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  • Sep 24, 2018
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This is a guest blog by Jo Bligh – a curator, producer and Artistic Director of Thorny, a platform for the underrepresented voices of Bristol (UK) and beyond. They have a background in arts, culture and digital working with organizations like Artsadmin, Spike Island & Watershed, and regularly speak on panels about live art, inclusion and queer culture. Jo also featured in our GenerationDIY series.

As an event’s organizer, my mission is to create platforms for voices and ideas which are misrepresented and excluded by mainstream narratives. The events we produce at Thorny are provocative, colorful and sometimes a bit silly, and bring together artists from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines in unlikely spaces around the city.

Primarily our events provide a space for a diverse community which we’ve built organically. Through this, we’ve picked up a few tips and strategies for producing events which place inclusion at the heart, and I’ll share some of these in this blog. There is no single way to approach this, but it should be the main priority for organizers looking to engage a diverse audience and ensure that they feel welcomed and invited onto our dance floors.


Inclusion as an aspiration

The reality is that no amount of work or money you put in can guarantee that every person who attends your event feels included. You can’t control every aspect of your audience’s experience, so it’s better to focus your energy on identifying the barriers and challenges your event could introduce and then work on ways to dismantle them.

Inclusion isn’t something that can ever be fully achieved or completed, but an aspiration we should be continuously plugging away at.


Not a box-ticking exercise

All too often, attempts at inclusion fall down when organisers treat it as a box-ticking exercise instead of being part of the DNA of how an event is produced. Unfortunately, this is common in the arts where funders often require organizers to meet quantitative diversity targets, which results in programs feeling tokenistic and leaves audiences feeling uncomfortable.

Instead, I believe it’s better to think of inclusion as a mindset or approach you can adopt when organizing an event. The necessary quality that is key to this approach is empathy.


Is everyone represented?

The biggest factor in someone feeling included at your event is that they feel represented. This could be seeing someone or something they relate to on stage or having the opportunity to feed into conversations about the event, how it’s run and who it’s representing.

Ensuring panels, lineups and programs represent a diverse range of backgrounds, identities and opinions is crucial, but are there ways of opening up conversations about who gets booked to include more voices than just your own? This could take the form of a Facebook poll, or even forming a working group who make curatorial decisions.


Don’t be afraid to fail

Many of the systems and processes we’ve implemented to make our events more inclusive started as experiments which have been refined over multiple events after observing them in practice.

It’s okay to try out an early-stage idea and not get it perfectly right the first time: the important thing is that you’re trying.

We’ve also re-worked ideas devised by other organizers, which can be particularly effective if that organizer has more experience working with (or is ideally part of) the community you’re looking to engage.

If a system or process has been tried and tested by another promoter and is working for their audience, why not replicate it for yours? You could even get in touch with the organizer to ask them about it: inclusion should be a collective responsibility for all event producers, and exchanging knowledge and advice can help to ensure we don’t repeat past mistakes.


Listen to your audience

“Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.” – David Gaider

An effective way to obtain real needs from your audience is by asking them! It’s important to recognize when we might be making assumptions about our audience’s needs instead of actually listening. It won’t be possible to do this for every aspect of your event, but feedback can be hugely valuable in improving our services and initiatives.

I recently posted a call-out on social media to ask what we can do to make our events more inclusive to non-drinkers. Many tee-total attendees responded with a range of suggestions, including some trivial changes we can make immediately – and at little or no cost.


Communicate clearly

If you know a barrier is unavoidable (e.g. part of the venue being non-wheelchair accessible), it’s always better to tell people.

Be clear about what is and isn’t available and your audience will be able to plan around this: as long as they’re informed.

It’s also good to provide a way for your audience to contact you directly with any specific requirements or questions, so let people know that you’re happy to help and how they can get in touch.


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