On Tuesday 20th of April, She Leads for Legacy hosted a virtual webinar, tackling the topic: ‘Courageous Conversations about Race at Work’. The session was led by the organisation’s founders, the mother and daughter team, Sharon and Afiya Amesu. Sharon described She Leads for Legacy as a community for black female leaders, ally organisations and individuals who want to support and champion the progression of black women into senior leadership positions. She introduced the session by explaining to the overflowing zoom room why she and her daughter saw the need to establish the organisation, stating how “now more than ever that there is a need for diverse voices at the table […] rather than simply shouting from the sidelines, what we want to do is bring solutions to that challenge, but also to do so in partnership with allies who really want to see us advance and progress”.
Sharon and Afiya were joined by the event’s guest speaker, Loraine Martins OBE. Loraine is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Network Rail, which maintains and develops Britain’s rail infrastructure with 44,000 employees. Loraine leads a centre of expertise which supports network rail’s ambition to be a more open, diverse and inclusive business. Previously, Loraine led a multi award winning team on equality and inclusion in employment and skills, and the construction of the Olympic park. As Sharon highlighted, Loraine’s career “has had throughout this theme of activism, of campaigning, of championing the cause of inclusivity”, positioning her as a cornucopia of expertise when it comes to equality and inclusion in the workplace.
The session was framed against the recent national and international demands for change, as Loraine shared her views on how the events of the last year have stimulated conversations around race like never before. She said, “clearly, the death of George Floyd was an important milestone for us globally. While it happened in Minnesota, the ripple effects globally couldn’t have been anticipated. Those ripple effects were compounded by COVID”. This was echoed by Sharon, who stated that “we have a national appetite for this conversation in a way which we have not had historically”. These ripple effects, as Loraine said, have resulted in unprecedented levels of national engagement in race conversations, and have opened opportunities to make real change. “The opportunity to make some really sustainable changes is still within our grasp, and I’ve seen some really genuine engagement in terms of discussions of race”.
But against this backdrop of heightened social engagement in this issue, why should the work place be the focus of some of these discussions? Loraine’s response to this question was clear: “Why aren’t we having the conversation? Why aren’t we able to face into the fact that there are disparities and the systemic discrimination of black people within our socieites and within our organisations? […] How much more evidence do people need before we genuinely start to make things change?”. As Loraine summarised, employees being taken seriously and encouraged in the workplace, regardless of their race, shouldn’t be hailed as a revolutionary step, but rather the bare minimum. “I ought not to be discriminated against on the basis of any form of my identity. Why isn’t that our starting point?”
As Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Network Rail, Loraine spoke of the challenges around bringing diversity and inclusion to a sector where hires are made through the paternal line of existing employees, making inclusive hiring all the more elusive. Experienced in working with a staff base of over 44,000, Loraineoffered some concrete steps, questions, and initiatives that webinar attendees could take and apply to their own organisations. One such initiative highlighted by Loraine was Network Resource Groups; voluntary groups of employees that come together based on shared identity or life experiences. As Loraine explained, these groups work as a mechanism to surface conversations, tensions within the business, and strategize steps aimed at doing something about these tensions.
When undertaking the challenge of tackling race in the workplace, both Loraineand Sharon were keen to highlight the intentionality and commitment that must drive these actions. As Sharon shared with the event attendees: “there is no linear trajectory of growth on this in progression. It is going to be very much back and forth and up and down, but as long as you’re heading in the right direction ultimately, that should be the aspiration, as opposed to perfection along the way with no missteps”. This approach was similarly reinforced by Loraine, who urged that organisations working to tackle inequality in the workplace ask themselves why this cause is so important to them. “What processes are you going to put in place to ensure you create an environment where people are respected and are enabled to do their best?”, “Why is it important to the workforce?” After this reflection, organisations will be better equipped to “build on that narrative, and that story and say this is where we’re going, and this is why we’re doing it”.
Loraine’s final message to the event attendees was one of hope: as she spoke of her optimism for the advancement of racial equality in the workplace and beyond. She said, “I do believe in humanity. I do believe that we can change and we can be better. The dynamic of race is really challenging because it does feel to white people like they’ve got to relinquish something, and rightly so. That privilege they’ve enjoyed for centuries, it’s got to go. And I have hope that we are moving in that direction”. The topics, questions and answers featured in this conversation highlight how there is still plenty of work to do to achieve racial equality in the workplace. Yet, the facilitation and encouragement of discussions like the one held in this webinar, serves as concrete proof of this hope.
To register for the next She Leads for Legacy event, head to their events page to book your place on their next change-making session.