Recent events in the United States have shone light on the racism experienced by the black community. There have been worldwide protests by concerned citizens of all races. These protests were triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, after police officers arrested him, and pinned him down on the ground with force while one officer knelt on his neck resulting in his death, in full view of the world. This shocked right-thinking members of society across the world. The Black Lives Matter movement organised protests to make it clear black people’s lives are equally as important as other races.
Black people’s experience goes back 400 years when they were taken from their homeland, enslaved in the US and the Caribbean, and have since suffered from racism and inequality. It’s been a long struggle to gain fairness, equality and justice.
My own story chronicled in my book, Defying Expectations: The Extraordinary Journey of a Black Woman Lawyer details my experience of racism in the UK from the age of 12. This compelled me to tell my story, so others know they are not alone and learn from my experience of navigating through the obstacles in my career.
My experience in the private, public and third sector leads me to confidently say local government does fare reasonably well as a diverse and inclusive sector. But this is work in progress and there’s more to do to achieve a truly fair, equal and just sector.
I’ve worked in three councils where there was a high percentage of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff. Yet my transition from middle manager to head of legal services in the mid-1990s was fraught with problems as no black person headed a unitary legal service in the UK then. When I finally secured the role, I stood out as the only black person among my fellow heads of law.
Some green shoots appeared with the appointment of senior black people like Herman Ouseley as the Inner London Education Authority’s (ILEA) chief executive, Gus John, director of education, Victor Adebowale, director of housing, and Olsen Samuel, David Divine and Patrick Kodikara into senior positions. Heather Rabbatts became the first black chief executive at Lambeth LBC. They were pathfinders.
Councils have historically appointed more women and BAME staff over the years, but at the junior levels. A culmination of equal opportunities policy formulation, employment tribunal cases instigated by trades unions and staff, and better training and staff development policies, made a paradigm shift towards the appointment of BAME staff at middle manager and senior levels.
Race continues to be a gatekeeper for preventing BAME people from gaining promotion to senior posts. As we have seen with COVID-19, a high percentage of BAME people work in frontline services such as health and adult care, transport, retail, and private car hire. In councils a good number of BAME staff are in the lower paid frontline services such as customer services, administrative, environmental services (waste collection, road sweeping etc) posts.
Recent chief executive appointments of black people at the Royal Borough of Kingston-Upon-Thames, Newham LBC and Hammersmith and Fulham LBC is encouraging and shows what can be achieved.
My recommendations to local government for welcoming BAME staff at all levels are:
• Provide information to staff on black history
• Develop diversity and inclusion policies and use them
• Take positive action by encouraging BAME people to apply for jobs
• Use a fair recruitment policy and procedure – even blind applications. Tests and assessments should be unbiased
• Strive to have BAME staff on interview panels
• Provide training on interviewing techniques and avoid unconscious bias
• Develop retention policies covering equal pay, training and development, acting up, secondment and promotion opportunities
• Develop coaching/mentoring schemes for BAME staff, and BAME mentors/coaches for senior white staff
• Apprenticeship schemes
• Creative ideas for places to advertise jobs that attracts BAME people – such as job fairs, universities, professional bodies, NHS website, BAME organisations
• Hold focus groups to learn from BAME/other staff
In conclusion, my advice is that councils shouldn’t deny themselves a talent pool of black staff and should be open to appointing staff from a wide range of backgrounds, including black staff. There’s a rich talent pool of BAME staff out there to tap into.
A recent Channel 4 programme entitled The School that tried to end racism should be used to train managers and staff on diversity and inclusion. I highly recommend the methods used in that programme to train staff.
A valued and motivated staff of any race will be a loyal ally who will go beyond the call of duty for their manager and employer. I had supportive managers and in turn, I was very loyal, even sacrificing family life (work life balance) for my employers, and gave my best and my time to the councils I worked in. The BAME people I know who had a positive experience share that view.
Gifty Edila is a former corporate director of law, mediator and author