Whose culture is it anyway? A data project aiming to measure the cultural engagement of BAME young people aged 16-25

Piece written by Euella Jackson and Kamina Walton, October 2017.

Live documentation from the mapping activity held as part of Whose culture? workshop illustrated by Jasmine Thompson

As Zora Neale Hurston once wrote: ‘I feel most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background’. For young people of colour living in Bristol, and entering spaces that are overwhelmingly white or middle class, they often feel defined in terms of their ‘otherness’. Sometimes without even realising it, they bend and contort themselves to fit to the conventions of spaces to make them feel more ‘safe’. For reasons such as this, young people from BAME backgrounds find it difficult to be in and enjoy cultural spaces where they don’t see themselves represented.

“My culture is definitely online when it comes to culture in Bristol, I don’t feel part of it.”

Equality Trust’s research shows a direct correlation between inequality and lower levels of cultural activity. Despite Bristol’s thriving creative sector (contributing significantly to the economy,) the workforce remains disproportionately unrepresentative of the city’s cultural makeup, and there is very limited data about the cultural engagement of BAME communities as audience, staff, and producers. ‘Whose Culture? facilitated by Rising Arts Agency and supported by the Jean Golding Institute, is a creative data project aiming to measure the cultural engagement of BAME young people aged 16-25 through workshops, training, mentoring, and the development of a mobile app. The project’s intention is to create paid work opportunities and pathways into the creative sector for these young people – as well as involving other BAME artists, designers and mentors – as the first step to supporting increased diversification across the Arts.

“It’s not about the space, it’s about the audience. Building a community and audience who care and who will listen.”

The project’s starting point saw Rising’s Creative Director, Kamina Walton, and Creative Producer, Zahra Ash-Harper, working together to devise a pilot workshop. Funding from the Jean Golding Institute (JGI) enabled them to host the event bringing together young people of colour with staff from some of the city’s key cultural organisations in order to start a conversation around cultural engagement and begin to generate some data. Also, they collaborated with two researchers from the School of Education, Francis Giampapa and Cassie Earl, who supported the facilitation at the workshop.

The event was hosted in a prominent cultural institution in the city centre that has a predominantly white, middle-class audience. Holding the session in this space allowed for the young people to gain access to a cultural institution that they may not have felt comfortable in before and share their feelings towards the space during the session. The session, which lasted approximately three hours, facilitated a discussion with the group of young BAME people and staff from numerous cultural organisations in and around Bristol – enabling a conversation that would lead to the generation of data as to how we can work towards bridging the gap between cultural institutions and young people.

Young people’s mapping of their cultural engagement across the city
Cultural organisations’ mapping of their offers that include BAME young people

The three main activities of the session were chosen to facilitate fruitful discussions and the sharing of knowledge between the groups. For example, for the mapping exercise, the participants were divided into young people and cultural organisations. Both groups were given enlarged maps of Bristol and were given different briefs.

This exercise was useful in providing a visual representation of the disparity between the two groups and showing the importance of challenging cultural organisations on how they can be more inclusive.The structure of the session and this mixed-method approach of holding discussions, exercises and collaborative activities enabled us to start conversations and collect rich and meaningful data in a fresh, sincere and non-traditional way that illuminated potential blind-spots commonly associated with more structured and quantitative methods such as surveys and questionnaires.

Themes emerged such as the importance of online cultural spaces in addition to physical space, feeling like an outsider, imposter syndrome and the role of audiences in creating a feeling of inclusivity. These are the stories and themes that diversity initiatives don’t always see – they’re so focused on box-ticking and quotas that they fail to consider the lived experiences of those who enter these spaces. By looking at who enters a space and how they engage with it is an interesting way of seeing inclusion (and tokenism) through a new lens.

The session was concluded with an exercise where the workshop participants, both the young people and staff from the cultural institutions were asked to write their future hopes and fears around inclusive work within the sector. Many of the young people expressed fear of not being taken seriously, being tokenised or not seeing change happen, showing how sessions like this are so important.

“I hope that I will be part of ‘culture’ that goes beyond boundaries of place and space, and instead makes me feel included through creativity and the drive to create change.”

“That fairer opportunities are created – pay people, value opinions different to yours, be open and be responsible.”

“Be part of an industry diverse, inclusive and most importantly representative and be allowed to be that platform to create work people can actually relate to.”

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Building on this pilot, Whose Culture?’s impact will be to highlight how the cultural sector can be more relevant and accessible to young people of colour by modelling inclusive recruitment and increasing the visibility of BAME communities and their interests to cultural organisations. As representatives of Whose Culture?, young people steering the project will receive paid employment for the duration, leadership training, and sector-wide (and intra-community) prominence. They will also have access to professional networks through mentoring and project engagement.

For the cultural sector, the project will generate invaluable data that could have citywide and national implications in the name of increasing inclusivity and accessibility for all of Bristol’s diverse communities of young people. For Rising, we hope this project will raise its profile as a unique, bespoke agency supporting and nurturing diverse young talent in Bristol, positioning us as a key player in the city’s creative sector. 

“[My fear is that] too many people (one person is too many) don’t feel comfortable, don’t feel themselves, feel like an imposter- no one should be made to feel like that.”

Next Steps

Rising has submitted follow-on funding applications to Bristol City Council and the Nisbet Trust to continue this work, the outcome of these applications will be known in December 2017. The plan is to work with the young BAME steering group collecting data more widely across Bristol and to use this information to develop an app that would facilitate the communication between cultural organisations and young BAME people.  The Jean Golding Institute invited researchers from across the University to meet the members of the project team as a number of research questions has risen from the workshop and the aim is to facilitate further research collaborations.

We would like to thank the Jean Golding Institute for their belief in and support of the early stages of this project. If you would like to know more, or are interested in supporting the project’s development please contact Kamina Walton: Kamina@rising.org.uk