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Improving diversity and inclusion in music education hubs: “It’s persistence, it’s being open and honest.”

Youth Music spoke to Sharon Jagdev Powell, Deputy Head of Leicester-Shire Schools Music Service, to find out about diversity and inclusion practice within the service. With a 25-year background in education, Sharon has worked in a broad variety of environments, challenging instances of institutionalised racism and lack of representation. She shares examples of how her service has evolved its approach to equity and inclusion, with advice on where to start and where to go next.

Creating cultural change – “a whole service movement.”

To see real and lasting change happen, improving an organisation’s approach to diversity and inclusion can’t be a one-off project. There needs to be wholescale change across a whole organisation. But how can leaders encourage this to happen?

Sharon discusses with us the importance of building a culture whereby individuals have the confidence to make changes. This won’t happen by spoon-feeding people resources, their autonomy should be supported so that they can make changes independently. This means investing in the individual’s ability to make changes and being confident that they will approach this in an appropriate and just manner.

Leadership needs to work as a collective and lead by example by “not giving people the option to opt-out.” It is important to understand the unique journeys of colleagues and be mindful of how they have become the people they are; particularly with a workforce of perspectives that aren’t always aligned. Some approaches need to be tailored depending on the individual, but this is not an insurmountable task.

Nobody’s an expert – I’m certainly not.

An inherent aspect of the journey to inclusion is that it is an ongoing and evolving process. It is a collective effort to keep up the momentum, stay informed and willingness to learn. This should be the commitment of the organisation and never be led by one individual, with responsibility and accountability shared across the workforce at different levels of seniority: “a job for everybody to be a part of”.

The importance of dialogue (and safe spaces) – “Listening is key, people should be encouraged to have a voice.”

Sharon explores with us the necessity of creating a safe space for communication in the workplace. Having difficult conversations is worthwhile but should be carefully considered. Specifically, creating a dedicated environment where people can talk about issues they may never have talked about before. From conductors that have never been challenged on their repertoire, to those who have not fully absorbed the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on their local communities.

People do want to talk about it, but they’ve never had that forum before.

Whilst there are many individuals who are “craving this kind of conversation”, some people may be reluctant to take part or open up. If this is the case, ask yourself: “what’s the barrier there? Why don’t [they] want to be part of that conversation… you need to unpick that and invest in people and find out why.” One of the first steps to opening a safe space can be to “give up your identity”, for people to share aspects of their own background and hear about other people’s, to encourage openness.

Further to this, LSMS promotes a “no-blame culture” which encourages individuals to share their point of view without fear of judgment. This helps to nurture a space for learning and development.

It is also important to dedicate a space to exploring terminology (e.g. anti-racism, white supremacy, unconscious bias), which may be new to some individuals.

Be prepared to forge this space for dialogue throughout the organisation, extending it to both board and staff meetings. Empower and amplify voices that need to be, specifically those with lived experience and insight into topics being discussed.

Engaging communities – “It’s all about connection … what about everything else that goes around schools like the communities and their parents, that has to be a focus as well.”

Representation is important for young people. To be able to interact with relatable and aspirational figures first-hand is an invaluable experience that can initiate and strengthen their engagement. This means seeing people doing music who look and sound like them, whether that’s in public performances, teaching music or in pictures on your website.

It’s important for building community cohesion to showcase how inclusive and impactful music can be for young people. Sharon reflects on the successes of bringing local musicians from diverse backgrounds and genres into school assemblies, and organising a musical procession performance in a public community space to show people how important music is. These examples helped inspire confidence in what such programmes could achieve amongst people from a variety of backgrounds, helping to engage a wider cohort of young people that represent the community.

It is important to bring provision to places where communities are relaxed, and where they will feel safe to engage with it. Tapping into the local community groups to find trusted and embedded places such as community centres can be invaluable in enhancing attendance and buy-in from a broader range of families.

Parental commitment is essential. Staff members having a physical presence around families is important to building trust within communities: basing staff nearby to be able to open conversations and explore concerns that may potentially interrupt a child’s access to learning.

Forming local networks with established groups, organisations and individuals can also strengthen your approach to working within and for the community. Having regular conversations will ensure your ear is always to the ground. Connecting with local radio stations, music studios and musicians to form a robust space to share and learn is an example of how LMEH taps into local knowledge and experience through their City Network. But this needs to be a genuine dialogue and two-way transaction, and not just a “tick box exercise.”

Embedding youth voice into activity – “the buy-in is the quality … giving them opportunities that they wouldn’t normally do.”

LSMS facilitates two youth groups: Youth Ambassadors and Youth Activists. Youth Activists (aged 20+) are integrated with service: they represent the service at conferences, speak at board and executive meetings, and they get paid for their work. Activists will talk to senior management about topics such as social media, live campaigns, modern and relevant terminology, and how to bridge gaps with audiences. Youth Ambassadors, the younger group of participants who are still at school, are active within the music-making community and help to spread the word and engage new people. Members of the Young Ambassador group are spread over the county and so organising an event on Zoom is an effective solution to bringing them together. Online meetings also mean that parents and families can attend and tune into events, showcasing young people as being at the heart of the work.

It is important when working with children and young people to be familiar with language that’s relevant to them and important within their outlook of their world. It is also important to look at devising a meeting structure where all young people can access the discussions and the activities are displayed in bite-sized accessible format.

When we talk about terminology as adults, it’s probably very different from the terminology that the young people use. So get them in, get them to talk to you and make sure that they’re comfortable doing it.

“If we don’t act now, we’re going to be left behind.”

A key message from Sharon is don’t wait to make change. Behaviours and attitudes evolve over time but not without action and certainly not with delay. “It has to be followed up with action.”

LSMS is running a Leics Decolonise group with the aim of decolonising their music curriculum. The group is in its infancy but has already delivered unconscious bias training and is working on a theory of change framework. This focus on outcomes will help to inform the smaller personalised and individual changes that will lead to the ultimate goal. Other resources that may be useful in this area are:

Nate Holder - Decolonisation, bias and anti-racism training

The Black Curriculum -

Black Lives in Music -

Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review -

Decolonizing the Music Room -

Black Composers Music -