Improving Diversity and Inclusion: Discomfort, Empathy and Deeds
"I'd rather get it wrong than not do it at all". These words started a powerful initiative within housing association United Welsh in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. They came from Lynda Sagona, the chief executive, and led to a deep and impactful series of words and deeds.
Recently I talked with Jerome Fanfare, a black member of United Welsh staff, to better understand how the organization reacted. And more importantly, how it helped him and his colleagues to make progress towards a more inclusive workplace.
In this post I share a few takes from the interview.
Pim: "Let's start with the very first step. How did that happen? Did Lynda just send out an invite for all to join?"
Jerome: "Yeah, more or less.” She said: “Everyone come, rearrange meetings if you need to, just do what you can to get there. It's really important. Let's have a conversation.” It was all online via Teams. About 100 people came. That's about two thirds of the organization—a lot of people."
"There were some uncomfortable conversations, some loaded terms used, and some possibly controversial views shared. But we had an open conversation where people shared views and were supported and challenged in equal measure. It was a safe place to discuss a difficult, complex, emotive topic. I think that, generally speaking, as humans we are all good, decent people inside. Sometimes you make a mistake—you learn from it, and you move on. I know race is very charged, but we need to be sensible."
"Nothing will change unless we can discuss things openly in a safe place. And for that to happen people need to be able to make mistakes. It can’t be a free for all. Things need to be nuanced, proportionate and fair. Personally, I think it’s all about intent when you say something, and what you do after you’ve made a mistake."
Improving Diversity and Inclusion: Discomfort, Empathy and Deeds
Pim: "What happened after those emotional conversations?"
Jerome: "I love this part! It was like empathy by education. We set up a book and media club for people who wanted to be involved. We just read books which we felt would help people within the company who weren't part of a minority, or who didn't fully understand the lived experience yet."
"We read books, we watched videos and TV shows, and we came back every week to talk about them, and how the issues affect people’s lives. I loved the conversations, and from the first session I felt emboldened to speak. I love getting into the real issues and the philosophies behind different views. People felt happy to challenge and be challenged. This kind of atmosphere is really good. I think people feel as though they can't speak about race because it's a ‘minefield’, and they might offend someone. But you cannot get to the bottom of things without having these conversations. The unsaid things can sometimes cause more damage than the things which are said."
"So, we focused on race and different lived experiences. I find it really cathartic and think it's really good that we’ve done this. I feel as though people are finally understanding, or at least trying to understand, what my existence is like".
Pim: "Other than the powerful conversations, and the book and media club, what actions have been taken at United Welsh?"
Jerome: "So the second strand was an open invitation from our executive team to be part of the working group to see what changes we could make both straight away and long term. I accepted."
"We also worked with an organization called Tai Pawb. This is an organization that promotes Equality & Social Justice for housing in Wales. After the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests across the globe, Tai Pawb invited me to a working group to see how we could tackle the racial inequality and injustice faced by some communities in the UK and Wales. As a group, we created 'Deeds, Not Words' which is a pledge to action for housing organizations in Wales to hopefully change things for the better."
Check out the overview of the seven promises here.
Jerome continues: "Lynda (CEO of United Welsh) asked me how we could get a head start—by taking action even before signing up to the pledge. So, we looked at loads of things like recruitment and salary transparency to understand how we could be a more inclusive employer. The working group was split up into subgroups to focus on different areas of the organization like recruitment, culture and communication etc."
Deeds, not words
Pim: "Can you share a practical example of how that worked?"
Jerome: "I was personally involved in the talent identification subgroup. United Welsh has offices in Caerphilly and if you look at the geography of Wales, you have Newport, Cardiff and Swansea on the south coast. Those are three of Wales’s largest cities, which are also some of the most diverse parts of Wales. Outside of those areas, the diversity is a lot less apparent. So, we looked at whether being based in Caerphilly could be a reason why diversity at United Welsh could be better. But we also looked at concepts like homophily—the bias that we tend to hire people similar to us."
"We also looked at our recruitment and asked ourselves questions like: Are we advertising in places where people from different minorities would actually see it? Are we looking at barriers around communicating with certain communities? Could we talk to people who already have links with diverse communities and networks? How can we ask them for help? How do the people who we want to recruit consume media? How do they look for jobs?"
"So, we got really deep into it. I thought it was a very interesting project to be a part of and I am really proud of the work we did."
The recommendations of the 'talent identification subgroup' led to several changes in recruitment at United Welsh. To name a few:
- Unconscious Bias Training: All recruiting leads have received this training. Sessions have been made available for all staff to attend.
- Community Jobs Compact: A local justice alliance is promoting United Welsh's vacancies and providing support within the community to encourage people to apply.
- Implementing the Rooney Rule: All those who qualify under the Rooney Rule and have met all essential criteria will be offered an interview.
Many more changes have been implemented and others are underway.
“I feel more comfortable being me”
Pim: “Besides the practical things, do you feel personally that things have changed when you talk to colleagues, when you talk to the leadership, when you are in meetings? Do you feel a change in the past year since the conversations and the actions have started?”
Jerome: "Just from the reactions within the book and media club meetings, I feel more comfortable. I felt as though I could be myself."
"I don’t have as much of that inner feeling where I feel I have to be perfect, or feeling I would be judged more harshly because of my race. I feel as though, you know what, although we are professionals and some judgement is warranted, my race should not come into it. I’m learning to just be myself and go from there. So yes, I just feel more comfortable being me."
"I think the proof will be in more face-to-face interactions. Online we are more relaxed than at the start of the pandemic, but people are still more controlled than when face to face. You can see yourself, so maybe there's still a bit of a filter there."
It's so easy to say that we hate racism. It's like saying I love puppies. But to do something about it is the most important part."
"But just internally, I feel better. I love this place and how supported I’ve felt during all of this. There is still a lot of work to do. But so far, there are three pivotal points. Number one is having the conversation. Number two is having the club where lived experiences and education are key. Number three is committing to the 'deeds, not words' pledge, and everything that comes along with that."
"It's so easy to say that we hate racism. You know, I mean, it's like saying I love puppies. It’s such an easy and obvious thing to say, and will get you very little opposition. But to do something about it is the most important part, and I think that this is happening now."
Kudos to United Welsh, Jerome Fanfare and Lynda Sagona. You are - once again - showing how it's done.
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