How creative practices can be used to understand experiences of systemic racism in the NGO sector
By Takyiwa Danso
Over the last five years working in the international development sector I have become ever more conscious of my existence as a ‘minority’. It is an industry that seeks to help people that look like me but refuses to be governed by us. From a naïve volunteer and passionate youth activist to a tired campaigner and disillusioned project officer, I had begun to question the contradictions around diversity and inclusion in the NGO (non-government organization) space. Embarking on a reflective journey of my time in the sector, I used collaging as a creative practice to critically reflect on the lack of racial diversity in the United Kingdom’s NGO sector, and how I have navigated within this system. Through this, I sought to understand how we as social actors can use visual methods to counter dominant narratives in international development and instead foster change in our own spaces.
Creative practices such as collaging deconstruct traditional ways of thinking and communicating(1), and enable us to surrender our inhibitions and be more responsive to learning(2). Using non-verbal means is a helpful way to convey experiences of systemic racism and unconscious biases as these are often the things we see but don’t speak about. In my own experience, I’ve found raising issues of race or the lack of diversity and inclusion in the sector difficult – the inability to effectively start conversations suggest that the solution itself may be beyond language. Visual arts, however, offer a safe medium that enables people to “temporarily suspend their self-monitoring and give access to different forms of knowledge, and to consciously populate the media-space with non-mainstream representations and arguments”(3). In a collage, the spontaneity of choosing images invoke feelings and ideas, which reveal unconscious beliefs about ourselves and our lives(4). In particular I found that it gives objects a new meaning, as Robertson describes “not from within themselves but from the way we perceive how they stand in relationship to one another”.(5)
Systemic Racism in Development: What does it look like?
In the collage ‘Division and Inclusion’ I wanted to convey the current reality of diversity in the sector: being the only person or woman of colour in organisations, becoming the unelected spokesperson for black people, and being on the receiving end of micro-aggressions. It depicts the clear power divide across the landscape of international development as the representation of myself looks up at our racial patriarchal system. The ideology of international development upholds structures of oppression by its very nature which is evident in the illustrations of who holds the power, i.e. the Global North and Global South dynamic, the positional superiority of Western knowledge, and the white male senior majority within institutions(6). In the United Kingdom, many renowned and established charities are “built on historical ‘white saviour’ structures that perpetuate a paternalistic model of doing things to people, or for people, rather than with people”(7). In the collage, I specifically use the word ‘hero’ in the middle to encapsulate this saviour mentality that underpins some institutions’ approach to development. Many may think that the sector has moved on from its post-colonial origins in line with the evolution of the language of contemporary development. However, my attempts to openly discuss race within a professional environment indicates that this is not the case. Our inability to have conversations around these topics allow underlying power dynamics to continue and ultimately delegitimize concerns of people that look like me.
This emphasises on how, as a society, British people are not good at talking about race. As Afua Hirsh writes, by choosing to not see race, we shut down analysis of issues and deny those who experience race (mostly ethnic minorities) the ability to express their identity and use their voice to call out things that are harmful(8). From the 2019 exposé of Citizens Advice Bureaus using patronising, inappropriate and racist language towards ethnic minority communities in their staff training(9), to the more recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, attention within the charity sector has turned to disingenuous attitudes towards real diversity and inclusion. With 90% of leadership roles in the United Kingdom’s charity sector held by white people, questions should be asked about the problematic status quo of white privilege, power and networks(10). Notably, the lack of empirical data on ethnic diversity within the sector further alludes to the problem and masks the more nuanced aspects of diversity such as barriers to entry and socio-economic privileges.
There is a crisis within the development sector in its denial of race and blindness to its role in development(11). The fear of addressing this has led to silence and inaction on the matter(12). Yet by not openly discussing how these very real and obvious structures manifest in everyday working conditions, in everything from programme design to daily micro-aggressions, the sector will not be able to evolve, making divisions even starker.
How does it make me feel?
