Anna Disley, New Writing North’s Executive Director, Programme and Impact, considers how relationships underpin our work, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusivity.
Last week, when our Programme Manager, Emma, was handing out books to pupils at Excelsior Academy in Newcastle, a young girl grabbed a copy of You’re Not Proper by Tariq Mehmood and excitedly told a friend “This is about parents from two different countries – that’s like my parents!” before taking the book home to read with her family. The books were being shared as part of Balance the Books, a new project at one of our partner schools that aims to promote and share books that speak to the diverse experiences of young people in our programmes, as well as introducing them to stories outside of their own experience.
New Writing North’s twin goals are to encourage people to develop their own creativity through reading and writing and to identify talent and support writers to fulfil their creative ambitions. The goals complement each other, and we hope create a virtuous circle.
We pride ourselves on running many open access talent programmes and supporting people with opportunities in locations across the North. However, we recognise that many are excluded from the arts and creative industries because they are dominated by and moulded in the image of a narrow and privileged part of society. Many well-intentioned opportunities only reach the already connected.
A participant on our Common People Writing Development Programme for working class writers, vividly articulates this:
“I’ve met a lovely friendly writer who introduced me to his circle, and everybody knows everybody else, he got his publishing deal through a friend of a friend, he got a newspaper column through a friend of a friend, he got on Radio 4 through a friend of a friend… When I spoke with him about his career development it was just like watching somebody on the ski slopes when you’ve never learnt to ski. Off they go with all their friends, wiz wiz wiz and you’re still stood at the edge wondering how to strap on the ski boots.”
We have many projects that are open to everyone including flagship programmes such as the Northern Writers Awards – for which we receive 2,000 applications annually; Durham Book Festival – where alongside author events, we run wide ranging community reading and writing projects; Read Regional – our library partnership that gets books and authors into branch libraries across the North; and our Young Writers’ Groups which run in five towns and cities in the North East and online.
However, we know that to make programmes like these genuinely accessible we need to work hard to gain people’s trust. We need to understand the needs and drivers of people from under-represented communities, to listen, to build relationships and to work together to create opportunities which ensure that those who get to write are reflective of everyone in society.
Alongside our open access opportunities we also create targeted programmes. For example, while our Young Writers’ Groups and Summer Schools are free to access and open to everyone, we know many young people would not find out about these opportunities, feel confident to attend or see the relevance to their lives. Our Young Writers’ City programme works in depth over the long-term in primary and secondary schools in key socio-economically disadvantaged areas in the North East. By providing a consistent approach, building relationships with young people in these schools and encouraging them to co-design our programmes and create the artwork that excites them, we introduce young people to the idea of themselves as artists and creatives and invite those who are interested to become involved in our open access opportunities.
“[Young Writers City] has really allowed us, as a group to express what’s going on with us in our world as young people.” – Young Writers’ City participant
Another example is Sky Writes, a writer development programme we run in partnership with Sky Studios to identify promising writers for TV in areas where people struggle to access TV writing opportunities. This year we have delivered taster workshops and script development programmes in Blackpool, Rotherham, and Gateshead. As with many of our other programmes, they are designed to build relationships. A local producer finds people in the area who are writing (sometimes without telling anyone), invites them to come along to writing sessions and, working alongside the writer, supports their individual ambitions, helping them navigate the programme and the opportunities it offers. Not everyone will make it into a career in writing for TV, but the writers involved in this programme become part of our network and with our support can take on more opportunities to develop their talent.
We always find interesting writers through these programmes, which confirms to us that talent is everywhere, but lack of development opportunities along with many other considerations such as caring responsibilities, structural exclusion, and financial circumstances can stop people fullfilling their creative potential. We have to work hard to reduce those barriers for people.
A third example of our targeted work, A Writing Chance, is a UK-wide scheme aimed at aspiring writers that are under-represented in media and writing. It brings together a partnership of The New Statesman, The Mirror, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Northumbria University, and the actor Michael Sheen to provide opportunities for writers to develop peer and industry networks, to have publication opportunities, to undertake training and development with writing industry representatives and to be mentored by professionals in the industry. This targeted, relationship-building approach is the way we support writers to thrive.
“…being able to write, feeling like it’s the thing I should be doing (which I secretly felt all along but couldn’t say) I am feeling less like an imposter and more like myself.” – A Writing Chance participant
Supporting new work
One of the most powerful ways that we can support artists is to commission their work. In 2020 we commissioned disabled writer and activist Lisette Auton to develop a digital performance work for Durham Book Festival. Lisette went on to make a film which was to become the first in a trilogy, called Writing the Missing – A River Cycle (this was followed in 2021 by Writing the Missing: All at Sea and will culminate later this year with a final film). She also chose to commission three other disabled artists who wrote pieces that were included in the film. Working with Lisette has been a very positive and mutually creative experience, through which we have learnt from each other whilst nurturing new work to life.
“I received a commission from NWN to write a piece for their New Narratives for the North East project. Out of this came a commission to make a film and commission other disabled artists like myself to be a part of this showcase. I had never made a film before. My neurodivergent brain and my body do not work to ‘regular’ or ‘normative’ working processes or structures. So, I was given support, which was necessary and wanted, kind and compassionate, but the best thing I was given? Trust and absolute creative control. That is so rare, and without that underrepresented writers and artists often fill a tick box, but don’t get to soar or make change. I got to do both. And since then I have not looked back artistically, but also in my expectations of what I want out of a commission, what I can bring to the table, the change I want to make. NWN were incredible allies. We need more of these opportunities.” – Lisette Auton
Our learning curve
New Writing North has always been committed to learning, improving, and trying new things to make our work better. We operate an open and discursive culture as an organisation. Following a summer of wide reading and discussion as a staff and board team last year, we worked together to undertake an anti-racism and inclusivity audit. We looked at all aspects of our organisation through an inclusivity lens, from marketing and comms, programming and commissioning through to operations and procurement. Following this we then devised a series of actions across our work, which would help to make us a more inclusive organisation.
Measures taken so far include ensuring that judging panels for our awards and prizes represent a wide range of voices; making captioning and transcription available on our growing body of digital work; bringing in guest programmers for Durham Book Festival and our writing roadshows; and adapting our recruitment processes to be more accessible with a range of ways people can access job opportunities, apply for jobs and meet the team prior to applying. The plan is iterative, revisited by our staff team regularly to check in on progress and begin new actions based on our continued learning in conversation with the communities we serve.
We are a small team and we recognise that the people who make the decisions in our organisation represent a limited experience of the world. We want to expand the range of voices and experiences that contribute to decision-making in our organisation. The creation of our brand new Creative Associate posts is one of the ways we will do that. Two writers will work in the heart of our organisation over two years creating their own artworks and working with us on our strategic and creative planning.
We still have a long way to go, but we have begun by recognising the power that New Writing North holds in helping to shape arts and culture and the responsibilities that comes with this. These responsibilities include decisions over which new writing is supported, who gets to produce it and who consumes it. In our unequal society, our twin goals of encouraging people to explore their creativity through reading and writing, and supporting writers to achieve their creative ambitions, can only be achieved by putting in place measures that disrupt the systems that have sustained this inequity.
This understanding drives our work and has positively reshaped our values and company culture. We are still working on it, but remain ambitious to challenge ourselves and to keep moving forward as we develop our own work and advocate for change from others.
The two vacancies for Creative Associate at New Writing North are now open. Find out more about the roles here.