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Being accountable around race equality

To celebrate the launch of our new exercise book on how to promote inclusion in the arts, we’re publishing a series of posts reflecting on leadership practice in the arts sector. All these posts are modified versions of what’s in the guide, so if you want more info make sure you download it (it’s free!).

Last time we talked about power and how you can use the power you have as a leader to promote social justice. In this post, we want to talk about accountability – specifically, about how you can become more accountable for promoting race equality.

The challenge of accountability in the arts sector

People and organisations working in the arts who are interested in social justice and social change face a range of demands in terms of accountability. Yet accountability often operates ‘upwards’ towards those with power and resources (such as funders) and it is less common to see accountability operate ‘downwards’ towards those communities, particularly traditionally marginalised communities, that arts organisations and artists seek to engage with. This is despite the latter often being more aligned with the purpose and mission of those working in the Arts.

Power dynamics within the wider sector and society can influence who leaders think they need to be accountable to. A key challenge is for leaders to balance accountability to a range of stakeholders.

Accountability and anti-racism

Accountability is about how we choose to hold our ‘feet to the fire’, how we assure others that we are responsible for acting on certain things and open to scrutiny and feedback on certain issues. In the context of work on equality, diversity and inclusion – it is not uncommon for arts organisations to set their sights quite low on this agenda.

It is possible to work on ‘race’ without working on racism. And many organisations are beginning to understand the difference between the two and that one doesn’t always lead to the other.

Many organisations invest their efforts in ‘transactional’ activities. This can absolutely feel like the right thing to do – especially, if organisations do not believe they have any expertise in race or any experience in working with racialized groups/individuals.

Transactional activities include:

  • Collecting data – on who engages/participates as well as staff and volunteering numbers if you have an organisation

  • Changing your branding – making this more diverse, so that it looks more representative of the population

  • Setting up staff networks in organisations that focus on ‘race’/religion or ethnic identities

  • Celebrating diverse events – or throwing efforts into Black History Month

  • Creating champion roles where leaders from black or minoritized ethnic backgrounds ‘represent’ the organisation’s interest in supporting those who are marginalised or less heard

Limits of transactional work

These types of transactional activities help with working on ‘race’ – but not with working on racism.

To an extent, many of these actions are exactly what you should be doing, but you will find they start delivering limited gains pretty quickly.

So what should you be going instead?

Well, if - and it is a big if – you want to understand racism and work towards being anti-racist, there is a different shopping list and a different form of accountability….

Transformational approaches

Transformational work is about:

  • Thinking long-term (not only about immediate gains)

  • Disrupting your organisation or the way that you work with and collaborate with others

  • Learning and self-reflection and assertive interrogation ( e.g. work on prejudices and biases)

  • Support to form new alliances and to have challenging conversations

  • Support to work on hierarchies, power and behavioural norms which stifle authentic contributions

  • Reflection on leadership behaviours/style and the consequences of these

  • Co-design work to include those with ‘lived experiences’ of racism

  • Recognising the root causes and systemic nature of racism – and judging the impact of your work on those terms.

Transformational work requires:

  • Learning about racism and your own racialised positioning. Accountability is hard—it involves us recognising that we may have caused harm to others

  • Recognising that the impact of your activities is usually in the design of them and then being prepared to do something different

  • Demonstrating a willingness to ‘experiment’ and learn – not to fall back on what has been usually done with very poor outcomes or impact.

Something to think about…

There is often no easy, short-term solution to progressing anti-racism. The journey is continuous.

It is important to think strategically about the types of activities you choose to invest your time and resources in. Remember…

  • not everything will change what really matters

  • what matters is often really difficult to change and disrupt

  • don’t ‘outsource’ your equality aspirations

  • if you haven’t been changed or disrupted personally– then the likelihood is that others haven’t been either

  • at the heart of inclusion is work on anti-oppressive behaviours/practices


If you’re interested in exploring this further, head to the Anti-Racism and the Arts Exercise Book. In addition to outlining some more transactional/transformational activities specific to arts organisations, we explore:

  • how power shapes who you are accountable to and how you are held to account

  • which aspects of your practice you feel most comfortable getting feedback on and learning about

  • different approaches to accountability based on your mission and purpose

Come back next week when we’ll be talking about ‘connection’ and what this means for leadership.

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