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Leadership Worth Sharing: special miniseries about privilege, with Polly Neate and Tessy Ojo – episode 3

We handed over our podcast reins to Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, and Tessy Ojo, CEO of The Diana Award, for a miniseries that will discuss what privilege and anti-racism mean for the charity sector and the role of charity leaders in facilitating a shift of power both in our sector and more widely.

If you missed the previous episodes, listen here

In the third and final episode, Tessy and Polly talk to Simon Blake, chief executive of the Mental Health First Aid England, about being experimental and taking more risks when it comes to tackling racial inequalities in the charity sector.

Scroll down for the full transcritp.

The key thing for me that feels different this time is that the conversation is about whiteness as much as it’s about blackness. And it’s only when we start talking about whiteness and talking about the fact that we all have an ethnicity and understanding that and understanding the different experiences and privileges attached to those, that we can start unpicking that and dismantling the structural inequalities.

Simon Blake

As a black female leader, sometimes you’re pushing a cause that’s also your lived experience. And sometimes it feels like you’re dealing with it twice over. And I think that it’s important (…) to step away, if it feels too much, (…) sometimes you just want to have a separation from your lived experience and what your activism is.

Tessy Ojo


Tessy Ojo (00:01):

Hi, I’m Tessy Ojo, I’m the chief executive of The Diana Award.

Polly Neate (00:05):

Hello, I’m Polly Neate and I’m chief executive of Shelter.

Tessy Ojo (00:09):

And together we are hosting a mini series on the word privilege.

Tessy Ojo (00:20):

Thank you so much, Simon for joining us. This is our part three of exploring the word privilege and what that means for us. As usual, I’m Tessy Ojo from The Diana Award. And I have with me, my cohost,

Polly Neate (00:35):

Hello, I’m Polly Neate. I’m the chief executive of Shelter and I’m, co-hosting this podcast with Tessy and we’re very lucky in part three to be joined by,

Simon Blake (00:47):

Simon Blake chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England.

Tessy Ojo (00:52):

Great. So we’re just going to… Thank you so much, Simon for joining us. And we’ve been exploring over the past, the last three series around privilege, especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter moment and movement. I suppose I want to throw a question open to you. So I would love to hear your reflections on the Black Lives Matter moment and movement. Just your reflection, both personally and professionally and where you’re at with the whole agenda.

Simon Blake (01:21):

Sure. I mean, I think the, the most important thing is that a moment and a movement and an ongoing commitment to race equity feels like the most important thing that must come out of this rather extraordinary year. The global uprising, I guess, has been really, really encouraging and, and, and heartwarming and just overdue. Yeah, I think the key thing for me that feels different this time is that the conversation is about whiteness as much as it’s about blackness. And it’s only when we start talking about whiteness and talking about the fact that, you know, we, we all have an ethnicity and understanding that and understanding the different experiences and privileges attached to those, that we can start unpicking that and dismantling the structural inequalities. So for me, long overdue, an acknowledgement in that, that, yeah, I haven’t done enough in my professional life, in my personal life. And that’s a privilege in, and of it’s a reflection of privilege in and of itself. Yeah, absolutely determined that this, this moment, isn’t a moment. It is a movement and we keep going until we reach the goal, which is real true equity.

Polly Neate (02:40):

We’ve been kind of talking about our personal reactions and feelings about it and ourselves in our organisation as leaders. And then something really we’ve increasingly start thinking about, because we’ve been having the previous two conversations, is what is our responsibility as civil society leaders, even beyond our organisations. And then weirdly that takes us back to the personal. You have a history as an activist yourself and have, I know, thought a lot about rights and equity and privilege in different spaces throughout your career. And you’ve also been part of different causes within civil society. So. Personal reactions, and then what you feel that means for you as a civil society leader, specifically, both within and outside your cause, the cause you’re working for now and your mission as a, as an organisation.

