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Diversity, arts and criminal justice: Bringing people together – by Alison Frater

Diversity, arts and criminal justice: Bringing people together – by Alison Frater

Increasing diversity, increasing artistic excellence

At the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice (NAACJ) event ‘Diversity, arts and criminal justice: bringing people together,’ delegates started with the outcome: diversity increases the value of arts. Diversity brings texture, richness, vibrancy and meaning.  Widening participation can contribute towards offsetting bias, ending intolerance, and increasing audience size.

The event brought policy to life through practice. Invited speakers talked over the requirements of the Equality Act of 2010 as well as current policy imperatives, but it was listening to and watching the products of diversity and arts initiatives; including creative writing, dance and film that energised the discussion. The performances sharpened insight into the experience of diversity and the need for change.

Creative writing from the anthology “Inside and Out” revealed stories of life in HMP Parc for people from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) communities; Fallen Angels, who work with people in recovery from drug and alcohol issues, presented moving expression through dance; and Synergy Theatre Project illustrated the artistic value of diversity through a showing of their film “The Thief.” They were “telling stories” about identity, about difference – isolation – and the personal and social impact of discrimination.

Look to the future but build on the past

Discussion throughout the day carried a spirit of optimism engendered by the positive political climate for reform in the Criminal Justice System (CJS).

Action is being taken to explore the experiences of groups in contact with the CJS that have experience of suffering from discrimination, and work is being undertaken to meet their needs. These include Government-led reviews such as the ‘Care and Management of Transgender People in the Criminal Justice System,’ and the Lammy Review, which will look at racial bias and BAME representation within the CJS. Additionally, the Coates Review will look at prison education to examine how it supports the rehabilitation of different types of prison learners. Current action also includes independent reviews, like the Young Review, Chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, which aims to improve outcomes for young black and Muslim men in the CJS in England and Wales.

In terms of the arts, the Arts Council England (ACE) have set a new agenda for change; the Creative Case for Diversity, and the recent publication of the new UK Culture Strategy will see a drive for greater inclusivity within the arts.

Yet Baroness Young of Hornsey – the Chair of the session – sounded caution. There is a “loss of organisational memory” she said.  Successive reviews by ACE and others have consistently reported the need for arts organisations to be more diverse, more representative of the communities they seek to engage. This time we need something more sustainable to expedite translation of policy into practice.


Delegates, who were from a wide range of arts organisations, policy groups, government departments and the broader voluntary sector, responded during round table discussions. They outlined their intentions to:

  • undertake equality monitoring, working to address underrepresentation of people with protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity) on their own boards and steering groups;
  • go further to tackle inequalities associated with socioeconomic issues, class and gender;
  • find champions for all people, in particular those defined by the Equality Act’s protected characteristics, but also more widely across community and culture;
  • call for a system of governance and metrics to ensure the delivery of policy intentions at national, regional and local level.

They were keen to support a responsive policy environment enabling local communities to foster cultural diversity through high quality arts for all. Delegates also recommended that ACE and other national funding bodies optimise the use of public funds by:

  • fostering partnerships between arts organisations working in the CJS and national mainstream arts organisations;
  • encouraging greater engagement with marginalised and vulnerable populations including those in the  CJS;
  • incentivising arts organisations working in criminal justice.

Delegates especially wanted to see diversity driven through commissioning in all arms of government: justice, education, health and social care, and arts and culture. Joined up, diversity-sensitive investment will create opportunity and stimulate community enterprise.

Role and responsibility

A broader truth emerged throughout the day. Some things can only be understood properly through the arts. Arts organisations in the CJS tell stories of the diverse groups of people who they work with. Art is shaped and made by life experience in all parts of society; established or new and emerging. Arts organisations embody cultures and community.

Making sense of the world, understanding diversity, and understanding culture is a profoundly social and collaborative activity. Arts organisations working in criminal justice settings are leading the cultural field in terms of challenging discrimination. They create diverse, innovative art that pushes boundaries, explores complex issues and brings people together from different cultures and backgrounds. Arts organisations working in the CJS have a responsibility for doing more to strengthen diversity but they also have a role in energising and informing change.

Image courtesy of Dance United