree more.

Tania’s article is a great beginner’s “how to” for anyone wanting to work within CALD communities and with CALD artists, especially if you are the one controlling the money/info/project/whatever. To borrow language from Mary Parker Follett, ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ is key. This means going beyond cooperation and collaboration and towards co-creation.

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