Over the last decade, you have achieved so much – from being the first ever Black woman president of the Edinburgh University Students Association, to innovating and directing several projects, like the Edinburgh Students Arts Festival. Overall, you’ve had such an immensely positive impact when it comes to promoting equality, inclusion, and intersectionality in Scotland. Here at SBWN, we’re honoured and delighted to be in conversation with you!
SBWN: Could you speak a little bit about the path you’ve been on? How did it all start, and what inspired you to keep going?
BP: I must start this by admitting that I quite simply may not keep going in the arts. I feel it is my duty as one of the few people of colour in the arts in Scotland for this conversation to be quite candid. I have seen too much in the arts and creative industries in Scotland to keep it to myself. By nature of being in senior management positions, starting projects, and being invited to round table policy discussions in the arts where my perspectives are seen as ‘challenging’ – as one Scottish Government worker once stated – or where I’m seen as the diverse or ‘refreshing voice’ in the room, my presence is always exoticised and welcome, but never truly accepted. To be honest, though many people start out in organisations and institutions in the traditional arts sector of festivals, galleries, venues, and national bodies, my path started out in the third sector running my own grassroots arts organisation – a festival called the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF). The festival was founded out of a desire to create opportunities for myself and others facing barriers to the creative industries. However, ESAF was entirely volunteer run and looking back on that set up, I appreciate that the festival excluded many from being part of the organising team who could not afford to work for free. I set it up while I was full-time employed as President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). It was my access to the then Principal Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, who was chair of the Fringe Festival Society and whom I asked for funding along with funding from several universities that enabled ESAF to happen. I’d never imagined this would be my pathway into the arts, but it was conversations with students while I was campaigning for the EUSA Presidential elections and my own feeling of missing a space to be creative that inspired the festival.
Throughout my time working across the arts, it has become more apparent how many of the organisations that are successful only work due to personal finance, personal privilege, access to the right people, or favouritism from Creative Scotland. It’s enough for anyone to throw the towel in, but I used my privilege to create opportunities for others. This does not absolve me from my own position and proximity to power, but it was being introduced to a community of artists, creatives, and organisations who made it work by building community in the arts with very little resources that inspired me. What also inspired me to keep going was seeing how these arts organisations naturally experimented with flat hierarchies, not-for-profit models, social enterprise models, and collaborative working models. Given my background in Sustainable Development, I have always been curious about how post-capitalist models of working might emerge in our society and given the creative industries is the birthplace of creativity, I always thought artists and creative people would drive us forward towards innovative models of care that did not exploit workers… in some ways that was true, but in other aspects of work like starting out and progressing in the arts that was the opposite of the truth.
SBWN: What is one of your career highlights? And what is one goal or ambition that you’re still working toward?
BP: One of my career highlights was being appointed Executive Director of Creative Edinburgh in 2019. After spending over 6 years as part of the Creative Edinburgh community as a member, part of the steering group, part of the board, and then Executive Director, I felt a sense of accomplishment being trusted to support our creative community through such a great platform. There are many things I have achieved throughout my career, including being awarded a Tier 1 Exceptional Promise Visa in the arts, which warranted my stay in the UK back in 2018. Given the months of preparation, reference letters, and the case I had to build to prove I was worthy to stay, that accomplishment was more significant for me personally. Knowing that many people who migrate to the UK and want to stay are not afforded a chance means that I am grateful every day for the accomplishments that have enabled me to call Scotland my home.
The Creative Edinburgh appointment felt like the community gave me a vote of confidence. A statement that it believed in my work and everything I’ve done to make the arts more accessible for people in Edinburgh. Given Creative Edinburgh’s work as part of the Creative Informatics Programme, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) four-year funded multi-million pound project investing in data-driven innovation in the creative industries in the Lothians, I was thrilled to be part of a collective that was investing in how creativity can contribute to solving some of the world’s biggest problems. I felt that my background in Sustainable Development, the Creative Industries, and the Purpose-Driven Economy (namely the social enterprise community in Scotland) was coming together in ways I couldn’t have dreamed. This became a space where I could apply my skills authentically. Some great work has come out of Creative Informatics, but not without the ingenuity of Edinburgh creatives. It was a hard graft to work with creative people that felt data and tech were outwith their expertise in the early days. When the truth is that we live in a data and tech driven world whether we like to admit it or not. Redesigning application forms, one-to-one meetings, skills development programmes, and public events helped us shift the narrative around data-driven innovation. Raise Your Game was a programme I pitched to the team to help creatives engage with Creative Informatics. Kath Warren our Events Producer did a brilliant job developing and delivering it, to address the knowledge gap around data and innovation in the creative industries.
SBWN: You raise awareness about sexism, ageism, mental health and racism in the creative sector and in third sector organisations across Scotland. In a past interview with YWCA Scotland, you mentioned the biggest change you’d like to see is equality, specifically in regards to “young women’s sexual equality, liberation and understanding.” Have you noticed much progress in this regard? What other key changes would you like to see in Scotland’s creative sector?
