In my shoes – taking a proactive approach to race action
In response to the issues raised as a result of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and Black Lives Matter, St Mungo’s is taking a proactive approach.
As a leading homelessness charity, we have always had a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Survey feedback is that 91% of our staff believe we are committed to diversity and inclusion but we know there is more to do.
We set up a reverse mentoring scheme called In My Shoes which sees senior staff matched with BAME mentors to ensure better awareness of issues that BAME staff may experience. Here Catherine and Jo write about their mentoring experience.
What did you hope to gain from your experience? Is it different to what you expected?
Catherine: I had no real expectations other than to go in with an open mind and have a good chat. I felt mildly anxious beforehand because I am curious about these important issues but I don’t want to offend or say the wrong thing, so setting boundaries was useful.
Jo has been very open and honest, which I appreciate that at times it can’t be easy. I think there is an element of vulnerability in the conversations from both sides, you are opening yourselves up to expose parts of yourself that may be buried, whether through fear, ignorance or our own unconscious biases; so establishing that trust and rapport has been essential.
Jo: The main expectation I had was that the mentee would be proactive in their learning. I think that mentoring should focus more on coaching, guidance and support rather than teaching. I was feeling nervous about how I was going to deal with any unpredicted triggers that may come up.
In my first meeting with Catherine we talked about boundaries, triggers and appropriate language. An important boundary we talked about was how we would communicate if an offensive phrase or word was used, the ways we would both express how that made us feel and that we would take breaks if needed. It was important to remember that we are both learning, and that some mistakes will be made as part of this process.
This meeting took away most of the pressure I was feeling about making sure Catherine got a lot out of our discussions and would encourage her learning beyond our sessions.
Is there anything specific that you’ve learnt that has shifted your perspective?
Catherine: It has been great for me that Jo has a sense of humour, so we have been able to bring a lightness to some very serious subjects. We have talked about a wide range of things in each of our four sessions, bouncing around loads ideas and thoughts. It has certainly challenged me and we have both reflected that our conversations have left us quite tired.
What I have found most interesting and thought provoking are the non-obvious challenges that people of colour face. I would never have thought about hair being an issue, in terms of what it represents and the fact that people of colour have to deal with having their hair touched by strangers or it be a point of conversation all the time.
This led on to discussions about defensive living, which as a woman I think we all do in some way but then take that further as a black woman – that made me think a lot. I did some further reading and listening to some podcasts, which delved deeper into this issue and about appearance in general. I can’t imagine having to really think about my appearance if say, I went for a job interview, other than to try to look presentable. But to hear how some people of colour – of any gender – have to consider changing their outward appearance and hide who they are in order to blend in, made me really take a step back. A job interview is enough pressure and to change who you are puts that pressure at a new level. That is just one example in life that I take for granted, I can just be me but that is not the case for everyone. That saddened me.
Can you share any learnings that you plan to or have started implementing in your day-to-day interactions?
Catherine: It has definitely made me think about how open we all are, even when we think we are, are we really? I have often heard the phrase ‘I don’t see colour, I just see people.’ To me that feels worse, as there is zero appreciation of someone else’s life experience; that’s something I will challenge more freely now, because I can offer some insight into the impact of those sorts of phrases. I have also got a few exercises that I am going to introduce to my team, to help get others thinking and to spark further conversations and discussions.
Jo: Catherine is right. When a person says they “don’t see colour” it is very invalidating.
One of the most important learnings I took away from our discussions is to remember not everyone lives with the same knowledge and experiences. Sometimes I had to rethink how I was explaining a subject to Catherine, as she didn’t have the same insight or understanding. For example, when we talked about hair in our second meeting, Catherine didn’t realise people still touch other people’s hair without consent because this is not something that happens to her. This led to a long discussion about hair history and politics and how this is connected to the Slave Trade. A deep and disturbing subject to talk about with someone who hasn’t grown up with that kind of communal grief and trauma.
That leads on to another important learning, something I became more aware of was how emotionally draining talking about these subjects can be. When you’re living day to day, certain behaviours are so entrenched, they become subconscious. It takes a lot of self-reflection to sit and pick apart and explain to someone why you do things a certain way.
It was important to tell Catherine if a subject was too much to talk about in that meeting or highlight a need to change to a “lighter” discussion. I also had to re-assess my own self-care skills and make sure I was doing them, I can be a little bit lazy about that.
What else are we doing?
Our Board and Executive recognise that racism and other forms of discrimination have a profound impact on our clients and our staff. We have had a BAME Positive Action Strategy and action plan since 2017 and we are committed to doing what we can to address these issues.
Over the past three years we had already reviewed training, policy and guidance, profiled BAME staff and their career progression internally and set up a Steps into Management career progression scheme which BAME staff are particularly encouraged to apply to.
We asked ourselves what we could do to demonstrate our support to the principle that Black Lives Matter in a meaningful way and to reconfirm our commitment to tackling racism. We:
- set up discussions with Board members and our BAME Network in the summer
- surveyed BAME staff
- took advice from consultants
- set up a Race Action Steering Group in August to develop a Race Action Plan.
Our Race Action Plan sets out a programme of activities across three main areas: Leadership awareness and commitment, positive action, and creating safe spaces.
These commitments include using the Leadership 2025 five point plan as a framework for action and accountability and agreeing aspirational targets to aim for, namely one in three appointments to senior management (Service Development Manager and above) and Trustee roles over the next five years to be people from a BAME background.
We will also seek to ensure that at least one member of every shortlisting panel for a senior role is BAME and introduce a new Leadership Development Programme for BAME managers to support their progression into senior roles.
What will success look like?
Success is when our organisation fully reflects the diversity of the clients we work with and the communities where we work, at all levels of the organisation and when anti-discrimination, in all of its forms, is increasingly embedded in all we do.