History, herstory and ourstory

Happy birthday blog and to celebrate I am going to have a look at what I have learnt this Black History Month. Firstly, though I am delighted to see that this October it feels like a lot of progress has been made since last year. Yes there were still organisations scrabbling around in mid to late September trying to get People of Colour to deliver talks to their teams at the last minute – for free (seriously that’s not cool). That said there are many more narratives and some organisations have significantly improved their coverage. Sky have a dedicated Black History Month movie channel, BBC Sport have pulled together a collection of Black history sports narratives and English Heritage have curated a range of stories of Black historical figures.

This time last year I read David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. As someone who studied history up to degree level I was struck by how much Black history I was unaware of. It also made me think that Black history can often be reduced to a focus on the civil rights movement, migration, settlement and slavery. I feel that this is both reductive and unhelpful and so in this week’s blog I am going to shine a light on two different Black figures I particularly admire and, in relation to the ‘ourstory’ reference in the blog title, challenge the notion that the transatlantic slave trade is Black history. More on that later.

My parents arrived in the UK in the 1960s as part of the Windrush generation. My brothers grew up in 1970s Britain. From a racial discrimination perspective they all had it much tougher than I did. But there was a beacon of positivity for Black Caribbeans during that time. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the ‘Calypso cricket’ of the West Indies Team gave the Windrush generation and their offspring many reasons to cheer. Of that team of icons one of them will always be a massive hero of mine the swashbuckling batsman Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. I loved watching him bat and in a world of hostility and few heroes and role models he made me proud to be Black and proud of my West Indian heritage. In 2002, Viv Richards was named as one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the 20th Century alongside another Caribbean cricketing legend Sir Garfield Sobers. My favourite anecdote of Richards was during the twilight years of his career at Glamorgan. Facing fact bowler Greg Thomas he played and missed outside off stump. On his follow-through, Thomas allegedly chirped at him “It’s red, it’s round, it weighs five ounces and you’re supposed to hit it.” Viv smashed the next delivery out of the ground and into the River Taff. He then wandered down the pitch and said to Thomas “It’s red, it’s round and it’s in the river – go fetch it.”

Sir Viv Richards in full flow at Trent Bridge (PA Pictures)

My second choice is Mary Seacole. I have chosen Mary because she was born in Jamaica like my parents and like my mother went into a career in nursing. Lesser known and remembered than Florence Nightingale (answers on a postcard as to why that might be the case), Seacole wanted to enlist as a military nurse during the Crimean War but her application was refused. What I love most about her was her determination not to be deterred by that and that she travelled to Crimea anyway and used her own money to set up and run a boarding house and clinic behind enemy lines to care for wounded soldiers. I admire her because through racism she was initially denied the opportunity to make a contribution, ignored those decision makers and did it anyway. In June 2016, a statue of her was unveiled at St Thomas’s Hospital by another wonderful Black icon Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, honouring her as a pioneer in her field.

Ourstory. At the start of Black History Month this tweet by Bilal really made me stop and think.

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It is such a simple statement but the truth that lies behind these words is so powerful. The history of the transatlantic slave trade is all of our history. Yes we might reference it as part of Black History month when discussing figures such as Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass but in reality there is far more to discuss, debate, unearth and question when framing and focusing the discussion on the beneficiaries rather than the victims of that abhorrent trade. Through my education there was a consistent gap in the history. The period that was omitted started at the end of the English Civil War and stretch until the beginning of World War One. I am pleased that my children are being taught about this period at their schools.

My final reflection this month is that it is important that our schools continue to teach, our museums continue to share and research and our society continues to explore Black history all year round. Let us see October as a time to shine a spotlight on and amplify the findings of an ongoing programme of work.

The next post will go live on 26th November till then #ImNotTired

A novel idea

Next week’s post will mark the one year anniversary of this blog. When I started I hadn’t expected so many stories and issues to reflect on. It’s been a roller coaster year from an inclusion perspective and even though I’ve been posting a blog a week (Friday mornings) there has been more than one occasion where I have had multiple topics to consider. The site hasn’t quite worked out as I had originally intended but I have been buoyed by the comments shared both here and in reply to Twitter and LinkedIn posts.

However, I have been playing around with an idea for a novel for a number of years now and the blog has inspired me to finally put pen to paper and start writing. This does mean I need to find some capacity and to do so I’ll be reducing the frequency of blog posts to once a month (last Friday of the month).

