Podcast Interview: Race Equality Foundation CEO Jabeer Butt

19 Apr 2024 Interviews

Jabeer Butt, chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation, discusses his charity's work understanding and promoting race equality...

Jabeer Butt

Civil Society Media has published a new podcast episode, with Jabeer Butt, CEO of the Race Equality Foundation.

In this episode, Jabeer explains what led him to his role, his asks for government, and his view on charity campaigning.

You can listen to the interview here and on Spotify, along with other podcast episodes, with an AI-generated transcript below.

Harriet Whitehead: Hello and welcome to another Civil Society Media Podcast. I'm Harriet Whitehead and today's episode features a conversation with Jabeer Butt who is the CEO of the Race Equality Foundation. This podcast comes ahead of Trustee Exchange a one day event set to take place on April the 24th in London. At Trustee Exchange Karin Woodley, who is the chair of the Race Equality Foundation, will be speaking about applying a race equity lens to climate action. At the time of recording, there are a few last minute tickets available. So I hope you were able to join us. I very much enjoy speaking with Jabeer for this podcast episode, we by began by speaking about how he became involved in the charity sector, and also discussed the current work going on at the Race Equality Foundation. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I'll speak with you again at the end.

Jabeer, thank you so much for joining us today. To start out with, I thought it'd be great if we could discuss a little bit about how you got involved in the charity sector.


Jabeer Butt: It's a very long story, Harriet, but I was a bit of an activist as a teenager, I grew up at the time of the 1981 riots, and there was a lot of activism amongst our community to try and understand and hopefully ensure that those things didn't happen again. After studying for for a PhD, I started to work in Applied Social Research, firstly, for a housing association, then then in local government, and then eventually, at the National Institute for Social Work before joining what was then the race equality unit and eventually became the Race Equality Foundation. That activism, that desire to make sure that some of the things that I'd seen happening, particularly in terms of racial inequality, should be addressed, and that future generations don't experience what I did, and my communities did, as children and young people, has driven me to this day to try and make sure that when I finish, that the world is a bit better than then when I started.


Harriet Whitehead: And so what did you think when the job came up at the Race Equality Foundation?


Jabeer Butt: It's a job that has changed quite a lot. Originally, I was employed as a researcher and then gone on to, to establish a research team at the foundation, and then eventually became the chief executive as well. So it's not been the same job in all that time. But I was very excited at the beginning, because I do think that if we're going to come up with solutions, those solutions need to be evidence based. And I wanted to use those research skills that are developed to try and ensure that that evidence base properly understood the experience of discrimination and disadvantage, but also came up with solutions that were going to make a real difference, rather than something that we'd look back on that hadn't really changed the dial.


Harriet Whitehead: And you received an OBE for your work. Can you tell me a little bit about the work which kind of led to that, and what that experience was like?


Jabeer Butt: Well, it's the collection of work from the work we've done around parenting, which is now seen, the establishment of the Strengthening Families strengthen communities parent education programme, as being one of the three largest programmes available in England, it consistently manages to engage Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. And importantly, it engages those that are other programmes and other interventions have had a difficulty engaging some of the majority of our our households whose annual income is less than 13,000 pounds. So it's amongst the poorest of the poor that are getting through, often described as hard to reach. But we've managed to do that successfully and managed to not only get people onto the programme, but also impact them in terms of their their relationships with their children, and hopefully the outcomes for children. But that's been combined with with advocacy work around health inequalities, where I've managed to ensure that raises attention to race is amazing is this is there in many policies, whether it's to do in the way we implemented Sure Start whether it's to do I with the way that health services responded to the many health inequalities we've identified it's been part and parcel of that, and I think it's that collection of work of not only identifying the problems, but coming up with solutions that lead to the award of the OBE.


Harriet Whitehead: And I think that did come to the kind of public forefront during COVID, where we saw lots of kind of evidence based reporting around the impacts of COVID on people from minority ethnic backgrounds. I don't know if that's something that you saw?


