In 2020, Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, had many difficult decisions to make, but this one was totally unexpected. Jo explains why she chose to accept an MBE in the 2021 New Year Honours list…
“Awards are always contentious – and none more so than the UK Honours lists. And each year I sit in bed, munching on toast wondering why so-and-so and why not someone else. And this year, I’m part of that speculation. So, in line with both Unlimited’s and my personal desire for transparency, I’d like to explain why I’ve accepted, and what I’m going to commit to doing as a result.
Any award isn’t ever for one person, it’s for all the people connected to the work they are involved in – so in this case, the Unlimited team, partners and board, the artists we support, the allies who support us and all those involved in this history behind this work. I’m not assuming all the team or all disabled artists would have made the same decision to accept an award – far from it. I’m aware many would not. But it’s the work of the whole that has led to my name being put forward, not simply anything I have done.
Disabled people make up between 15 – 22% of our population depending on the source you cite. And yet, the Government’s own figures showed that only 4% of recipients in the 2019 New Year Honours list said they were disabled people, down from 5% in the 2018 list. That’s a big gap. It’s improved a little this year, with 6.9% being awarded to disabled people.
There are two issues there for me. Firstly – disabled people need to be recognised – and we need to show that impairment is no barrier to achievement. Secondly – we need to counter ableism, the underpinning systemic concept that we aren’t good enough. We are enough as we are. It’s not us that needs to change. Barriers are built into systems and buildings by people in control of those systems and buildings. And these barriers can be removed through prioritisation and perseverance, which doesn’t happen enough, certainly still within the arts sector.
I want to increase the representation of disabled people within the arts sector at all levels – as artists, arts workers, on boards, in leadership roles and in other positions of power.
Having letters after your name can start conversations with some people and places. It shouldn’t be like that, but currently it is. I know from personal experience about the rooms that those within the disability arts sector with honours have been invited into. I’ve seen people wield that privilege responsibly and for the greater good of all of us. It can be used to make change happen – or certainly to speed up change. Many of our ‘clan’ have accepted awards and used them in this way: the incredible international influence of people like Jenny Sealey and Ruth Fabby, the articulate and honest prompts from Tony Heaton, and the continuing dialogue about people, power, and privilege led by Yinka Shonibare, to name a few.
There is a high bar. I commit to advocacy and to driving change. I want to ensure that these three letters make a big difference.
I don’t come from what I call an ‘arts family.’ My dad danced on the bars of London as a boy to help the family earn cash, learnt to read in the army and worked his way up in the hotel trade from a brass boy to a hall porter. My mum came from a northern town, the family worked in coal, and she was a stay-at-home mum, then a school secretary. Mum loves books and introduced me to both the library and the West End; Dad fell asleep in pretty much every school production I was ever in.
My dad died over 20 years ago. My mum has always found it hard to understand what I do – so sometimes, for ease, tells people I’m a teacher. Arts producer, commissioner, consultant – these words don’t mean anything if you’ve never had ‘one of them’ in your family before.
For my mum, this award carries a massive amount of weight – and therefore understanding. There have been times I’ve put work before my husband, before my kids, before my grandkids. Overwork is something the arts sector is built on. It shouldn’t be like that, but currently it is. In a sense, I want to accept this for her – so she can recognise that there was value in those imperfect and impossible choices.
I don’t want people in the arts to come only from ‘arts families.’ I don’t want people to not understand the jobs their children do if they work in the arts, and the value and impact they can have. And I want to be part of tackling and changing the overwork culture that has become all too acceptable in the arts ecosystem.
I know that the awards are controversial. There is a long list of people who have declined honours and those who have given them back. The 2020 awards had the highest decline rate so far – although it’s still small – at 2.7%. Every year, there are pieces in the press and in social media critiquing those who accept awards. This is perfectly valid as everyone has a different opinion.
The name of the award, ‘Member of the British Empire,’ is intensely uncomfortable for me and builds on a history of an imperial past, that can’t just simply be ignored. I understand this and want to make space for a range of views and engage with debate about this. I like the demand to rename the awards – shifting from empire to excellence, although I am not sure that the change of name alone will comfort everyone.
I also understand that we live in a complex ecology. Nothing is free from history. Very little ‘arts money’ is free from a history of exploitation. We are where we are, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or forget that complexity.
I won’t be adding any letters to my email signature. That’s not my way. I will use it to advocate further for the rights to funding, representation, and more for all disabled artists, producers, and arts workers in a system that still systemically discriminates against us. I will use it to counter and challenge ableism. As we ‘build back’ from the pandemic, more than ever, we need to build back for everyone, with everyone. And if you want to be a part of that – check out We Shall Not Be Removed.”