Diversity Arts Australia’s Lena Nahlous shares her vision for a more gender equal world

Lena Nahlous. Courtesy Diversity Arts Australia.

Lena Nahlous. Courtesy Diversity Arts Australia.

Ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day, we caught up with Lena Nahlous, Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia – to learn about her vision for a more gender equal world, how we can raise awareness against bias and take action for equality.

Lena became Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia in 2016. She has over 20 years’ experience in arts, cultural and media organisations, and has managed screen and digital media–based initiatives that have engaged thousands of people, particularly women, refugees, migrants and young people.

You’ve been engaged in, and committed to, social justice and equity for the past twenty years. What is the driving force behind your work? What keeps you motivated?

Growing up I loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels but it wasn’t until I was older that I realised those unsafe and seedy “swarthy-looking strangers”, the “foreigners” who got chased off the properties of good white English folk, were probably people like me and my family. When I realised that these stories depicted a world centred around white middle-class England it was a revelation, because these stories had influenced my thinking so much as a child.

Some of the driving force behind my work comes from my own experiences growing up, not only of race-based discrimination but of the intersection of race, gender and class-based discrimination, and seeing these experiences played out on screen, in books and in the media. But only as I got older could I start to identify and name systems and practices that privileged some people over others. And, I gained an understanding that inequity could not simply be reduced to individual actions, but was based on systems of power. Because systems are built – they are not a given, nor are they static – they can also be dismantled and replaced with alternative structures.

What has kept me motivated has been witnessing those moments when change has been possible and when initiatives or projects have had positive and sometimes life-changing outcomes for individuals and communities.

Working with so many people and communities has also given me the opportunity to listen, collaborate, learn – and increase my understanding of the kinds of ongoing struggles that exist in NSW and the need for greater advocacy, equity and social justice.

What role does Diversity Arts Australia play in empowering culturally diverse women?

Culturally diverse women are underrepresented across all areas of the arts, screen and creative sectors. This is something that we’re conscious of at Diversity Arts, and we embed gender equity into all our programming. We also develop targeted programs and support women-led initiatives like the “We are the Mainstream” International Women’s Day symposium, which is being covered by two of our StoryCasters members. 70% of our StoryCasters collective of content creators and citizen journalists identify as female, and the trainers for the program identify as women and/or gender-nonbinary.

In addition, last year’s INTERSECT AU/UK leadership exchange cohort was entirely composed of mid-career and established First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse women who are leaders in their fields.

The After Australia anthology also had a majority of First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse women writers. Though StoryCasters and INTERSECT are open to all genders, I believe that the larger proportion of participants who identify as women speaks to a great need in the art sector for mentorship, pathways and leadership for both women and gender non-binary people.

In 2019 Diversity Arts Australia launched the Shifting the Balance report that revealed a significant underrepresentation of cultural diversity in leadership roles across the Australian arts and cultural sector. Do you think progress has been made since the report was released?

I believe that we still have a long way to go to increase representation of culturally and linguistically diverse people in leadership roles in the sector but what the report has done, and continues to do, is to prompt reflection and spark conversations for arts and screen organisations, and to provide evidence of the need for this change. I’m amazed at how often it’s cited in media articles, journals, and talks.

I’ve also seen how the Shifting the Balance report has inspired organisations to take stock of their leadership. For many, it was the first time that they had looked at the diversity of their Boards and executive team. Since the publishing of this report, we’ve seen some organisations recruiting for diversity and developing targeted leadership programs and internships and others seeking equity and inclusion training for their staff and Board members.

How do you think the arts and cultural sector can better forge a world for diverse and marginalised voices?

In my experience the arts have the potential to open up people’s minds to new possibilities, to challenge their thinking and to provide a platform to reimagine what is possible. Our Stories From the Future project invites creatives from across the country to reimagine a more equitable and inclusive Australian arts sector in 2050. We’ve been really buoyed by the strategies and ideas that have come through the workshops. We encourage the artists to use their creativity and imagination as a strength in this space, because ultimately that is exactly what we need when forging the path forward.

Going back to the Enid Blyton reference that I started this conversation with – art has great power to influence peoples’ thinking and their views of the world, and to disrupt and challenge those world views. Books, music, performance, films can all provide us with insights into other worlds, and deepen our connections and understanding of each other.

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #ChoosetoChallenge – what do you think we can do collectively, to help create a gender equal world?

Before we can work collectively, we need to have more conversations and build awareness about the often exclusionary and inherent bias in the mainstream women’s movement and not assume that women in positions of power alone will address injustices. The mainstream women’s movement has not been built around the priorities of women of colour, First Nations women and working-class women, and this needs to change.

During lockdown, many individuals and organisations experienced a reckoning with systemic racism and injustice. Changing systems ultimately leads to the most sustainable social change. Challenging systems includes calling into question injustices such as; unequal pay, unaffordable childcare, domestic violence, lack of representation in leadership, and also the over-incarceration of First Nations people and deaths in custody, the continued detainment of refugees in detention, and race-based discrimination, which are all women’s issues.

#ChooseToChallenge is a great theme to carry across all areas of social change, because it acknowledges that the systems we live and work in are not “one size fits all” and do not function universally. When people #ChooseToChallenge the systems that harm them or the people around them, they’re choosing to make equity everyone’s responsibility.


Image: Lena Nahlous. Courtesy Diversity Arts Australia.