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How can white charity leaders tackle racism?

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Sharing learning from a reflective practice approach to tackle pervasive whiteness and increase anti-racist action in charities

By Akiko Hart and Rosie Tressler

In spring 2020 whilst the pandemic unfolded and the world was reacting to a series of racial injustices making headlines around the world, the charity sector was quite rightly in the spotlight for failures and slow progress in relation to advocating for and supporting racialised and minoritised communities.

During this period, a group of CEOs from mental health charities had been getting together to share learning peer support and actively work together to affect change. A few colleagues quite rightly pushed for racial justice to take greater priority. Some of us with a background in peer to peer learning and group work thought that a reflective practice space might help kickstart change for a group of charity leaders – and therefore in our sector as a whole. As such we offered to design and facilitate a short course, a series of online reflective practice groups, where participants would scrutinise the role of whiteness in our work and sector. We were eager to do something meaningful and stretching, without overstepping our own knowledge. We also knew first-hand that the pandemic had increased the pressures on the leaders we were connecting with and recognised that a supportive, compassionate approach would be important. We also hoped to learn something that we could share with the wider charity sector, and perhaps beyond our sector too. Ten CEOs of mental health charities signed up and took part.

We’re now able to share some of the lessons learned. We feel it’s important to do so as our sector is still far behind where it needs to be on racial justice, and we think that through these groups we’ve gained some useful insight on barriers and how we overcome them. We also hear the calls of colleagues asking for white people to do the work. We want to be honest with readers that this piece is written with a little trepidation – we are mindful that in blogging about this topic when neither of us is Black we are at risk of duplicating the insights already expressed by experts and those with lived experience in this field. We welcome challenge and comments and are grateful to groups like CharitySoWhite that have been so generous in sharing knowledge these last few years. We hope as CEOs in the process of learning how to get this right in our own organisations and having facilitated conversations with peers that we may have something useful to share. In our own organisations we recognise that we’re not where we want to be and recognise the potential hypocrisy of writing a piece of this nature when we know how much needs to be done within our own networks and we are committed to addressing these inconsistencies.

This blog has taken us a while to write up and coordinate. We appreciate that between the practice groups in 2020, the writing of this piece in early 2021 and the publishing date in June 2021, much has since happened. There have been a number of high profile cases of racism in the charity sector. We still hope  that by sharing this albeit imperfect piece that we can encourage other people to continue to share their experiences – this is how we will start to move forwards as a sector.

Before we get into sharing our learning, we’d also like to be clear that we strongly discourage white colleagues from using this blog as any kind of substitute for the deep work that all charities need to do themselves. We have included a list of consultants we are aware of working with charities to improve their approaches at the end of the piece – the sector needs to pay for the expertise that has for too long been expected for free from people of colour. We have also provided a resource list that we curated for our reflective practice groups, and we encourage sector leaders to support racialised writers and academics by purchasing and publicly reviewing and promoting their work.

So, how did we get on with the groups, and how could others use this approach?

Setting up the sessions

Our aim was to create a reflective environment where white charity leaders interrogate their relationship with whiteness and racial justice, and make or further develop their personal commitment to tackling inequalities and injustices in both their own organisations and in wider society.

By the end of the programme we were hoping to see the following outcomes for participants;

  • Development of a greater knowledge of the role whiteness and race plays in society and charitable organisations.
  • Greater confidence to initiate conversations about whiteness and race.
  • Turned personal commitment to anti-racism and the decentering of whiteness in our sector into a range of practical changes.

We thought a lot about how to structure the sessions in order to really give people the opportunity to consolidate their learning. We settled on a short 4-part course of sessions each lasting 90 minutes, with three weeks in-between sessions to support learning, reflection and implementation. Each of us would facilitate one small reflective practice group of up to 6 attendees.

The loose, flexible structure of the course would be as follows;

  • Session 1: Introductions: With facilitated discussion to a pre-prepared video introducing the concept of white fragility
  • Session 2: Self-reflection, and exploring how we define and envision positive change
  • Session 3 and Session 4: to be developed iteratively based on sessions 1 & 2 involving focus on practically leading change and reflecting on the course.