BP: If I’m honest, the creative sector in Scotland needs to fundamentally change or it is not going to survive, not in any way that is relevant, meaningful, or healthy. I have lived through and experienced some appalling things in our sector, such as having to leave a national arts body because they refused to do anything about suspected cases of sexual harassment and abuse. It turns out the person in question was very good friends with the Artistic Director, so it was swept under the rug and I was forced to leave because I could not be complicit staying at an organisation that chose to do nothing. The issue was better handled at another institution, but it was an incredibly disappointing and traumatic experience.
I have been at organisations where the chair of the board wanted to save face about a cash flow issue by refusing to tell the organisation’s key funder there was a cash flow problem due to a number of delayed invoice payments, which can happen in the middle of an unprecedented, global pandemic. When they refused to let me inform the funder and invoices were not paid on time as promised, the chair chose to make a director’s loan to the organisation going over my head to solve a problem that essentially they had created. When I raised the poor practice around this and the unacceptable undermining of trust in the situation, I was bullied out of my role in that organisation after reporting the chair’s behaviour. This was obviously also driven by covert racism and bias. A position of entitled and assumed superiority, but most importantly fear. The board did an inside job investigation instead of bringing in a more neutral third party at my request and dragged on the ‘investigation’ for five months. It was poorly managed and incredibly unpleasant to say the least, but more interesting to me highlighted a complete lack of robust due process and support in the sector in general for these situations.
And even more recently, I stepped back from my role at an arts organisation after I felt the founder was making a risky financial decision to go ahead with a programme when the organisation was running a £12,000 to £22,000 deficit depending on the founder’s personal finances being added to the budget. Funding had not come in as anticipated and we were waiting to hear back from one funder. I suggested we delay the programme until we had the decision. They refused and decided to go ahead, so I made the professional decision to step back. They were so vindictive about me leaving that they erased any record of me being involved as a director of the organisation on the website and all of the social media. They sent me incredibly unprofessional emails asking why I’d left and how could I have abandoned them? Honestly, it was wild.
These are just the most extreme examples and what I intend to do by sharing them is to highlight that this sector is incredibly unregulated and often poorly run. There are a small number of people and very few organisations that I actually rate in the arts in Scotland. I can count most of them on two hands. There is a real skills gap, knowledge gap, and a large amount of ego in the arts. There is an unwillingness to discuss failure. There is a culture of low pay, overwork, and a lack of transparency. If things continue this way, the sector will eventually implode. We need to be honest about these issues to address them and make necessary changes.
When it comes to women’s sexual equality, liberation, and understanding I do really believe the narrative is changing in Scotland. The women’s sector is not without its faults, but is filled with organisations making the world safer for young women. From YWCA Scotland – the Young Women’s Movement’s Status of Young Women in Scotland Report focusing on work precarity, Engender’s policy work, Scottish Women’s Aid front line services, and Rape Crisis Scotland’s front line workers our sector is working hard for young women – for all women. I think with developments on addressing period poverty and the changes in domestic abuse bill to include coercive control over the last five years, Scotland is stepping up when it comes to making the world safer for young women. Though, our sexual education curriculum is really letting the side down across the country. We need to improve teaching about consent, healthy relationships, and queer relationships. As a sector, we know it is the next thing we need to tackle to support young women’s liberation among many issues.
SBWN: How can we address some of these key issues? Specifically, what are some examples of welcoming and accessible communities for underrepresented people in the sector?
BP: We can address the key issues with Scottish Government ministers that actually understand the sector they are set to govern. With more support for individual workers in the arts. Unions are a great example of this, but they often fail people from marginalised backgrounds because they do not take into real consideration the impact of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other intersectional oppressions people experience in the arts. We need a complete restructuring of our funding models including going back to the drawing board with the way the Arts Council, Creative Scotland, operates. We also need better working conditions for artists, arts administrators, and creative people working in the sector. I think networks like this, community run initiatives, artist-led spaces, and digital communities give us the opportunity to organise, share knowledge, and create safety for each other. These spaces are so essential for our survival while we fight for systemic change.
SBWN: A sense of community has always been one of our key aims, and you’ve so successfully created and sustained artistic and nurturing communities. In your opinion, what makes for a successful collaboration and how can you find others to collaborate with?
BP: Shared values are the first thing. You cannot create ‘community’ without a common purpose and a shared understanding of how to get there. I like to think of my work as facilitating communities already there and giving them a space to just be with a bit of structure, funding, and leadership. Taking credit for creating these communities would be incredibly arrogant of me. These amorphous communities exist and often just need a facilitator to bring them together. I think remembering that activism is a relay race not a marathon is important. It is crucial to know when it is time to pass the baton on to someone else and take time to rest for yourself. It is also important to be open to allowing your communities to support you when you need them to.
SBWN: Many of our members at Scottish BAME Writers Network are interested in realising their own creative projects. Do you have any advice for Black writers and writers of colour who want to start their own collectives or organisations?
