Black History Month but all year round
We make a big fuss of our children or partners on their birthday, but we actually do so because we love them all year round. This is the ninety-fifth year of celebrating Black History Month, and it’s time we looked at it the same way – something to be especially commemorated each October but also to be at the front of our minds for the other 334 days of the year.
Now that’s an easy aspiration to have and to express, but at Milton Keynes College Group, we’ve been trying to build structures and processes to make it a reality. We’ve set up a series of employee resource groups (ERGs) to look at the way we work, and we’ve appointed chairs – not all of whom by any means hold senior positions in the group, which makes that responsibility into an opportunity for individuals to grow and progress in their careers. These are people who are already passionate and eager to try to create that better future, but who have never really had a mechanism through which to achieve it. Each network also has an internal executive sponsor to give guidance and to be that essential voice at senior level. Gradually, people who’ve had no other alternative but to “cheer from the side lines” when it comes to issues of diversity and equality have a reason to get more involved, to go to those external events, to look for opportunities for change. To give even greater weight to the networks we’ve brought in external mentors and we’ve been hugely fortunate to win support from some highly knowledgeable people, each with very specific understanding of the areas covered by each network.
The reaction has been so encouraging. At the beginning I was contacting people and asking, “Do you know about this event?” or “Do you think it might be good to speak to this person?” Now the networks are getting in touch with me, telling me about the places they’ve been and the people they’ve met and the ideas arising from them. Based on a model of allyship they are taking on lives of their own and each network is already creating a gentle ripple effect which already can be seen running through the whole organisation.
This approach can only hope to succeed with buy-in from the top. Management in many organisations can be reluctant to see employee networks of this kind grow in confidence, just in case they call for uncomfortable or expensive change. It’s a risk, and we’re fortunate enough to have unstinting support from the executive level to the extent that the Group Principal and CEO, Dr Julie Mills OBE, is the executive sponsor for the whole initiative. This leaves no one in any doubt as to the group’s commitment to positive change and emboldens everyone.
Black History Month is about celebrating individuals who achieved greatness in spite of the prejudice they faced. It is an aspiration but also a challenge, to make the fight for equality, diversity and inclusion in all its forms a 365 days a year campaign. Black History Month should be regarded as a signpost, to black presents and black futures. One day, we won’t need to remember it exclusively anymore. Hastening that day, is surely what remembrance is all about.