Simon Blake (03:44):

I, I think that the first thing that I really want to acknowledge I guess, is that, I grew up in a very white part of England. So I grew up in Cornwall. And the first time that I saw anybody that wasn’t white was when my parents took us on an extraordinary trip to New York. So having not seen anybody that wasn’t white until I was seven, I then I’m in the middle of New York and just looking up and down the streets. And so this journey that I have been on, I guess, for the last what’s that, that’s 40 years ago, has been one where even after I came back from America, there were only two black people in my school through my whole career, until I went through my whole school career until I went to sixth form where it was still very, very, very small minority of people and then got to university and suddenly it was like, Oh my goodness, the world is very different than I understood it to be.

Simon Blake (04:44):

So the reason that I just say that is that I think we are all only able to live at the edge of our experience, you know, and that there is only so much that you do in terms of reading and books and films and things, but actually for so many people, our experience of racial diversity is really different. And we come to that, leaders with very different sorts of experiences and therefore understanding. But my first real sort of sense around some of the privilege associated with being white was connected to being heterosexual. So I started working in the HIV epidemic where of course it was primarily gay men and African communities that were experiencing the the sharp end of the epidemic in, in the UK and being in a you know, a white gay man and thinking that I was experiencing discrimination and inequity to then learn and to realise that actually we had enormous privilege compared to some of the funding resources and access to advice and help from… Against some of the African communities. And then just to, to sort of fast forward that Polly, when I was at the National Union of Students, you know, in the student movement, the issues around race and the black attainment gap and around the experience of racism on campus was a real issue five years ago. And, and there was a an independent review of institutional racism within student movement when I was there in 2015, 2016. And so I think where we, where I guess I feel we are now is in a moment where what was something that people used to be afraid to talk about in terms of institutional racism, systemic racism is very quickly becomes something that is a given. Most of us, I think within civil society, but certainly everybody that I’m speaking to is no longer afraid to say we have an issue. That’s a real shift because when an NUS review around institutional racism was taking place, nobody else was saying it, but there was a fear that this organisation was going to be perceived as worse than many other organisations. Whereas now there is no better or worse, if we are not actually equitable, we are not good enough. And as leaders of our own organisation, we have a responsibility to as a white leader, I have to acknowledge what I do and don’t know. I have to feel confident enough to feel incredibly vulnerable about the things that I don’t know and could get wrong, learn how to ensure… Amplifying and ensuring that the voices of black people and people of colour are heard and be an ally and feel okay about recognising that I probably get that wrong at certain points. And then finding people who are going to learn and be comfortable sharing their experiences. So there’s a personal responsibility to, you know, to, to read, to learn, to understand how this touches every part of our lives. And then how do we find people like the people who will be listening to this podcast who want to do better?

Simon Blake (07:53):

And then how do you take that into your personal life? I have for the last five or six years, been trying to engage with some members of my family and networks who have been racist, and when they are not changing, I blocked some people on social media, because I no longer see them in real life, if that’s the case. And then in other cases where some people will be repeatedly… I just, like, do not do that in front of me. And I’ve actually tried to reflect back to when that happened the first time, and I felt very uncomfortable doing it. So now it’s like the second that happens, you know, it’s straight out and I’m leaving if you continue this conversation. What I guess we’re learning through all of this, or I’m learning is this isn’t something you switch on and switch off. Which of course is something that as white people we’ve often been able to do. It is something that is there in everything we do. And if we all commit to that, then gosh, change is going to come. If we don’t commit to it, we’ll continue. You know, in the way that we have with these structural inequalities, you know, if they, they, they might be moved down to one part of society, but just bubble up in another. So civil society leaders, I think we’re the cascadians of change here, it feels. There is no social justice without racial justice.

Tessy Ojo (09:08):

How do we go beyond the calling outs? How do we move on to that next stage where we’re actually building systems and structures within our organisations that even prevent things like that from happening? Because sometimes it’s easy to call out what you see. What about the things you don’t see? What about the, the belittling, the things that happen when you’re not there, behind your back? How, who calls those things out?