In the first session we agreed to some ground rules. For reflective practice to be effective, psychological safety within the group setting and absolute confidentiality is critical. We discussed a non-judgemental setting where all people’s contributions were of equal worth, a space for inquiry and curiosity, and maintaining boundaries and confidentiality. Realistically, many white leaders probably don’t feel psychologically safe talking about their mistakes in front of colleagues from racialised backgrounds. People may feel they need to process that shame, so that when they then go into those conversations with colleagues they do not play out this white guilt on their Black colleagues.

When asked what the group of CEOs wanted to get out of the groups or avoid, people spoke about the need for an open and constructive environment, a space to reflect on anxieties and fears, and to gain greater understanding of blind spots. The opportunity to become more confident around appropriate inclusive language was also raised. Many of us acknowledged a fear of saying the wrong thing, of not yet feeling equipped to lead change on the issue and were hopeful the groups would start on a journey towards this.

We also considered how to quickly establish trust and establish a different space to the day-to-day, asking some personal open questions to build connection between attendees before we got into the topic of race.

Throughout the course structure, we planned to use a mixture of mediums to suit different ways in which people prefer to learn – video, reading lists, loose open questions to start conversation. We asked the attendees to set implementation intentions or specific goals each week and created a couple of opportunities to reflect on progress. On reflection, some more structure by way of a workbook might have helped people organise their thoughts between weeks and held us all more personally accountable.

In terms of facilitation, we learned that the facilitator has to be willing to challenge and push whilst of course not there to ‘teach’ – everyone needs to do ‘the work’ in their own time. It is important to consider who is facilitating – the impact that facilitating a session has will be different for someone that has experienced discrimination or the effects of this topic. As facilitators of the groups, we kept in touch each week about how they’d gone, and often recognised we were having quite different experiences and that individuals and organisations can be in quite different places.

Delivering the sessions: breakthroughs or surface level agreement?

We knew there was a risk that people take part and in trying to understand we become distracted by justifying why things are where they are. Ultimately if you’re a CEO in the third sector you’re likely to be warm towards social justice, and many white leaders spoke about the experience of realising the identity they thought they had as an anti-racist leader is likely currently untrue. There is a gap when you see yourself as anti-racist but are not truly doing anything proactive about it, bar the odd tweet. But we recognise (inspired by the likes of researcher and writer Brene Brown) that there is little to be achieved in shaming people and we all have to create the space for vulnerability and learning.

We have since tried to reflect on whether the reflective practice approach has worked – did we get breakthroughs or was it all surface? It is perhaps too early to tell and the proof will be in seeing how anti-racist, inclusive and effective organisations become, in part as a result of a personal commitment of the CEO. What we did experience was witnessing a number of us CEOs honestly confront the guilt, the misunderstandings and defensiveness that might have been a barrier to their next steps. We collectively identified a number of areas where we would like to do things differently as leaders. Personal commitments that were shared by attendees were diverse and we have summarised some of these – which vary from action at board level, to staff and volunteer related changes – within the list provided later in this article.

We also had an interesting conversation about what it means to ‘get out of the way’ as a white leader. I think deep down most people in the sector know that the reality is white people need to stop dominating the top jobs and need to make space. For a lot of charity CEOs their relationship with power is tricky. As CEOs in the third sector we may both feel uncomfortable with the idea of hierarchy and yet we are part of that way of organising people. The authors of this piece are interested in whether more job-share CEO posts, deputies or shared Directorships would be a better way to ensure change. What if the very role of CEO is not working? In a year where even the most privileged, white leaders are at risk of burning out due to the pressures of leading during the pandemic, stepping out of the way to leave a broken system to be fixed doesn’t feel much better than the alternative. For those of us with privilege and in leadership roles now, is it a key job for us to develop our talent pipelines and create something better for the next generation of leaders to thrive in?

