Ocean - Alice Phoebe Lou
Of course, Equal Opportunities, like any tool, can be used wrongly or even abused. The problem with political correctness and other "rules", "do's" and "don'ts", is that they stop people thinking. One of the most common complaints I have heard from teachers recently is they can't discuss the big issues openly without risking censure or even being sacked. Surely a discussion which includes examination why racism exists for example, or the point of view of a racist is necessary if people are to stop racism and prevent it. To ignore these issues, and not to discuss them thoroughly, only makes any youngster more vulnerable to such beliefs when they are exposed to them because they aren't intellectually equipped to reason against them. But a teacher often examine these at their own risk.
Following on from the last post, at Islington I inherited the role of monitoring officer of the Islington Dance Project from my departing colleague Brendan Keaney. Brendan had set up this organisation to develop dance in the borough, to both provide and promote dance in all forms in schools and the community, as well as to help local professional dancers in their careers. It was a a very successful project resulting in numerous dance workshops and clubs throughout the borough, education partnerships between schools and Sadler's Wells, and the excellent annual Islington Dance Festival. When the Islington Dance Project's (IDP) director left the job, it was critical that we found someone very good to build on this good start.
I organised the recruitment of their replacement so when shortlisting in response to the ads for the post came around, I found myself somewhat timidly presiding over a selection panel, effectively the board of the IDP, comprising five young to middle-aged dance professionals, heads of Islington dance companies and dance administrators - all women, all white. The first task was to select the six best candidates from around fifty applications. As Islington Council was the major funder of the IDP, - indeed we, in the form of Brendan, had originally set it up - we required complete adherence to the borough's Equal Opportunities (EO) Recruitment Policy which I nervously explained to the panellists as they listened sceptically, it seemed to me. They all earned more than me, had been working in the arts longer than me, and therefore in their eyes knew better than me, about dance at the very least. We agreed on the most important criteria in the job description and specification, and determined an application point scoring system accordingly. We wanted someone with good dance experience and knowledge, good experience of working in the community, and experience of running and administrating a community organisation. Very important too, we agreed, was that the successful candidate should have drive, be enthusiastic and be able to transmit this. It goes without saying that they should be able to demonstrate understanding of Equal Opportunities principals and have experience of working with black and ethnic minority groups. Interestingly, all of the applicants were women, and it took us a day to pointscore the lot, ending up with a top six that was all "white anglo-saxon".
I then reminded them that the EO Policy stated that any shortlist for interviewing should reflect the ethnic composition of the group of applicants. I pointed out that, as ten per cent of the applicants were of African or Afro-Caribbean origin, then we had to interview the best African/Afro-Caribbean candidate. The panel were dismayed as it meant that the sixth candidate wouldn't get an interview, let alone 7th, 8th, and 9th - the black applicant I was saying we must interview had come 10th. I explained that the logic being applied was that she, the BEM candidate, quite possibly had done worse on the application form than the other white candidates due to factors that were due to her background, which school she went to, the area she grew up in, the possibility of her parents not having English as their second language, and other social factors which might have put her at a disadvantage. I asked them (I'd had the EO training) if what they wanted was a person who was good at filling out forms rather than one who could dance well, a person who had five "A" Levels from a fee-paying school rather than someone who had been an active participant in urban community groups since her youth? They grudgingly demurred, but only if I agreed in my turn to interview the top ten candidates. We compromised on eight and I had the panel rigorously select the questions for interview precisely against the criteria they wanted for the post with weighting, that is higher points in the marking system, for what skills they thought most important, so that there might be less room for argument later.
On the day of the interviews, the black candidate, - let's call her Janet - was interviewed last, and she was terrific. She totally wowed the middle class panel with her infectious enthusiasm. She spoke brilliantly, projecting and softening alternately the better to get her message across. She related hilarious but relevant stories of her work with young people, excited us with details of her experiences with African groups, Bangladeshis, pensioners, toddlers and teens. After she left, the panel twittered excitedly: "Stylus, you were so right!" "She's the best by far", "She's the one for the job, no doubt" and so on. I said we should add up the points scored first and so we did. Janet came second, not a close second, but she was well ahead of the other six. So she didn't get the job.
The point being, that Janet nearly didn't get a job because of the unconscious bias of the system, and then, paradoxically, she nearly did get it because of the unconscious racism of the panel: they were so impressed that she was so good (against their expectations) that they nearly gave her the job even though she wasn't the best candidate. And that's the point. Equal Opportunities is there to make sure you get the best person for the job. It isn't for the interviewers to appoint people who are like them, nor is it there for them to feel better about themselves.
The successful candidate was a great success and went on to run the organisation with great skill, dedication and enthusiasm for many years. But I still worry that I did the wrong thing. I could have gone along with them and appointed Janet and I'm sure she too would have done a terrific job. It could have been a drop in the ocean, only a drop, but a drop nonetheless.
Alice Phoebe Lou is a wonderful singer songwriter from South Africa.. This is from her second album, "Paper Castles":
"I saw you throw your hands in the air and say a prayer your eyes closed, your nose breathing in the salty air here was nothing you could do to make me love you any more.
You said: "what I despair in you I don't feel like I'm going anywhere with you I might as well fling myself into your ocean at least then I would be with you"
and the ocean roared and the ocean howled and the ocean roared and the ocean howled.
So you jumped down from the cliff you climbed to into paradise that lay below you I could only stare and let my tears fall in the ocean
and the ocean roared and the ocean howled and the ocean roared and the ocean howled........."