My daily work has been impossible of late. Current events should, I hope, make us all pause and reflect on our own privileges; and to think very deeply about the power and voice that we have and how we can use it. I’ve been having my own conversations with my children about race and why working actively against injustice is important. It is easy to say that you stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, but if those words are to have real meaning, then it’s on all of us to bring about real change. I previously wrote about how we are adapting our work during Covid-19 and I want this blog to show what more we can do at Nottingham City of Literature to evaluate how effective our programming and partnerships are when it comes to creating a more authentically accessible and inclusive environment.
Our vision is for a city where everyone is reading and writing their way to a better life. We believe in the power of literature as a reflection of humanity and as a way for everyone to better understand each other and the world we live in. It is upon every one of us to take responsibility, educate ourselves and amplify the work of Black artists in Nottingham and across the world. To that end, our team has created a list of book recommendations to inspire action, deep understanding of race and help build a better world with words.
I’ve taken the past week to further identify how we can impact meaningful and lasting change in our organisation and city. As one of the few senior cultural leaders of colour in Nottingham, I consider myself in a privileged position for driving change. So I’m using my position to speak up for bolder transformation and to be more inclusive, more equitable.
Our city’s diversity makes Nottingham incredible. That diversity strengthens the city. But I don’t see that diversity reflected in a lot of the cultural boards and networks, in cultural programmes and workforces, and in the audiences we serve. We can’t talk about equality and social justice if we’re not practicing that in our own spaces, offices, interview panels and boardrooms. The starting point has to be about prioritising inclusivity across everything we do and listening to radical ideas to reimagine the future.
One of the great pleasures of my job is encouraging and amplifying Nottingham writers and their voices and stories to the world. I really believe the important work for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature is taking these writers, especially writers of colour, to meet and mentor young people. The practical ways we have listened, learned and actively supported and amplified young people’s voices is through our flagship Young City of Literature Ambassadors programme.
We are immensely proud of the diverse make-up of our inaugural cohort: Abigail, Amel, Andrew, Autumn, Ava, Azfreen, Chelsea, Danica, Emma, Giorgia, Jesvita, Joseph, Mary, Zoe – they have all played an important role fostering a love of reading and writing in their schools and communities. We felt it was important for the Young Ambassadors to have direct access to role models who reflect them and could bring the lived experience to their mentorships. Young Ambassadors have been supported through training and resources and through direct access to published writer-mentors and trainers Panya Banjoko, Anthony Cropper, Sandeep Parmar, Mahsuda Snaith, Bridie Squires and Georgina Wilding.
Diversity and inclusion is a core component of our planning and programme design. Last summer, the Young Ambassadors fiercely debated and selected four YA books they wanted the entire city to read. Over 1,500 copies of A Change Is Gonna Come – an anthology of diverse BAME voices; We Are Not Okay by Natalia Gomes; Heartstopperby Alice Oseman and The Boy Who Lied by Kim Slater were placed in the heart of the community; filling neighbourhoods with engaging stories and issues of our time.
It comes as no surprise that young people in Nottingham feel passionately about amplifying their stories. Young Ambassadors Emma, Mary, Amel, Chelsea, Zoe, and Jesvita played a central role at our International Heritage Learning Symposium, devising and presenting their ‘Young People’s Manifesto’ – a plan for the future of the heritage sector, how it might operate, and attract young people into its spaces.
We want heritage to tell the truth. The truth of all sides, all backgrounds, all perspectives. Inclusive history. How can we share our future if we don’t learn what went right AND what went wrong? “Our Lives, OUR HISTORY!”
We have given young people an open MyVoice platform to explore the key social justice issues central to their young lives. Their stories are published in our Speak Up! Anthology.
Our plan of action
Recent events do not alter our course of action, it has made us even more resolute. We know there are not enough people from diverse backgrounds working in the cultural sector, that is why we will continue to recruit inclusively through the city-wide Creative Pathways programme.
We will advocate for more inclusive and diverse children’s books in our school and public libraries, and we will continue to monitor our programmes to help us track and increase the number of Black writers we commission and promote.
Access and inclusion will become a key component of our annual reviews, ensuring we are responsible and held accountable for the work we do towards making Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature a truly inclusive place to work and to ensure the voices and experiences of young people are showcased and celebrated in the work we produce.
We can all do better.
It’s on all of us to open up our circles of influence and put our leadership into action. Support Black writers. Develop pipelines for Black talent. Welcome a range of Black community voices and use the power of words to really drive the change we want to see for a more inclusive and fairer society.