“We want everyone to have a voice”

By Thames Menteth-Wheelwright - on 05/02/2021

Camille Yerles, Customer Involvement Officer at The Barnet Group, shares what they’ve been up to since Black Lives Matter.

When Black Lives Matter (BLM) came into the spotlight again last summer, our CEO Tim Mulvenna wrote a blog on our intranet about the events unfolding in America and the impact in the UK and on our own people at The Barnet Group

He said he had been prompted by an email from an employee who was disappointed that there had not yet been a corporate response, and he admitted that he should have spoken earlier. Instead of claiming expertise, his message to the organisation was: “I have been quiet on this, and that’s wrong.”

Tim’s blog post opened up a wider conversation about race equality within the organisation. Tim worked quickly to set up a feedback session, inviting all staff to take part. That first discussion, involving colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, felt really positive and was an opportunity for Black colleagues to share their stories and speak openly about their experiences and concerns. 

However, we understood that words could only achieve so much, and in August we formed a more formal group that would turn those conversations into actions.

Race Equality Steering Group

The Race Equality Steering Group brings colleagues together to identify and understand issues around racial equality in our workplace and find solutions that could lead to long lasting change. The group was shaped as it went along by everyone’s understanding and experiences.

Our first step was to undertake a race equality survey so we could learn about our colleagues’ experiences. The purpose of the survey was to hear everyone’s views, asking a range of questions about people’s experience at work, and asking for feedback about our culture, whether they had experienced any barriers related to race, and what we could do to improve inclusion. 

The Steering Group continues to meet every month and is supplemented by regular wider discussions about race equality that involve Tim. Race equality is now very firmly on our agenda, and is being championed by our CEO. As part of Race Equality Week, we have committed to Race Equality Matters’ “The Big Promise”, and a number of Heads of Service and the CEO have made public promises (that are measurable and will be followed up on) about what they will do to help make race equality a reality.

Black History Month 2020 

For Black History Month this year, it was also important for us to go deeper and really focus on what UK Black History means. While in the past The Barnet Group has always celebrated BHM, it has usually been a celebratory gathering that hasn’t always acknowledged the tough truths of UK Black History. We used Black History Month 2020 as an opportunity to celebrate, but also to educate staff and encourage them to reflect on their own lives and take next steps.

To increase participation, we used a survey to ask people what they wanted from the month, and to get more people on board to organise it. We also wanted to include people from all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Each week focused on a different theme, from conversations in week one, inspiration in week two, celebration in week three and motivation in week four.

We ran a series of blog posts, looking at personal experiences, a series on important moments in black history (including the Transatlantic Slave Trade, World War 1 and 2, the Windrush generation, and inspirational black people across different industries). Some staff shared book and movie recommendations, there was sharing of recipes that got lots of people involved, and we had several talks – including a live discussion with one of our board members, and a recording of a conversation about race with our CEO. We also published other resource guides for staff, including on Having Conversations About Race and Racism, and Challenging Racist Behaviours.

Race Equality Action Plan.

We’ve created a Race Equality Action Plan, which has been shaped by the feedback of the staff race equality survey and the Steering Group.

The plan covers six themes: inclusion, recruitment and selection, representation, employee development opportunities, diversity and awareness, and service provision.

Some parts of the plan stand out to me, such as recruitment and selection. This recommends introducing blind recruitment, training the recruitment staff in unconscious bias and looking at whether the platforms we’re advertising on are accessible to ethnic minorities.

The survey revealed that some staff felt they had been denied certain training opportunities or promotions based on their race. The employee development opportunities part of the action hopes to overcome this.

Representation is also significant. We have a diverse organisation, but when you break it down there are many more people from ethnic minorities working in frontline roles compared to the senior management team – particularly the Executive team. There are clearly still systemic issues that we’re trying to understand better, so that we can put in place improvements. 

We’re at the beginning of the action plan, and have a long way to go, but we’re all very proud of the start we’ve made and what we have accomplished so far. Our CEO has been behind us all the way, and we have strong support within the wider Senior Management Team that we’re now focused on making more visible. The SMT and Board have completed unconscious bias training, and more is planned for managers and frontline staff. 

With their endorsement, we now have the power to start changing things. The organisation has also invested in the race equality work by creating a temporary project role to help deliver the plan – to make sure that we turn our words into actions.

Building trust

We’ve started to identify how to create long lasting change, and we know we’ve still got work to do in terms of building trust within the organisation. 

A big part of our action plan is building up our intelligence so that we understand people’s experience and any barriers, which will enable us to deliver improvements that actually do make a difference. This includes developing more monitoring of processes and access to services, so we need better information about our staff and customers. 

We know from our discussions that some black colleagues are afraid to reveal this on forms because they’re concerned they will be discriminated against and don’t know how it will be used – so we’ve some work to do to make this really clearly understood and gain trust. A lot of residents also don’t feel comfortable sharing ethnicity and other sensitive data with us for the same reason.

Other things for us to tackle are around unacceptable behaviours: How do we show that these behaviours won’t be tolerated anymore? How do we make people feel safe to report incidents to managers and HR and know that they will be taken seriously? How do we reduce the apathy that some staff feel as a result of a lifetime of things not getting better and real change not being delivered?

It’s not easy – it takes bravery to speak up, and it will take consistency and a massive joint effort from the leadership team to show that things really can change. And all the while, we need to keep trying to be inclusive and make sure that everyone has a voice and can be heard. 

By opening up communication within the wider organisation, the Race Equality Steering Group and Action Plan hope to give everyone the chance to have their say and overcome these challenges.

 

 We’re happy to share the guides – please get in touch with our Head of Strategy and Compliance, Laura Giles (laura.giles@barnethomes.org), as we’d love to learn from what others are doing on race equality, and share ideas.

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