Current affairs

Titled Figures of Speech, Almeida Theatre’s new digital film project spotlights Young Leaders – people aged sixteen to 25 who have something vital to say about the world we live in – through specially written and recorded speeches tackling a subject close to their heart.

This article is part of our ongoing series drawing attention to these influential Young Leaders.
See more here.

Drawing on personal experience of being singled out for her race, gender and youth, Takyiwa Danso demands that under-represented groups “do not want to be invited to the table, we want to build that table with you and claim our rightful place.” Ultimately, “the focus on diversity should be less of a box ticking exercise and more of a box breaking movement.”

In her speech Do I Tick The Box?, the 24 year-old Londoner explores the difficulties and contradictions inherent in trying to build a truly diverse and inclusive society, one that includes all without erasing the differences that make us unique. A Youth Development Advocate and Youth Delegate at the UN General Assembly, Danso is committed to creating a platform for those who might not otherwise be acknowledged.

We met to expand on her speech and debate issues of tokenism, apathy, and safe spaces.

Ammar Kalia: You talk about the concept of ‘token diversity’ in your speech; when have you experienced this yourself?
Takyiwa Danso: It’s something that happens to me a lot, especially since I work around young people’s issues. I get asked to go to events just because I’m young and diverse and therefore I help make whatever organisation look youth-focused when they’re actually not. It’s really tiring because you end up asking yourself, ‘Why am I here?’ In my speech, I give an example of a time when I was speaking at a charity event at the Houses of Parliament and a middle-aged white man said how different and refreshing it was to see me there because I was the only non-white person at the event. I think he meant it in a good way but it was still annoying to hear because it’s a reminder that you stand out.

Ammar: Do you wish you were more vocal about it at the time?
Takyiwa: I wish I had been but it took me by surprise and I didn’t want to make myself stand out even more by responding. I just smiled and carried on and pretended like it was fine; it was such a brief moment but it’s something that I’ve remembered ever since.

Ammar: How can we bring about meaningful change without succumbing to a tokenistic mentality?
Takyiwa: Tokenism is annoying but it is a step forward and one way of effecting change. The fact it’s relied on so much is difficult though. Instead, we need to reach out to particular under-represented groups and talk to them and let them lead the conversation. Institutions need to change to accept different types of people, rather than the people themselves changing to fit institutions. There needs to be a holistic sense of diversity rather than picking and choosing only certain people to represent the whole. Immigrants and racially diverse people have grown up without an innate sense of confidence in our place in the world, we assume that we won’t fit in anyway so why even bother? So, you have to try and force yourself out of that way of thinking. Sometimes I think we oppress ourselves and we won’t go for a certain opportunity because we tell ourselves we’re not good enough and that’s so psychologically damaging. It’s a two-way process of institutions changing as well as ourselves. 

“Immigrants and racially diverse people have grown up without an innate sense of confidence in our place in the world, we assume that we won’t fit in anyway so why even bother?”

Ammar: How far does culture play into this lack of confidence? Especially the immigrant mentality of having to work twice as hard as others to succeed?
Takyiwa: Until we get to a point where we’re fully integrated, we will have to work twice as hard as everyone else to succeed. 

Ammar: How has the UK’s attitude to diversity changed in the wake of the Brexit vote and the outpouring of vitriol towards immigrants?
Takyiwa: It felt like something of a step backwards in terms of diversity in the UK. It brought out these underlying thoughts that a lot of people have but since London is a bubble we didn’t see it as much here. The environment now is uncomfortable and if we have conversations about these issues, without just blaming people and being lazy in our arguments, we can address the situation more positively.

Ammar: I remember being shocked at how low the youth voting turnout was for the Brexit referendum. Do you feel like young people also have work to do in terms of their potential apathy and attitudes to diversity?
Takyiwa: Young people are often homogenised as a group. The attitudes of young people in London, for example, are so different to those living elsewhere, since we all have different experiences. This is why representation needs to encompass those from a range of different backgrounds. Social media also heightens that sense of being in an echo chamber where you can assume the whole world thinks like you but the reality is very different. Communication with people who have different ideas, beliefs and backgrounds is therefore so important.

“Social media also heightens that sense of being in an echo chamber where you can assume the whole world thinks like you but the reality is very different. Communication with people who have different ideas, beliefs and backgrounds is therefore so important.”

Ammar: You were a Youth Delegate to the UN General Assembly; what was that experience like?
Takyiwa: It was really eye-opening. Since it was such a new program it did feel a little tokenistic at times but it was great that governments were understanding that it is incredibly important to bring young people’s voices into decision making. It was hard to bring back what I learned to the UK and to create effective change from the bureaucratic process though. There’s more work to be done and young people should be more aware and interested in these decisions affect us. 

Ammar: What are your goals for the future?
Takyiwa: I’m really interested in continuing to work in international development and to keep working with young people. I want young people to be able to speak on behalf of themselves and to create their own platforms and make them incredible! It’s happening already on the internet but it needs to be nurtured to continue. We’re not an apathetic group, we do want to effect change, we just need to be respected and allowed to grow. 

Read Sarah’s speech here and follow the conversation on social media #FiguresofSpeech.
Check back here next week for our next Almeida Theatre Young Leader interview.