Simon Blake (09:35):

When, when we work it out, I think we should patent it… But this is where the (inaudible). I guess for me, there is something where we have to throw everything that we have learnt into question. And we have to recognise that there have to be different ways of doing things, because the way that we are doing things is upholding the system, which is perpetuating the privilege. The bit for me within that is recognising that the, because there is an absence of direct racism, it doesn’t mean the absence of a lot of privilege. And I think it’s easier for us to call out racism than it is to question our privilege. Because until we recognise that everything that we understand is privilege and based on a life experience, and the edge of that, then we will find it difficult. So for me, I guess where people talk about shortlist and long list, there is a bit which is it’s great, you can have all the diverse shortlist in the world, but until we get people actually getting the jobs, then nothing changes. All you’ve done is said that you have improved the process. And so our job has to be, to find the ways to improve the outcome through a fair and transparent process. Then we also have to recognise we are accountable to people and people should be questioning us. If we are not saying in almost everything you do here, we are doing some recruitment at the moment. And the question was, how do we ensure that we are going to get an outcome, which shifts the dynamic in the way that we want it to? And that required us to, to have some really difficult conversations and the most difficult bit was people actually going, okay, we’re willing to give this a go. We’re willing to stand behind it as a way of giving it a go.

Simon Blake (11:27):

And if it doesn’t get the outcome, or if people are able to find holes in it, then we have to learn from that.Tessy, you, you’re one of very, very few black chief executives, that has to shift. And until it is shifting trustees of charities, chairs of social enterprises, you need to be asking yourselves what’s happening from the, from the brand image through to the selection process, through to the, to, to the outcome that we’re getting. And I think too often, we’re seeing, I guess, to your very question, how do we create systemic change? We have to look from beginning to end. There’s no, we could have the perfect selection and recruitment process, but if your brand isn’t attracting people in the first place, then people aren’t going to get to that process.

Polly Neate (12:12):

I think we have to be much more fleet of foot as well and prepared to try different things, because actually based on that, your notion Simon, that it’s the outcome that really matters most, we have to be prepared to test things against that outcome, and if they don’t deliver it, try something else. And I also think it’s about accepting the, that the notion that I think culturally for white people in the UK is very, very ingrained is the idea, and of course, that’s an idea perpetuated by people with privilege like me, but it’s the idea that we live and work in a meritocracy. And it’s very challenging because what it means is that you didn’t earn your job. You didn’t earn your position. And we have to lead organisations to understand that we are not a meritocracy. We are a privilege-ocracy in fact. And so we have to take radical action in order to change the outcome because to change the outcome does require doing things differently. And I think as well, a bit of experimenting and we won’t always get it right. And we need to be able to change tack if we realise something isn’t working,

Simon Blake (13:26):

We do. And the heart of that has to be the willingness to give up power. What does giving up power look like in a real and genuine way? Yeah, I completely agree with you Polly that this whole piece of a notion of a meritocracy, I mean, it’s just absolute nonsense. I have all sorts of power. I come from a working class family. And if you were to sit around my family, Christmas dinner, you know, they believe it’s because I worked hard. There’s, there’s some working hard that’s happened along the way, but there’s been an awful lot of privilege and opportunity and doors opened and people wanting to support as well. And we as civil society have to go, how do we do, how do we create that privilege for people of colour and black people? We have to stop being more radical and, and impatient for change. I guess that’s the other bit, which I say, how do you create system change? Be impatient. I think we’ve, I know that I take responsibility for having lacked impatience. We need change. I’m just shame, ashamed and sorrowful that I didn’t take that earlier. You know, I was a trustee at the Black Health Agency from 2004 to 2010, and I learnt an enormous amount about institutional racism at NUS. I shouldn’t have been complacent.

