Report: Rethinking Diversity in a Rural Region Conference

FoAM Kernow is an organisation in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK. Many of the gaps in our society are particually obvious in Cornwall, the separation between those whom our social structures benefit and those who they do not are clear to see in the separation between the coastal and inland regions, and in many finer grained distinctions.

In our work we have gaps too – on the one hand there are projects like Future Thinging For Social Living and codeclub where we get out and go to people who can benefit most from our work, and on the other we have our workshops at Jubilee Warehouse where we do well in terms of gender and ethnicity, but not so when it comes to socioeconomic diversity. What makes this more important is that we are situated in a town that is in the bottom 10% of income levels nationally. One of the central questions for the next year is how we can combine our global collaborations and research projects and make use of them in the very local situation?

We had a chat with our friends at FEAST and Cultivator in Redruth at the end of last year who told us about a timely event: Rethinking Diversity in a Rural Region, a conference organised by the Cornwall Museums Partnership at Wheal Martyn in St Austell. Here are my notes from the day.

"[Many] people have no understanding of what you offer"

The event was kicked off by Rachel Bell, who has been working with museums across Cornwall as part of her creative intern role over the last year. She shared her observations of museums here (which was useful as I am new to this sector), such as the mix of global focus of Cornish museums as well as its local heretige, but an obvious lack of teenagers and people from different cultures visiting them.

Next to speak was Andrea Gilbert, who works for Inclusion Cornwall. Andrea listed the official Protected Characteristics of concern when we are talking about inclusion and diversity. Something I liked was that her organisation has a very open approach when talking to people about these matters, it's ok to get it wrong – to use the wrong descriptions for categories or the wrong words – the important thing is to muddle through and learn.

One focus for Inclusion Cornwall is working with people on health related benefits, there are 23,000 people here in this category making it an important group to target. Some others she mentioned included the 60 rough sleepers in Cornwall and the high number of migrant agricultural workers. There are currently 500 vacancies for these jobs – so it's not a case of "taking our jobs", and it results in 59 languages being spoken in the schools here! There were also 10 convictions involving modern slavery here recently, so many seriously disadvanted people are hidden from view.

When talking about inclusion and cultural organisations Andrea says that it's very much a simple matter that "people have no understanding of what you offer". It seems that there is much opportunity to change this.

"Diversity is about renewing your sense of belonging to your communty"

A provocative talk by Tehmina Goskar went a little more into the motivations and philosophy for increasing diversity. We need to start by understanding our own personal biases, as well as asking "who will miss you if you are gone?". One big motivation is that "diversity is about renewing your sense of belonging to your communty".

The places where we talk about this matter too, avoiding corporate meeting rooms and being in different environments is important – and the Wheal Martyn museum (although having acoustic issues) was a great example of this kind of consideration. We saw lots of government statistics and phrases that are important in order to understand the official interpretation of the problems. Cornwall has 1m tourists per year resulting in a £2bn economy, and 68% of small businesses (SMEs) are in rural regions, so it seems that the cities are largely the preserve of the big companies. 20% of people living here have never been online. There is a concept used by DEFRA of Rural Proofing where the needs of rural people are considered in policy. Problems such as mobile coverage, lacking access to skills, R&D and transport are considered relevant.

There are more elderly people in rural areas too, and small pockets of deprivation which are harder to identify and easily overlooked by institutions. Tehmina suggested that we take matters into our own hands and get out and map them ourselves, and get to know our community better.

In practical terms diversity leads to more talent in your organisation, and longer term security – while a narrow focus tends to actually be more expensive, and shorter term. Ultimately, diversity is a creative force in it's own right, not to be ignored.

"Diversity is a creative force"

We had some quick examples of case studies next, Jan Horrell told us about the Wheal Martyn Memory cafe, which provides help and social contact for people with memory loss and importantly also some time out for their carers. Over time their participants went from being simply provided for, to more active joining in and eventually running their own activities for the others in the group. They also worked with Story Republic to provide theatre and story telling activites.

Zoe Burkett from Penlee House gallery and museum wanted to attract younger volenteers to help out with the 150 or so existing ones. They worked with Carefree who provide a different service to the normal 'working with schools' approach commonly used by organisations. Instead of deciding on an activity to do with them, they asked them what they would like to do – and they decided on an artistic skillsharing event across the generations to provide something for all the volunteers working there.

Liz Shepherd from Royal Cornwall Museum has been working with migrant families whose transient lives mean their children tend to be working at lower academic levels for their age. She decided to focus on music, which has otherwise been pushed to the edges of the curriculum in the UK. Music provides a cross cultural link for Polish, Lithuanian and Romany and Gypsy traveller families. She worked with the Cornwall Music Education Hub to help both children and the wider families to mix.

"the need for inclusive practice in physical and intellectual access are greater than ever before"

The final talk was by Becki Morris from the Disability Cooperative Network who attended the Rio paralympics inclusion summit and said that "the need for inclusive practice in physical and intellectual access greater than ever before". Her talk contained a lot of practical advice too, and introduced the concept of Universal Design as a way to think about these issues, so building things to cater for diversity makes them better for everybody – rather than to specialise things for different people.

Her slides were black text on yellow, and using matt rather than gloss for signs were a couple of simple design choices she talked about which can make a big difference. Also if you are running a museum, or using a space for any public event you should be publishing an access statement to make clear what the facilities are.

It was also interesting to see open source mentioned in this context, as being important for accessability generally. Groups she mentioned included purple space, a network of disability employee networks and AXSChat, an "open online community of individuals dedicated to creating an inclusive world". Becki also mentioned the issues we are facing politically, and that the times are bad – but they do also represent an new opportunity to break down some very old barriers.

In the afternoon I took part in a couple of workshops, the first ran by Emma Saffy Wilson and Becky Palmer was "how to reach new audiences". Some of the good ideas that came up included using our own families – as they often represent in themselves a lot of diversity, we should use this. With disadvantaged groups, the main issue is really confidence, so long term relationships are needed to be fostered. One way is to talk to other organisations with a history of working with groups you want to reach – but these contacts need to be treated very gently in themselves. At the end of the day, genuine listening and long term thinking are needed.

The second workshop I took part in, run by Theo Blackmore was "What should museums be doing to be more inclusive?". Although I was a bit less able to contribute to this, there were a lot of interesting suggestions – just getting people used to spaces, simple things first like using toilets in museums to simply get inside, and understanding that it's their space as much as anyone elses – that they are allowed to "hang out" there, is very important. Doing pop ups in galleries and museums is good too, to get different people involved and opening late or at weekends for people who prefer more quiet times rather than when it's busy.

Another idea from this workshop that seemed to resonate well was the "mantle of the expert", this concept from drama and theatre sets up a situation where (usually) young people are assigned the role of expertise over a specific subject or object which they learn and research themselves and then report back. This flips the power relation in a teaching situation.

So, plenty of things to think about. One of the biggest things was simply to find out about the organisations we should be talking to in relation to upcoming projects we are working on. Also when we are talking to researchers and artists looking for new ideas for who they should be reaching with their work this gives us a big picture of the situation in the rural region.

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