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How 5 Black and Brown female cultural leaders are paving the way for racial change in Leeds and beyond.

Photo credit: Vanitas Arts.

Following the release of Be Bold Be Brave Nivetha Tilakkumar, Communications and Engagement Officer for LEEDS 2023, reflects on International Women’s Day as a woman of colour and how the 5 pioneering Black and Brown female cultural leaders in Leeds are making a difference for her and future generations. 

When I was younger, I had plenty of women to look up to as figureheads of change but none that truly represented me, my family, my upbringing or my experiences. We learnt about women that were so far removed from the complexities of my life that I only ever saw them as historical figures rather than pioneers.  

I am a South Asian woman and it’s been many years since my school days, but I still struggle to find people to look up to and relate to. I often find myself scouring social media platforms to find other women of colour who are doing what I find inspiring but aren’t in our children’s textbooks. However, these women were still out of reach by being on a screen, and I found myself working under leaders who didn’t understand my struggle, my experiences, or how they contributed to the ongoing racism in society.  

Nivetha Tilakkumar, Communications & Engagement Officer at LEEDS 2023

I now work in the Leeds cultural and creative sector and feel privileged to know that we have the Leeds 5: a group of Black and Brown female cultural leaders who have made the pledge to continue the fight against racism in society. Kully Thiarai (CEO and Creative Director of LEEDS 2023), Amanda Huxtable (Co-Director of Vanitas Arts), Kathy Williams OLY (CEO and Creative Director of RJC Dance), Keranjeet Kaur Virdee (CEO and Artistic Director of South Asian Arts UK), and Sharon Watson (CEO and Principal of Northern School of Contemporary Dance) banded together after the death of George Floyd in 2020 to change structural and systemic institutions and thoughts that are so deep-rooted in our society.  

To know that 5 women of colour who work in the cultural sector are leading pioneers of racial change is so inspiring to see. Not only do I feel myself represented in the fields that I have always yearned to work in, but I feel that I am represented by women who also recognise the nuances of my individual and collective experiences that I share with other women and non-binary people of colour. 

The Leeds 5 have most recently released the film Be Bold Be Brave in which we see the group discuss their experiences of being a woman of colour and the many layers of injustices that we face in our lives. The film sparks a conversation about racial change in society and hopes to inspire the younger generations and beyond to continue this fight against institutional racism.  

It means a lot to see these women come together in Leeds. I’ve always felt Leeds to be a polycultural city but have felt that we are underrepresented in creative and cultural fields. I have usually seen white people and men at the forefront of cultural institutions from which I have always felt barred.  So, to see the Leeds 5 take up space and create this platform in this city only motivates myself and many other women of colour in my position to do the same. 

After watching Be Bold Be Brave, I was reminded of why I chose to stay in Leeds. Seeing these women lead major cultural organisations in the North reignites my passion for my creative practice and my desire to create space for people of colour in the arts. The film has reminded me of my desire and need to combat racial inequality whilst also uplifting myself and other people of colour in spaces that often reject us.  

Photo credit: Vanitas Arts.

The journey to better equity and equality is long one. We all must learn from our past histories and act together to really make an impact for ourselves and the generations to come. I feel confident in the Leeds 5 that they can help us think inwardly and drive us to make this positive change. For someone that grew up in a world where I didn’t see many people, let alone women, that looked like me in the media or in leadership roles around me, I feel so overwhelmingly proud to see this group of women influence change and encourage others to be bold in doing the same.  

I know that we can’t solely rely on these leaders, it takes everyone to act to really make a difference. But I feel a wave of radical action coming our way that will transform the lives of young girls of colour. I feel a wave of women of colour standing up against racism that would make my mother, my grandmother, and all the women that came before me proud. 

To find out more about the making of the film, you can read Amanda’s blog here.