Diversity and inclusion have become a mandate for businesses trying to build representative workplaces and improve the experience for marginalized individuals. But when COVID-19 hit the U.K. in March, schemes focused on this area were often the first casualties of cost-cutting.
“I know a [major] global tech firm, and that’s one of the first things they did,” Elizabeth Bananuka, founder of cultural consultancy The Blueprint, tells Variety. “They massively cut their D&I work. I’ve heard loads of stories like this and it’s the first, anywhere, to go.”
Then, in May, George Floyd died in police custody and the Black Lives Matter movement forced the world to reckon with systemic racism. Businesses that had just cut their diversity initiatives, as well as those that didn’t have any to begin with, were scrambling to show their commitment.
A growing number of requests now fall on people of color to provide consultancy for predominantly white businesses and institutions, but too often some of these organizations are looking for quick fixes and social media messaging rather than long-term solutions to its diversity problems.
“The reaction around George Floyd has led to a whole lot of people panic resourcing to quickly handle the protest and have a mission statement,” says Bananuka, who has fielded a spike in requests. “But actually, if you are a predominately white organization that has had woeful underrepresentation of certain groups, I’m sorry but a two-hour workshop isn’t going to cut it.”
Author and “Two Dosas” screenwriter Nikesh Shukla says several organizations have reached out with speaking invitations. “I’ve replied to all of them and said, ‘Here are 10 amazing Black writers who should come and do this talk instead of me. This isn’t my space to take up. Please, can you do your research?’” says Shukla.
Shukla is frequently asked to play the role of cultural consultant because of his commitment to improving opportunities for marginalized writers and creatives in the arts. But the platform also comes with frustration at the wilful ignorance among some companies of what’s really needed to ensure an enduring culture shift.
“A lot of companies don’t realize how much hard work it is,” Shukla says. “It involves an investment of money and you thinking about stepping aside in your management position. But what tends to happen is companies get in speakers from diverse backgrounds to do lunchtime talks and tell them a lot of stuff they all already know.”
“They all know that nothing will change because the reality is, no one’s going to quit their job to make space for anyone else.”
Often, the matter of payment is hardly broached, and cultural consultants are expected to offer advice and expertise to businesses with little to no remuneration.
Film journalist and Time’s Up U.K. Critics’ Committee co-chair Sophie Monks Kaufman believes institutions need to stop relying “on unpaid labor drawn from people most burdened and stressed by the system as it stands.”
“Consultancy is work,” she says. “Any meaningful attempt by an institution, big or small, to redress systemic inequality involves paying consultants, if used, and making this financial commitment clear from the point of first contact.”
Writer and performer Amrou Al-Kadhi was once asked by a major theatrical production dealing with queer themes to provide drag tutorials for some of the cast. The only compensation they were offered was taxi travel, “which was never covered,” and tickets to the show — seated “right at the back” in the lightbox.
“I really enjoyed working with the amazing cast and team, and got a lot of satisfaction being part of the project creatively, but to have my queer labor used and exploited without even the offer of remuneration felt insulting,” the “Life as a Unicorn” author says.
“I’ve definitely made payment a condition of what we do,” one festival producer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says after finding that the commissioning of cultural speakers had been “slightly ad hoc” before they joined the organization. “It’s now embedded in policy as I don’t think it’s ethical for organizations to pay their staff and their team and not pay speakers.”
Having said that, the producer does utilize the free advice and services offered by advocacy groups on social media to bypass the need for hiring consultants. “In terms of consultancy, there are so many more grassroots ways of doing that,” they say. “I’m not knocking what those agencies are doing but I’m part of so many groups and Twitter feeds of people who are deliberately putting together databases of people who are otherwise underrepresented.”
BAFTA recently commissioned a wide review of the processes and conditions that contributed to a lack of diversity in some categories of the British Academy Film Awards early this year. The org hired PR firm Freuds to do part of the organizational legwork and asked various media outlets, journalists and critics to take part in a media discussion group. While many in salaried positions took part during business hours, including Variety’s international editor, those who were freelance were essentially working for free.