Jabeer Butt: Very much so. We actually published a blog about on I think, on March the 28th, a few days after the first lockdown was announced that warned about the possible negative impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic communities, including many who worked in health and care. And it's one of the probably the biggest sadnesses I have that some of what we warned against wasn't addressed. So that notion of one of the big policy aims was to get people to, to work from home, but was not something that minority ethnic communities could do easily, partly because some of the jobs that they did require them to, to not work from home. But also they didn't have the wherewithal to work from home. So if you're working in a factory on, on piece work, or if you're a mini cab driver, it's it's quite difficult to work from home. But then there were lots of other things that attention was not paid to either, for example, self isolating at home, it's all well and good to do that if you're in a home that's large enough to find a spare room for you to self isolate. But when you're living in an overcrowded, high rise blocks, it's it becomes incredibly difficult to do. And therefore, it's no surprise that those places became places where, where not only was the infection prevalent, but it actually spread quite quickly. And as I said, it's one of the sadness is that those warnings weren't listened to. And it took a long while for us to realise the detrimental impact it was having. 


Harriet Whitehead: Yeah.

And obviously you've achieved a lot in your role. But I was wondering, were there any kind of surprises or challenges which have come up, which you perhaps weren't anticipating when you joined?


Jabeer Butt: I think the hope always is that when when you're an evidence based organisation, that that tries to ensure that whatever it does, is, is informed by by, by real evidence that you assume that when you present information that shows that racism is not only prevalent with having a material impact, that people will engage on that basis. The reality has been, however, that too often, that evidence has been dismissed. And instead, we've got into, into heated debates that are often driven by, by by politics, rather than an attempt to understand what's going on and what we need to do to ensure that inequality, particularly racial inequality, isn't going to persist and have a negative impact. The shocking thing of it all is that it comes at a great cost, not only to those individuals who experience it, but at a great cost to the state as well. And one example of that is if we look at that exclusion from schools, we know that Black Asian and minority ethnic children are more likely to be excluded from school, particularly Caribbean boys. But we also know that that's actually a stepping stone to other experiences, including ending up in the criminal justice system. And once you end up in the criminal justice system, the cost not only to you, but to the state is such that earlier intervention would have actually had a much more significant impact. Yet we choose not to go down that route. We choose to continue to challenge that evidence and not take the action that we need to.


Harriet Whitehead: And what areas is the Race Equality Foundation currently focused on? Is it this early intervention work?


Jabeer Butt: That's clearly something that we persist with. Our focus on parenting, including resolving issues around parental conflict are an attempt to try and help families and children and their children to have the best opportunities that they can work with a family supporting family. However, for that to really work, we need some of the structural changes to take place as well. I'm sure many of your listeners will already know that what we've seen in the last 15 years is a dramatic rise of in work poverty, that's people actually in jobs, who can't afford the basics of daily living. And that has had a detrimental impact on minority ethnic communities, and inevitably means that they put pressures on families and children to be able to do just the basics to be able to take up the opportunities of education, to be able to take up the opportunities for work. So yes, early intervention is important. But if it's not, if it doesn't happen with the changes in the structures that that create that such as poor pay and poor employment opportunities, we're not going to achieve the scale of change that we need to.


Harriet Whitehead: And obviously, this year, we're anticipating a general election, at some point. What are your asks for government ahead of that, and future government?


Jabeer Butt: I really do hope that we are in the realms of transformative change, rather than better managing decline, which is sometimes what seems to be being suggested. And if we're really interested in transformative change, I think we need to think big, and we need to act big. So one of the things we're calling for is actually the mission for the Treasury's change, that it's changed to be that the Treasury should be addressing inequality in a sustainable way. We think that it's only by by changing the mission of the of the Treasury that we're going to achieve the scale of change that need needs to happen. If I give you an example, Help to Buy, which was a scheme that was that was promoted by the Treasury that has seen billions of pounds spent on on helping people buy buy property has had two or three impacts, it's raised the price of property, it's it's meant that there are now people in in those properties that are going to find it difficult to move. And it's also meant that the affordable housing that we should have been building hasn't been built. And I can't help but think that it's only by actually changing what the Treasury is meant to be doing, that we would stop policies like that being put in place, but instead focus on change that does need to happen, such as properly funding the NHS.


Harriet Whitehead: And how do you find your experiences working, from the charity perspective, with government at the moment? Is that something that you do? And if so, what's that like? 


