(From second left) Adrian Lester, Sir Lenny Henry, Ade Adepitan, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Marcus Ryder and Meera Syal, as they deliver a letter to 10 Downing Street in 2018 calling for Representation Tax Relief. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Each year The Big Issue takes the time to reflect on the last 12 months and the Changemakers that have worked hard to add positivity and optimism to the world.
With the pandemic taking over public dialogue for almost two years, never before have so so relied on the escapism that art and culture brings. Theatre, art, music and television are invaluable in creating the compassionate society we should all be striving towards.
Here are the Changemakers making an impact across the arts.
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University of Atypical empowers disabled, D/deaf and neurodiverse artists and puts their work at the heart of the Northern Irish scene. They work with all art forms and across all impairments, delivering a year-round programme of exhibitions and events. We spoke to Deirdre McKenna, Creative Programmes and Participation Lead.
What does University of Atypical do?
We’re the only public gallery in the city that exclusively shows the work of D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse artists. We also support artists through funding. We put on the Bounce Arts Festival, which is our annual highlight of what’s happening in disabled culture.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected people with disabilities, because a lot of people have been shielding and feeling isolated. I’m an artist myself and I’ve got arthritis and a bone disease. I’ve learned a lot about myself through the process of becoming disabled.
What are some of your favourite events of the last year?
We’re coming to the end of the project called Accessing Architecture. Five artists responded to ideas around accessing the built environment. That exhibition is on in our gallery now. At Bounce, we had a drag troupe called Drag Syndrome, which is made up of adults with Down’s Syndrome. We also did a digital drawing project that was delivered remotely using tablets.
What are your hopes for 2022?
In October we have the 10th Bounce Festival planned.
A former Big Issue vendor who sold the magazine outside Old Street Tube station in London, Teglia is the founder of Odd Eyes Theatre company. The company is born out of her experiences as a young, homeless migrant woman and the struggles she went through living on the streets in London while struggling with drug addiction.
It brings together people from across the social spectrum, including professional actors, migrants, those without English as their first language, young people and those who may have had little contact with the arts before. The company tells stories that break down assumptions.
Odd Eyes is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and is a testament to both the power of the arts and Teglia’s dedication to sharing her transformative journey with others.
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During the pandemic, autistic people have been particularly at risk of isolation and increased mental health issues. In response, Flute Theatre, which co-creates Shakespeare workshops with and for autistic people, took its offering online, delivering 976 live online performances.
For Lisha Rooney, the workshops gave her nonverbal autistic son a way to communicate. She said: “Our personal heroes during lockdown are Flute Theatre. During this crisis, they have helped us and the entire autistic community every day, without fail.”
Kelly Hunter MBE, the founder of the organisation, says, “Shakespeare is allowing us to have this rhythmic conversation, where you can land on certain rhythms without worrying about what the spoken word is, and you can have an emotional and empowering effect.”
Amy Mae Baxter
Baxter founded Bad Form in 2019. Its quarterly magazines, which have focused on food, beauty and literature, are written, designed and illustrated by Black, Asian and marginalised contributors and Baxter and the team all run it on a voluntary basis. 2021 saw the launch of its Book of the Year award – won by Caleb Azumah Nelson for his novel Open Water. It also saw Bad Form scoop the Discover award from The Bookseller for pushing for change in the publishing industry.
Open Clasp theatre company
Changing the world one play at a time is the mission of Open Clasp. The company works with disadvantaged women and girls excluded from theatre and society to create bold performances for social and political change. The company takes part in several projects, but most recently launched a film collection for 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women and girls.
In 2021, they co-edited a collection of essays from important thinkers, Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call For Equality, featuring David Olusoga, Doreen Lawrence and Kwame Kwei-Armah. They also produced Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond, which charts a path forward. Their work continues but is already producing tangible change, with major broadcasters signing up after years of lip service.
Congratulations on being named a Big Issue changemaker – how does that feel?
MR: I feel like I can exhale. We all work so hard, and especially when you are working on issues regarding diversity and race, it can feel like a Sisyphean task. Receiving recognition like this is so important to give you the strength to keep going.
LH: Thank you. I am so lucky to be able to hang out with Marcus. All the things we talk about while eating Saturday soup end up in books and speeches and stuff. He’s a quality bloke and we take each other seriously whilst laughing a lot. What could be better than that?
How would you describe the work you’ve done in 2021, what have you learned, and what are the challenges you face?
MR: The biggest lesson I learned in 2021 is that people are hungry for real, substantial and structural change. The “sugar rush” of social media activism and empty statements, which I think we saw a lot of in 2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, has given way to people wanting something far more substantial.
I’d like to think that is why broadcasters such as Channel 4 and BBC came to the Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity so we could help them devise policies that will lead to real change, rather than just rolling out more training schemes and mentoring that have proved ineffective in the past to achieve long-term progress.
LH: What he said. No training schemes without jobs at the end! No more empty box-ticking exercises.
MR: Similarly I believe it is why the book Black British Lives Matter has had such a good reception as people do want to hear from experts such as Doreen Lawrence, David Olusoga and Kwame Kwei-Armah, who have a track record of bringing about real change. I’d like to think it is why I was appointed chair of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) so I can help guide the academy through real and difficult changes.
The challenge is not to get distracted. How do you make sure you focus on the important things and not the things that will get you a headline? How do you focus on the things that will bring about real change that might make you unpopular with the powers that be?
LH: This  has been a rollercoaster year for us. We made a manifesto for genuine change in Access All Areas, and also spoke to all those people for the book. I learned that there are other ways to look at a situation.
Doreen Lawrence’s approach to her son’s death was not to initiate a knife crime project. She set up a charity to find young Black architects because that’s what Stephen was training to be at the time of his death. That’s a real lesson for me – taking something awful and making a positive. The challenges are what they always are: how do we keep pressing for change and if we get there, how is that change sustained?
What are the key challenges for 2022 when it comes to improving representation in all aspects of the media and cultural industries?
MR: The biggest challenge is how we go beyond thinking that getting one disabled person on the TV screen in a drama or a Black person presenting the news is enough. We need more than cosmetic change, we need diversity in the scriptwriters, we need diversity in the people deciding what are the lead news stories. And most importantly we need a critical mass of Black people, women and disabled people so they can change the culture.
The next frontier going into 2022 has to be intersectionality. Ensuring we have good representation of people with protected characteristics who face prejudice on multiple levels.
LH: All of that, but also this sense of creating allyship. If we can just have each other’s backs, the progress we will make will be legendary. The idea that we will stand up for each other, when we see cruelty or injustice being displayed seems like the way forward.
If someone is being abused or mistreated and in your head you’re thinking “Someone should do something about that”, then that someone is probably you. Pulling in people from the margins and giving them a chance to shine is worth fighting for… so let’s fight for that.
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