Summary and Recommendations

Overall, we believe that reflective practice groups have the potential to be effective in engaging more white CEOs in anti-racist activity. We see such groups as a tool to get people to reflect on their own journeys, where they have been influenced by growing up in a racist society, the times they have got things wrong or not listened, explore and call out where the issue they work on has failed Black communities, and to help action plan their next steps.

In our final sessions, attendees described the groups as a ‘truthful’ and ‘safe space’, an ‘anchor to their learning’ and ‘enabler to them feeling prepared to implement change’. It did feel that a number of people may have experienced a paradigm shift from ‘I’m not racist’ to ‘I need to be anti-racist’. Specific commitments were made by attendees to share learning with colleagues, collect better data and many other ideas captured at the end of this blog. These commitments may or may not have been made without the course, but attendees shared that it helped to build confidence to enact these changes.

In our final session attendees also shared that they felt in general more ‘attuned’ and ‘accepting’ of the existence of racial bias issues, took this topic with ‘greater seriousness’ and ‘less complacency’ and felt ‘genuinely committed’. Of course these are all self reported feelings, but we believe that the collective act of many mental health charities deeply reflecting on and sitting with the trauma that has been caused for racialised people in society and our sector has felt important. It has helped to open up further conversations about what the sector needs to do, and why we need to be single minded about racial justice. This has been a positive first step.

That said, if we were to run this course again, we feel that more time needs to be spent on what whiteness looks like and how it functions in our organisations, as well as helping people to map out what an effective path to change looks like where deep work is completed. Attendees were expected to commit to the full course but not everyone managed this – we know things come up in people’s lives, particularly in this particular year, but it is a concern that leaders do not always feel able to ring-fence this time. It’s worth acknowledging that CEOs require the support and challenge of their boards and colleagues to make this a reality. We do have concerns that even after having powerful conversations and setting intentions between sessions, this topic still ends up being pushed down the list of competing priorities CEOs are dealing with day to day. As such, progress can feel slow for all of us. One of our groups asked to meet again a few months down the road to hold ourselves accountable on progress reflecting a commitment to improvement. We recommend that in order to make this intervention effective, a number of things need to be in place in the charity – it is not reasonable for this issue to be left to the CEO of the charity alone – everyone in the organisation needs to own this issue behind a shared vision – and the CEO of course is the person who can drive the development of that vision and create the conditions for it to happen.

Ideas discussed by charity CEOs

These are some of the key reflections that the attendees discussed as being important in tackling pervasive whiteness and racism in our sector and society. This is not presented as a list of agreed approaches by any particular coalition of organisations, but it summarises the diverse actions being undertaken across the sector or where there are intentions for work to be started in the months ahead.

