October is usually a period of reflection for me. It's my birthday month (I turned 33 last week) and it's also Black History Month. It's a chance for me to celebrate the vital work being undertaken by campaigners and companies to advance the cause of racial equality. It's also a time where I reflect on the agonizingly slow rate of progress on this agenda.
I've been lucky enough to spend most of my professional career being part of some truly fascinating projects and events with some of the most influential institutions in society. Yet, since my first ever office work experience gig at 16, there's always been many constant and visceral reminders of the scale of the challenge to eradicate structural discrimination against people of colour.
I'm often reminded of that fact when the BAME faces that I meet when entering so many spaces are very often the security guards, cleaners and catering staff. Those jobs are essential and valuable in any organisation. However, the lack of similar representation around the boardroom table or on the speaking stage always unsettles me. Sadly, I'm now used to faux pas where it's assumed that I'm part of the security apparatus instead of a participating speaker.
Against this frustrating backdrop comes optimism. A growing group of companies are thinking about how to define why they exist and how to use that purpose to drive social change more profoundly and authentically. This presents an excellent opportunity for companies to engage in the fight for racial justice in a more sustained way rather than just for October (a principle that should also be applied to Pride month).
Get comfortable talking about race
First, companies must build cultures where employees across the organisation are comfortable talking openly about race. For many people, this will be difficult. There's often a fear of causing offence and being reprimanded for doing so. I've often had conversations with allies who feel that they lack the authority and vocabulary to discuss race and how their culture and business model might interact with it. That moment of hesitation before uttering the word BAME or black or person of colour is all too familiar. The awkward silence when someone around the table suggests that a course of action might have a disproportionate effect on racial minorities within and without. This has to change.
As tough as it might be for some, progress cannot happen, unless employees - of all backgrounds - have the tools and the spaces to understand and discuss race with each other at work. It's a key part of getting inclusion right. It also avoids the all-too-frequent scenario of that sole BAME person in the room feeling that they have to be the single voice and authority on all matters to do with race (I've been there). Talking about this issue is everybody's business.
Reframing purpose-driven initiatives
Second, companies can do more to reframe social issues around racial justice. Corporates that are effective at demonstrating their social purpose usually focus on a specific and relevant social problem to attack (for instance, a financial institution may run a campaign to increase the pipeline of small businesses owners by improving access to capital). More companies should seek to use their influence and platform to reframe those social challenges around race or at the very least give airtime to the racial dimensions to those problems.
The biggest challenges facing society often affect ethnic minorities in distinct ways. BAME communities are less likely to report mental health problems. The gender pay gap is wider for women of colour. Black adults are the most likely out of all ethnic groups to be overweight or obese. Black women in Britain are five times more likely to die as a result of complications in pregnancy than white women. Research suggests that low-income areas will be hardest hit by climate injustice - this has clear implications for BAME communities. Companies have an opportunity to elevate and shine a light on these particular issues to drive awareness and advocate for systemic change.
Third, companies driving purpose should ensure that any purpose-related initiatives or campaigns, internal or external, are co-created with BAME views and voices. Build coalitions that involve organisations specifically focused on improving the lives of people of colour. Seek counsel from advisers who have lived experience of navigating society as a BAME person. One very impactful and quick-win is to commit to never hosting (or participating in) a panel without any representation from the BAME community.
There are many, of course, who would argue against the idea that companies should talk about or engage with race in such an explicit way. They would argue that such an approach risks creating unnecessary division and "fracturing". Why not use a more unifying and generic way of framing an initiative or advocacy. Such a view fails to acknowledge that specific issues get buried if we fail to recognise the unique challenges that certain groups by only calling out the challenges faced by a broader group. In fact, we can all benefit by sometimes adopting a laser-like focus on specific groups. To quote American politician Stacey Abrams:
“When the groups most affected by these issues insist on the acknowledgement of their intrinsic differences, it should not be viewed as divisive. Embracing the distinct histories and identities of groups in a democracy enhances the complexity and capacity of the whole...by claiming the unique attributes of womanhood-and, for women of color, the experience of inhabiting the intersection of marginalised gender and race-feminists have demonstrated how those characteristics could be leveraged to enhance the whole."
A new generation of employees, consumers and activists are no longer willing to let companies "play for time" to drive change on a range of social issues, especially around questions of identity. Using a clear sense of purpose to help drive racial equality presents a brilliant opportunity to lead.
Co-founder, Purpose Union