Maya Angelou was once quoted as saying Ďit is time for parents to teach young people early so that in diversity there is beauty and there is strengthí.
Maya Angelou was once quoted as saying ‘it is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength’. Her understanding of the riches to be found within diverse communities and her instinctive understanding of equality continues to inspire and not least at a time when our collective approach to equality and diversity appears to have flat-lined at ‘tolerance’.
I dislike debates around semantics, but in my mind to ‘tolerate’ describes a situation in which you put up with a situation or person, you endure their company, you stomach their opinions. There has been a lot of talk about tolerance in light of the Equality Act 2010 coming into law, but is it enough to aim for and encourage mere tolerance? Can tolerance ever be enough?
Tolerance is not about an on-going process of change, it is a line we are legislated to walk. Having an active approach to equality is to engage with who a person is, to be driven to explore and understand their point of view, to treat them with respect and, where points of view differ, as they inevitably will, to disagree well! The Equality Act 2010 is now enshrined on our statute books and its enforcement ensures that certain behaviours and discriminatory statements are actively discouraged by the state. But what legislation can never achieve is the transformation of people’s individual thoughts and attitudes often developed over years through the influence of communities, families, peers and experiences.
Here at POPS we’ve fought the face of ‘institutional racism’ and challenged intolerant attitudes within systems but there remain pockets of discrimination that have largely refused to shift. Not least among these is the attitude of society to prisoners and their families. In our attempts to further overcome years of entrenched beliefs, held by those within the prison establishment and wider society as a whole, we felt we needed to get a bit more creative. This creativity needed to embrace prisoners, families, staff and other stakeholders. To do this we have built upon work we undertook in HMP Dovegate last year, supporting a group of students to deliver a drama-based project which engaged staff and prisoners collectively to inform, challenge and reinforce their understanding of racism, sexism and disability. The use of interactive drama techniques was central to the success of the project, with audience engagement crucial to engendering change. Participants were encouraged to engage in discussions, debates, role-playing and hot-seating. In doing so they developed their personal understanding of the issues being addressed and the impact of discriminatory behaviour. Following the success of this project we are returning to HMP Dovegate to deliver another course covering the remaining strands of the Equality Act 2010 including age, religion and sexual orientation.
You might ask yourself why, in such a tough environment where hierarchy is prized and inequality to some extent intrinsic, such a project is so effective? Putting aside the experience of the facilitators for a second, the fundamental key to the project’s success is the crux of what it sets out to achieve. By treating inmates as equals you automatically encourage that behaviour in return. Participants are given the space to contribute their opinions without fear of reprisal and to identify and relate with characters from a safe distance.
I think it helps we are a charity. As such we are distinct from the prison and are able as a result to give prisoners the distance they need from the ‘establishment’ to openly discuss their points of view, exploring their personal beliefs without the pressure of ‘ticking a box’ or passing a course. Staff also feel able to explore their personal beliefs within a safe environment that allows them to engage with a ‘character’ rather than a recognised individual.
Using the medium of drama and character ‘hot-seating’ allows all concerned to feel equal in the learning and awareness process. That the process takes place in a custodial setting where inequalities exist by the very nature of its remit is to be applauded, and HMP Dovegate deserve recognition for their progressive approach in enabling the project delivery.
Opponents to change may struggle with the concept of equality in a situation involving offenders, but how will individuals with intolerant attitudes ever broaden their horizons and overcome prejudices without being shown what it is to be treated equally. Prison has a primary function of punishment but if we are to support its secondary and equally important role of rehabilitation we need to take seriously all elements of that rehabilitation. We must think creatively (no pun intended!) about the process of change and the most effective ways to achieve positive outcomes. It is no good just being told you need to think differently; change comes from exploring the impact of your attitudes, as in the case of restorative justice interventions, and most people need the space to be open about what they think and why they think it! Changing ingrained attitudes takes time; we cannot simply tick the box and move on.
We can instruct and even legislate for equality but unless we are active in pushing through the screen of tolerance we will be left with a bland, inactive form of equality that does little to educate our children, or indeed ourselves, about the strength and beauty found in diversity.
If you are interested in finding out more about the drama programme you can contact POPS on 0161 702 1000.
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