If you’ve spent a fraction of a second on the internet, you’ll have seen the visible animosity that occurs when the topic of diversity is brought up.
For early career creatives, there can often be a struggle in the face of different workplace pressures to stay true to yourself, your principles and how you identify. This is heightened when speaking specifically on the diversity of Northern Irish creative sectors. It’s a small industry. So many people want to speak; so many things need to be said that many don’t feel brave enough to say yet.
Change on an international scale is happening. In the last year we have seen transformative BLM protests calling for systematic change to dismantle racist institutions. Last Saturday at Clapham Common there were calls for a larger-scale movement against gender-based violence. Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd began on IWD 2021. In the same week, a London Metropolitan Police officer was charged with the murder of Sarah Everard.
But where does that leave Northern Ireland?
This was the big question at the heart of the ‘The Time is Now’ panel on diversity in the Northern Ireland creative industries, hosted by the Nerve Centre on International Women’s Day in collaboration with the Womenfolk collective and Belfast Design Week.
Chaired by Esther Mogada from Creating a Space and Blick Shared Studios, I sat down with fellow creatives Emily Searle and Margaret Watiri to discuss our different perspectives on the current make-up of the creative sector in Northern Ireland, and to share ideas on how we can improve diversity within these industries.
Emily, Margaret and I are members of Womenfolk’s ‘DIG DEEP’ creative enterprise support program. I was a huge fan already of Emily and Margaret. They are artists and designers with visions of tangible products that exist on our bodies, our hands, in their own shops and stores. As a writer and theatre maker, I never get to really hold my product in the same way. Learning from them has been invaluable. I was so lucky to share the panel space with them and learn from their perspectives on the current make-up of the creative sector in Northern Ireland.
Prior to the event, Esther reminded us that for this panel there were no right or wrong answers. On this panel, I was filled with the calming energy that I’ve come to associate with Esther, Christine, and the Womenfolk collective.
What Does Diversity Look Like?
Esther opened the discussion with a definition of the word ‘diversity’:
‘The practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, and sexual orientations.’
We discussed how definitions are one thing, but the human experience is another. We see the words ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ every day, but what does it really mean to each of us? Had we ever experienced true diversity? Esther began the conversation by discussing token diversity culture. An industry where there’s money to be made by exploiting textile workers, predominantly women, to make £3 T-shirts that say ‘the future is female’.
Margaret Waitri is from Michigan, and spent most of her life in the US state. Moving to Belfast, she felt, gave her the opportunity to pursue her dreams. It was an alternative to the job she was expected to take, and the life she was expected to lead back in the States. Belfast itself also offered a certain kind of financial freedom. Although rising steadily, the cost of living in Northern Ireland is drastically lower than other areas of the English-speaking world. With a lower cost of living, creatives have room to focus their time and energy on their artistic pursuits.
Similarly to Margaret, I had initially moved from Derry to Dublin to escape the same attitudes and expectations, but by 2019 I had instead ended up suffering from the spiraling housing crisis and cost of living. I didn’t have time to work on my artistic practice between the various jobs I had to work to make ends meet. My health was getting worse. In 2019, I suffered a breakdown and moved home. I signed on for Universal Credit and was awarded Employment Maintenance Allowance due to my mental health diagnosis. I was referred by my Occupational Therapist to Inspire Derry. I started meditation and art therapy. Then for the first time in five years, I actually started making things again. I started experimenting again. I wasn’t suffocating any more. I could create.
Emily Searle grew up in Yorkshire. At 12 years old, she moved to Armagh and moved to Belfast to study fine art. She works in the male-dominated field of cheese-making and is in the process of setting up her own stationery business. She spoke of the sense of community that is felt almost instantaneously in Belfast among those in the arts sector. I agreed. It’s a small community. The underfunding and underdog attitude of communities in Northern Ireland meant we regularly felt stronger as a collective. Various Northern Irish community arts organisations are intrinsic to the wellbeing of the community. Whether that’s the 343 community closet or the mental health sessions run by In Your Space Circus. When Emily’s sister left London to join her in Belfast, she couldn’t believe how quickly she formed a close-knit artistic community. The smaller the city, the easier it is to find your people.
According to Amnesty International, the number of racially-motivated hate incidents in NI has overtaken and exceeded the number of sectarian incidents. The same PSNI report cited that homophobic attacks had the sharpest rise across all reported hate incident and crime in Northern Ireland. Experiences of being the only person of colour in a room has informed Esther’s work particularly with Womenfolk and Creating a Space. For me, the oppression of LGBTQIA+ rights and reproductive rights in Northern Ireland is intrinsic to my work as an artist and organiser, especially in my home city of Derry where I have experienced understanding and acceptance.
Margaret spoke about her personal experience of Belfast. She said the majority of people approach her with curiosity. They want to know more about her upbringing and her culture. The only people who have publicly commented on the colour of her skin are children asking questions. However, Margaret also reminded us that racism is omnipresent and cannot be avoided. ‘It is everywhere, no matter where you go in the world’. She reiterated the group sentiment that alongside the positives, we still have a long way to go. Margaret’s long-term business goal is to design and produce a line of loungewear that incorporates traditional African prints and patterns.
For Emily, experiences of otherness were mainly felt in school after she moved from the north of England to Armagh. Emily highlighted that with younger people in particular, any difference is highlighted as a possible target. Margaret and Emily both moved countries when they were younger. Both moved to a new school in a new place with a different accent and felt the subsequent pressure to blend in.
We wrapped up by talking about the businesses that we feel are authentically inclusive and diverse. For me, it was local one-person enterprises because I can usually believe that they mean what they post. When you are your business, you are your brand. Your personal beliefs are those of the business. Emily brought up the point however, that businesses that consist of one individual can’t be diverse by their singular nature. One person working by themselves is not representative of a diverse and inclusive workspace.
I finished the talk focused on what Emily had just said. For me, it was revolutionary. ‘No man is an island’. Find your people, find your tribe, but first, you have to know what’s important to you.
Sorcha Ní Cheallaigh (Soso) is a writer, theatre maker, artist, and organiser. They are currently studying at the Seamus Heaney Centre and Lyric Theatre.