As I’m sure everyone will be aware, October marks Black History Month in the UK.
This year, Black History Month in the UK is a little different. For the first time, celebrations and activities are based around a single theme – ‘Proud to be…’ – which has been created to actively encourage all Black people to celebrate what makes them proud of their African or Caribbean roots. Finishing the statement brings out the reasons to be proud of themselves as individuals, while also celebrating our collective culture.
I am a second-generation Caribbean and a British born Jamaican – my grandparents immigrated to the UK in the 1940s, and that is where my family has settled and grown over the years. Personally, I am ‘Proud to be... a Black British woman’ and I know that my value isn’t held in what society says about me.
It’s fair to say that this month means a lot of different things to different people which is exactly how it should be, and so you will generally see it expressed and distinguished in many ways. For me, Black History Month is all about honouring and celebrating ‘Blackness’ within society, where unfortunately it is broadly still questioned around the legitimacy of doing so. Celebrating and empowering the Black community should happen all year round but, in reality, this isn’t yet the case, which is what makes this month so special. There is still a lot more work to do.
In a year of so much difference, we have unfortunately been faced with situations that are all too familiar, with systemic and societal racial inequalities remaining front and centre, and an ongoing dialogue around ‘How do we make real change?’. And of course this translates and is mirrored in the workplace, where the focus on both diversity and inclusion is being accelerated. A rightful spotlight is being shone, and Black communities are finding their voices and being empowered to say ‘enough is enough’.
Within workplaces, it is easy for people openly to state that they aren’t racist, but we need people to be actively anti-racist and be the drivers implementing change. Of course, highlighting racial inequalities and disparities, fighting for change, and taking actionable measures forms a large part of my role day to day, but this month I want to focus on going beyond the struggles. I want to celebrate achievement, success, and excellence, as it is important to face the realities that Black people exist outside of the pain as well. In local government, this is particularly important. Councils must understand, emphasise, and represent the mindsets and make-up of the communities they serve.
Black history is everyone’s history, and this month is an opportunity for everyone to raise their cultural competence and recognise and respect diversity through both their words and their actions. Gaining cultural competence is a lifelong process of increasing self-awareness, developing social skills and behaviours, and gaining the ability to advocate for others. We all have this within us, and through doing so and reflecting on our own experiences, we can all begin to become more self-aware, shape our interactions with each other, ensure all perspectives are represented day to day, and become better advocates and allies.
At Penna, we’ve been hearing heartening descriptions from clients of the progress Black working groups are making within councils to raise up Black voices, agendas and talent. But there is still work to be done in the sector to drive true equality.
For me, personally and in my role as Penna’s diversity and inclusion lead, I want to see all organisations taking this month as an opportunity to raise awareness, encourage education and learning, empower and elevate Black voices, and celebrate Black culture and communities.
But, it cannot stop at the end of this month. I challenge local government to continue these conversations, start making real change to policies and processes, challenge yourselves to do more and be better, and most of all promote a culture of safety to express ones-self and perspectives without fear. Your communities and your workforce will thank you for it. Too often organisations will focus on how employees fit their internal culture, when in fact focussing on ‘fit’; can create unhealthy monocultures. True diversity and inclusion should promote ‘culture add’, and naturally this ensues an outcome of inclusion. I’d welcome talking to others who are also keen to progress their ethnic, diversity and inclusion agendas.
For me, being Black is the biggest blessing, and while I may have spent time in the past trying to fit a mould that wasn’t made for me, I now feel able to shape my own future and accept this opportunity, using it to shape both my future and that of the wider community in which I now feel I can thrive and prosper. That is why I am proud to be Black.
Alexis Curtis-Harris is Penna’s Diversity & Inclusion Lead