I’ll not give too much away in terms of my novel idea but there is a strong inclusion thread that runs through the narrative. I intend to have a trans heroine and am keen to do some research to develop an authentic character. I would really welcome any suggestions on websites, blogs, books or even individuals to reach out to. My aim is to create a core group of relatable characters that reflect the diversity of today’s society. I’d also be grateful for any tips on literary agents who may be interested in a thriller with a diversity and inclusion lens. Finally, I’d really welcome any reflections on character identities that you feel are currently absent from novels or building on my ‘Am I the villain’ post from a couple of weeks ago any tropes you’d like to see challenged or subverted?

So why this novel? I don’t get to read as much fiction as I would like to. Any reading time I have is generally taken up by articles and books to improve my knowledge and capability for work. However, I am finally getting around to reading Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (I know!) that has been sat on my book shelf gathering dust for far too long. It is a great story in its own right but is also a novel that speaks to me on another level. I am not in any way claiming I will match her genius but I have a plot concept that flips our established understanding of a ‘particular’ narrative. I believe there is a role for stories like that to challenge the status quo and encourage us to look at the world through a different lens.

In the spirit of wanting to also share something useful with you all I’m going to share my top five inclusion books:

  1. Banaji & Greenwald ‘Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People’ This is a helpful introductory text and is the founding book behind unconscious bias testing. It is a really helpful way of challenging the reader to challenge themselves.
  2. Reni Eddo-Lodge ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ As a Black man this was a tough read but brilliant book. In a year when race has featured prominently in the headlines this book hits many nails on the head.
  3. Maitland & Steele ‘INdivisible’ A great read for any of you thinking about building an inclusion plan for your organisation. Really well structured, thoughtful and excellent hints and tips
  4. June Sarpong ‘Diversify’ The only book on the list that made me cry. When I was reading the chapter on Black men it felt like I was reading an autobiography. So much of what Sarpong describes reflected my lived experience but until I read this I hadn’t realised quite how much my racial identity had impacted on me. It was both painful to read but also a relief in some ways to see that I wasn’t alone
  5. Caroline Criado Perez ‘Invisible Women’ This book really asked me a lot of challenging personal questions and was massively eye opening. It helped me understand gender inequality much better.

Please add to the comments your reflections on great books (fiction or non-fiction) that have helped you with your inclusive practice or challenged you to think differently. I really hope you will join next week for the one year blog birthday and a reflection on Black History Month 2022. Until then #ImNotTired

You’re hired!

Many moons ago, I had a lapse in judgement and applied to go on The Apprentice. I think it was for season three or four and part of what inspired me to throw my hat in the ring was seeing Tim Campbell emerge victorious in season one. That choice told me that someone who looked like me could win and outside the world of sport and music that wasn’t a narrative I saw very often. However, (thankfully) my audition was an absolute disaster and I failed to make it through to the later selection rounds. With Campbell returning for the next instalment, I wonder whether that will have any bearing on the process. Do the ‘observers’ for Lord Sugar actually have any bearing on the choices or is it really driven by the producers. If they do, changing the ethno-cultural diversity of that small group could make a difference.

Tim Campbell MBE will be returning to The Apprentice to stand in for Claude Littner

I started this blog with a piece titled ‘Looking Up‘, which spoke about the positive impact of seeing ‘yourself’ in senior roles. To get there we need fair, transparent and unbiased recruitment processes and that is the focus for this week’s blog.

Reach Volunteering is a great organisation that connects skilled individuals with charities looking for volunteers. This week, I was struck by a post by their CEO Janet Thorne that shared their research on trustee appointments. The team have analysed the age, ethnicity & gender of people applying to be trustees through their service between 2017 – 2020. This covered a large sample size, with a total of 8,725 people making 15,398 applications that yielded 3,169 trustee appointments. The findings demonstrate clearly that the issue lies not in the diversity of applicants but in the selection process. Unsurprisingly to me, the report highlights a worrying disparity in outcomes with “older and white applicants more likely to be appointed than younger people and people of colour”.

The research shows that while application rates are growing with 29% aged under 35 and increasing numbers of Asian (12.7%) and Black (6.8%) applicants, success rates are less positive.

