The Sue Porter Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Complaints Choir

Can the shared performance of ‘complaints’ support empathy and contribute to a shift to action in support of EDI?  

The original idea was conceived by Dr Sue Porter, a huge campaigner for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, who passed away in January 2017. When originally proposing the project, she stated the following:

“I co-ordinate the Disabled Staff network at the University of Bristol, and my role as an academic researcher includes work around equality and diversity more generally. As a disabled older woman I am no stranger to discrimination and exclusion, and I know from my professional roles and personal experience how hard it can be to challenge discrimination – often just finding the words to name excluding behaviour can be hard, exhausting and lonely. More than this, we can often be made to feel that ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ is just an issue for those of us who are black, disabled, female and/or LGBT, rather than an issue for the whole community or organisation. I believe that everyone benefits from diversity and inclusion, and that its everyone’s issue.

I’ve been looking for ways in which we can stand together to challenge discrimination within the University of Bristol, and there is an opportunity presented as the university has just adopted a new strategy which puts diversity at the heart of its values. In order to make this more than merely lip-service I believe we need to foster wider ownership of the diversity agenda – it cannot be left to Human Resources professionals and groups like the Disabled Staff Forum and the LGBTQ, Gender and Black staff networks alone.

In the past I’ve been a member of community choirs and have found the experience empowering and community-enhancing. I would like to explore using writing and singing as a way to enable people to come together to own the EDI agenda in a heart-felt and meaningful way, which I believe has the potential to support participants acting individually and together to challenge discriminating behaviour and appreciate the value of diversity in their work and home lives. A very different form of lip-service!”

What did the project involve? 

The project sought to change the levels of engagement with equality and diversity to make it everyone’s business for everyone’s gain.  Learning from social clowning and arts-based approaches which enable us to stage creative disruptions. A Complaints Choir takes an embodied approach, working with humour to enable change.

The project was a practical piece of action research, exploring the ‘temporary community’ of singing together and whether that experience can sustain awareness and consciousness raising through identifying, hearing and voicing experiences through singing.

Local playback theatre group Breathing Fire led workshops supporting participants to identify and give voice to ‘complaints’ and to develop these into a form that became lyrics. The aim was to create, and hopefully sustain awareness and community by creating and singing material that works with the ‘complaints’ of disadvantaged individuals. Sharing experiences, their narratives of othering, outsider experience, witnessing ‘the talk that justifies’ excluding behaviour and holding it up for scrutiny, sharing fears, proclaiming solidarity and using humour to make the unsaid speakable.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Beth Tarleton (Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, University of Bristol) is a senior research fellow in the department of policy studies who has a strong focus on parenting with learning difficulties and substituted parenting. At the time of this project she was a key member of the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, a leading national centre of excellence for research and teaching, striving to make a positive difference to the lives of disabled people.
  • Breathing Fire Theatre Group are a group of Black women of Afrikan / Caribbean descent who are committed to the empowerment of those who have historically been denied a voice. They are based in Bristol and are the UK’s only Black Women’s Playback Theatre company. They acknowledge that by sharing individual and collective stories, they tap in to the griot (Afrikan storytelling) which is grounded in their ancestral heritage.
  • Emma Smallwood is a facilitator a musician, a choir director and music producer. She is passionate about the power of music and singing to transform lives and communities. She leads choirs in Bristol, runs singing workshops, writes songs and plays drums, keys & guitar.

What were the results?

Developing (and documenting) a Complaints Choir performance was the primary output of the project. However, the project also sought to:

  • Use facilitated workshops to support participants to identify and voice complaints from which to produce lyrics, putting identified complaints to music for performance.
  • Perform the complaints songs at a minimum of four performances, one of which will be the project’s contribution to the Brigstow Institute’s showcase event in October 2017.

Below is a short video that documented the creation and first performance of the EDI Complaints Choir, the song ‘Do You Want to Hear my Voice’:


The studio version of ‘Do You Want to Hear my Voice’ can be listened to below:

The project also resulted in the composition and recording of the song ‘Stand Up Speak Out’.