Tessy Ojo (14:43):

You’ve used a few words, Simon, that I feel has been repeated in all the other series. You’ve used shame. You’ve use the privilege of complacency. Firstly, I agree with everything that you said, because I think that we can’t wait As much as we need to act I also have a sense, I think from, from my work with young people, I have a sense that young people are demanding more from us. I don’t think that the young people today will wait for us to get our house in order, they, they, they don’t have that patience like my generation had. And so change is so needed now, or I have no idea what would happen, especially to the civil society. If we remain static, I think there’s a potential risk that we will destroy ourselves if we, if we don’t change. We’ve been talking about change and you’ve used the word about power and shifting power, it’s very uncomfortable to hand over power, no one ever hands power easily. And I say that even as a person of colour, how do we do this as a sector, as individuals, as our organisations, how do we shift power? How do we share privilege?

Simon Blake (15:54):

Can I just start by saying one of the things which I’m very conscious of as I talked about shame is I, I, I just want to be really clear that I acknowledge that it’s for me to deal with that. I don’t want it to be in any way a distraction from it because it’s nowhere. Yeah. It’s just, it’s irrelevant. So just conscious having said it, that I wanted to be careful that I don’t think it’s of any consequence except that I I’m conscious that I should have done things differently. How do we share power? The, the thing which I think is really interesting in, in lots of these conversations about power sharing is that sometimes we try to have the answer before we try things out. How do we just start saying, we’ve got to start doing some things differently, and we’ve all done that in all sorts of different ways, whether that’s allowing people to have the fact that they work for Shelter or The Diana Award in their Twitter bio, and recognising that they’re not always on brand with you and allowing that to happen, or whether it is getting children and young people or service users on the board.

Simon Blake (16:57):

And some organisations wait until they believe they’ve got the perfect answer and some organisations go on and try something. And when it goes wrong, learn from it and do, and I think the particular issue for me that feels around race is that we’ve got to be mindful not to recreate more trauma in the way that we start going about trying to understand power and power sharing. And I don’t know how to do that except to say that the starting point has to be acknowledging if you don’t have a diverse board, if you don’t have a diverse exec team, if you don’t have, you know, people at all levels within the organisation from different backgrounds, your job is to find ways to do it, to acknowledge that power is being upheld in particular ways. And to look for people who have, who have learned to look for people who have found ways to do it, to understand where things work. We’re so good as a culture it seems to me looking at what could go wrong or what could cause us problems rather than going, there’s a problem here. I’m doing my best to try and address it. I’m going to look, I’m going to research. I’m going to find, and then I’m just going to take a leap and if it goes wrong, I’m going to put my hands up and I’m going to own the fact that it’s gone wrong because risk….

Polly Neate (18:18):

I love that! I mean that, I think that is such a profound challenge to our sector because I think we are in often a very risk averse unexperimental sector a lot of the time. And we do ourselves a disservice in all kinds of endeavours through that. But this, in particular, I feel, but maybe that’s unfair.

Simon Blake (18:41):

I, I don’t think it’s unfair. I think if you, if you think that we we often, you know, recruiting in, in the same vein and, and for the most senior jobs, you are relying on a group of volunteers who feel you know, with a Charity Commission, which is, you know, very, very clear about everything that could go wrong and public trust and all sorts of things. And so going okay, I can either take what I believe is the safe route, or I can go on an experimental journey. Yeah. We have the best laid plans. The less best-laid risk registers. Did it help us on March 23rd? No it didn’t. Has it helped us since? No, it hasn’t. (inaudible) Trying things out, doing stuff which feels uncomfortable is all that has got us through this last six months and is starting to come hardwired into the sector. And, and I think as, as chief execs, we all need a kick up the arse quite honestly. And if we’re not thinking about this, and if it’s not on our mind all the time, if we’re not asking a question, if it’s not on the priority list, then we need to be asking ourselves why. We’ve got to lead by example.

Tessy Ojo (19:52):

Absolutely. 100%.

