Rowntree charity pledges restorative justice after ‘abhorrent’ histories highlighted

20 Apr 2021 News

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) has apologised and said it will contribute to a restorative justice plan after initial research showed the extent of their “abhorrent” colonial histories.
In February 2020, The Rowntree Society began a new research project exploring the Rowntree company’s historic global supply chains.
It has been working with funding and support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT), in order to explore the commercial origins of their endowments.
The charities are all separate entities despite having similar names, but are collaborating to support and fund the research project into their shared origins.
The Rowntree Society said: “We have identified histories of race-based hierarchies and racial exploitation within the Rowntree story. These have profound implications for the content and direction of our work.”
It added: “Our initial findings show that the company was an active agent in colonial economies in Africa and the Caribbean across the 19th and 20th centuries. They indicate that the Rowntree businesses benefited from unfree labour systems which caused harm to people of colour.”

All four charities published statements in response to the research, and JRCT said it is now looking to develop a restorative justice plan, which could include reparations. 

It cites the Black Lives Matter movement as bringing a renewed focus to the origins of long-standing racial injustices.

The Rowntree Society is a small charity, with one full-time member of staff, a board of trustees and a small number of volunteers. Its statement reads: “We are all white. We recognise that organisational structures, including those in charity governance, often reproduce unequal systems.
“We will seek to address these limitations even as we operate within them. We will draw up a plan of action for addressing diversity on our board as part of an ongoing process of reviewing our mission, vision and values, and will share these on our website when complete.”


The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) said it will “critically examine” its own history.

In a statement, it said: “At the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, our purpose is to support people who address the root causes of conflict and injustice. This has included long-term funding of racial justice work, in line with our charitable objects.

“As a Quaker Trust, our commitment to integrity also prompts us to reflect on our own situation and actions, even when this is difficult. Because of this, we felt a moral responsibility to critically examine our own history. 

The Trust said it was “appalled by what we have learned about these abhorrent practices”, saying they are at odds with its commitment to building a more just society.

Every year the Trust makes more than 100 grants to a value of approximately £11m for charitable work.

'We have overlooked shameful parts of the Rowntree company’s history'

JRCT apologised for overlooking parts of the company's history and admitted it should have begun this work sooner.  

Its statement adds: “We know that such actions caused extreme and enduring harms, and we recognise their role in embedding the systemic racism that is still present in the UK and globally. As a former shareholder in the Rowntree company and an institutional beneficiary of its wealth, we are deeply sorry.

“We also recognise that we have overlooked shameful parts of the Rowntree company’s history in our telling of the Rowntree story, despite some of the information being publicly available.”

This includes evidence of oppressive and exploitative practices at the Rowntree company’s South African subsidiary, Wilson Rowntree, during the apartheid era.

The Trust has said this process to acknowledge its history “could and should have begun earlier”, and that it will be working together with the Rowntree Society to sponsor research that will explore aspects of this history in more detail.

JRCT also admitted that it is “a white-dominated organisation and that black people, brown people and people of colour must shape this work”.

It will therefore take immediate action to strengthen its contribution to racial justice through grantmaking, investments, governance and staff diversity. 

The statement concludes: “We are also committed to identifying, listening to and engaging with those communities affected by the enduring harm caused by the Rowntree business, to develop a longer-term plan for restorative justice. 

“We expect this to include a process of exploring and identifying forms of reparation which further our charitable purposes for the public benefit. We begin this journey knowing that the precise outcomes are not yet in sight. We are committed to being open and transparent about our progress.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust

A statement from trustees at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) states: “We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.

“The JRF trustees and JRHT board are committed to recognising and learning from every part of our history. It is especially important to us that the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery should occupy a more prominent place in the Rowntree story. We should have done this much earlier.

“Therefore, alongside the other independently endowed Rowntree trusts, we will fund the Rowntree Society to investigate this part of our history more fully. We know that the harms caused by these practices are still creating injustice and suffering today. Many of the injustices faced by Black and minority ethnic people in the UK are fuelled by attitudes similar to those used during imperialism to justify the worst forms of exploitation.”

The statement adds that the charities have a particular obligation to contribute to repairing their harmful impacts, and that the JRF want to work with others to embed race equality within its work.

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) added: “It is known that the Rowntree Company actively participated in colonial era trade, but this has rarely featured prominently in narratives about the company’s history. Instead these have tended to focus on the firm’s domestic business practices and our benefactor’s commitment to tackling the root causes of inequality and injustice in the UK.”

Its statement reads: “We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowments have roots in practices that have caused deep suffering and enduring impact. These practices are abhorrent to us all.

“We recognise the importance of learning from all parts of our history and enabling the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery to take their central place in the Rowntree story. JRRT is contributing to the funding of work by the Rowntree Society to sponsor a research fellowship to explore aspects of the Rowntree history in more detail. In retrospect we should have started this process earlier.”

It added that it is committing to building a positive new legacy and plans to embed race equality within its work.

It will also look to improve the diversity of its board, staff and networks, and audit, publish and increase funding for grantmaking and programmes that tackle racial injustice and political inequality. 

The organisation is also reviewing its investment policy and will examine what contribution its investments can make as part of this review.

It concluded: “We are in the early stages of this work, aware that we need to listen to the voices of Black and minority ethnic people and that we need to be open to challenge, transparent and accountable for the progress we make.”

Editor's note: The image headline, first paragraph and a later paragraph have been amended to clarity that it is just the JRCT that has said it is looking at restorative justice

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