  • Applicants aged 55 – 64 are 80% more likely to be appointed than applicants aged 18 – 34
  • White applicants are almost twice as likely to be appointed than applicants of colour
  • White British applicants three times more likely to be appointed than Asian Pakistani

These are statistics that I have seen reflected in senior level paid appointments as well as trustee positions. The challenge is that far too many people mistakenly think attraction is the problem. Their intention to have a more inclusive or diverse recruitment process is simply resolved by advertising in different channels or job boards. The problem isn’t where you are posting the jobs, the problem is much more likely to be everything about your recruitment process. If you are looking for a brilliant guide on recruiting for leadership roles I recommend this great resource produced by Green Park and ACEVO.

When thinking about recruitment more widely my top five things to consider are as follows:

  1. Think about the language you use in your ad and what you ask for in the job specification
    The number of roles that unnecessarily ask for degrees, or knowledge, skills and experience that aren’t really required always staggers me. Think carefully about the role. What are the critical skills and knowledge you need. Could someone actually pick up on the working knowledge through doing the role and are you in truth looking for someone with the right attributes and values to join your team. You might want to consider a strengths based approach to recruitment, especially for entry level roles. There are also tools that can tell you if the language you use has inherent bias or is likely to deter some candidates. As an example, the language used in so many roles has unconscious gender bias.
  2. Involve a diverse range of people in the process
    Affinity bias is a massive problem in recruitment processes. Selecting someone who is a ‘good fit’ is a euphemism for appointing someone who is the same as everyone else on the team. By having a broad range of people on your panel or in your process you can help to mitigate that. A panel full of extroverts will naturally warm toward someone who is ‘bubbly’ or ‘expressive’ and feel cold to someone who may be more understated and reserved but actually give better answers.
  3. Don’t default to interview but if that is your process give your candidates the questions 15 minutes before
    Consider if there are a range of ways to test someone’s suitability for a role. We have become too fixated on CV, Covering letter and interview. There are some people who are very good in those scenarios and others who are not. Ever been managing a process where you have disregarded a candidate that nailed the presentation but struggled with one or two questions? Unless the role involves the candidate being interviewed regularly and high quality performance depends on it, is it really the best test of suitability? If you must interview be willing to give out the questions before the interview so the person has a time to consider what you are looking for and give you a rounded and calm response. You are testing their competence and suitability for a role not just their ability to respond effectively in a pressured environment. Tailor your selection process to best reflect the nature of the day to day job.
  4. Be proactive in offering reasonable adjustments
    Rather than stating on adverts “let us know if you need any adjustments”, list the adjustment you offer up front and then let candidates know if there is something you don’t currently offer to contact you as you want to enable them to perform at their best. As a disabled person there are things that would help me a lot, such as providing questions 15 minutes before you interview me in case I get brain fog from my MS. However, I wouldn’t ask for adjustments to an organisation offering the standard wording. Why? Because we live in an ableist world and I don’t want to come across as ‘needy’ when I am trying to make a ‘good first impression’. Let me know you are genuinely inclusive please don’t put the onus on me.
  5. As a selection panel challenge yourselves throughout the process
    The best panels I have seen have questioned each and every decision they make. When I was trained in strengths based recruitment one of my biggest a-ha moments came in the interview technique. The opening question isn’t scored and is a ‘gift’ of a question, such as tell me about your favourite hobby. The purpose of the question is to get the candidate talking about something they are knowledgeable and passionate about. Whilst, they are speaking as an interviewer you are observing their tone, their body language and how they express themselves. It is a baseline of what they are like when they are speaking with confidence. On subsequent questions you then assess both the score and the delivery based on that benchmark. It was a real eye opener for me to how I am swayed more by certain types of body language, tone and expression. It has helped me bring greater balance to my interviewing approach. When interviewing or making selection decisions I repeatedly challenge myself on both the things that give me confidence in a candidate and those that do not.

In order to address the imbalances we see in recruiting, especially for leadership roles, those of us charged with making those decisions need to challenge ourselves to do better. I’d love to hear your reflections, suggestions and top tips… #ImNotTired


Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt…

I love this Mark Twain quote. I regularly cite it and often think about it when facilitating sessions or supporting groups to change. Denial can be a significant blocker to progress, especially when facing into negative behaviours or cultures. One of the hardest things to accept is that the culture in your organisation may be a dark, bleak and negative place for some of your colleagues. If this is the case (and it is more than likely that it is) we must accept that uncomfortable truth and ask ourselves what can we do about it?

