The Salt and Light Approach – how Aelwyd Housing Association are tackling racial inequality head on
Sharon Lee, CEO Aelwyd Housing Association
We have much to be proud of at Aelwyd Housing when it comes to racial equality. We have Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic representation at Board, Management Team, and Officer level. Our Board are committed to delivering the Deeds Not Words Pledge; and in the past six months we’ve supported two Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority members of staff to join the Boards of charitable organisations delivering services to people in Wales. We have Values we try to live and breathe every day; one of which is Justice.
However, as we’ve recently seen in the stomach churning failings of a national organisation that believed it was the expert in equality, diversity and inclusion; pride often comes before a fall and the fastest route to humility is arrogance.
As the housing sector is rightly stepping up to do what is fair and just; I am challenged to discern what could be ‘smoke and mirrors’ in my own organisation and in others. When we wave our badges and roll out our stats, does it reflect what is actually going on in the organisation? Does it reflect how we behave when no one is watching? Does it reflect how colleagues from diverse backgrounds feel about their value and place in the organisation?
One of the unintended benefits of the pandemic has been the quiet office with just me and one other member of staff. On those days we ‘do the doing’ of work, but there have been really precious moments when the veil has come down and we’ve talked about our lives and personal history. There have been many days when the rota has thrown me together with a colleague with a different racial heritage to my own. It’s hard to put into words the power of some of those conversations, and the stark awareness of my own ignorance.
When I was shocked that some things I thought had died out in the 1970’s are still happening in Wales, a colleague’s response was along the paraphrased lines of “Keep up Sha! I’ve been dealing with this stuff my whole life!” These conversations of lived experience are vital, when they take place in a way that is safe and mutual, and give us much more insight into our organisations, our colleagues and our own hearts than we realise.
As leaders we are understandably keen to do what is right and to be seen to be doing what is right. The risk is that we inadvertently see the recruitment and progression of people from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds as an opportunity to parade colleagues as trophies we can polish and show off. This does a huge injustice to those who put in a hard shift every day and have earned the right to be around the table through intelligence, professionalism and talent. It also risks planting a little seed of doubt about whether their perceived value is due to their ability and hard work, or because it ticks a diversity box. The role of leaders is key to an organisational culture where diversity is celebrated, nurtured and protected. It’s our responsibility to work with Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority colleagues to make sure we showcase to inspire and motivate others, not showboat to make us look good.
The approach we’re taking at Aelwyd is to recognise that if we want cultural and organisational change, we need to be both Salt and Light, and it must be led from the top. Light is the ‘in your face’ stuff, it’s public and visible, and shows the way ahead. In practice this is the commitment to deliver on promises, and having systems that monitor and evidence that we do what we say we do. It’s the routes to redress when we get it wrong; it’s the good practice, and showcasing that encourages others and shows what’s possible.
Salt is different to all this, but it’s what protects us from the illusion of a culture of racial equality in the workplace and in the services we deliver. Salt is the behind the scenes influencer and purifier that adds flavour and makes something palatable and enjoyable. It’s the small everyday interactions and actions that give legitimacy and credibility to the badges and public praise. It’s unseen, and will rarely be recorded anywhere, but you know when it’s making a difference.
For us the Salt approach is key. It’s recognising that there is Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority underrepresentation on Boards in Wales, so you make sure you encourage a young colleague to be brave and apply to join the Board of a national organisation where their financial expertise will be welcomed. When they get appointed to that Board you do a happy dance with them, and you make sure they know that the organisation will support them. It’s making sure the sweet bowl in your office has chewy sweets in it because the Director of Housing who works at the pace of a Tasmanian Devil, moans when she pauses for breath to find only the boiled sweets are left. It’s a tiny thing, but it matters to her, and she matters to us. It’s making sure that when the organisation publically commits to working towards racial equality, as CEO you tell all staff that they have complete authority to challenge you to your face if they think you are getting it wrong.
As an organisation with a Christian heritage and ethos, we certainly don’t have a monopoly on seeking to do what is fair and just; but it should be part of our DNA where we see everyone as a unique individual of immeasurable worth and value.
We really do celebrate that Aelwyd is a diverse organisation, and we’ve made some ground in a short time. It makes us a better organisation. However, I hope we are humble enough to know that we have a long way to go and potholes may await. The important thing is that we don’t stop or wander off the path to smell the flowers of the next high profile issue. My colleagues and others from diverse racial backgrounds really have seen it all before, and deserve better than another false dawn.