Shifting the narrative: a conversation with Lois Fitch and Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos

By Linda Innes

The brutal killing of George Floyd, husband and father of five, at the hands of a white police officer horrified people across the world in May 2020. What followed was a global conversation and a deeply felt surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement where organisations, companies and individuals began to examine their own hierarchies and processes.

Thousands of miles away from Minneapolis, in Glasgow, RCS was forced to reflect on its own structure and the lived experience of its students and alumni. A series of frank conversations between members of the RCS Black Union and Senior Management took place over summer. These conversations led to the creation of the Anti-Racism Action Plan, a ‘living document’ which aims to make meaningful change for the students now and the generations of students in the future.

Assistant Principal Dr Lois Fitch and Vice-President of the Students’ Union and member of the RCS Black Union, Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos, reflect on their experiences of this most tumultuous year.

Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos was in the middle of finishing her second year BA Musical Theatre studies remotely when the reporting of George Floyd’s death broke across news screens worldwide.

“When the news hit, we were in the middle of lockdown. It shook the Black student community at RCS massively and unfortunately, it just didn’t feel like there was much support from the institution.

“The silence was deafening and the Black students were angry, exhausted and hurt. There was a general feeling of disappointment about how the conservatoire handled the situation.”

Assistant Principal Lois Fitch, recognises the response from RCS to the events and conversations taking place across the world at the time were “too slow, too formulaic”.

“It was with good intentions, and we spoke to other conservatoires and higher education institutions, but we just didn’t understand the implications of initiatives like Blackout Tuesday.

“If I were to describe my feelings in May 2020, it would be horrified,” Lois shakes her head.

“Horrified at what I was seeing on the news, and then equally horrified at what our students were telling us about their experience. How could I not know this?”

Lois recognised she had a role to play in supporting students and offering a positive way forward.

“I felt I really needed to do something and I knew I had so much to learn to be able to do this. It was a challenge to know what to start reading, who to talk to and, importantly, we had to listen. I learned so much from our students.”

What followed was a series of meetings with members from the RCS Black Union and Senior Management. The conversations gave students opportunities to tell personal stories and explain what it was like to be a Black/Mixed race person within RCS.

“These narratives were hard to hear for everyone but a very needed first step to illuminate where some of the issues lie.” Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos

“We spoke about how there needs to be an action plan written down, something the institution can be held accountable to. It was important to involve students – they are the ones whose experiences we are trying to address.”

Both Zweyla and Lois note the value alumni had in the creation of the action plan.

“Alumni were able to articulate their early experience of their professional work and about the importance of mentorship in the workplace – this added another really meaningful perspective to our thinking,” says Lois.

Zweyla nods in agreement.

“The plan was opened up to the entire Black Union as well as alumni. That meant that people from so many countries across the globe were looking and feeding into it.”

This plan evolved into the Anti-Racism Action Plan (ARAP) which was published in August 2020. A comprehensive “working draft” which details more than 30 action points for RCS to work towards and report against on a quarterly basis.

The plan doesn’t shy away from any areas and calls for change from the top down. One of the first actions is a call for more people of colour on the Board of Governors, and for both the Board and Senior Management to engage with inclusive leadership practices.

Another set of action points looks at decolonising the curriculum. The equally robust appendix to the ARAP explains why it is necessary to offer an alternative to the traditional canon … “it [the canon] is inherently problematic since it sustains the supremacy of a set of works (usually male, white and European) over others”.

So how do you begin to change the traditional curriculum?

“The whole structure of higher education in general has sustained the supremacy of white, western canon … trying to reshape or question this is a massive job in itself,” says Lois.

“I think it’s important to step back and see the whole thing we call ‘the canon’ – you don’t need to chuck it all out. How can we open it up and use it in an interesting and innovative way?” Lois Fitch

“What excites me is the opportunity to take something like a traditional piece of repertoire, written by a white, male composer and put it next to something that’s new and let the juxtaposition speak. How do the two pieces reflect and work with one another? As a teacher, there is a real opportunity here to forge a new path in our students’ learning journeys.

“The more versatility and diversity there is in the curriculum, the more well-rounded an artist you’re going to be. At that point, it doesn’t matter what background you’re from but instead, what you’ve been exposed to, so your artistic personality has something in it of everything you’ve ever encountered. The shift is happening and that is encouraging.”

“Conversations about decolonising the curriculum are not new. But this year, it feels like the message is finally getting through and by writing this really thorough ARAP, it gives us goals we want, and need, to achieve. There’s no point in writing it if we don’t enact it.”

One area of the ARAP is dedicated to representation, citing an immediate need for new counsellors, an additional Equality and Diversity Officer and an extended, more diverse, alumni network. It is, argues Zweyla, a vital area to address.

“It is so difficult as a BAME student to try and find your place in an environment where you cannot see anyone that is like you. There are so many BAME professionals in the arts that would be amazing to connect with so this is a really important point for me.

“How can you see the career you might want to have if there is no example of someone showing you the way or helping you to see how much you can grow as an artist?”

“The concept of representation across the conservatoire was something that Jeff [Principal Sharkey] and I really took away from the conversations in the summer,” agrees Lois.

“Hearing people in our community talk with real insight about growing up and not seeing people who look like them in leading roles, not knowing who their role models are…over time that embeds this idea that you don’t belong.”

Across RCS, departments are getting to ready to report for the first time on their Anti-Racist Action Plan activity. It’s clear that progress is taking place; a search for new, more diverse governors is underway, staff training has been delivered, departments are working on programme-level action plans, and more than 800 students participated in anti-racist training, a sure sign that the community supports this work. But the surface has barely been scratched.

“We’ve done a lot of learning but there’s still a long way to go,” says Lois.

“This plan is not supposed to make you feel comfortable. If anything, 2020 has shown us how much we can achieve when being pushed out of our comfort zone. This is an opportunity to make things better, to build a better place for students both now and in the future.”

Zweyla nods in agreement and smiles.

“After an incredibly challenging and tiring year, there is a positive; I have found my voice and can now speak about issues around race. I feel I can come to the table and speak and be heard equally. The conversation has begun – and it is continuing.”

Some useful resources for further reading

– Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race – available via the library

– Anti-Racism Action Plan

– Anti-Racism Action Plan Appendix

– D is for Diversity: offering a more diverse look at the cinematic canon and written by RCS lecturer Andy Dougan

– Mis-education: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities by Mia Liyanage

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