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We need brave leadership: Why NCVO's EDI work is a bold breath of fresh air for the charity sector.

Updated: Mar 10, 2020

Many of us, often people who have experienced discrimination deeply in our lives are acutely aware that we inhabit a dangerous paradox as charity staff: our work is vital but our places of work are micro-sites which perpetuate the same issues that we are working to tackle. NCVO’s blog on their Equity, Diversity and Inclusion work shows us that we are behind the national average on all sorts of diversity demographics but their thoughtfulness around the work gave me an incredible amount of hope. As our current cabinet demonstrates, a diversity of bodies doesn’t always deliver equity for all, and the reason that their blog piece is still on my mind three days later is because it speaks to some deep, fundamental truths that we must tackle:

“If we don’t acknowledge how systemic oppressions including racism, sexism, classism, disabilism, homophobia and transphobia operate in our sector, we risk further harming or oppressing the very people we intend to serve.

As a sector we need to look closely at how we might be complicit in these systems and start actively working to dismantle them.

Just because we, as a sector, seek to ‘do good’ it doesn’t mean we’re always representative of the people we serve, or reflective of our principles.

We cannot effectively tackle systemic oppressions if our leadership and workforce are divorced – in mindset as well as background – from the communities we serve”

The world is changing and as a sector we need bold leadership to genuinely begin to meet our social purpose. So what is stopping us? One thing that I am learning again and again lately is that it takes humans time to process, understand and find our place within changes in our lives. Many of us with progressive values are currently processing and living with a huge sense of loss; the loss of pride in our national values, the loss of a collective European or global identity, the loss of a sense of belonging in our society or a loss of faith that we can affect change. There are also some very material losses that we, as charity staff are witnessing daily in the communities with which we work.

Marmot 2020 begins with the words ‘England is faltering’; our society stands on the precipice of becoming one of the most unequal societies on the planet. When scrutinised, many indicators which chart societal progress paint a bleak picture of life in Britain. Infant mortality, an early marker of national system failure is slowly rising; the number of children living in poverty is rising exponentially, national health is in decline - a clear, evidence based indicator that our society is becoming increasingly unequal, and that the conditions in which we are born, grow, live, work and age – the social determinants of health – are in decline. My aim in naming some elements of our social, political, psychic and economic reality isn’t to raise our levels of anxiety as leaders in the charity sector, it is to remind us that this situation is happening, and that our leadership is vital in challenging its progression.

I find it helpful to think about our current inertia or overwhelmed mental states in relation to the loss we’re feeling through the structure provided by the 7 stages of grief. Many of us are in denial, frozen by anger or shock or feeling lonely and powerless. What we need to begin doing is reconstructing our understandings of our new world order and work through what this means for our leadership. The EDI work that NCVO are doing is really important because it shows us how to be bold in our leadership; in getting honest about the ways in which our society and organisations are broken, naming power and harnessing our resources to affect change.

While we are doing incredible, life-saving work on a granular level we also have a responsibility to lead our organisations not only to thrive financially, but to demand, lead and mobilise change. We can only do this by honestly facing those areas that we find it too painful to look, by facing realities that feel painful. There are pockets of people doing incredible work but as a sector we lack diversity, not only in people, but in ideas, innovation, conversation, strategy and most importantly, in harnessing the incredible talent within our organisations and out there in society. This Is incredibly linked to who is leading us, who we employ, what their lived experience is, but at a deeper level, our complicity with maintaining the status quo. There are stronger ways to thrive than creating class ceilings and ‘polished’ workforces; we are having less and less conversations about how we deliver on our values in practice and have also become deskilled at talking about, and creatively actioning social justice. In many cases, changes in funding, and the political landscape have eroded away our bravery and by association, our integrity. This is important when we consider what our silence is perpetuating.

I will forever belong to the third sector, but our social world is demanding more from us, and we must rise to the occasion. This is a call to be brave, bold and informed about how power works in our society and our organisations. We must widen our horizons and learn from sociologists, historians and anthropologists, from coaches, artists, disrupters and the people who use our services. Most importantly, we collectively, have to work not to internalise the hateful messages currently being spat out at every level of our society and lead our staff to deeply respect the human rights, dignity and voices of the people that we serve. Ten years ago, many of us may have categorically denied that our future could look this way, it is important that we don’t ignore the signs and look back at what another ten years without systematic leadership and challenge can look like.

“When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” - Audre Lorde

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