A journey to anti-racism

16 May 2022 In-depth

Helen Moulinos shares some lessons from POhWER’s efforts to become an anti-racist organisation.

To consider and become an anti-racist charity you need to first understand what systems of inequality, oppression and disadvantage exist within your own charity.

If I were to say to you that inequalities exist in our society, you would very likely agree. Therefore, your starting point as a charity leader must be to assume those same inequalities persist in the charity you work in. To put your head in the sand and deny that racism exists is to further marginalise your own workforce and beneficiaries. No one likes to think they are working for a charity with systemic inequalities and failures do they? But that needs to be the starting point for all of us.

My own call to action recently has been to identify where, analyse why, and dismantle systems which are unfair or bar access to equal opportunity at POhWER – the national advocacy charity where I have been chief executive for the last two years. We are working to create an environment where staff, volunteers and beneficiaries of all races, ethnicities and nationalities thrive. This “equality detective” role has not been easy. It has required me to see my own organisation with “clean and kind eyes”, to question regularly, to unlearn and upskill, and to listen actively to suggestions put forward by POhWER’s anti-racism staff network group called EMPOhWERace.

I strongly believe that as an organisation, we have collectively created a culture of openness, trust and transparency over the last few years. I could not have done it on my own. Role modelling equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) cannot sit just with the CEO, people director and EDI manager. We cannot be the sole guardians of fairness and equality. What has made the journey worthwhile is to see how many of us here at POhWER share these values and our drive to become a better charity.

Anti-racism leadership means being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, doing the work to educate yourself, not being afraid of looking foolish, and standing up for people who don’t hold the same power and privilege as you have. It also means challenging people that hold powerful influence over your charity, and making difficult disciplinary decisions to redress and bring justice and balance.

These systems often start before we enter our working life and our ability to access opportunities as equally as the next person is often compromised by bias and judgement of our race and ethnicity, class, socio-economic position, family history, education, accents and language. This can break our confidence and destroy our spirits.

Being silent is unhelpful. When I spoke to a few CEOs in the sector about writing this article, I had the unexpected reaction of people asking me if it made sense for me to “stick my head above the parapet” as this was a “tricky controversial subject”. When I asked my POhWER work colleagues if I should speak up, the response was “yes, a resounding yes”. Why is there this unwritten stigma about CEOs speaking up against racial inequality in 2022?

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t wish to preach to the converted or come across as a know-all. I am a human being doing the best that I can for our workforce and the people we are here to support at POhWER. I sleep very well knowing that I am vocal, able to enter into respectful debate and unapologetic about my views on equality. I am often criticised and trolled and I often receive unpleasant letters for speaking up about what is right. My own colleagues are often concerned about safeguarding me and the impacts of my voice. Silence is not an option for me. Why should I keep my expectations of inclusive behaviours a secret?

I tell our POhWER story in the hope that we as a sector can have more meaningful conversations about racial equality and take impactful actions which show our own people that collectively we give a damn.

I have been reflecting on the anti-racism journey at POhWER. What were the lessons I learned? What advice can I offer? What mistakes did I make?  

Perspectives from my POhWER co-workers

To write this article, I felt it was important that I canvassed the opinions and perspectives of my workforce. This POhWER story about our journey needed to be told with the honesty and candour of my work colleagues who have worked in partnership with us to co-create our EDI strategy and plan over the last two years, calling out injustices and unfairness along the way and keeping us grounded with their humanity and patience.

Last month, I wrote to our workforce and explained I was writing this article and wanted their opinions. Might they consider answering a few questions for me on where they thought we were on the anti-racism journey? Here are some excerpts from what they said (The full interviews can be found on the POhWER website):

Jenny Dowell, independent health complaints advocate:

My understanding of anti-racism is eradication of racism. I was born in the early 60s, grew up in London during the 70s and experienced extreme racism towards myself, my parents and the community. Covert racism is powerful, often silent and had sadly become acceptable in my personal life and professional life. I am hopeful for the changes that are now presenting.

