Black History Month at City and the ground reality

By Sabah Holmes, Race Equality Manager (Maternity Cover till 03rd January 2022)

 

We started Black History Month (BHM) with a Diversify Your Mind (DYM) club event at City on Radical Self-Care, learning more about it, its value and its roots in Black Feminism. We learnt about all the ways in which this is still left unacknowledged and left out from the wellness industry – a product of systemic and institutional racism. Our breakout rooms discussed what we could do at City to address this in the now. We had the brilliant Oge Obioha, co-founder of ‘Minds of POC’, who shared the work of FreeBlackUni.com with us and spoke with City staff who were attended this session. Our City Library has also being doing its own work supporting decolonisation with a specific focus on Black History Month – See the end of this article for links, learning resources and more on their work and the Library BHM blog post. City’s student’s union (SU) also has a number of Black History Month events that are ongoing. We continue getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and if you read on, you will see the upcoming webinar on 14th October 2021 which we have organised to have some real conversations at City about White leadership and allyship to discuss the difference between performative vs co-conspirators and life at City.

 

The Reality:

The one thing all of us working in EDI teams, Race equality in particular, have noted and share (across the SU, Student and Staff EDI teams) is that very few of us are tasked to pull off institutional work (while being in fixed-term/junior/non-senior leadership team positions of influence) while racially stressed, traumatised and fatigued by the very nature of race and inclusion work. Expectations though from staff (across all racial groups) and leaders within the institution abound and progress is judged by the very people who have little to no lived experience as Black and PoC and who have not impacted as much by racial and systemic inequality. Operating constantly under the gaze of our own and the White gaze is a very tough job, and it takes its toll. Positioning what is long-term institutional culture change as mere project work is not just insulting to the lives of Black, PoC and all minoritised and racialised groups but it is ineffective in creating sustainable progress.

 

The DYM club event on radical self-care therefore has been timely because we are running exhausted. We have also been reflecting how we have to shift from the labour of celebrating Black History and talking about racial equity across the institution being carried only by those with ‘race equality’ in their job title/ the few who are constantly doing this work across intersections in the institution. When each of us (White peers in particular) moves from ‘what is being done’ to ‘what I can do and how I can engage with race equality teams to create change’ – will we be able to stop working in silos, move away from judgements, opinions and suggestions for doing better to actually proactively helping those in these culture change roles to make strategic, tactical and operational changes institutionally for staff and students – imperatively, doing so in consultation and partnership with us (letting us lead while placing us in positions of authority and influence to do so and paying us for it) – not including us after the fact.

 

What needs to change:

‘Help’ needs to happen intentionally by way of actions and decisions that support racial equity, and inclusion creation needs to come from the very people who are quick to comment on what could have been done better or those who expect tokenism/ inclusion just because they are tenured/ exist but are lacking in self-awareness and action around what they meaningfully ‘do’ in the racial equity and inclusion creation space. Taking ‘phased approaches’ to creating equity and assigning resources that can enable inclusion creation for the most marginalised reeks of class and racial privilege because those that make the decisions do not know what it is like to live in the shoes of those impacted and neither do they make an effort to do so. We need this to change. Race and inclusion leads alone cannot shift the dial on this because it is not possible to do so when you are the lone few voices of colour or where even some of your senior White colleagues in leadership roles on inclusion are thwarted and not engaged with. The Work is continuous, the labour must be shared, and expectations tempered with the racial fatigue and stress compassionately understood. Black history and culture is a not a moment in time or a month – it is a daily lived reality and by leading with a Black-lens we will resolve systemic issues for the larger whole. Lets get comfortable with this without letting our egos make us feel less than when Blackness is spotlighted.

 

The exhaustion and fatigue of effectively being the lone voice(s) among those who will accuse EDI and race equity colleagues of starting culture wars or talking about problems that do not exist is very real and suffered daily, invisibly so – not something that can always be communicated by race work leads to staff and students. If we shared everything we go through doing race and inclusion work, the leadership decision-making and responses, mindsets and issues we have to manage upwards and sideways for continuously while also managing the expectations of PoC who are authentic and inauthentic too – we would cause a mass exodus of talent and loss of faith in the institution and its leadership. We understand that race and inclusion work is not the individual moments of resistance but what we can pivot and turn them into for the colleagues whose voices we represent when we are race and EDI leads.

 

Sensibly and fairly, we manage as sensitively and with as much restraint, patience, and political astuteness as we can harness while carrying the trauma with us daily and limiting it to ourselves as those hired to do race and inclusion work to support staff and students. Even today, there are those of us, some academics included, who accuse race equity leads of carrying out a culture war – let us be clear – the only war that exists is with ignorance and arrogance. In our experience, such assessments often come from those who are woefully fearful and therefore ignorant and disengaged in race and inclusion spaces to have an open mind which can consider that asking for equity and to be included alongside others who belong to a White majority or dominant group, to be recognised as equals – is not starting a culture war – it is a right that was taken away from oppressed PoC/ the Global majority around the world, especially from Black people, and so it must be restored, through a Black-led lens with Black people and their needs equitably considered at the forefront of systemic strategic and individual resolutions and reparations.

 

As we roll forward beyond a year from George Floyd’s murder – the global tipping point – It is evident that ‘decolonisation’ is a word that continues to offend those who wish to soften language to create comfort for the White majority, are ignorant of why this is an issue, uncomfortable with naming the issue that must be fixed, and that race work is being side-lined covertly while placing unreasonable expectations on the shoulders of the few are not placed in positions of authority similar to their White peers/ others across the organisation who are readily positioned in interim and step-up roles with compensation to match. PoC but more so WoC are not being valued, being misunderstood, and being left excluded and unconsidered in key strategic, tactical and operational conversations. This must change if the institution wishes to retain, progress, grow and value talent in every racial group. We must also lead with a Black-lens because this is our most marginalised community of people across class and other identity intersections. We do not need to keep presenting or debating data around this especially if those taking offence with this bother to read and interpret data both quantitative and qualitative that has existed across the world and actually move from judging and resisting change to proactively listening and acting to doing things differently. Let us start by believing the problem is real and stop denying marginalised individual and group lived experiences.

