Blog Post

Is there anybody there?


Jeanette Bain-Burnett on inviting people who are different from us to be co-creators of an open and inclusive cultural sector that bucks the trend in the rest of our society

Jeanette Bain-Burnett speaking at People Place Power

Jeanette Bain-Burnett spoke at our People Place Power conference on a panel called Hard to reach or easy to ignore: are we over complicating diversity? Here she talks about the power of invitation and challenging our ideas of who we include as makers, participants and leaders.

I grew up in Jamaica where, for obvious reasons, the education system is strongly influenced by the British approach. It was compulsory to study English Literature at my secondary school, and I remember very little of what we studied because I never felt much of a connection with it. But there’s one poem that I’ve never forgotten - Oscar De la Mare’s, The Listeners.

It’s an incredibly evocative piece, and like all of the best poetry, it invites the reader in to complete the story.

A traveller knocks on a moonlit door, saying: ‘Is there anybody there’ waits for a while, and then departs but just before he goes he says: ‘tell them I came and no one answered, that I kept my word’.

We don’t know the history of the traveller, the house or the missing occupants.

I’m sure this isn’t what De la Mare intended but his poem reminds me of a typical ‘diversity strategy’. We knock, wait and leave- then we wonder why ‘they’, the so-called ‘hard to reach’ don’t answer. We walk away thinking we’ve done what we can and it didn’t work.

But if culture is for all of us and full inclusion is a social justice issue, we shouldn’t be knocking on the front door. Instead, we should be finding side doors and back doors and climbing through the windows. Or kicking in the front door.

As a black woman, even as an established leader, I don’t always feel I belong in mainstream spaces. There are some places I wouldn’t go to, some events I would never attend without being personally invited. We all need to learn the power of invitations. We all need to challenge our idea of who we include as makers, participants and leaders. 

If culture is for all of us, we need to invite people who are different from us into our board rooms, studios, galleries, theatres and around our kitchen tables not as beneficiaries or consumers on whom to offload some moral burden but as co-creators of an open and inclusive cultural sector that bucks the trend in the rest of our society.

At the CPP People Place Power conference I had the pleasure of sharing the platform with David Ellington, Stella Duffy, and Sharlene Carter.

They were all kicking down the front door and climbing through windows in practical ways by being bold in what they create, who they choose to collaborate with and how they produce their work.

I was inspired by Stella’s provocation that we can all be makers and how that has shifted the balance of power and stimulated creativity in communities; challenged by David’s experience surmounting the barriers he has faced as a deaf performer and his call to action for all of us to wake up to the needs of Disabled artists and audiences; and confronted by Sharlene’s boldness in telling her family’s story through Dance Theatre to raise awareness of inequalities in access to healthcare.

If culture is for all of us, as the the divides in our communities grow deeper, we can no longer hide from the need to apply our creativity to tackling the social injustice that lies at the heart of our society, and by extension- our cultural sector.

Jeanette Bain-Burnett, Greater London Authority

Image: SAI Photography