Balli Kainth, cultural appropriate advocate:

To not feel that you are lesser than someone else because you are from a different race/culture/ ethnicity. For me personally, I have felt that I am not as good as my white British counterparts because I am from an Indian background and therefore my skills in writing or speaking are not as good as someone who is white. I will speak up to support my clients as this is my job and I love doing that for them but I feel so different when it comes to myself. I think this really was a confidence issue for myself but I was very much aware of my heritage.

Selina Edwards, community manager and chair of EMPOhWERace:

I feel all of these emotions at some point: inspired, driven, confused – it depends on the company I am in, how it affects the audience I am addressing, or what topic to do with anti-racism it is I am discussing. No matter what the emotion, I cannot shy away from it, I have to speak up for myself and others when they feel they cannot.

In my role at POhWER, there is less worry around the topic in the circles I work, but I am mindful this is not a reflection of the charity. For some, this is a really uncomfortable topic.

Tania Baldwin-Pask, independent advocate:

I think POhWER is taking important steps towards promoting an anti-racist culture, but I find it interesting that some, possibly many, staff including people of colour do not yet feel the journey is theirs. I think there is still a lot to do in terms of being clear about what POhWER can change and what it can’t. More clarity and precision is needed around specific areas of work, e.g. culturally appropriate advocacy – what is defined as being culturally appropriate? And more work to do in regards to combatting multiple discrimination, particularly with a workforce which is overwhelmingly female.

Lessons I learned

In my role as chief executive, there have been plenty of lessons for me on this journey:

Policies are plasters. Too often, charities are lazy and believe that writing policies is enough to eliminate inequality, discrimination or abuse. A common set of rules that apply to everyone should be transparent and visible. Writing the rules down isn’t the same as living and behaving in accordance with those rules. Boundary-testing and rule-breaking must always be addressed.

Anti-racism cannot be addressed in a silo. No one lives within a single identity – we all have intersectional lives. Inequalities exist on many planes including race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, mental health, poverty, sexual orientation, gender identity to name a few of the most common areas of social exclusion and marginalisation. It isn’t cake – there is enough equality for everyone.

Co-create and design actions based on the feedback from your workforce. Our EDI actions are often unimaginative. Having lived experience as a leader may give you a perspective but does not make you an expert on all the forms racism can take.

Does a room full of CEOs talking about anti-racism create an action list that is relevant to your own employees? Probably not. A workshop full of your staff and volunteers will, however, yield creative interventions faster. Self-organising groups need your allyship, not your interference. Don’t be threatened by the healing and supportive peer advocacy that staff network groups can provide for each other.

Educate yourself and widen your own views. Your understanding of racism may be too narrow. Racism is where someone treats another person differently because their skin colour is not the same as theirs, or they speak a different language or have different religious beliefs, for example. We have had incidents arising which included excluding people from accessing benefits, asking colleagues to put up with “preference style” requests relating to one colleague’s hijab, and even an investigation involving the humiliation of a colleague due to her foreign accent. The Equality Act 2010 does a great job of explaining the different ways that racism may occur – direct or indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment.

White fragility, white tears, white saviourism and white centredness are real in our sector. People may disagree with me but it’s true and it’s a real problem in our sector. These behaviours are often well-meaning and can arise from shock or disbelief, a lack of lived experience, or fear and ignorance. My own observation has been that many people in Britain have never been taught to speak about race/ethnicity/religion/ immigrant matters openly in their education. I grew up in New York where my own experience was one of a diverse community where I learned from age six to speak openly, comfortably and without fear of asking curious questions. So, support those colleagues who are nervous about engaging with the subject and don’t make them feel ashamed for not knowing what to do or say. Everyone is at a different point in the anti-racism journey. My experience is that there is great potential in supporting these colleagues who often become the best allies after they get their head around concepts and language. Train everyone to get the basics right first.