Polly Neate (19:58):

I don’t have anything to ad to that, I am so in agreement, aren’t we Tessy? Just thinking about the role of the CEO. So I think it’s, I don’t think it’s easy, but I think there’s an obvious role for us in challenging our own organisations. And we are the CEO. We really ought to be able to, if any, you know, it, we have to do that. There’s not a whole bunch of other people who are going to come along and challenge our organisations if we’re not prepared to do it. But I just wonder about what you think our responsibilities are as civil society representatives within sort of the wider society and the wider culture. Is there a, a role that we need to have beyond our organisations as well?

Simon Blake (20:46):

The fact that you’re asking the question, says that we definitely don’t do enough of it. And and I think that we could do more of it. Polly, you and I were part of that group of people asking for the British honour system to shift from empire to excellence. And the spirit of that was about using our position of power in society to try and create a change, which is much bigger and much wider than civil society. So that’s one example. We sometimes, I think get complacent that we’ve got good values and therefore the work that we do is good rather than we have to actively be demonstrating that good standing. They live those values in, in what we do. The other piece for me, which I think is a, is a bigger challenge for us is how do organisations with privilege and power help black led organisations who are influencing change within community, who are often less able to access the fundraising channels, the fundraising expertise. And there’s been a long conversation, hasn’t, it’s about how do the big organisations help the little organisations. And I think it’s more nuanced than that. Can an organisation fulfill its mission if it isn’t finding ways to work with organisations who are much better at reaching into communities and through communities where some other organisations might be saying they’re hard to reach, when actually we know that their know how, the understanding, the ability to reach is there maybe just not within our organisation.

Polly Neate (22:26):

Totally and utterly agree with that. And it does challenge us as larger organisations to constantly go back to what we’re actually there for, I think.

Tessy Ojo (22:37):

I wonder if there’s a place for actually the Charity Commission really demanding a bit more accountability.

Simon Blake (22:46):

What I would just challenge us one step further is let’s not wait for the Charity Commission. Let’s just start doing that ourselves. Regulation tends to catch up. So let’s start that. And let’s really let’s really lead that from the beginning. So when you’re talking about civil society creating change, let’s own it. Let’s be the people who are at the vanguard of, of this. And I guess I just also wanna say that as the bigger organisations, what we mustn’t do is absorb ourselves as responsibility by saying, Oh, we’re working with other partners. There’s a twin track here, which is really, really important. What you’ve just made me remember Tessy, I think is a really important bit for us. We could start facing inwards and start looking about staff profiles, start looking about who’s in senior roles within our organisations, but we mustn’t let that distract us from at the same time, thinking about the beneficiaries, the people we work with and achieving our purpose. Those two things have to go hand in hand.

Polly Neate (23:46):

Some of that as well as is how we… So there’s a sense of the sector being very close to the state or close to government, close to public sector commissioning for example, and the sort of wanting to be in those spaces where there’s a certain sort of power. And I guess what we need to do is a much more rigorous analysis of where change is realistically going to happen. Again, this is about giving up some privilege. And I think that is quite important because there are huge privileges that go with the role of being a charity CEO. Some of them are about access, profile, a voice. Access to people that lots of other people would like to have access to but don’t. How much is that access a privilege that we’re using to make change happen or how much of it is just a privilege that we just got?

Simon Blake (24:43):

And, and I think your point there is, is absolutely right. Sometimes it creates change and sometimes it is just an activity. That has, we have to be brave, we have to be able to just be clear about what we’re trying to achieve. And I guess the one other bit, which I want to say is we’ve also got to challenge each other, you know, I’ve, I’ve had several conversations around anti-racism and people say there’s a lot on at the moment. COVID may be dominating, but you know, the other inequalities, you know, the, the racial inequalities, a range of other issues, we can’t only pay attention to one thing. We have to challenge justice and injustice, wherever, wherever they exist.

