Battle for the soul of arts college

Playwright, actor, director, and teacher, Ché Walker on Wac Arts & its ethos of equality & inclusion…

Friday, 21st August 2020 — By Ché Walker

Che Walker and WAC Arts

Ché Walker, left, on the current situation at Wac Arts

IT was very moving to read Darrell Ennis-Gayle’s letter about his time at Wac Arts, (How the Weekend Arts College helped as I was growing up, August 6).

I have very fond memories of teaching him. Like Darrell, and thousands more over Wac Arts’ 43-years history, I arrived there with big dreams but little money.

Any success I’ve had I owe to Celia Greenwood and the wonderful staff and students.

The very first version of my first play Been So Long was performed in the old Wac building in Kentish Town, long before the Royal Court, Young Vic and Netflix liked the Camden-set story.

Wac Arts’s ethos of equality and inclusion was decades ahead of its time and has led to the development of many successful artists, though I’m as proud of the students who didn’t go into the arts, who cultivated an appreciation for the written word, and who gained self-belief in their time at Wac.

We work with some of the most challenging and vulnerable young people, and it is a special joy to see them blossom through self-expression and exposure to art.

I have taught at Wac Arts for 30 years, and morale among teachers and the delivery team has never been lower.

We feel we have been bullied and disrespected since the founder and former chief executive Celia Greenwood was “encouraged” to step down.

The new leadership and trustees have shown a shockingly poor grasp of the pedagogy that led to our success, and a breezy contempt and insensitivity to the lived experience of our students and their families.

In recent years, programmes for young people have been cut by a breathtaking two-thirds of our former provision.

Recent refusals to furlough teachers who have given 20 years of their lives to the organisation were the final straw for many of us.

This led to the recent open letter with over 80 signatories decrying what we feel to be institutional racism and false values.

Yet even after this unprecedented intervention, the trustees still refused to arrange a meeting with the full board.

It took a further, separate protest, this time from the high-profile patrons of the college, who had to threaten to publicly resign, for the trustees to agree to do what they should have done two years ago.

Following an article on the Wac situation in the CNJ – in which the board of trustees cast aspersions on our integrity, referring to the issues we have raised as being “without foundation” and further asserting that they “do not recognise any truth” to our letter – the trustees scrambled to issue a hastily-composed statement of intent, essentially acknowledging that our concerns were indeed true and had very deep foundation.

A detailed breakdown of the statement reveals, once again, the board’s inadequate grasp of what is at stake.

“Our belief in an inclusive society has shaped our work but the response to the killing of George Floyd has brought into sharp focus that we need to do more to create an organisation that reflects the community it serves.”

Under-representation on the board is one of the issues we have attempted to raise with the full board for two years now. The invoking of George Floyd’s murder is also highly problematic in this context.

We were one of the last performing arts colleges in London to issue a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and pledging to change – a full two months after George Floyd’s death. (A desultory social media post was put out in June, only after outraged protest from staff).

For a college that has led the way on anti-racist practice for 40 years to be so morally tardy on such a momentous historic event is a grave insensitivity, and caused offence and hurt to the Wac Arts family and the community we serve.

The situation at Wac is, sadly, all too familiar – sterling community resource projects across the capital have seen new boards take over and bring a corporatist mentality wholly at odds with the work these organisations do.

It is untenable and unsustainable. If we are to reverse this moral decline, it will take anyone who ever took a class at Wac, their parents, or anyone in the borough and beyond who recognise the value of what we do, to rally and get involved.

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