  1. Ensure recruitment and HR processes are removed of bias as much as possible and commit to affirmative action, and ongoing talent development. Traditional asks for CVs/ degrees etc are increasingly recognised as blocking Black and racial minority talent. There is a sense that without better talent management people are often set up to fail in racist systems. This issue is particularly acute within some charity sub-sectors, and some charity roles, for example policy.
  2. Stop accepting philanthropic donations from organisations found to be institutionally racist and not working on addressing it as a matter of priority.
  3. Undertake equality impact assessments for all major decisions. The pandemic led to quick decision making in many sectors, quick recruitment or furloughing etc., and the impact on racial equality and progress has likely not been considered as it should have.
  4. Ensure the imagery for the organisation is inclusive, but also not creating an illusion of diversity where it does not exist.
  5. Stop speaking on any conference panels where it is an all-white panel. This should be considered just as appalling as the existence of all-male panels.
  6. Scrutinise all existing learning/ teaching tools that the charity delivers through a racial equality lens – ensuring Black writers and academics are given the profile they’ve been blocked from by a racist society.
  7. Question the theories and methodologies underpinning our organisational approaches. We considered how in mental health a focus on ‘universalism’ and supporting the wellbeing of the entire population has gained political energy and no doubt helped millions, but targeted work to prevent illness or distress in minoritised communities is not given enough focus. Many leaders and charities would also benefit from a  real grasp of intersectionality – too often when race is raised, people ask ‘what about this other, also deserving group’. Whilst it is understandable for this to happen when we know that many minority or excluded communities are experiencing pain and oppression, we can’t allow other topics to throw race off the table.  The truth is we each have many identities that interact and this means none of us can be put into simple categorisations. If however we start with prioritising race, the addressing of other types of inequality or inclusion tend to flow from that.
  8. Ensure all members of staff, trustees and volunteers are educated and trained in ‘white fragility’, the effect of pervasiveness of ‘niceness’ in the sector, allyship, the traumatic impact of racism, and the impact of microaggressions. One of our colleagues shared a helpful reflection that they’ve realised many people who are considered ‘nice’ are probably just fortunate enough to be privileged, and sometimes people that are not characterised as ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ are being considered this way due to ingrained racism.  Black Lives Matter was a movement not fully adopted by our sector until it became unfashionable to not use the hashtag – too many boards saw it as too political, too radical or mission drift pre-2020. All of us across the charity need a sophisticated understanding of what is needed – this relates to recruitment, retention, progression and all that we do.
  9. Commit financially with a clear budget to support affirmative action and anti-racist and inclusion work in the organisation.
  10. Collect data on all of your staff, board, volunteers and beneficiaries – really look at the service usage and publish it and reflect on where you’re failing and what you’ll do to address it. Accountability starts with transparency.
  11. Support members of your team to organise through an anti-racist or EDI group.
  12. Ensure the chair and board of the charity make this a regular board agenda item and are actively involved in embedding this into every workstream and strategy, so that inclusion and impact of exclusion is as normal as drinking water. It’s not an addition: it’s about leaders saying it so often that racial equality becomes a given part of the culture.

We have also been reflecting on what useful recommendations we could contribute to across the third sector as a whole, and would be interested to have further discussion and debate on some of the initial thoughts a variety of CEOs have been sharing, including;

  • Requests for relevant bodies to run more events on anti-racism for leaders in the charity sector to share learning and practice but with the depth it requires.
  • Provision of a national summary of charity success on a number of criteria each year – the criteria should be co-produced and decided with leaders and charity colleagues that are from racialised or minoritised backgrounds.
  • Ensuring CEOs are held to account on collective statements of intent -which helps us to live up to our ideals.
  • Adoption of the recommendations of other race equality schemes such as the CBI’s Changing the Race Ratio, CMHA Mental Health and race toolkits and others across sectors we work with.

Finally, we would like to end this reflective piece by thanking all of the CEOs that have been engaged in discussions about the ideas within this blog over the past year, and we’re aware there are also a  number of other groups have been organising around these themes and sharing ideas on social media and informally. There are likely many people – especially the writers we reference at the end of this blog – to which we owe the useful insights. We would also like to thank colleagues at Charity So White for agreeing to publish a thoughtful response piece to the ideas highlighted in this blog to stimulate more discussion and debate – together all of us across the sector can create the conditions for us to tackle racial inequalities and now is the time to make sure it’s deeds not words.

Reading List

Week 1

Debunking The Most Common Myths White People Tell About Race

Week 2

“A lot of talk not action” in Third Sector

The ACEVO and Voice4Change England report “Home Truths”

“Dear White Boss” in the Harvard Business Review

Week 3

Healing voluntary servitude and increasing self-care, by Isha McKenzie-Mavinga for BAATN (The Black, African & Asian Therapy Network)

I am a black, male, psychotherapist, yet I feel alone”, by Dwight Turner

PolicySoWhite, by Kristiana Wrixon

Further reading

Epistemic homelessness, by Guilaine Kinouani

Alison Faulkner on being a white survivor researcher (13 min talk filmed on YouTube)

How we can engage with race in a meaningful way for the people we work with, by Jessica Pons

Racism: the riskiest pre-existing condition for Covid 19, by Jayasree Kalathil.

Racial disparities in mental health, by the Race Equality Foundation

Week 4

10 minute talk by Janet Stovall on how to get serious about diversity and inclusion in the workplace:

List of consultants

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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