All of you matter and all of you matters
I’m often asked ‘how do you get all that diversity into your school’? My answer? It’s roots up, sincere, and bred in the bone.
If you want to create the conditions where people from all sorts of backgrounds can do well, then true equality must be baked into your thinking and approach. And you have to nurture that equality by taking a holistic approach. You have to consider a student’s background, their attitudes, their preconceptions. Everything. You must leave no one behind and you must look after the whole person.
There’s always room for one more
When I was a teenager we lived in a large house on Packington Street in Islington. It had seven bedrooms and for much of the time they were filled with students at Urdang (mostly free of charge). It was that African sense of hospitality that my mum had. Sometimes I had two girls sharing my bedroom with me.
I would come home and mum would say: ‘this is Sarah, she’s sharing with you now’. Oh… right. I had to get on with it – I didn’t have a choice. That was how our house worked. There was always room for one more.
We all had our jobs – mine was to make the salad. Some of the students came from such hard backgrounds, they’d never eaten salad before. Anyway, that was my job. Others did the washing up or whatever. We all did a little something to make it work.
Some of the boys would decorate the school in Covent Garden – sort of work off their scholarship. Of course it didn’t matter to my mum where they came from, or what their race, size, ethnicity, or shape was. If they had talent, then they deserved a chance to develop it. And my mum was going to find a way to give them that chance. That was her approach.
Mum always nurtured the individual. She found students who were unique and talented, and nurtured their skill but she also helped them grow. She took care of them and helped them grow as people. ‘Everyone individual’..
I grew up with this mindset – that everyone should be given equal opportunity and everyone should be taken care of. And today at Urdang, we’ve retained it, but in a different way. No, we are not letting students stay at our houses…
How it continues in everything we do today
We have maintained the same vision and approach that my mum founded the school with in the 70s: training for all, individually, in a caring environment that nurtures the whole person.
We begin breaking cultural barriers in our recruitment process. We cast a wide net, recruiting from many ethnic heritages and helping many people – who may not otherwise have access – into professional training in dance and musical theatre at Urdang. This is a double bonus as it widens participation, promoting diversity in our school, which helps to further break down cultural barriers.
Today, the staff at Urdang maintain my mum’s founding mentality that ‘there’s always room for more’; there’s always room for outstanding talent. To do that, we raise around £500,000 each year so that students who otherwise could not afford it, can train with us at Urdang. This is our way of welcoming everyoneinto ‘our house’, just as my mum did.
One thing that’s stayed exactly the same, is that we don’t just offer access for all, we make sure the diversity of our students is secured, even amplified, by nurturing and encouraging individuality. Our approach continues to give each student individual attention – the best training to fit their specific needs. Because of this, so many of our students come in with talents they didn’t even know they had, and they leave more skilled across the board. Tailoring our training to each individual means we have an enormous capacity to add value.
Another way we add value is by creating a caring environment for our students where they can work hard and express their talent.
I’m fortunate to have a team that understands the value of approaching training holistically, in a way that addresses the whole person. Everyone takes pride in ensuring that students have access to outstanding pastoral care and support. Yes, Urdang provides fabulous technical training, but beyond that, they, along with outside specialists coach our students in what it takes to succeed – the hard work, dedication and discipline. They support all students in ‘getting there’; no matter where our students are starting out from.
Of course this approach to pastoral care is a bit different than my mum’s where, in Covent Garden the 80s, she actually bailed a few students out of custody for being wrongly arrested because of their skin colour. But the same concept is still there in 2018, we have the same dedication to nurturing and looking after our students as mum did.
That little anecdote sparks memories of other stories where Urdang battled institutional racism, but I’ll leave that for next time.