ARTICLES The future doesn’t work unless it includes us all. How do we get there?

Featured Video Play Icon

The future doesn’t work unless it includes us all. How do we get there?

As the Government has shrunk, pared back year after year in the name of austerity, civil society and the voluntary sector has been forced to step in and do more of the societal heavy lifting.

With so many vital services planned and carried out by civil society, the make-up of the bodies that run these institutions continues to cause concern. It’s a widely accepted fact that having services devised by people from as wide a section of society as possible leads to better, more effective service provision.

Over the years, the ethnic diversity of Parliament has slowly crept up with the number of BAME MPs rising from just four in 1987 to 52 now (half women). This means 12.5% of MPs are BAME, governing a nation that is 14% BAME.

Operation Black Vote Director Simon Woolley said:

“More talented BME faces will help transform Parliament and inspire many more to believe that we all have a voice and a place in our society.”

Unfortunately, there is a stubborn lack of diversity among those who run Britain’s civil society. Whether among charity trustees, on school governor boards or in the council chambers, black, brown and working class faces are still a rarity.

Race on the Agenda found in their report Where are the BAME Trustees? that BAME people are among the most under-represented on charities’ governing boards and that the boards of many mainstream charities have few or no BAME trustees.

As far back as 2012, the Charity Commission said:

“The governance of charities will be improved where trustees are recruited from a wide range of backgrounds. This includes trustees from parts of the community which have traditionally not played a large part in charities. Creating a diverse board can also help to increase accountability and public confidence.”

Earlier this year, the National Governance Association (NGA), the membership organisation for state-funded school governors and trustees, said:

We really are not making progress with increasing ethnic diversity of those governing. Only 4% of over 5,300 respondents to the Annual School Governance Survey 2017 gave their ethnicity as BAME. Those in leadership roles on governing boards were even more likely to be white: 97% of chairs, 95% of vice-chairs, and 96% of committee chairs, compared with 92% of other governors, trustees or academy committee members.”

In town halls across the country the number of councillors from BAME backgrounds is also woefully low.

Last year, the Runnymede Trust reported:

“In 2008, the proportion of ethnic minority councillors was 3.7%. The most recent survey puts the figure at just 4%. This compares to BME people making up 14 percent of the population. A huge gap that is getting bigger as demographics become more ethnically diverse.”

Earlier this year, I was elected onto the Wandsworth Council to serve as a councillor in Queenstown Battersea.

There are 60 councillors in Wandsworth and I’m one of only three BAME councillors. I’m also the only council tenant among that number. The 2011 census found there were 88,000 BAME residents in the borough (29% of the population) and these numbers will undoubtedly have increased in the intervening years.

This isn’t a uniquely Wandsworth problem though.

In Lambeth, visible ethnic minority councillors make up less than 20% of the elected members, despite the local population being 60% black and minority ethnic (BME). This picture is reflected in many other ethnically diverse boroughs. 

Imran Sanaula, CEO of the Patchwork Foundation, which helps engage under-represented, deprived and minority communities within British society through exposure and engagement into the political environment, said this lack of diversity means we lose out as a nation.

He argues in the Civil Society Futures podcast that when it comes to decision-making, it matters who is in the room:

“If it’s to impact people from those communities, there needs to be someone who not just understands those communities but who can feel how they feel. Only someone from a minority community can elaborate on how racism feels.

“It’s great to be an ally but an ally can only do so much.

“Having an equal representation of people in Parliament and on these boards isn’t a nice thing to have it’s a necessity of society. Otherwise they are just left out of those discussions.

“For me it’s a continuation of the previous streams of freedom fighting. It needs to continue on from a time when people of privilege were making decisions on behalf of other communities.

“It leads to better decision-making.

“Imagine if every time Parliament went to a select committee, the experts were the MPs themselves. It means that we have a representative democracy.”

So what’s stopping BAME people from engaging with the institutions and organisations that shape their lives?

There are challenges from start to finish when it comes to increasing the cultural diversity in institutions and organisations. When it comes to bringing in talent, civil society organisations fall into the same trap as private companies and often tend to recruit in their own image.

Imran explained that institutions often reach out to the groups it’s easier for them to reach out to.

People who go to the same schools, work in the same industries or are part of the same campaigns or groups are existing members are easier to approach because there’s an inbuilt familiarity.

Connecting with communities that existing staff have little contact with is hard and so boards and institutions simply self-replicate.

Imran explained:

“There’s a feeling that certain groups are ‘hard to reach’,”

Some organisations shy away from fully acknowledging their lack of diversity. They pay lip service but are reluctant to even publish data about their cultural make up for fear of being criticised. This tendency is magnified in the voluntary sector are organisations rely on funding and often don’t want to highlight issues they fear may put funders off.

When Rota approached 121 large charities to ask about the ethnic makeup of their boards, only 17 were actually able (or willing) to provide figures.

It will be hard for the lack of diversity to be tackled if organisations don’t gather the data on who they are recruiting.

Imran said:

“One argument I often get is that these communities are apathetic,”

“It’s not true. They want to engage. The issues are with the organisations themselves.

“People from minority communities year after year see that people like them aren’t sat in those seats, they’re not welcome in those environments.”

There’s a culture in these organisations that reflects the people who already make them up. You’re expected to dress, speak and act a certain way and anyone who doesn’t act in these ways is seen as ‘unprofessional’ or ‘not a good cultural fit’.

If you come from a middle-class background, these environments match the ones you’re used to. If you are working class, BAME or have not worked in the corporate world, they can be alienating.

This means that sometimes even when people from marginalised groups are recruited, they feel that they don’t fit in and so move on quickly.

On the council, the way meetings are run, papers are distributed, amendments are presented etc is all alien to me and, like many new councillors, I often feel lost. This feeling is magnified when so few people either in the council chamber or among the officers looks like me or comes from where I come from. The feeling of not belonging is often palpable.

A fully engaged community with everyone playing their part and exercising their agency would be an amazing thing to see. Getting there needs action from both directions. Organisations need to change to be more flexible and welcoming but in the meantime more groups like Patchwork are needed to help people from minority communities learn how to engage with institutions that may seem alien to them.

Imran said:

“We try to bring people who have privilege together with young people so that they can learn from each other.

“It’s a two way process. You need to educate the establishments but also the young people need to learn they skills they need to have to sit in those establishments. It’s not going to change radically from wearing suits one day to coming in your hoodie the next. These institutions have existed for hundreds of years and with that comes slow change.

“Everyone has equal access and doesn’t feel like they are hindered by how they look, sound or come across. That’s the utopia that we’re looking for. Sometimes it confidences and self-efficacy that haves the biggest impact on communities.

“Social mobility and intersectionality have become real things. The discussions have moved away from specific communities to asking how we alleviate all these barriers.”