BP: Yes, working for yourself with people you trust is the best way to thrive in the arts. So much of the work I’ve gotten over the years has been as a result of word of mouth after a job well done. People pay attention to how you make them feel when you work with them and how you communicate with them. Start with a deep understanding of how you like to work and what you value in your work life, make that known to others, and go from there.
SBWN: A lot of our network’s creative writers tend to work simultaneously in arts activism and arts programme management. Often, work is sustained through freelancing, and piecing together several different part-time posts. How have you balanced the various initiatives you’re a part of, while still making time for your creative energy?
BP: I would like to say I have balanced it, but if I were to say that it would be untruthful. Finding the right balance of freelance work to sustain your creative practice is a task, but it is possible. I like to think of my working life as a wave with peaks and troughs. Sometimes there are periods of high activity, the crest of the wave, and sometimes there are periods of rest, the still water before it builds again. It’s about pushing yourself just far enough you can pull yourself back into the harbour. I have experienced at least three serious burnouts in my life. They have all taken place over the last 5 years in my arts career. This sector encourages burnout because there is so little put in place to safeguard arts workers from overwork when we all work so independently. I would say, be willing to have some honest conversations with yourself regularly. Check in on how you’re feeling. Julia Cameron talks about weekly Artist’s Dates in the Artist’s Way. I suggest carving out time to be creative once a week and that doesn’t mean pursuing your creative practice. It is time that is just fun! Julia talks about this as ‘filling your artist’s well’. She says that this is where our creativity comes from and we need to top it up regularly. She uses the well to explain why we might face writer’s block after a period of serious momentum that may feel like it has come out of nowhere. To feed your well you need to feed your curiosity, your inner child, play, allow yourself to be free, and that way you can sustain your creative energy. If you don’t feed the well there will be no water left in it.
SBWN: Could you share a few of your favourite reads of 2021 so far? Or, alternatively, any recent events you’ve attended that you found especially inspiring? (Or both!)
BP: Be More Pirate by Sam Connif Allende, an argument for why Golden Age Pirates specifically were some of the most inclusive, radical folk in Western society who set the tone for legal gay marriage, workplace compensation for injury, flat work hierarchies, and a pension system. It encourages the reader to bring out their inner disruptor and highlights how pirates were fighting the establishment, in radical ways that have been erased from history by the very establishment they were fighting. It then highlights modern examples of piratism from Wu-Tang Clan producing their own albums to Malala Yousafzai.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a manifesto for applying indigenous American Indian knowledge to our relationship with the planet to heal it. Kimmerer is a botanist and ecologist who talks about how indigenous ways of living are ways we can return to for a healthier, more sustainable society. Filled with traditional stories, folklore, modern examples of communities living and thriving in the States, as well as her expert knowledge on plants, this book is not to be missed. It is a stunning piece of writing.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an anti-capitalist treatise on how resisting the attention economy should be one of our most radical acts in the 21st century. Jenny’s argument is incredibly convincing and counterintuitive because she presents rest as an active form of resistance. Her art practice is also incredibly nuanced, experimental, nature-driven, and insightful.
SBWN: Are there any networks, organisations, or collectives that you think our members should look into or join, including any you’ve started or contribute to?
BP: Well, many of the networks and organisations I have been involved with have left me with an incredibly bad taste in my mouth due to my negative experiences at the helm of them. I feel suggesting them as acceptable places for Black and POC folk to gather would be doing us all a disservice. What I can say is, I do rate We Are Here Scotland. I am currently Co-Director there with our Founder Ica Headlam. Regional creative networks are important to explore, including Creative Dundee, Creative Stirling and others like Creative Edinburgh. Creative Mornings, a free international breakfast lecture series based in cities all over the world including Edinburgh can be a great space for community too. The talks are themed and illustrators for the theme are created by graphic designers from a different chapter each month. The newsletter is brilliant for quirky ideas, creative job roles, and inspiring reflections. They took the talks virtual during lockdown and started running free workshops. It is an incredibly accessible and diverse global creative community. I also love Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journal Prompts. She started them during lockdown as a daily journal prompt and the prompts have grown into a global community. It is worth subscribing to.
The Black Curators’ Collective based across the UK is an incredible space. I first engaged with them through the Glasgow International Programme they curated and was refreshed to be in a black-led space of curators talking about the realities of curating art. Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop, and other spaces are brilliant for the work they do to create safe space in our community and the books they stock by marginalised writers.
Briana Pegado FRSA is Founder of the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF), Co-Director of We Are Here Scotland. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Art and is Chair of the board of YWCA Scotland – the Young Women’s Movement, a feminist, intergenerational movement that support young women’s leadership. She sits on the Governing Body for the University of York and works across the creative industries supporting arts organisations that want to work in sustainable and ethical ways. She dabbles in energy healing, transformational coaching, and wild swimming also finding joy in her first love – writing.