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Interview: Unconscious bias and diversity training from a theatre company

Black British theatre company Talawa Theatre has started offering unconscious bias and diversity training to organisations seeking to address their own internal biases.

HR magazine spoke to Roxan Kamali-Sarvestani, the company’s community engagement producer, to learn more about the programme and what further measures businesses can take to stamp out systemic racism.

Founded in 1986, Talawa Theatre Company’s aim is to diversify the theatre industry, working to support Black artists and with other organisations in the industry to offer training.

Yet as more organisations outside of the arts begin to look at their own systemic racism, the group has taken the opportunity to open up its training programme.

Talawa’s methods use drama techniques, including improvisation and forum theatre which relies on spectator engagement, to offer a different version of unconscious bias and diversity training.

“We use scenarios that have come directly from the organisation, things that have happened, or which are similar, and use these to identify the barriers to find a number of solutions,” said Kamali-Sarvestani.

To help people identify their own bias, Talawa facilitators work with peoples’ personal experience.

She added: “We start by guiding them through areas of their lives that they may not have thought about. This is then used as a springboard to discuss how they felt, what they experienced, and gives them a different perspective which allows them to consider their own privilege, or lack of, and relate to the experience of others and the impact this can have on lives.

“We then bring this back to the workplace and how it may impact their decision making - consciously or unconsciously.”

Participation and experiential learning are critical to the group’s approach as they encourage trainees to gain a perspective outside their own.

Kamali-Sarvestani said: “It’s this which leads to a deeper understanding. You can’t shift attitudes without this shift in perspectives. Sitting back and listening won’t work. The activities allow for everyone to participate without feeling exposed or unsafe.”

As training should be just one part of a wider objective to initiate change where diversity and bias are concerned, Kamali-Sarvestani advised businesses to enable multi-departmental collaboration as part of their wider strategy.

“Owning the problem collectively and finding the solution together is an empowering way to move forward,” she said.

Enlisting the help of a third party can help as it prevents echo-chambers being created, and companies should share the work they are doing throughout communications channels.

Above all, Kamali-Sarvestan urged businesses to be active about their commitment to D&I.

She said: “Initiate change, don’t just talk about it. Constantly review action plans and initiatives - evaluate the developments and progress made with committees or advisory groups.

“Be fearless; don’t be afraid of making what might feel like radical changes or getting it wrong - when you do, put it right, learn from it and ensure it never happens again.”

Further reading:

Case study: EY's commitment to diversity and inclusion

Case study: Superdrug's Everyone Matters D&I strategy

Is HR a hypocrite when it comes to D&I?