Moving on from an objective viewpoint, I wanted to situate my own personality into the collage, since a central part of reflective practice is the connection between emotion and learning(13). Through this process, I came to realise that it was imperative to illustrate not only my observations but my feelings. Moon writes, “Feelings are involved in the process of learning but also are the subject matter of learning… It is possible to learn about the emotions without actually experiencing them…”(14). In this context, the lack of diversity in these spaces affect the way people perceive themselves. The collage, ‘The Gaze’ depicts my insecurities about how I am perceived by others. As a black woman, I am constantly self-conscious of the predominant stereotypes surrounding black people in the British society, as well as those held within international development context – usually as poor, less-educated, weak and in constant need of help.
This sense of otherness has led me to doubt my legitimacy in spaces of power as a young black British-Ghanaian woman seeking to enact social change. I’ve questioned my work, values, and abilities as the racial inequalities became too loud to ignore – where did I fit in the narrative of the white, male, Western-centric development agenda? In creating this collage, I constantly questioned the structures I worked within whilst navigating the complexity of Western guilt. As individuals, if we don’t explicitly challenge these dynamics, are we also complicit and ultimately undermine efforts to create change?
In the wider context, internalising racial oppression is a consequence and signifier of the existing colonial structures which can be damaging to the mental wellbeing of people of colour. I believe there are different ways of realising and understanding these truths and how they affect us. In creating ‘The Gaze’, a significant learning point for me was seeing the value of using emotional insight as both a process and tool for learning. Tuhiwai Smith writes that, to decolonise our development practices we must first decolonise our minds(15), and I believe that as a sector, a step towards this would be recognising the lived experiences of people of colour working within the system as credible truths of the problems with the system.
How could it be changed?
To move forward, I began to ask myself, “if I could decolonise my mindset what would it look like and how extreme could this be?“. I centered this around re-imagining the image of stereotypical ‘aid and development’ workers and what would happen if they told their stories. The dominant narrative in development has traditionally amplified the knowledge, beliefs and values of the West whilst sidelining and ignoring the perspectives of people of colour, often leaving them as bystanders and beneficiaries. As Tuhiwai Smith states in their argument that colonialism aimed to re-arrange, re-represent and re-distribute knowledge(16), and my final collage, ‘The Future, The Now’ is a loose attempt to decolonise the landscape of development and redefine what I see by working from my ‘heart to my head’.
The emerging themes depict black femininity in a strong, vibrant and powerful light, contradicting current stereotypes in development. I created this collage with a belief that the existing NGO sector was designed to exclude people like myself – thus it is not a broken system but is working exactly as planned. In this respect, a new system is needed with a different set of rules, centering on representation of women from the African diaspora. In contrast to the portrayal of black women in ‘The Gaze’ where only their backs are shown, in ‘The Future, The Now’ I specifically used full faces to demonstrate the alternative reality of black women controlling the narrative, speaking out and taking a stand. I found reconstructing and reorganising old images to create a loud and vibrant collage as an empowering process, and symbolic of the necessary change that I, and many others, envisage for this sector.
A key aspect of using creative methods for social change is in its collaborative nature(17). I acknowledge that my experience is one of many different and unique perspectives, which if told could illustrate the extent of the deep and complex implications of systemic racism and privilege. By reaching out to fellow women of colour is to also partake in this activity where they express their own positive and negative experiences working in the NGO sector. As ethnic minorities, we are no strangers to talking about issues of race and inclusion internally, however, to express this in an art form, and even more so, being invited to do so, was a new, cathartic and validating experience for us. ‘The Collective’ collage conveys a mixture of the daily struggles of ‘tick box inclusion’ and white dominance, to hopefulness and resilience for the future. In doing this, I witnessed the power of group reflections to foster safe spaces for people to address their own insecurities and biases within a system; which in this context is necessary for both the black, and development community to dismantle and heal. I became distinctly aware of the gap for minorities to creatively express themselves like this because these conversations tend to happen in non-mainstream avenues. However, because images are open to interpretation, the very process of understanding each other’s insights encourages and opens multi-way dialogue between the oppressed, oppressors, and allies. I believe that visualising peoples’ experiences move conversations beyond buzzwords and theory towards social change. More widely, collaging and visual arts has been a beneficial methodology to examine the impact of racism in different contexts, including, for example, the process of healing for indigenous women in Canada(18). Essentially, visual methods of inquiry encourage the ‘fluidity of metaphor, symbolism, and interpretive communication’; thereby providing an avenue for alternative (indigenous) forms of knowledge to become visible(19) which is integral for achieving social justice.