While journalists are known to help non-profit organizations for such work — a BAFTA spokesperson confirmed that, as a charity, “it hasn’t paid anyone who has volunteered to participate in the review” — the academy recently came under scrutiny when “The End of the F***ing World” producer Dominic Buchanan highlighted his unpaid contributions to BAFTA’s various juries and initiatives in an open letter criticizing the org’s refusal to let him purchase a trophy for his award-winning show.
Shukla says “nine times out of 10” he is contacted without any mention of compensation for his time, even though diversity advocacy is predominantly made the responsibility of marginalized people. “As a writer, I am held back, because 40% of my job is spent doing diversity and inclusion stuff, mentoring young writers and doing the advocacy work.”
“But Nick Hornby and Phoebe Waller-Bridge aren’t sitting about having these conversations and they get to be 100% brilliant at their jobs whereas I’m 60% good at my job and I don’t get to advance quicker — it’s undue pressure,” says Shukla.
For Bananuka, the bottom line is that diversity needs to stop being treated like it’s a fad diet but instead an important lifestyle choice that requires financial investment and year-round commitment for changes to take hold. “Quite frankly, anyone that wants to do this as a trend, or worse as a business development thing — that’s equally problematic.”
That’s where initiatives like Bananuka’s The Blueprint Mark, awarded to businesses for a commitment to diversity, and Dandi come in. The latter is a D&I support service for the entertainment industry, set up in 2018 by the team behind the Triforce Creative Network, as a way to best fit talent from its 60,000-plus U.K. network with companies looking to diversify its workforce.
“Made in Chelsea” producer Monkey Kingdom is an original Dandi client and managing director Samantha Lawrence believes it’s integral to invest in consultants and schemes to better support people from marginalized backgrounds.
“We’re still going through that transition period and at the moment where [the question is] can we afford it? No, but yes, we must, because it’s really important,” Lawrence says. She’s now working with Dandi to find someone from a diverse background who they can train up to do her senior level role.
“I look at my company and we have a nice mix of men and women. I’m a working-class girl who didn’t go to university so I’ve got that sort of socio-economic background, but the rest of them are kind of all posh and white,” Lawrence says. “You look at our website and I’m just a little bit sad about that, a bit embarrassed, but how do you change that?”
“Fundamentally the way that we run companies has to change. Our parent company is NBCUniversal and we’ve been having conversations, but they have to be meaningful. We can pat ourselves on the back, but unless we actually do something, it doesn’t matter.”
Dandi CEO Fraser Ayres says the influence from overseas players, like HBO, co-funding British programming has forced the U.K. creative industries into addressing the diversity deficit and even before the George Floyd protests, execs at Amazon, Hat Trick Production and the BBC were prepared to make a financial investment in reducing the shortfall.
“The receptivity that we’ve experienced recently is we’re not having to convince people there is racism,” Ayres says. “We’re 20 minutes into that meeting and [they say], ‘We know there’s a problem; we know we’re part of the problem. How can we do something about it? You’re the guys to help.’”
“We’ve been working with Dandi over the past year and they’ve been very helpful bringing forward BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] voices to the wide range of our productions including helping to recruit a producer to our scripted development team and source writers for ‘Have I Got News for You,’” adds Jessica Sharkey, joint director of production for Hat Trick Group, which is working with Dandi to crew up “Stephen,” a three-part drama on the racially-motivated events surrounding the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
“As program makers themselves, they understand the needs of production and have got an enormous pool of contacts — people ready to step up or break in from other genres — independent film, commercials and so on,” says Sharkey.
Dandi COO Minnie Ayres says there’s been palpable change in recent months. Still, she wishes the circumstance had been different.
“I am sorry it’s taken somebody to die for that change to happen, but I’m very pleased to see it happening, and to see that when people get in touch with us one of the first questions they ask is, ‘How much?’”
(Pictured above: BBC One’s “Noughts & Crosses”)