Holding space for equity – the journey of City’s Student Support Services EDI Working Group

By Tom Glynn, Senior EDI Officer (Charters and Data)

Before joining the EDI team at City, I was part of Student Support Services. As a manager of a front facing team supporting students, facilitating and encouraging open conversations around equality, diversity and inclusion was paramount to the successful delivery of the service and the development and wellbeing of my team. My passion for open conversation and real change at City was shared by several other members of Student Support Services, and I’m writing today about how we went from a grass roots discussion group to holding a series of events on diversity and inclusion that we hope to take beyond the department to the wider university.  We found success in several initiatives that you can commit to today to build a more positive, meaningful, and fully inclusive community.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the increased presence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the head of Student Support Services was approached by a team member sharing their frustrations and concerns about the work that clearly needed to be done. Too many conversations were happening individually, and an opportunity was identified to collaborate and come together as a wider team.  Invitations were sent out to form a small group across Student Support Services that would get together on a regular basis to support the Head in embedding the principles of the EDI framework at City into our day to day working practices. The group would create a safe space for conversations across teams where we talk about and educate ourselves on the lived experiences of colleagues with protected characteristics.

The first meeting was emotional as staff shared their worries, anxieties, and concerns, but this open communication and safe space led to us looking forward to the meetings as we quickly found them to be a refuge where we could truly be ourselves. We soon decided that we wanted to formalise our work and set out some realistic immediate and long-term objectives and created a set of guiding principles. As well as setting our clear purpose, aims and objectives, we set out a commitment to each other; that we allow each other to say what we feel and accept that this may be uncomfortable at times. This would take place in a confidential and safe space.

We shot for the stars with our ideas for change – how do we make it common practice to discuss EDI matters as a team? Can we host an EDI focused Directorate meeting? Can we work with Senior leadership and stakeholders at the University to set out a yearly plan of activities and targeted campaigns? Our first steps in achieving this was to hold a series of events for all of Student Support Services where we invited staff Affinity Network leads and Students’ Union Liberation Officers to give us a real, honest overview of what life was like at City for a woman, for someone with a disability, for a member of the LGBTQI+ community.  Conversations were held, staff were engaged, and we saw real promise in the honesty of the sessions. Staff didn’t feel they were being pulled into a tick-box training session or put on the spot to perform or share uncomfortable and potentially traumatic experiences, but we created an environment where people were invited to share and reassured that they would be heard.

The idea of setting up a Student Support Services EDI Working Group was daunting; it was the fear of the unknown as it was something that had never been done before. However, we knew that fear couldn’t get in the way of driving positive change at City and within ourselves. The initial fear that I felt turned to excitement and determination to get people talking about the issues especially about race and racism. What made our events such a success was our honesty and vulnerability to admit that we were not perfect, that did not have all the answers, but we were willing to try. Our relaxed approach I believe helped others to have those conversations that often felt taboo. The Working Group could not have worked without people, from writing newsletters to organising communication and events – every single person was integral to help spread the message. We have received wonderful feedback from our colleagues who have praised our monthly newsletters and events and just having the opportunity to speak freely about issues that affect them. (Nana Amoako, Working Group Co-Chair)

This led to what was the final event of our first year as a Working Group before we paused for the start of the new academic year – ‘Let’s Talk About Race’. The big one. The one we were perhaps the most hesitant and uncomfortable about addressing. But the momentum was there, and we were ready. We moved away from a fixed format of listening to a guest speaker and hosting breakout rooms for discussion and relied on the safe space we crated to hold a truly open conversation about race.  People were not scared to say the wrong thing, and we began to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. White members of staff checked their privilege and amplified the voices of our BAME colleagues. I truly feel that by holding a space for conversation, we all truly saw each other, and in seeing each other we want to support each other.

On a personal level I felt a sense of achievement and great reward that I had used my voice and skills to better myself and to chip away at discrimination that is a part of our everyday life. Some may ask ‘what can I do to fight racism, I am only one person?’ My answer to them is to start by reading and having a conversation with someone, I believe that every action has a reaction whether big or small. We will continue in 2021/22 to keep having these conversations and to let our colleagues know that they do have a safe space in Student Support Services. (Nana Amoako, Working Group Co-Chair)

With the right intentions, principles and environment, any team at City can start to talk more openly and honestly about race. Incredible initiatives are happening that we encourage you all to take up – attend a Diversify Your Mind event, an EDI Forum, or start your own group with your team.  These conversations have helped us begin to embed principles of EDI into our daily work.  Before I left the team, I made EDI a fixed point on my team meetings to keep conversations going and asked each of my line reports to create their own EDI-based appraisal goal.  The Working Group created ‘EDI FYI’, a monthly newsletter featuring contributions from all group members, ranging from a ‘getting to know you’ feature, spotlights on key EDI calendar events and a discussion zone that encouraged everyone to take the conversation further with their teams.

We can all be agents of change, we can all hold space for each other and make EDI a daily reality in our work at City.

I hope this blog post has inspired you to think about what you can commit to today.

You can reach out to Tom in his new role as Senior EDI Officer (Charters and Data) via Tom.Glynn@City.ac.uk / MS Teams, or get in touch with the Working Group via SSSEDIWorkingGroup@City.ac.uk

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