Our Journey: the impact of our Weston Jerwood Creative Bursary 2017-2019 on Literature Wales and beyond

Published Mon 28 Sep 2020 - By Literature Wales
This month the new host organisations in the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries 2020-2022 cohort had their virtual induction day. This is the fourth edition of the programme which provides a step-change opportunity for talent from under-represented socio-economic backgrounds to develop and thrive in careers across the arts and cultural sector. Within the year-long fellowship programme, 50 new paid opportunities are created within 50 host organisations. These new posts not only expand the artistic output of the hosts, but more importantly oblige them to take part in an extended organisational change.

Literature Wales’ journey on the programme started with an application in 2016 as we were very eager then to secure funding to help us establish a new ‘wish-list’ role. We had always wanted someone dedicated to sourcing, analysing and communicating evidence of our impact, but our staffing structure at the time didn’t include this capacity. We understood that there would be expectations on hosts to be change makers, internally and for their artform, and looked forward to seeing how this could be achieved.

Boarding the train to Paddington from Cardiff early one morning for the induction session, I was focused on the recruitment process. How was I going to attract strong candidates for the Fellowship, and how would we assess in order to get the right fit? The day was packed with practical tips and testimonies from previous host organisations and Fellows. I was struck by the strong undercurrent of challenging implicit bias. No-one thinks that they unfairly judge others, but clearly everyday micro-judgements, based on personal experience, is how we all navigate daily life. And within those preconceptions are layers of unchallenged privileges and unexplored inequalities.

Getting the job advert right was tricky. How do you unpick years of inherited and accepted recruitment jargon which were used to identify what was always considered ‘strong’ applicants? In fact, words like “excellence” and “outstanding”, and criteria like “experience and knowledge of the sector” screamed that we wanted a person type – someone who would match existing staff and, frankly, someone who emulated the behaviours, speech patterns, knowledge, values and opportunities of the middle classes. How could you get experience in the sector if the doors are shut to you and you don’t have the contacts to open them on your behalf? And who were we to determine ‘quality’ and ‘excellent’ cultural knowledge. The whole concept of quality is determined by middle class values rather than some definitive or objective criteria. Passionate knowledge of grime music, Cardiff City FC or quad biking is just as valid as your ability to drop Stravinksy, R.S. Thomas or Duchamp into conversation. Whilst we truly believed we were open-minded; our job adverts and entire recruitment process were in fact exclusionary and elitist.

So, we started from scratch, avoiding anything which would unduly advantage an applicant like us and disadvantage others. The advert explained who Literature Wales is and how it fits in to the cultural life of Wales. We avoided acronyms and we included a section on a day in the life in the office to demystify what the work would be like. We emphasised that we were looking for potential over experience and explained that just two of us (rather than a panel) would hold conversations (not interviews) in a coffee shop. Video or written applications were equally valid, and there was no need for a CV – just a short letter introducing themselves and their ambitions. And we promoted it via social media only, tagging in organisations and individuals who could help us reach as widely as possible.

We met most applicants, having provided them beforehand with the questions and short biographies of me and our Chair, who they would be meeting. Some of the conversations were awkward as nerves got the better of a few, but on the whole the atmosphere was more casual and less intimidating than previous interviews I had been involved in. Although there were a few front runners, we went for an applicant who had a vibrancy and a real spark to her. Like all the other applicants, there was some polishing around the edges needed, but she quickly became an incredible asset for the organisation, delivering above and beyond. She is proactive, external facing and is by now increasingly driving our strategic direction – she is exceptional and a certain future leader.

I felt that I had a duty of care towards the other applicants and wanted to help them build their confidence for future interviews, so I gave personalised and detailed feedback which sometimes extended over multiple emails and phone calls. I mentored the second-choice candidate face-to-face, linking her up with contacts in the industry. She has since become contributing editor at Wales Arts Review and has been published in Metro, East of the Web and Bandit Fiction.

The lessons learnt were applied to all Literature Wales posts from then on, from our more junior level through the Executive and Management Board. We became far more flexible with our Directors who sit on the Management Board, and they are now less compelled to attend all meetings, which are shorter and more frequent across a range of times and days. This broadened the pool of applicants, encouraging individuals who would otherwise be financially disadvantaged by attending long day-time meetings – such as freelancers, those with caring duties, and lower banded employees.

By 2018, the experience and learning gained through the Weston Jerwood programme had reached even deeper in our organisation; into our artistic appointments and then our strategic direction. Our 2019-2022 Strategic Plan embodies this learning. Representation & Equality is one of our three Tactical Priorities and we identified three Target Client Characteristics (individuals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, on low incomes and with disabilities or illnesses) which allow us to focus our activity on those who will benefit most, and have been most disadvantaged by the system until now. A programme of operational projects revolutionised our delivery model and allowed us to put mechanisms for change at the heart of everything we do. We created new policies and procedures to prevent bias towards specific demographics of artist. All opportunities are now advertised with quotas to avoid over-using a few ‘favoured’ writers. We endeavour to appoint panel members and decision-makers who represent Wales’ diversity. They are instructed on implicit bias and on our firm belief of seeking out potential over experience.

Since the Strategic Plan launch in 2019, we have developed and delivered activity which help writers to overcome the multiple barriers to accessing to a career in the sector. Platforming Under-represented Writers, led by our Fellow in her new role, saw eight artists awarded funding for their own bespoke professional development opportunities to kickstart or advance their career.

And yet we’ve realised that such initiatives, which include the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries, aren’t sufficient on their own. Yes – the individuals who have been supported by us will go on to generate change in the sector, but are we asking those who have been ‘allowed in’ to do the work for us? The barriers to equality of inclusion shouldn’t be there in the first place and we, along with other sector players, are culpable for allowing them to remain for so long. By removing them, we will accelerate and deepen change, whilst also publicly acknowledging responsibility.

Literature Wales places increasing significance on its sector facilitation work. This involves proactively offering staff time, experience and knowledge, and resources, to share our Weston Jerwood learning free of charge. This involves informal or formal meetings, sitting on others’ Management Boards, sharing policies, templates and operational practice, and partnering on sector-wide projects addressing equality issues. We’re also steering a major grant application for funding to develop a market intelligence system which will demonstrate Welsh reader demand for more diverse content and writers. The key is to challenge gate-keepers who wield great influence. And we’ve had notable successes so far, increasingly being sought out for advice. It feels as if we’re nearing a tipping point as a sector.

So as I sat reflecting on our experience with the 2020-2022 host organisations a few weeks back, I felt genuinely humbled. The scheme offers a mechanism for change, and hosting a Fellow is just the start of it. You won’t regret it – but be prepared for big changes ahead.

Bronwen Price
Head of Development & Deputy Chief Executive
Literature Wales