At the heart of my philosophy and approach to building inclusive cultures are three words. Listen. Hear. Respond.

Listening is an underrated skill. Often when we think we are listening we can actually be waiting for our turn to speak. When we are really listening we are not only tuning into the words but the body language, the tone and the emotion of what is being shared.

The literal definition of a hearing “is an opportunity to state one’s case” for example “I think I had a fair hearing“. This for me is the deep thinking that takes place after we have listened. Based on what we have heard how has that altered or changed our perception of the world? How has it influenced out thinking? Hearing should lead us to recognise and acknowledge the truth of someone else’s lived experience.

So we have listened and we have heard but what do we do with that information, that alternative perspective? I have deliberately chosen the word respond. This is because any action we take should be directly related to what we have heard. It is also critical that when we respond we do so with the groups we are seeking to support rather than do to them. This all seems simple enough but this is where denial threatens to rear it’s ugly head. Before we can even begin to listen, hear and respond we must acknowledge that we have a problem. That is easier said than done, especially when the culture and environment has always been supportive, kind or respectful to you personally. Once we have been able to get over that hurdle we can then commit to doing something about it.

So returning to those three words: listen, hear, respond. The next most important thing is how we think about them. This is not a linear process. The work we need to do is ongoing and therefore it is critical that we think about these three words as a cycle and also broaden our understanding of how we listen.

Listening is not just about dialogue, though this is important. It is also about ‘listening’ to what our data is telling us OR as importantly not telling us. We need to interrogate all of the insight we have available from our engagement survey scores to sickness absence to recruitment to progression. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips the challenge for all of us is asking the right questions of that data. As we progress around the cycle our approach to listening will let us know how effective our response has been in tackling an issue or a problem.

But don’t just take my word for it. This TED in conversation with Rosalind Brewer (Starbucks CEO) discusses how active listening resides at the heart of their diversity and inclusion at work plans.


Am I the villain?

The new Bond film is out and I have to confess I am looking forward to watching it. However, Bond films, like a number of other things I enjoy such as rap music, leave me conflicted. With the latest film No Time To Die, author Jen Campbell has highlighted the continuing, unhelpful and lazy trend of giving Bond villains disfigurements. This time round we are ‘blessed’ with two characters Blofeld and Safin.

Blofeld & Safin just two of the many Bond villains with facial disfigurement

From an inclusion perspective, the Bond franchise is riddled with talking points from misogyny to racism to a lack of representation. Whilst the Daniel Craig instalments have tried to address a number of issues the villain should be disfigured trope, a bit like Bond himself, just won’t die.

Jen Campbell talks villains & disfigurement

There is a campaign that has been lobbying against this for a number of years called I Am Not Your Villain. The facts are concerning. In previous posts I have talked about the importance of representation but in the case of visible difference the issue is much starker. Rather than individuals not seeing themselves in roles cast as heroes (only 1 in 5 people with a visible difference) or love interest (15%) many more people (39%) have seen someone with a visible difference cast as the villain or “baddie”.

Let’s just have a think about what that consistent repetition is doing to our psyche. We are essentially being programmed to be scared of people with visible differences and that is something we should be guarded against. The research conducted by CHanging Faces indicates that people with visible differences report long-term impacts from not being represented in society and across popular culture.

  • A third report low levels of confidence
  • Three in 10 have struggled with body image and low self-esteem
  • A quarter say it has affected their mental health.

It is here that the conflict kicks in. If I was being true to my conviction I would boycott the Bond film, especially in the cinema, to play my part in impacting on its Box Office take. If large numbers of us did that and were vocal about our reasons why it would hit studios where it hurts and could possibly lead to a change in scripting and characterisation.

But will I do that? My honest answer is probably not. I am a cinephile and seeing movies like this on IMAX is one of my big loves. So my reflection this week is despite positive intentions. Despite wanting to see the world change there are times I am a hypocrite. Whether it is listening to Eminem because I love his beats or watching Bond on the big screen there are times when I feel ashamed of my choices.

I would love to hear your own reflections on this, or other choices you may make, where you feel you are potentially letting the campaign for a more inclusive society down.