Being an ally requires you to do the work yourself. Do the work to bridge understanding and don’t require your colleagues to relive their traumas in order to bring you up to speed. Read, attend courses and join your organisation’s anti-racism staff network group. You can’t always fix society. You can stand up for others and create a fairer workplace.

Dissenters and detractors will appear in the most unlikely places. Not everyone will support your efforts. Many will ignore you. Some will deny racism exists or that harm could exist within a human rights charity. Recognise that anti-racism actions level up your workplace and are not to be seen in a silo. A workplace where everyone feels welcome and feels safe will in turn encourage altruism and allyship elsewhere.

Don’t allow hierarchies of trauma and privilege to persist. Just because your beneficiaries may be living in crisis, marginalised or vulnerable does not mean your workforce is meant to tolerate discrimination or abuse. Consider the “privilege wars” that may form as the culture opens up. Don’t allow an environment to persist where one person’s lived experience is more important than another’s. It is dreadful we live in a society where this still happens. We are people who live with intersectional identities, with our own history and traumas which cannot be observed by the human eye.

Expectations, behaviours and tone start with you as the chief executive. You are accountable for safeguarding your staff and volunteers and must be unapologetic about what actions you take as a leader. There is no middle ground, no fence to sit on. You need to practice what you preach.

Treat everyone equally and don’t tip off or protect senior managers in your whistleblowing, grievance and disciplinary matters. Clear any barriers to raising reports and allegations. Investigate everything and don’t jump to conclusions until you have examined all of the information.

Promote a non-hierarchical culture where speaking up is encouraged and anyone can speak to anyone (including you, the chief executive).

Make it clear that EDI is not something that sits solely with the CEO, people director or EDI manager. In my own charity, I make it clear that treating people with dignity and respect is everyone’s responsibility – no matter what the job title.

Remove disparities, cronyism, special favours, detractors and barriers by design. That exception to policy you thought was being kind to an upset colleague? That action was you treating people differently.

Make it easy for people to whistleblow and to raise a grievance. Signal loudly as a leader that you operate retribution-free procedures, investigate all allegations formally, and build in protocols so that people know how to report you and your senior team. Fluently weave together your whistleblowing, grievance and safeguarding policies. Explain to your workforce there is no such thing as a secret when receiving a racism allegation – you can never unhear it and have an ethical and legal duty to protect people from harm and abuse.

Don’t be afraid to enter into a debate or conflict in the name of equality. The external world is an extension of your charity workplace. It isn’t ok that your commissioner, funder, donor or beneficiary has harmed your colleague. Write to them, report it to their organisation and insist it is investigated. A letter signed by the CEO makes people sit up and pay attention.

Complain, call out, divorce and walk away from partners, suppliers, funders or commissioners who do not share your high standards. Your own people do not have a price tag and are human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Allowing others to harm, humiliate or abuse them is shameful.

Make the case for the benefits of an anti-racist culture to anyone who will listen. Think about how that may feel for the people you work with. Shout it from the rooftops. Evangelise about the benefits of equality to every audience you have as a senior leader, and do it again for the people in the back who weren’t listening. Build a coalition of champions in your workplace.

Role model anti-racist leadership every day. My organisation helps people to uphold their human rights in public services and be seen as equal people in our society. I employ people who argue for a living. My own role as POhWER’s chief executive is to seek social justice, campaign for human rights and advocate for equality alongside my people. I learned that I needed to be as noisy, passionate and vocal internally about injustice as I was externally.

Realise that the journey never ends. The most important lesson I have learned is that the journey to becoming an anti-racist charity never ends. Sadly, we don’t live in a fair or equal society and our workplaces are a reflection of this. There will always be systems to dismantle, bias to tackle, people to educate and situations you have not planned for. While inequality exists, so will POhWER’s efforts to dismantle it.

Helen Moulinos (@helenmoulinos) is chief executive of POhWER 

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