Recently, I've been thinking about diversity. Mainly diversity as it relates to quilting and the quilting community. It started when I was asked to speak at Wellington Quilters' Guild, about myself and my quilts, and also about being a young quilter and how guilds can attract the next generation of quilters (like me, I guess was the implication). Then a couple of conversations with upcoming Thursday Inspiration interviewees have made me think harder about diversity in the quilting community.
Where I get to is that I think diversity is important. I LOVE the online quilting community. It's full of people who are enthusiastic, kind, generous, supportive, and obsessed with quilting in the same way that I am. We are all bound by a common interest and that is truly fantastic. But I don't know that we do diversity particularly well. My experience suggests that the offline quilting community is even less diverse.
So, I want to talk about a few things. One - why do I think diversity is a good thing? Two - why do I think the quilting community, online and offline, could do better? And three - how do we encourage diversity?
To start off, I want to briefly explain what I mean by diversity. I'm not just talking about the really obvious things like gender, race, sexual orientation and age (but obviously they are important). I'm also talking about people from a variety of different cultural, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Different ways of thinking about things are relevant too.
Why is diversity important?
People with different backgrounds have different perspectives, and they bring those perspectives to everything they do, including quilting. Amongst quilters, those different perspectives lead to people making lots of different quilts.
If everyone made the same kind of quilts (a) that would be really boring, and (b) it would be extremely difficult to imagine that you could make a different kind of quilt. When you get to see lots of different things, it gives you ideas, and more importantly, the idea that you can do something thats not the same as everything that went before.
You won't like all the quilts. I don't. That's good. I've learned the most about what I like and what I want my quilts to be like by looking at quilts I don't like and analysing what exactly it is I don't like about them. You might feel a strong reaction (negative or positive) to certain quilts. That's good too. Take some time, think about your reaction. Analyse it, and use it to make decisions about the kinds of quilts you want to make.
Being inclusive isn't just the right thing to do - it's also linked with better outcomes. Studies show that diversity in the corporate context improves financial performance. Diversity is also linked with enhanced creativity and better problem solving skills. Don't those sound like things that would be really helpful in the quilting context?
Ultimately, here's what I think it comes down to. I think letting everyone who wants to participate in quilting and be part of the quilting community is the right thing to do. I also think having lots of different quilters in our community will make us all better quilters.
Why do I think we can do better?
This is the part where I feel nervous, because I don't want to be overly critical of a community that, overall, I love. BUT, even my limited experiences as someone who doesn't totally fit the mould of what people expect a quilter to be suggest that we could do better.
In New Zealand, most quilters are white, female, and of a certain age. I'm white, and female, but my age always gets a comment. When going to new-to-me quilting shops, I'm often treated like I must be lost, and I certainly don't feel welcomed as a potential customer. At quilt guild meetings, on more than one occasion, I've had people ask me whether I'm a quilter (no, I'm just hanging out at this quilt guild meeting because...what????). This kind of treatment has dropped off as I've aged (it's been nearly 8 years since I first started buying fabric) and once people get to know me and realise that I'm actually a quilter, they are much friendlier. There's still this barrier which makes entry into the quilting community more of a challenge than it should be though. I have friends in my age bracket who have received the same treatment so I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.
I'm fully aware that I am in a highly privileged position, and the way I diverge from the "average quilter" (i.e., my age) is pretty harmless. I also think that being different is sometimes an advantage - because I stand out, I'm noticeable and people remember me. But if it was difficult for me, in my privileged position, to feel like a welcome member of the quilting community, how hard must it be for people who are or feel even less like "the average quilter"?
In general, I think the online quilting community is very supportive and welcoming and maybe a bit more accepting of diversity or at least people doing things in different ways. The thing that I think we could do better in the online community is accepting that it's ok to have a view that isn't the same is everyone else's. I feel like there is an attitude of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all", and this can suppress debate and discussion about things we should be talking about, and can make it difficult for people who have a different view on things to participate and express their views.
How do we encourage diversity?
Why isn't there more diversity in the quilting community (or any community, really)? The simplest answer - it's easy to hang out with people who are similar to you. It's comfortable. You probably all have similar values, and the same cultural contexts. I get that. It's part of the reason that encouraging diversity is so hard. It's not like there are overt rules which say "you can't participate in quilting unless you are...".
So here are some things I've thought of that we can do, in a practical way, to ensure that everyone feels included in our quilting community:
- if you're a member of a guild, and you see a new person at a meeting, even if it's not "your job", take the initiative to greet them, show them around, and introduce them to people. Ask them some neutral questions, like "what kind of quilts do you like to make?" or "what are you working on at the moment?".
- if you're in a situation where people are disparaging a certain category of people, and you don't agree with that they're saying, challenge it. I think a lot of the time people don't really think about the implications of what they are saying. A good example is when we talk about the general uselessness of the men in our lives (guilty!). It seems harmless, but imagine how unwelcome a male quilter would feel in that scenario. I know I always enjoy when people talk about how terrible millennials (holla!) are in front of me.
- if you have a quilting shop, try and make everyone feel welcome. Don't ignore the newbies in favour of long chats with the regulars. Don't assume that man is just tagging along with his wife - he might be a quilter himself. That child or teenager might be a budding quilter. Ask some questions!
- if you see someone making quilts which are totally not your style, make an effort to engage with them and ask them some questions, in a respectful way, about what they're doing and why. You might be surprised and at the very least I bet you'll learn something.
- online, I would love to see people voicing their opinions, even when they're not positive, a bit more. Of course, I think this should be done constructively and respectfully, and in the full knowledge that you're probably talking about the work of a real person who has feelings just like you do. I think that will make it easier for other people to express their own views as well.
Mainly, I think encouraging diversity in the quilting community is about breaking down the barriers that prevent or discourage people from joining. I think the key is to recognise that it is more difficult for some people to feel welcome in the quilting community, and to examine our own behaviour to see what we can do to make them feel welcome and included.
I'm a bit nervous putting this post out there, but ultimately I think allowing everyone who wants to be part of the quilting community to join in is crucial to the future of quilting, and is so important that it's worth any negative reaction I receive. Even if you disagree with me, I'd love to read your comments, as long as they are expressed in a respectful and constructive way.