Putting diversity principles into practice

Recently, Greenwich Students’ Union CEO John Schless signed up to ACEVO and Institute of Fundraising’s eight principles to address the diversity deficit in charity leadership. In this blog, John and deputy CEO Uzma Arif-Fryer, share the organisation’s journey to becoming more diverse and inclusive.

I joined Greenwich Students’ Union (GSU) as chief executive in April 2016 and was given the task by my trustee board to ensure our organisation represented our diverse membership and provided great, relevant services. To achieve this, we needed to review all entry points to GSU from recruitment, democracy, group membership and our commercial services offer.

Uzma joined as deputy CEO in January 2019 and has supported me in the delivery of our strategy. Uzma leads our front-line membership services team and is also an active member of the NUS Black Staff network.

Our student leaders and staff are the future leaders of the charity sector and we see it as our responsibility to ensure they are the best they can be and have the opportunity to thrive.

GSU is a democratic organisation run by students for students and has over 20,000 members. Our aim is to empower our members to change the world and to ensure they have a great time in Greenwich. A charity with a turnover of £2.7m, we represent student views to the University of Greenwich at all levels and provide support and commercial services for our members. GSU is led by an officer team of elected full-time students (one president, three GSU officers) and 16 faculty officers (four per faculty). The officers are supported by a career staff team of 30, a student staff team of over 100 and trustee board.

As an organisation, we are aware that unconscious bias exists, so we have provided staff with unconscious bias training. We have committed to rolling this out every couple of years as the staff team develops. We actively encourage our staff to be part of the University’s BAME staff network and National Union of Students’ (NUS) Black Staff Network. We have also committed to the NUS RISE leadership programme for BAME staff who want to move into leadership. This programme works with future BAME leaders and their white manager/leader by putting together development plans and building advocates at GSU.

As chief executive, I have taken part in the RISE programme and attended race equity training, led by NUS for all CEO and senior managers across the SU sector.

We have been developing our recruitment practices to remove barriers to entry, for instance: any identifiable information is redacted from the applications so that hiring managers make decisions based on the strength of application ensuring that any unconscious biases are mitigated. This has led to a higher proportion of BAME applicants and appointed candidates. 

As a membership organisation democracy is at our core. Annual student leaders are elected by the 20,000 strong membership to represent their needs at the University of Greenwich. We saw a pattern of increasing numbers of BAME candidates standing for leadership positions but all-white teams being elected into the full-time paid roles. We committed as part of our strategy to undertake a full democratic review. The Big Plan took two years and looked at the structural barriers we had in place within GSU. This review was followed by a large-scale member consultation and vote.

Changes have now been implemented to remove barriers from our democratic processes. A particular focus has been to address unconscious bias towards BAME students – the largest membership population. The successful team elected this year is 50% BAME, reflecting the 55% BAME students that cast a vote.  This year’s student officer team has an overarching objective: “to empower BAME representation in everything we do”.

We have also led on a large piece of policy work in collaboration with the University of Greenwich related to reducing the BAME attainment gap. This piece of work involves capturing the lived experiences of being a BAME student at Greenwich and considers how student experience can be improved to enhance retention, outcomes and engagement.

Over the last three years, our staff team has developed. The majority of the senior leadership team is now BAME and women. This means that the team is now one of the most reflective of our membership across the SU sector with 50% BAME career staff.

At the University of Greenwich, 55% of students are BAME and as a student union, we are proud that our staff team is reflective of this. Students can discuss ideas for change and access support and advice from staff that they can identify with. We believe this is vital in creating trust, positive relationships and engaging with the diverse needs of the membership. Staff are also often able to use their lived experiences to relate to students, many of whom may face challenges around race and ethnicity.

I am immensely proud to have developed an environment where we can have positive discussions about race, ethnicity and identity. As a result of our 2019 staff survey, 98% of staff told us they feel that they are treated equally irrespective of gender, disability, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or religion. This for us is a huge testament to our work. Consistent and sustained support for the future of the organisation in ensuring that inclusivity is at the heart of everything we do.

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