Jabeer Butt: We do, and we do it very regularly. And it's welcome, when when it does happen, we've done some really interesting and important work, for example, around the Prevention Agenda around annual health checks and so on. But the reality is, is that it tends to be small scale and isn't of the of, of the size that needs to be happening. So about three years ago, two years ago, we worked on on a response to the 10 year mental health strategy, we worked on a response to what was being proposed as the dementia strategy as well. Then suddenly, about a year and a half ago, all of that was put to one side. And instead, we were promised this major condition strategy. And everybody pointed out at that time, that this seem the wrong way to go. How dementia cancer, mental health, cardiovascular disease and so on, could all be dealt with within one strategy seem to be beyond anybody's understanding. And unfortunately, that seems to have come to fruition. We have a situation now where where the preventative work that perhaps would have meant that future generations didn't experience dementia at the same scale as we're currently experiencing isn't being done, which means that in in years to come, we'll still be having to address the damaging impact of dementia. When when earlier intervention would that would have made a difference and I think it has to be put down on, on a lack of of strategic approach to, to addressing these issues.


Harriet Whitehead: And when you do campaign, how would you find, as a charity, how do you find that experience? Because obviously, the chair of the Charity Commission has been speaking about charities campaigning, there's sometimes quite a lot of national media attention on charities campaigning, and for some, it perhaps can be quite a difficult environment. So how was that for you?


Jabeer Butt: Without without getting into the technicalities of this Harriet, I always find that a really odd conversation to be had when we think about all the great charities that Britain has had NSPCC, Help the Aged, now Age UK, Macmillan and so on. All these charities came about because they saw a failure in what the state was doing a failure to provide the care support protection that the state should that should have been providing. And they're set out to change that they're set out to change the way the state was operating. And now suddenly, we're being told that charities shouldn't be doing that. And it seems seems odd that if that's what what we were originally established to do, that we suddenly now have to shy away from challenging the way the state is responding. Clearly, we need to be careful about being party political, and the Race Equality Foundation's always be quite clear that we will, we will question and challenge whoever's in power to make sure that it's racism that's focused on, but that that shouldn't take us away from the fact that charities are here to make sure that that that the state protects those that need protecting.


Harriet Whitehead: And how do you find running a charity in this kind of financial and political climate?


Jabeer Butt: I'm sure many of your listeners will know that that organisations focusing on race organisations focusing on equality, the women's sector, in particular, have had a very difficult time in the last 15 years or so. money's been very tight. And it's been it's very difficult to, to ensure that we're continuing to do the kind of work that we want to do, beyond some of the debates that you've already highlighted about, about restrict the restrictions on what we can and can't say, say in public. Having said that, there's always also been a pressure for us to not focus on on on race to us to, to perhaps, talk or talk about it in more general terms, and so on. But I think one of the strengths of the Race Equality Foundation is that we've never shied away from from talking about racism and saying that it continues to have a material impact on the lives of Britons. And as long as it does that, we need to be able to not only describe what the impact is, but also to advocate for change that will that will end that discrimination.


Harriet Whitehead: I also wondered what your thoughts were, in terms of the charity sector and the work which is going on around DEI and anti-racism. I think it's probably fair to say there has been more of a focus in the last few years on that work. But also some criticism around that work, whether it's effective. And obviously, it's a large sector. But what are your views on that?


Jabeer Butt: Obviously, I've been around for a long time. And I often raise the point that it comes in peaks and troughs that the focus on on on equality, inequality, racism, and so on. There have been times when there's been greater attention then then at others, the death of Stephen Lawrence, and particularly the Macpherson report, did lead to a great deal more attend attention. The equality and the legislative changes that have taken place again, lead to greater attention. But to be honest, the 2010s were a period where there was very little work that was being done systematically. The things that were being done tended to be performative rather than bringing about real change. So the 2012 NHS Act had health inequalities clause in it the first time ever in in legislation. Yet all it ever seemed to lead to was a letter from the NHS to the health secretary in a letter back from him to the NHS, and very little evidence that it was leading to change. So I think that the 2010s have been a real difficult period. The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives movement afterwards, particularly the response of young people, that this wasn't something that they were willing to tolerate anymore, did lead to a period of 12-18 months where there was a lot of activity, lots of organisations making public statements about things that were going to be changing, or that they were going to try and change. I fear that that energy has been lost of late. And we've instead got caught in a in a heated debate, and a distracting debate at times as well, that would seem to end up focusing on words rather than on actions. And I do hope that colleagues in the charitable sector will will will get back to actually taking real steps and take making sure that action is taken rather than just talking about it.


