Part two of an edited email conversation between Sonny Nwachukwu, Unlimited’s freelance representative on the Freelance Task Force* and a former Unlimited trainee and our senior producer, Jo Verrent. The task force has provided the sector with many resources and prompted all of us to reconsider many structural inequalities. Some of these prompted conversation between Sonny and Jo.
*The Freelance Task Force (FTF) is a sector-wide arts initiative to employ and recognise the value of freelancers to the arts, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when many freelance workers lost their opportunities, incomes and existing contracts.
Jo Verrent (JV): Tell me more about how access has been seen through your time with FTF?
Sonny Nwachukwu (SN): What I have loved is that accessibility is on everyone’s lips, though it hasn’t been right all the way through. We have had separate meetings regarding this and also have a disabled freelance group with a WhatsApp group and regular catch-ups. It’s a tribe and has been so lovely to be a part of.
JV: I think its reported that FTF achieved one of the highest number of disabled people in a non-targeted initiative – almost 25% – which is oddly the same kind of percentage of disabled people as there are in the UK anyway. Tell me more about what that’s meant in relation to the work?
SN: We’ve looked at a lot of information as a barrier rather than an enabler. How much information is too much? There are times where we have a long list of catch-ups to do, with info coming in via emails, Slack, Google calendar. Yet it is still very easy to miss a meeting. I was wondering how Unlimited combats this with their artists? How do you make it more streamlined, so it doesn’t seem like there is too much information, yet still keep people informed? We tried by giving a deadline to let the admin team know if you are coming to a meeting, but that just gets lost in the inbox, then you can miss a meeting if you don’t have a link.
JV: To be honest, I think we are just as bad at it as everyone else. It’s hard to find the right balance. Within the team, we use different tools – Slack, Trello, Dropbox – and always say that people should ask if they don’t know something or forget something. But often, you don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know if you’ve forgotten… With artists, we try and provide lots of different routes in. There is masses of written info for people who like that kind of thing, and then if not, there is always an option to phone or video call, or email for a direct response. This year we’ve had a couple of people saying that there is too much information for them to process and the same number saying that the info is really detailed and that’s useful for them. I suppose the answer is everyone needs something different and we all just need to understand that and flex more.
“One result that I would love to see is access at the heart of decisions and at the heart of the art.”
SN: There has been a need to really balance when I work with the task force, and when on my own creative work – CIRCLES and Junior (use to be Triple Threat) – but what has been nice is the many meetings I’ve been having with people I wouldn’t usually connect with. I have chosen to have ‘one on ones’ with people, as this is more accessible for me. At the start, I did feel I ‘should’ hold a group Zoom but I don’t think it would have been as effective. What’s your preferred way of having a conversation these days?
JV: I so miss face to face conversations – not the formal ones, but the being in a space with a flip chart, post it notes and pens type ones, bouncing ideas about and seeing where links are. Zoom is accessible to me with captions – I find these much more accessible online than BSL, which I love in a real space but struggle with online. Lots of people use the auto caption functions which can work for informal meetings when I can stop people and check what was said when the captions get it wrong, but they aren’t enough for me in formal set ups as they still are just not accurate enough. And I’ve been to a couple of events now that have had captions for the main element but not for the networking or discussion parts – and they are often the best bits! I have found I’ve met lots of new people I wouldn’t usually connect with during lockdown – its somehow made me bolder.
SN: Have you done new things to help push out the news about the commission call out? I’ve been reaching out to other artists and giving out information regarding Unlimited and also Arts Council England.
JV: We have been more proactive this time – holding small group sessions for under represented artists, more online discussions on themes we hope will come through in applications (such as work for rural locations for example), and events in both Scotland and Wales. We’ve also ‘popped in’ to other people’s sessions and mentioned the call outs. I did two Zoom groups for members of #WSNBR last week, too. So many Zooms, so little time!
SN: Time has been a real issue for me too. Within FTF, there are so many sub groups, and no one can join all of them. The dance subgroup has been really active and have really mobilised as a group, which has been nice to have as it has been hard to mobilise as a full FTF group because there are just so many people (160) from so many different walks of life. I only found the dance group properly last week, so I’m interested in the meetings and have found reading on the notes of past meetings really effective too. This makes me think that if the FTF was to carry on, maybe smaller groups created at the start are the way forward.
JV: I think that’s right. And some of the groups have come up with great resources. I’ve been reading the Freelancers Supporters Menu and really like its approach of encouraging us to pick one large and a number of small scale actions to improve different elements of how we work. I’ve found the document on making the case to better support neurodivergent freelancers useful and I’ve also found lots of real value in the most recent document I’ve read on what do Freelancers need to do their best work. I’m glad there is a developing website to host all the created resources in one place.
I think 160 people can work as a single group to make change – but not all work together at the same time to make that happen!
SN: I really liked the Inc Arts blog especially their first line: “language is evolving. Deal with it. The terms we’ve agreed today may change in the future. Times change: come with us.” I love this as it lets everyone know that it’s okay if words change. I talked about this in CIRCLES regarding the connotations of the word ‘Black’ and where it came from, and I think I touched on it in a blog when I was a trainee too.
JV: We are looking into changing all our terminology as soon as we can due to this. It’s hard to change everything instantly, especially in relation to data and recording – but it’s necessary. We have to be open and honest and that means listening and making change.
SN: We had a group meeting the other week in which we were asked to be honest about our time on the task force; I feel I have been honest regarding what I have done, what’s come up for me and, of course, about my own insecurities. It was nice to feel that I wasn’t the only one who found parts of this hard. One question raised was if our sponsor organisations are happy with the work that we are doing and I was wondering if you have any feedback regarding the task force, of if there is anything in particular you would want to know more about?
JV: Sonny – we appointed you as our freelancer because we knew you’d bring your whole self to the process – insecurities and all. They make you part of who you are. They help you question things, get curious, and find out more. We’ve loved seeing the task force not just through the materials its created but through your eyes too. Thank you.
I suppose the big question is what will happen next? The FTF was a short initiative designed to increase the profile of freelancers working in the cultural sector and raise questions about how the sector is structured. Sadly, the financial situation for many seems to be worse now than when the FTF started and the redundancies that will scar us all for years to come have only just begun. Like every other organisation and programme I know, we’ve been diverting all the funding we can to individuals through micro awards and more, but it’s never going to be enough. What’s the one result you’d love to see in the sector as a result of all your work here?
SN: One result that I would love to see is access at the heart of decisions and at the heart of the art. For us to put away with only embedding access to tick boxes and to include it because we see the benefits of inclusion for all. In doing so, stable foundations can be built, and I believe we can create a sector where we all can eat at the table and not just have a seat.