How do we respond to racial inequality and injustice?

Reflections from our Chief Executive, Danyal Sattar

I’m writing because I’m a rarity in our sector – a BAME background Chief Executive Officer.  There are not a lot of us at the top.  It’s not surprising, as BAME make up some 15% of our population on these fair isles, but even so, disproportionately few rise to the top.

The racial disparity in the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic is clear, with between a 10% and 50% higher chance of death in different ethnic minority communities shown by the recent government review “Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19 (PHE 2020).”  Alongside this, regardless of ethnicity, there is a higher death rate in deprived areas as compared to the least deprived.  While the report does not touch on why, a working hypothesis is that inequality is at the root of the greater impact of the virus in BAME communities.  Black may not be good for your life chances, but the Bangladeshi community in particular is at the extreme end of the Covid-19 death scale.

Here in London, BAME people are proportionately more likely to be fined than white people if they breach social distancing restrictions.  It is not to excuse any wrongdoing, but why is it, in 2020, that my brown skin would in London be 26% more likely to attract a fine than a white skin and my black colleague, twice as likely to be fined?  If only it reflected public health action – to try and protect people most likely to suffer from Covid-19 from harm! Sadly, not.

It is particularly sad as we have made great progress as a society on equality, diversity and inclusion.  There legislative progress, LGBT+ rights, police reform.  Our police have made great strides, compared to decades past and let’s give them every encouragement to continue to improve their practices. Overall, things are so much better than the 1970s or 1980s, but it feels that at best, we have plateaued in terms of progress in the last 10 years.

Where are we at BII?

In our own social enterprise and charity sector, the recent #CharitySoWhite movement has bought to the public view the extent to which BAME organisations and individuals feel excluded by the current funding structures.

At Big Issue Invest, we track our funding to BAME organisations – we were ahead of where we should be, now slightly behind, though we are running a programme specifically targeting BAME led and women led organisations.  We’ve some 20 staff at any one time and a pretty diverse set – North and South America, Africa, Asia, the rest of Europe, make up about half our staff by family background.  We’ve got a diverse Board too.

We fall down at a staff level on gender.  Our senior management team is almost wholly male. We are poor at counting that which may not be obvious to us – disability, LGBT+.  Its good to bring out what we are not good at, so we know what we need to do to improve.

Five easy things we can all do 

First, check the problem yourself by doing some counting.

We are good at counting in social investment. Count your staff, count your board, count your investment committee and stick them in boxes and categories, as if you were doing a social impact assessment or a set of accounts.  If your senior leadership are mostly men, and back office staff over-represented with ethnic minorities, or under-represented in management and decision makers, well, it’s pretty hard to get away from numbers.

Second, once you’ve done some counting, make some changes.  The tools are there.  In social investment, we took a particular look at our own equality, diversity and inclusion issues, for the last 3-4 years.  We set up our social investment network the Diversity Forum for inclusive social investment now coordinated by Ebru Buyukgul, and looked at our own practices.  We developed a toolkit of practical things you can do as an investor.  You can find our research report and toolkit here.

Third, accept responsibility.

I think we must go further and do something difficult, which is look at ourselves and be open to the possibility, that we are part of the problem.  Only doing that, frees us to be part of the solution. Speaking personally, it took me a while to realise where I was part of the problem.  Gender at a senior level in our sector is a problem.  Yet when I looked at my networks of choice, they were male heavy.  I realised I needed to change.

The great power of looking at yourself, and seeing you can do things better, is that you can do things better.  It’s not to knock yourself down, but to raise you up.

Fourth, chose where you stand.

It’s a simple choice and action, to physically go to places and be there and stand with people, locate your work with them. Seeing the continued rise in anti-Semitism this year, we chose to hold our staff away day at JW3, a Jewish community centre in North London. The previous year, we did the same at the Stephen Laurence Trust.  We didn’t make a thing about it, or do it to look good.  Does it change anything? Maybe not much. Does it make a difference? Only the smallest.  Still, worth doing, because of the fifth point.  We don’t change ourselves overnight.  We have to practice.

Solving injustice is not going to happen just by good intention, counting, systems change, or standing with people, but by constant, continued practice, day in day out.

Danyal Sattar, CEO Big Issue Invest