 

Our White allys need to turn into co-conspirators of change and interrupt such processes and vocally, visibly and constantly advocate (as they have done for past White SLT leads at City of EDI work and more) – do it now for those who have been the backbone of those very leaders and have been doing the ‘Work’ for years together without being paced in paid roles to lead as part of SLT.

 

The Work continues:

Since the start of the year, when we partnered with Kent and Liverpool John Moores University to do a Challenging Racism webinar series and take part in a pilot Allyship Development Programme, we have continued community learning spaces for all racial groups at City through monthly Diversify Your Mind (DYM) club events. We are continuing our brave safe space conversation and learning therefore through a webinar on the 14th of October 2021 talking about White Leadership, Performative vs Co-conspirators within Allyship and the reality experienced at City. This will be a #RealTalk conversation around White Leadership’s roles and actions – what works, what doesn’t, what needs changing and why. We will also explore why we need to move forward from performative allyship to being Co-conspirators of change – across racial groups but particularly those in the White majority who hold the bulk of the power and privilege to influence and create the change that White ally’s and impacted minoritised and racialised people need to experience racial and systemic equity creation.

 

In addition to this, on behalf of all racial groups, we continue to move mountains behind the scenes (painfully slowly but surely) and persevere in the face of almost daily resistance, asking for strategic and systemic change coupled with positioning that will place marginalized voices in paid and permanently valued positions to lead and be able to deliver effectively. We educate and continue to upskill and have the most difficult conversations at grave personal and professional risk with our White colleagues across the institution, asking them to be co-conspirators of change and not just offer help, sit and wait to be told but instead to listen, self-educate, do the Work, think and do in consultation and partnership with us, leveraging their roles and positions of influence in the institution to uplift and share space, include us in conversations and speak on our behalf when we are not in those rooms by design, politics and intention. We are continuously working to improve how we communicate our efforts but please understand that doing the work is a LOT, there are only a few of us and it is a difficult balancing act between ‘doing’ and ‘talking more often about’ doing. We do not get offered help to do the talking and content creation so if you want to help as City staff, get in touch to get involved and write to rec@city.ac.uk.

 

Therefore – Be Someone. Do Something:

In Black History Month and beyond, as race and inclusion teams and leads, we work and stand in solidarity always because Black Lives Matter. All Lives cannot matter until Black Lives Matter. There is no place for hate and fear-based exclusion of the different – across class and all identity intersections. Let us move forward with humility and compassion, leaving our arrogance, ignorance and egos behind. Let’s listen to those who are not place in positions of authority but have valuable words to share and who can educate us, no matter who we are – the senior most institutional leader or anyone down the socially constructed institutional hierarchy – of the impact and consequences of our actions, mindsets and decision-making strategic approaches. Let us do so intentionally and continuously. Black History Month is an ongoing conversation not just for October but throughout the year to change what systemically holds us all back because our lives are intertwined inextricably from the past to the future. Today, each of us needs to self-interrogate individually and institutionally (this is what our race equality work and charter frameworks are for) – can we Be someone and Do Something? Are we willing to take on personal and professional risk to do the right thing and include those who are asking to share space with us in how we teach, learn and think?

 

Some self-education resources shared by our own City staff and City’s Library team:

Thank you to Nadja Abia from the Doctoral College at City who works tirelessly to support, advocate, uplift and create equity and inclusion against all odds. The Future Learn resources list below has kindly been provided by her:

 

If you are on City’s campus, you may also like to check out our Library’s efforts to in BHM and throughout the year through the Book Stalls and blog posts they are doing – More information below by Dita Krauze from Louise Doolan’s team (Louise is our Director of Library Services and working hard with her team to support the City’s decolonising curriculum and reading lists work that has been happening for over a year now):

 

“We have now re-started our physical book displays in the Library, and we are planning to set up a BHM book and information display this Friday. This will be on Level 5 of Northampton Square Library – please let me know if you’d like me to send you some pictures once it’s done; the photos and information will also appear on Library’s social media.

The physical display will be accompanied by two blogposts:

One, with general information about the month, resources and activities, and an e-book carousel, will be posted at the beginning of the month.

The other, with a more in-depth look into some of the BHM-related books in our collection and promoting the Liberating CityLibrary user-led book purchasing scheme, will go up at the end of the month. Again, please feel free to let me know if you’d like me to send over the links once the blogposts have been posted.”

 

NOTE:

  • PoC stands for People of Colour, WoC stands for Women of Colour, Minoritised and Racialised groups typically include those across class intersections, White racial groups are included when referring to All Racial Groups.
  • This article and post is not intended to cause offence. It is conveying a lived reality of those who lead and do race and inclusion work. It is a reality across many higher education institutions and these reflections are a part of the self-interrogation and reflection that the Race Equality Charter, which City, University of London has signed up to, encourages. The lived reality experienced and conveyed is culmination of experiences from several and indvidual colleagues and is written about in the full awareness of the risks an repercussions that are very real as a result of stating a reality that may not be palatable to those in positions of authority and elsewhere. However, we must say what needs to be said and we encourage dialogue. The Universities UK on tackling racial equality report further supports the reality of the work conveyed in this post. If you wish to enter a constructive dialogue with us as a result of reading this post, please do not hesitate to write to rec@city.ac.uk.

 

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