Harriet Whitehead: And what in terms of colleagues in the sector, what is the collaboration environment like? Do you do much work on with the rest of the sector?


Jabeer Butt: We've always been very clear that we're a small organisation and for us to achieve the scale of changes that we need to, we need to collaborate and we have around 400 small and small organisations that we work with across across the country, whether it's the Wai Yin Chinese Women's society in Manchester, or whether it's the Somali youth organisation in Islington, these are small organisations that support us that we support, and we collaborate with them to try and bring about the the sorts of changes we want. Inevitably, we have collaborated with other organisations and we're part of any initiative, for example, called Healthy Equals, which is, which has got something like 60 of the largest charities in the country, working together to try and bring about change in the way we think about health inequality, and particularly, to address the wider determinants of health rather than just focusing on the NHS. And we're really hopeful that the campaigns that have been run so far around life expectancy, will be responded to by an act around around health inequalities, which require, which will require all government departments to take action. But that that sort of collaboration is is is worthwhile, and we invest time, energy and effort into it, as I say, I suspect the last 12 months, it's become more more difficult to achieve.


Harriet Whitehead: And it has just been such a difficult climate financially, especially for small charities. I mean, I don't remember writing so many pieces, sadly, about charities closing. It is such a difficult time.


Jabeer Butt: We always have to have to put put the closure of charities in the context of the communities that we work with, in in the midst of a cost of living crisis, where the use of Food Banks has become normalised where where destitution is regularly talked about, it's perhaps no surprise that that some charities are closing as well. And we've got to be clear that none of us have God given right to be here. And therefore it is, we just need to be careful about that. However, it's also quite clear that what's happening in now, is that good charities doing good work, that have been well run are finding themselves in a situation where they can no longer afford to continue. And I think that that should worry us all, that if we're if we've got to a state now where we're organisations that no you would normally expect to survive, the ups and downs of funding are having to close and that is really very, very worrying.


Harriet Whitehead: Yeah. And in terms of the future, what are your hopes for the organisation in the next few years?


Jabeer Butt: Clearly, one of the key issues is to make sure that we have racism addressed at a national level and that we we see real attempts being made to to address the factors that not only impact the current generations, but transfer inequality from one generation to the other. And there are clearly reasons for doing that. We know that Britain's Black Asian and minority ethnic population is now around 20%. But as importantly, because it's younger, it's now a bigger part of the employment of the workforce in this country. And really, if we're going to make the best use of that workforce, we need to ensure that the employment opportunities people have are are the best, then also, their experiences, while being employed, are free from racial discrimination, and the experience of racism. So we do hope that we can see real change taking place there. There are clearly promises of of legislative change. But that legislative change needs to be be backed up by by having a governance structure that that allows us to make sure that those policies are being implemented. It's unfortunate that the Equality and Human Rights Commission hasn't seen itself fit to be challenging issues around racism. And in the last few years, that's been further undermined by the dramatic cuts in funding of the HRC, which makes it actually very difficult for it to do its job properly. And I think what we would hope is that if we're going to achieve change, that we not only bring about legislative change, but also ensure that there are structures to implement it.


Harriet Whitehead: And Jabeer, thank you so much for coming on to be interviewed. That's been so interesting. Is there anything else which we haven't touched on which you were hoping to discuss?


Jabeer Butt: The only thing I would add there Harriet, it's always the case that when you start talking about race and racism, that sometimes it creates this, this victimology, that somehow, everything is terrible. The the important thing to remember is that Britains Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities continue to be what vibrant communities that are playing an important part in, in not only our current survival, but also hopefully our future. And we shouldn't lose sight of that. And hopefully, we'll what we're calling for, is how do we make a build on that and help everyone flourish? 


Harriet Whitehead: Yeah.Thank you Jabeer, thank you.

Jabeer Butt: Thanks Harriet.

Thank you for listening to this podcast episode. And thank you so much to Jabeer for your great insights. If you enjoyed this episode, please do like and subscribe. We hope to do more podcasts in the future and if you have any comments, please do get in touch.

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