Dec 20

Take a chance and give me a platform to speak for myself

Posted: 2 December 2020

An anonymous blog from a Chief Executive of a UK social care provider.  It was originally intended to be a letter to a major publisher compiling a book based on experiences in the charity sector. 

Someone I knew contacted me via LinkedIn asking if I would be willing to ‘contribute’ my experience. I believe they were specifically keen on my feedback as a Black charity professional. I never replied to them – the letter never got written - but if it had it would have been my way of venting the uprising of anger I felt when I first read and then deleted their message.

Why did I have that reaction? I guess from the outside it looks like simple jealousy. After all I have writing aspirations of my own and as a person of colour am acutely conscious of how difficult it can be for the words and reflections of Black people to directly make it into print under their own name. Instead our perspective is “collated”, “recorded” or “shared” second-hand, by people without lived experience of the impact of racism, prejudice and assumptions on aspiration and personal development. Even I struggle to completely describe how one LinkedIn message, one opportunity casually dropped into the lap of someone else, became a lightning rod of fury for years of feeling undervalued and excluded, years of being listened to second not first.

The person who contacted me was someone I had supported to move into charity management about five years before. Supported by talking to them about the challenges and rewards of the role and sector, supported by giving contact details of or introducing them to people who could help them settle into their role, and suggesting innumerable ways they could keep developing and learning.  And I gave this support not just on one occasion, but at several points over the next few years, these occasions oddly always seeming to coincide with times when they were due for their next move – they never seemed to stay in each role more than a couple of years before moving on (always to better paid and more high profile roles) while the knowledge I shared with them was based on more than a decade of service in my own charity. But that didn’t bother me – I was indifferent to their ambition although slightly perplexed why someone who wanted to work in a charity ,couldn’t stay still for more than five minutes long. I helped them because that’s what I do and why I am in public service – to help people.

It has taken me quite a long time to learn that always moving on and not committing to a locality, an area of service delivery or a particular group of beneficiaries, is viewed by many social care recruiters as a badge of ambition and talent.  The flipside is my discovery that staying in one job long-term and close to the frontline could be weaponised against me in job interviews as evidence that I “was not strategic enough”. “We don’t want someone who has been in the same job for too long” is a more upfront and blatant statement of the same indirect discrimination.

I cannot prove that this person’s upward mobility was not simply evidence of their greater talent and aspiration. As I have said my upset could have just been based on my own personal frustrations, jealousy, and more limited career progressions.  But the personal is the political, said feminist Carol Hanisch and I think my feelings of being ignored and left behind are a sign of a wider malaise. Because if I was just jealous, I wouldn’t have helped this person so regularly in in the first place.

It wasn’t the upward mobility that bothered me – it was simply thinking “what on earth has this person done to earn this opportunity?” If a publisher wanted to gain the perspective of a Black charity professional, why not give a Black person the opportunity to lead the whole piece of work, especially when right now the clarion call around the restrictions on diversity in publishing is as loud as that about the lack of diversity in charity sector management.

The Pay and Equalities Survey 2018, published by the charity leaders body Acevo found that just 3 per cent of charity chief executives were from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, compared with 14 per cent of the population nationwide. In the same year Inclusive Boards (2018) found that in the 500 largest charities by income, only 5.3% of members of senior leadership teams were from an ethnic minority background and Magda Ibrahim in Third Sector Magazine noted just that 2.25 per cent of senior leaders in the sector were women of colour.

Also in 2018 in Walking The Talk On Diversity published by New Capital Philanthropy, Professor Amina Memon and Grace Wyld pointed out, "In terms of attracting talent, and the best talent, if you don’t see BAME and women in senior positions in charity then there is little point in trying to recruit graduates as they won’t see the career progression."

This summer Skills for Care carried out a survey of the challenges faced by the social care BAME workforce. Programme Manager Symone Stuart identified that high among those challenges in terms of progression opportunities was the lack of senior leaders from a BAME background being visible and accessible. But this is not because we are not available or potentially available. It is because we are not given the opportunities to be visible. When the opportunities arise, we don’t get asked first.

This year London’s writer development agency Spread The Word published ‘Rethinking ‘Diversity in Publishing’ which amongst many findings on the barriers facing writers of colour, pointed out the lack of creativity amongst agents and publishers in looking for authors. Senior agents tend to focus on their traditional networks that are not inclusive of the whole spectrum of writers and the assumption for publishers is that their core audience is white and middle-class. To quote: "The whole industry is essentially set up to cater for this one audience."

I want to ask that original publishing company about how hard they looked outside their comfort zone of usual networks for someone to write their book. I want to ask if they noticed what has happened this year around challenging racism and inequality and what action had they as a company committed to take to look at their own practice. Did they tweet or post something in support of Black Lives Matter? If so, how had they actually planned to follow up on that? I want to ask the person who contacted me if they ever wondered whether they genuinely thought they were the best person to undertake the work?  And whether they ever considered stepping aside for someone they knew possessed equally the same level of suitability and ability, but who would find it infinitely harder to get such a high-profile commission?

Change, if the commitment to it is deep and real, has to be tangible. Change doesn’t come from hand-wringing or policy statements or Instagram posts. Action plans don’t challenge inequality on their own – taking action does.  It comes by doing things differently. By going outside your usual networks and contacts.  When it comes to recruitment whether it’s in terms of charity management, writing or publishing, make sure you’re 100% open to the possibility of giving the opportunity to someone who doesn’t look like you or maybe even talk like you.

And if you want to know what I have experienced in my life or profession, be more imaginative than giving someone you happen to already know the task of harvesting my words. Take a chance and give me a platform to speak for myself.