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Deborah Williams and changing the world through Creative Diversity

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Deborah Williams is an award-winning actor, writer, theatremaker and executive director of the UK’s Creative Diversity Network. She is in Australia this week to present a keynote speech at the Fair Play Symposium for Diversity Arts Australia in partnership with Creative Victoria. She will be also speaking at Belvoir Theatre, Sydney today from 4 -6pm.

My road to becoming an artist and changemaker in the arts has been complex. I currently head up the UK’s Creative Diversity Networks which works to enhance diversity across the UK’s broadcast media but I started out on quite a different path. As I look back now over the past ten years in particular I realise that a quiet but determined plan came into being for me to reach my destiny.

After continually being turned down, not getting interviews, auditions and basically being nowhere near ‘the room’ let alone in it; I started to believe that I was not very good, I needed to investigate this, and make a personal decision based on evidence. Part one was to identify the problem. So off I went into the world, started my own company, writing plays, presenting them at the Edinburgh festival, touring the UK, Europe and even down this way.

The idea was to see if I was as good as I thought I was. Well, of course I was. In fact I was a heck of a lot better, than anyone thought I was. It seemed the real problem had been that I didn’t fit in the established definition of diversity so no one was making work for me – I had to make that space myself.

As soon as my work started getting accolades though, suddenly everyone wanted to join my gang. I was invited to writers’ programmes, with BBC Radio, Talawa theatre company, Paines Plough. After I had gathered my evidence and got the data to prove that I am a quality artist it became clear that I actually defined the work that they were trying to elevate – through the work I created I changed, just slightly, the definition of diversity. But still there was something wrong. 

That’s when I went back to the source after ten years of doing my thing. I went into the Arts Council in England, but not in a diversity role, in a craft role. I worked in the London theatre team. The prize. All the theatres in the UK that you will have heard about or been to, I was in that team that looked after them.

I was given mostly education and low level organisations, but there was one massive one in there as well: Donmar Warehouse. They tried to take it away from me. But turned out to be one of the best relationships I had. We clicked, and as the funder I watched from the outside as they created, in the heart of mainstream London, theatre gender and diversity that has changed the way that Shakespeare is now presented. The Shakespere Trilogy. It was then I realised that saying ‘yes’ was one of the most critical things you could do to advance the diversity agenda.

After three years I got the chance to move sideways and start to change the nature of the work that they do and the way they do it. I wanted to know what it was they thought, imagined that they were doing with diversity. I wanted to fill my knowledge gap. Once I had that I was more confident about moving into the diversity space inside an institution. My job was to make a large public organisation, meet the legislation across its investment and looking at how to use data and evidence to feed their decision making processes.  Simple, right!

I am proud to say that by the end of my time there, data publishing, open data principles, transparency, executive buy-in and leadership in public (was achieved). After this experience I knew what I wanted to be and do – and it was to change the world. My skills lay with industrial change. 

That’s when I moved onto the British Film Institute (BFI). They had done some work already around their public investment remit – they had a tick system in place. You know, when you shoehorn diversity “black people” into projects after they have started and are almost completed, but it was a start.

My input became the BFI Diversity Standards and set something in place that was included at the start of the process: you had to do it before you even considered applying to get public investment. My belief was that as the BFI they should be setting THE standard. I started working with what I had. It was about aspiration, ambition and quality. To this day people are talking about this as something amazing that made real change. It continues to be something that does what I was hoping – changing the culture of an industry and how it goes about its everyday. It started things moving in what I believe to be the right direction. 

After this, it was clear I needed autonomy, I needed to be as large in my thinking as I was in my passion. So I moved onto the job I am now doing.

I am working with the five largest broadcasting organisations in the UK/world: ITV, BBC, Sky, Channel4 and Viacom/Channel5. We work with PACT the production community membership organisation, we work with BAFTA, S4C (The Welsh language broadcaster) we also work with some training organisations.

There is will for change, there is long term commitment, there is executive leadership, and there is willingness to learn. No one size fits all. With this is mind, I have gained a more robust understanding of how/if/when diversity targets can help an individual organisation, (and) move on from where it is stuck. They can help galvanise staff teams and networks. It can help keep the agenda real, it can help with recruitment and talking to people beyond your own four walls. 

This is where I started to use the other small word in my canon: ‘and’. Targets AND strategy and collaboration will make a consistent difference.

When I joined CDN it was a small, short term idea – a not for profit organisation created to facilitate the delivery of project Diamond, the world’s only online diversity monitoring system. It was under resourced, felt tokenistic, and very competitive. Now, it is a collaborative space, growing staff team, publishing data regularly. Academic partners, thought leadership and more working together and with each other as opposed to against each other.

When I came here two years ago to Spark in Melbourne, I met with the members of Screen diversity and inclusion network (SDIN) The Australian version of CDN.  It was so great to see major players working together, following our lead and it has been great working with them over this time and knowing that they are working on their own version of diamond. This really is very exciting. 

Government play the role of critical friend; they create legislation, but do not always know what to do when it comes to making it happen. Bringing these together and with the right people and the right approach there are ways to make it work. Over the past three years we have seen so much change in the screen and performing arts industries and with the Oscars last weekend making, what feels like, a step change in the off screen and technical roles, with more women and black creatives being recognised as amazingly talented people, I am reminded of the Williams Merritt Chase quote about diversity:

“Diversity…is not casual liberal tolerance of anything not yourself. It is not polite

accommodation. Instead, diversity is, in action, the sometimes painful awareness that other

people, other races, other voices, other habits of mind have as much integrity of being, as much

claim on the world as you do—And I urge you, amid all the differences present to the eye and

mind, to reach out to create the bond that…will protect us all. We are all meant to be here


The learning is ongoing. What will be the impact of my approach long-term? Who knows. But that is the joy of this journey. It’s messy – get used to it.

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