Diversity & Inclusion, and why it matters; plus Rosie Bergonzi on the need for systemic change

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Spitalfields Music stands in solidarity with the diverse communities of London’s East End, an area we are proud to call home.

The last few months have been shattering for people in our neighbourhoods, with disproportionate numbers of lives lost in the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the abhorrent images of a black man being murdered by a police officer in the USA sparking waves of protest highlighting the societal injustices endured by non-white populations across the Western world. It’s a matter of great sorrow that it’s taken such events to highlight the inequalities faced by marginalised and minoritised communities over decades and centuries, and in order to move forward, we all need to acknowledge our roles in the perpetuation of the status quo.

At Spitalfields Music, we too have taken time to reflect on how we will implement broader meaningful change.  We need to tackle the deep-rooted and longstanding injustices faced by those with whom we work, and others we haven’t yet met.  Whilst we know we haven’t always got things right, we have a deep commitment to, and energy for, positive change, and putting people  at the heart of all we do.

We’re proud and thrilled to be amongst the initial cohort of I’M IN!, a practical initiative being spearheaded by London Music Masters to make longterm and meaningful change in the classical music industry.  We wanted to be part of this because we want change within our organisation to be material and embedded across all our activities.  We can’t change the world singlehanded, but we can step up and be more responsible for our bit of it. With that in mind, we are working on a diversity and inclusion plan, which will lay out what we plan to do, and by when.  We’ll publish this by the end of 2020, and ask you to hold us to account if we fail to deliver.

Rosie Bergonzi, a workshop leader at Spitalfields Music, created and shared several poems online in response to the public reaction to George Floyd’s murder, and the international wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed. Here, Rosie talks about her works, highlighting the need for meaningful and systemic change.

I wrote I’m Not a Hashtag in response to the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. The death of George Floyd seemed to capture people’s focus in a way that other examples of police brutality hadn’t. Perhaps because it was filmed, or because the lockdown meant more people were spending time staring at their phones. Suddenly my social media timelines felt flooded with varying degrees of surprise and outrage. Statistics and sentiments battled for attention, replacing the usual photos of dinners or sunsets.

Friends, colleagues and acquaintances sent messages asking how I personally was coping. From friends this was lovely, an addition to the normal frequent texts we exchange. From distant acquaintances it was jarring, I wondered if I was the only Black person they knew and so wanted to ‘do their bit’ by checking up on me. I felt like some people had only just discovered racism as a concept and, noticing I am Black, wanted to share this new phenomenon with me.

It was validating to see a diverse group of people and organisations raising their voices against discrimination. I know that donations, book sales and online interest soared during this period. It felt brilliant to be part of this vocal time. But I worried that the fervour and intensity that some people shared articles and links meant they would burn out. 5 weeks after the huge flurry of interest, I’m still wondering how much actual change was enacted.

This idea of lives being reduced to hashtags stuck with me, and after a week or so of this attention I felt I had feelings that needed to be expressed. Normally when I feel sad or stressed, I improvise music, but I realised this was a specific conversation I wanted to be having. Sitting at my dining room table, I realised I had to use words, and that evening this poem poured out of me.

My work as a Spitalfields Music leader is all about encouraging people to use their voices. Participants come to us claiming they can’t sing, they don’t have the words, they don’t want to perform. Gently, we encourage them to create and share amazing works using their voices and using words. Classical music, my background, suggested the only ‘real’ composers are mostly dead white and male. I had to run a workshop on myself, encouraging myself to share the same way I’d pull a melody from a shy Year 5 student. I felt really nervous about putting it online, unsure about how many of my employers would react.

During my time in workshop leading I’ve noticed what a homogeneous world it can be. A successful sector can’t hire only one sort of people, we need more diversity from our leaders in all areas; race, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, age, class and more. This means we can more successfully reflect the participants we work with and attempt to remove divides in ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking.

Putting something onto the internet led to an expected backlash, while I was amazed at the massive positive reaction to my poem on racial equality, I also I wanted to answer the most frequent (though not rudest) negative response I received… ‘Why don’t you just say all lives?’ and I released a second poem on the subject, here.

I wrote this message to encourage people to stay engaged in social justice issues. This shouldn’t be a passing trend or that thing that only happened in June 2020. Caring about people’s lives is so important it needs to be a habit that forms and stays.

Watch ‘I’m Not a Hashtag’ here

For resources and practical ways to get involved:

Stand Up to Racism

Donate to the Black Lives Matter movement

A list of reading and activist organisations that need support.