International Artists At Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival 2022. Photo Rachel Cherry

Sharing the Journey

A (republished) blog by Jo Verrent of Unlimited, a disability arts organisation, about their collective policy-making process and goals.

This blog was originally published at Arts Professional. Next week we will be sharing a follow-on conversation we had with Jo, delving into how the processes she describes have worked for Unlimited, in practice. We are grateful to Jo and Unlimited for giving us permission to share the blog.

Disabled people make up 22% of the UK population but only access about 5-9% of the cultural sector’s roles and opportunities. Things need to change. Yet making that change manifest is hard, no matter how clear the need is.

Change is exhausting, even when necessary. We’re in a cycle of organisational change while simultaneously trying to instigate change in the sector. So, we’re pausing to look at change itself. And why it’s so goddamn hard.

Change takes time, takes effort. We all want instant results. But that’s not how change works. We know there is often fear – of the unknown and of failure. 

What helps things change?

Sadly, most change happens only when we have no choice. On joining the National Portfolio, we (like all other NPOs) prioritised the changes we needed to make to meet the conditions of the funding. That meant knocking some changes we wanted down the timeline. 

Often change comes from a kick off point – internal or public. As a sector we’re pretty good at recognising these and making the right noises. But we seem less good at making the change real. If we were good at it, the statistics on the employment of disabled people, for example, wouldn’t be ‘stuck’ at such a low percentage. 

Change must involve everyone – the whole team. It can’t simply be dictated from the top. It takes time. It takes a process and structure. It takes accountability. And it’s easier when shared – both the commitment and the journey. A public commitment means you are more likely to stay the course and make it happen. Sharing a journey brings the benefit of the experiences of others and a ready-made peer group.

At Unlimited, we share as much of our experiences as we can – positive and negative. We hope this transparency aids others, but we mainly do it for ourselves, to strengthen our resolve and map our progress.

Changing policies

Let’s dive into an example – policy development. At the start of our independence, Unlimited scrabbled together the policies we needed. Building on some from our previous delivery partners Shape and Artsadmin, taking some from open-source places like Creative Lives and looking at some more radical options too for inspiration, such as those emerging at Dark Matter or at the RadHR site. This was fast and speedy work, and it got us what we needed quickly. 

However, with only one set of eyes on each policy’s development – we quickly became aware there were things missing, clumsily expressed, and not joined up. We had to slow down and expand who was involved to really make the policy change we needed. 

Now we look at one policy a month as a team. This ensures we bring in the whole team’s lived experiences and varied viewpoints, to fully understand and improve it. The very nature of the process makes it educational, inclusive and intentional. And we live, breathe, and are held to account by it.  It’s slow – often painfully slow – but the deep work here builds our organisational culture – it gives us time to centre care, intersectionality, our values.

In some places we initially went too far. In our efforts to make policies humane we lost some of the essential legal detail. Now, we bring in specialist perspectives when needed to help us identify how to balance protecting both our employees and our company.

Iterative learning

We began with a two-hour organisational development session each month but rapidly realised the commitment required was just too great, especially for part-time staff. Reading through policy and trying to make changes as a team didn’t work. 

Now we have an optional 30-minute read-through session for those who want to read the policy together. Then we schedule a 45-minute session on the questions and improvements we want to make. It’s intense but proving more productive and purposeful.

Our aim is to share our policies publicly. We aren’t there yet but we are learning and want to save other organisations the time and energy we’ve had to spend. We also want to be accountable. And this is our public commitment to our intention.

Becoming an NPO

Some of the largest changes we have made recently have been due to becoming an NPO. Meeting different reporting requirements and schedules has meant reluctantly moving from our previous board meeting schedule of every other month. This was hard but necessary to conform to ACE’s reporting framework.

Like every other NPO, we are also coming to terms with the data collecting requirements (checks diary to make sure there’s a 2-hour block to rewatch all the Illuminate videos).

We’ve decided to give the annual survey a trial run this year (even though we know the questions might change slightly). It’s the best way to ensure we have mechanisms in place to collect the data we need. It’s already been useful as it’s shown we collect freelancer data in four different places, that we haven’t been separating audience data for work aimed at children and young people, and that our staff equal opportunities data was out of date as we now have a bigger team.

This aligns with our action research approach where we see everything we do as an experiment – open to assessment, learning and change. Too much change can sink the boat, so we’ve also set ourselves a three-year period to stabilise and solidify.

Helping the sector change

Understanding how hard change is, was at the heart of our recent campaign #NothingforNothing. We know the sector needs to examine its relationship with the exploitation of disabled people (and others) to work for nothing. We did research, published data and case studies, making the case for change but didn’t just leave it there.

We launched a campaign with resources to help – both for individuals and for organisations. We asked organisations to pledge to change their practice.We knew a quick ‘sign up and feel good’ where people only made a single commitment wasn’t going to work or change anything. We’re asking people to sign up to a process.

Commit to working through what they do, and to keep in touch with us over 12 months so we can see if change really does happen. It’s part of centring what we know works – a process, a structure, support from others. But it doesn’t mean people are rushing to our door. Then comes the million-dollar question: Do we really want change?

The biggest reason for any ‘stuckness’ is that we don’t really want to move, and that being where we are suits us personally. We have to ask, do we really want to stop the exploitation that the cultural sector is based on, or are we personally benefiting from it? If we are, can we morally square that, or is it time now to act? It would mean doing less but better. Would mean insisting that everyone at the table was given something in return for being there, not just those with salaried jobs. Would mean centring more of the arts on artists.

We will not diversify the sector until we tackle our endemic relation with exploitation. To do that will take time, energy and commitment. The tools are there, and momentum is building. Arts organisations need to ask where this question sits within their priorities and consider their response. 

As with all change that isn’t happening, the first question to ask is: do you want change? We hope the answer is yes.

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