by | Jun 9, 2020

#BlackLivesMatter: as change-makers we all need to do the work

With protest and debate spreading around the world following the killing of George Floyd, there is recognition that campaigning organisations must make racial justice part of their own practice. Taking our lead from #CharitySoWhite, we reflect on how the change-making community (and SMK) can do that.

In the US, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has expanded the debate from horrific individual incidents towards major systemic change, with the City of Minneapolis announcing its intent to disband its police force and invest instead in community-led public safety. In the UK, activists are working hard to give similar life to a complex analysis.

The killing of George Floyd has been a major catalyst, but truly transformational change doesn’t happen in a couple of weeks, or by waiting for politicians to pass laws. It is built on the collective efforts of many people over many years. Perhaps this moment feels different because the fact that racism is systemic and collective – not just about individual acts of hate – has finally been recognised in the public debate and linked to a collective responsibility for addressing those systems.

‘Silence is violence’ has been seen and heard throughout this latest uprising. It sums up the fact that there is no room for neutrality (or for the false balance of ‘fine people on both sides’) when people’s wellbeing and very lives are at risk. It is not good enough for SMK not to be racist – we need to be anti-racist and committed to racial justice in all aspects of the work we do with activists, charities and voluntary organisations.

Rather than publish another list of useful links (which others have already done so well), we’ve been asking ourselves how the 12 Habits of Successful Change-Makers lend themselves to this moment. How might these habits be turned inward to all campaigners, regardless of cause, think about catalysing change from within? Here are a few of our thoughts to date – we would welcome yours.

Habit #2: looking at the bigger picture

We usually talk about campaigners analysing change within the wider system, but organisations are systems too – ones we have a more direct role in shaping or perpetuating, whether through policy, culture or practice. If you are struggling to articulate what systemic inequality looks and feels like in a ‘progressive’, well-meaning organisation like yours, #CharitySoWhite have done some of that work for you.

Is your organisation challenging itself about what an inclusive workplace or fair recruitment really is? Or are you expecting people to adhere to unspoken ‘norms’ that are far from ‘normal’, turning them into a code that needs to be cracked (and adopted or surrendered to) before people can shine? This might manifest around expectations about how people dress, speak or express themselves, the kind of learning that’s respected, or the social currency that’s valued (where people went to school, who they know, shared cultural touchpoints).

Habit #4: persistence, perseverance, resilience

The past two weeks have brought images of power and unity, as well as oppression, state-sanctioned violence and denial. Black colleagues may be feeling drained, anxious and stressed. They have already spent a lifetime being persistent and resilient.

If you are not black, do not ask others to make your life easier by explaining what systemic inequality or privilege is. Do not ask them to be a spokesperson for millions of people. That is what books are for, what Google is for and what empathy is for. Do ask your colleagues how they’re doing. Do listen when they tell you. Do challenge day-to-day racism and systemic inequality where it arises – even if it’s difficult. Worried about being branded ‘difficult’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘over-emotional’ for pointing out the facts? Welcome to many people’s world.

Habit #7: understanding people’s interests and motivations – even when it makes us uncomfortable

Again, this is usually a habit we turn outwards by asking change-makers to interrogate how those who disagree with them think. It can also be turned inward. What are your own interests and motivations? The status quo is a very comfortable place for many of us – if the way you are funded, make decisions or present your organisation to the world is working for you, why change it? If that describes you, are you happy to maintain that sense of ease at the expense of others?

Habit #8: radical listening & an asset-based approach

The moment we stop thinking about what people don’t have and start thinking about what they do is revolutionary. It gives people a chance to be brilliant on their own terms and it gives organisations access to everyone’s strengths. But it starts by paying attention to people’s experiences and our own responses – individually and organisationally. Again, the amount of research and writing about systemic racism is vast – it is not the responsibility of colleagues who are most affected to do all the work.

Habit #12: taking responsible risks

This week, people had to decide whether to attend protests across the UK. On the one hand, the risk of spreading or catching a virus that is disproportionately killing people of colour, on the other, the risk of failing to harness this opportunity to increase the momentum for change. When deciding to take a risk, there are rarely absolute answers – but you must consider the risks of not acting too. If ‘progressive’ organisations fail to be part of undoing centuries of systemic racism, it will be a deeper problem for all of us for much, much longer.

So what of SMK?

We have seven members of staff. We are 100% female, and overwhelmingly white and middle-class. A classic profile for the charity sector. We recognise that we are this way because of the system that we exist in and have failed to break out of. So what are we doing about it?

  • We mainly rely on free networks to promote board and staff vacancies – so we are working hard to expand those networks beyond the well-worn ones
  • In recruitment, we will remove personal and educational identifiers from applications before shortlisting – we don’t care what university you went to or what your name is
  • We are expanding our network of associates, so that more people of colour can lead our work across the UK – interested in being part of the team?
  • We include pots of money in funding bids to pay people (who would not otherwise be paid by an organisation) for their time to take part in projects and events – this allows us to link into the expertise and experience that exists in parts of civil society that find it harder to raise income
  • We are starting to develop a clear set of expectations for each role (a ‘competency framework’) that will help each of us to describe what good performance looks like, and to break away from unwritten ‘norms’

These are just a start – we know we don’t always get it right and that there’s a great deal more to do before SMK looks, feels and behaves like the wider population from which it’s drawn. If you would like to share your own reflections, calls to action or experiences, do get in touch.

Chloe Hardy

Chloe Hardy is Director of Policy & Communications at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.



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