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Madani Younis: Rooney Rule could do wonders for diversity in UK culture

Madani Younis says the NFL system of ensuring that team owners interview coaches from ethnic minorities – known as the Rooney Rule – could be applied to cultural posts. Photo: Shutterstock
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Tired of an ineffective ‘jam tomorrow’ approach to increasing diversity among theatre’s leaders, Madani Younis says we should look to American football for inspiration on ushering some of the ruling elite towards the exit


Hands up if you were not surprised to hear that the creative industries aren’t getting any more diverse. Hands up if you’re fed up with the most privileged in the creative sector always framing the conversation. Hands up if you are bored with patiently waiting for someone else to get it before you can get on. The constant promises of a better tomorrow have become a bit boring.

Last month, Arts Council England published a data report on Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case. For all the fanfare surrounding its launch it is an unsurprising document that points to familiar structural problems that equal opportunity and monitoring forms have been unable to remedy.

BAME and disabled staff still ‘significantly underrepresented’ in theatre – Arts Council report

Attempts over the past few decades to coax and coerce a structural shift in our sector have seen some of the most privileged and highly subsidised institutions in our country consistently failing to drive change. From this report you could quickly conclude that state subsidy resolves to underwrite the success of middle-class moderates.

However, for people of colour, women, those with minority ethnic origins, those from working-class communities and people with disabilities, meaningful representation in the creative industries continues to elude us at every level.

We are Tantalus stood in a pool of eternal discussion about change, the fruit on the tree above us just out of our grasp, while the water recedes before our voices can truly be heard.

Sadly, these experiences from our sector are merely an extension of being made to feel peripheral and forgotten in our national political and cultural discourse. We have lost a generation of potential leaders to the cultural inertia of our sector. The moral, economic and artistic arguments for change in the creative industries have been eloquently and perceptively made and won, haven’t they?

I’m not interested in the politics of guilt because the truth is patently staring me in the face. In order for us to be equal citizens in a democracy we have to ensure the equality of cultural expression.

The past couple of decades have been littered with short-term corrective interventions and initiatives that have had uneven outcomes.

How do those in power make space for the perspectives of the historically disenfranchised?

It’s time to ask a different type of question, one that implies a different set of consequences: how do those in power make space for the perspectives of the historically disenfranchised, and how do they concede to them? That is how I believe we will encourage a more radical shift in power.

So what happens if, for a moment, we turn policies that aim to protect artistic languages like theatre, film, poetry and dance on their head – as good as they are – and instead focus on protecting people and places?

I believe we are then forced to seek out and value cultures that make up those spaces – on terms that are determined by them and not a cultural elite. We should be asking how stimulating the cultural practices that are emerging or established in certain communities could increase the freedoms of those who live there. I believe the London mayor’s Borough of Culture Award in part taps into this idea of democratising culture.

We also need direct interventions that make room for diverse senior leaders in the sector. This includes our boards because we have become too reliant on appointing moneyed trustees. The Bush Theatre is one of the very few non-profit organisations to have a diverse board of trustees, but we can still do better.

You may have heard of the Rooney Rule that was introduced by the National Football League in the US to ensure black candidates were considered when teams selected coaches. Here in the UK, the FA says it will implement the rule when choosing coaches for the England team.

Employment laws in the US are of course very different to those of the UK and there are plenty of critics of the Rooney Rule. But I believe a version of it could be tailored to and implemented by the cultural sector in the UK. It is not a magical cure that would remedy the lack of true representation across the industry overnight. Nonetheless, it would force a powerful transparency into the recruitment process that could not be ignored by risk-averse, well-heeled board members.

I know that no one is actually under the illusion that our sector is some kind of bohemian love-in; on the contrary, there are visible realms of power in this industry. Real power is quiet and invisible; at its best it can be transformative and, at its worst, toxic and insidious. In an era of cuts, when the sector is contracting under austerity, diversity of leadership can improve if people at the top make room.

You cannot tempt us forever with unreachable fruit. Over the next 12 months, it would be interesting for us all, as an artistic community, to think about what the direct interventions are to achieve meaningful change at the highest level of our cultural leadership.

The function of art and culture in a democracy must be to shape what it means to be a citizen. So what is our collective understanding of the transformative nature of art in contemporary society? Whatever that currently is, it needs an overhaul. It should not be beyond the realms of possibility to imagine our cultural institutions being reflective of the concerns of their communities and the country as a whole. I am excited for 2018 as a year of new possibility and radical change.

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