My collaging experience enabled me to convey expectations of working in the international development sector in contrast to the actual ground realities. As social change actors, it is imperative to question our actions and the systems we work within to fully tackle issues of race and privilege. As Kinoti aptly shares, “Decolonization means recognizing that development is not a linear race to the finish, rather, it is a cyclical process that is always informing itself, making changes, and reiterating when needed”(20). In the same vein, collaging as a reflective practice is an ever-changing dynamic process that allows images to continually be added to create a rich, diverse and multi-layered story, which in this context accurately reflects the complex nature of systemic racism in development. Moving from a landscape of whiteness illustrated in ‘Division and Inclusion’ to ‘The Future, The Now’, my reflective journey has developed my thinking as to how international development should be – more female, more black, more collaborative. One way to start these conversations would be for people like me to make more visual statements about our experiences and solutions with the wider community, because collaging can be seen as a metaphor for reconciliation. Ultimately, it is a collective responsibility to dismantle systemic racism in development and rebuild it with a new perspective.
- Berman, K. (2017) Methodologies and Methods of Change. In Finding Voice: A Visual Arts Approach to Engaging Social Change (pp. 9-20). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- McNiff, S (1998) Arts-Based Research, pp 29-40, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Lewin, T., Patterson, Z. (2012) Approaches to Development Research Communication, IDS Bulletin.
- Klammer, S. (2013) Collage Therapy Integrating Gift of Loneliness, Good Therapy.
Yeun, F. (2016) Collage: An Arts-Based Method for Analysis, Representation and Social Justice. Journal of Leisure Research, 48:4, pp 338-346. doi: 10.18666/JLR-2016-V48-I4-6922
- Robertson 2000, p.2 in Butler-Kisber, L. (2010) Qualitative Inquiry: Thematic, Narrative and Arts-Informed Perspectives, SAGE Publications.
- Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies, London: Zed Books;
Kinoti, K. (2019) 3TT Decolonising Development, Feedback Labs.
- Mason, T. (2020) Facing Up to Racism in the Charity Sector, Civil Society News, 16th March.
- Hirsh, A. (2018) Brit(Ish) On Race, Identity and Belonging, London: Penguin Random House.
- Charity So White, 2019
- Mason, 2020.
- Sriprakash, A. (2019) White optimism and the erasures of racism in global development, Sussex Development Lectures, 7th November 2019, Brighton
- Mason, 2020.
- Moon, J. (2004). A Handbook of Reflective Practice and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice. Falmer: Routledge.
- Ibid. p.47
- Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies, London: Zed Books.
- Berman, 2017
- Yuen, 2016
- Kovach, 2009, p.60 in Yuen, 2016
- Kinoti, 2019
Fook, J., Askeland, G.A. (2006) The ‘critical’ in critical reflection in S.White, J.Fook and F.Gardner (eds.) Critical reflection in health and social care. pp40-53 Maidenhead, Berks: Open University Press.
Menon, G. (2020) To establish truly diverse and inclusive organisations, we must understand the exclusionary factors at play, Third Sector.
Mullen, C. A. (1999) ‘Carousel: A metaphor for spinning inquiry in prison and education’ in Diamond, C. T. P., & Mullen, C. A. (Eds.), The postmodern educator: Arts-based inquiries in teacher development, pp. 281–309, New York: Peter Lang.
Smith, M. (2013) ‘Keeping a learning journal’, in The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education.
Williams, B. (2000) Collage work as a medium for guided reflection in the clinical supervision relationship, Nurse Education Today, 20, pp 273–278. doi: 10.1054/nedt.1999.0393.
About the author
Takyiwa Danso is from the United Kingdom and has worked in the NGO sector for six years on a range of development projects focussing on education, disability inclusion, and livelihoods in Africa. She’s a strong advocate for young people, leading social change and has volunteered with organisations to promote their wider inclusion in decision making.
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