Tessy Ojo (25:23):

We’ve been talking about change and pushing ahead with change. And we know that campaigning activism can be exhausting. As charity leaders how do we maintain resilience? How do we build ourselves up to make sure that you’ve got that energy and that fuel inside of you to just keep going?

Simon Blake (25:42):

I think the important thing that I want to just start with on this Tessy is recognising that for some people, this will be personal as well as professional and be experiencing racism at the same time as fighting racism. And so the answer isn’t the same for all of us. And I think for me as a white man, I can’t even imagine how exhausting racism is on a day-to-day basis. And therefore my resilience and my determination has to come from a recognition that however exhausted any white person may feel it is nothing compared to the lived experience of people experiencing racism. As civil society leaders we should, we are in leadership positions because hopefully we have demonstrated resilience and, and an ability to push forward on the issues that we care about, and that we see as a priority and that we be working on. For me, it is a case of, we have to ensure that racial justice is integrated into everything that we do. We support each other, we help each other, we understand allyship and what it means to also amplify and ensure that we are not taking platforms from people of colour and black people when those platforms should be, being held and you creating the spaces. The thing which I really, really want to get better at is doing the activity of allyship on a day-to-day basis in the way that we all have a responsibility to do. If people are feeling tired or exhausted our personal responsibility, I work in a mental health organisation, our personal responsibilities around self care and around support our well-being and our chair’s responsibility to have those conversations with us. But that has to be as part of being in the round. This, this has to be seen as, as part of our everyday jobs, right at the heart of what we’re doing. And that is about creating change every single day.

Tessy Ojo (27:44):

Very important word, self care. Yeah, no, absolutely. Polly, did you want…?

Simon Blake (27:48):

No, my thought was exactly like Simon’s, which is that I think part of the way to be resilient for as a on, I am, again, speaking as a white leader is to accept this is part of your job. So you’re not being asked to do something additional, extra this is your job.

Tessy Ojo (28:08):

Obviously as a black female leader, you know, sometimes you’re pushing a cause that you live, that’s also your lived experience. And so sometimes it feels like it’s your you’re dealing with it twice over. And I think that it’s important just as we’ve all said to step away, if it feels too much, especially when you want, sometimes you just want to have a separation from your lived experience and what your your, what your activism is. But I suppose on one hand, I’m lucky in the sense that I have a great ally of you guys, for example, that I want to know that I’ve got great allies, who even if I have to step off the treadmill for a bit, that you don’t have that personal exhaustion, that you don’t feel the same way, but I can rely on you to keep the baton going. And I think there’s something about having the confidence that even when I feel incredibly exhausted by it, because it’s my everyday living, I can rely on my colleagues because they got it. And they’ve got my back on this one and they will push ahead. And when I feel, when I feel ready, I can step back on the treadmill and join in.

Simon Blake (29:17):

And Tessy. I, I hope that we live up to that. And if there’s ever a moment at which we don’t please direct feedback, because we all need to say it straight.

Tessy Ojo (29:29):

That’s the whole point of this whole series. It’s that rallying cry, that come on, guys let’s do this. Like you rightly said, Simon, it’s not waiting for the Charity Commission. Although I do know where legislation happens, the dynamics of things, but our sector leaders hear these. And just pick up the baton and go with it. I think when we see that people are doing it, it just gives you comfort and allows you to every now and again, step off that treadmill because it’s, it’s your everyday life.

Simon Blake (30:01):

One of the things my colleague, a woman of colour said the other day is we’ve got to have hope. And that lots of that hope comes from how white people decide to act. And we see white peers and colleagues deciding to act. Let’s hope that this is a moment for hope.

Tessy Ojo (30:17):

What a brilliant way to end. Hope!

Polly Neate (30:18):

That was just what I was about to say, exactly! Thank you, Simon, for joining us.

Simon Blake (30:26):

Thank you for having me.

Tessy Ojo (30:27):

Thank you so much. It’s been such fun and I love the word hope, I live by hope so, we have hope!

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