Black History Month 2020

So here we are again, Black History Month (BHM) it’s the first time in 43 years that I have not been an employee of the NHS. What retirement gives you, in between watching daytime TV, is the time to reflect, to think about your accomplishments as well as the things you wish you’d have done differently. During this month, people from black backgrounds openly celebrate their history; they talk about remember and celebrate famous black people, their achievements and how, to all intents and purposes, many of their accomplishments have largely been omitted from our history books. Thankfully the list of people we celebrate is growing from when BHM first arrived in this country in 1986, imported from the USA. Back then, we used to laud and applaud Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, later we began to venerate and give thanks for Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other famous black Americans. Believe it or not the list of black people and their achievements is actually quite a long one, and way too many to cite here; it simply needs the appetite and a few minutes of time typing ‘black inventors’ into Google to see what I mean. It got me thinking that black history isn’t black history at all, it is world history and without some of the famous black inventors like Dr Shirley Ann Jackson, who invented the touch tone phone or Gladys Mae West who helped to invent the GPS, the worlds history would be very different. These amazing people’s lives should be taught in all schools to everybody and not just in Black Saturday school to the few lucky children like Akala who was lucky enough to attend one. We should all know about the accomplishments of these very special people because without them the world would be a very different place. The fact that we only spend one month of the year thinking about black history, says an awful lot about the society we live in and what is seen as real history as opposed to black history. It begs the question: ‘whose history are we celebrating during the other 11 months of the year?’ Over the annals of time, black history was not just made during the month of October. Last week an article was published by the HSJ with the headline ‘Equality Lead says race equality will not change in the NHS in the next 10 years’. I own up, I did say that to Nick Kituno, the HSJ reporter that I spoke to, however what I said needs to be put into the context in which I said it. I explained why I believed that 10 years was not a reasonable amount of time to see the changes that we all want to see in our society. The racial inequalities that we see in society today have evolved and developed over 400 years. Therefore, achieving fairness and equity across the board, closing the gaps on inequality, equal pay, differential attainment etc, will take a lot longer than 10 years. But of course when you speak to journalists, particularly HSJ journalists, they write what they want in order to sell their story and unfortunately people believe what they read. It’s often the case: because a journalist says it, it must be true. The truth is this – the system that we all live and work in, will take a lot longer than 10 years to change, and if we are to be brutally honest, with some of the leaders we currently have holding sway in our world, I personally don’t see a break through anytime soon. I suppose it’s a hard thing to acknowledge that, despite all the energy and effort we have put and are putting into closing the inequality gap, believing that we won’t be living in utopia in 10 years’ time is some admission, particularly from the now retired Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) director. Yes, the WRES has made, and continues to make, positive change on this challenging agenda (perhaps the most challenging of all agendas in the NHS). At the same time, we also know that more work needs to be done to really shift the dial of inequality. But let’s be very clear here – more work needs to be done by those implementing the strategy on the ground, not just those that are producing the strategy. After all, a strategy is only as good as those that are implementing it. Yes, we can at least agree that the pace of change for people of colour is often unhurried at best and positively snail like at worst. I suppose many people believe that as its BHM negative thoughts and views should be put to one side and there should be a positive air about things. These days, BHM for me, is more of a time to take stock and reflect as opposed to just celebrate. Race equality is a long-term project; I have been working in that space for many years and the pace of change is slow and initiatives and interventions need to change as society changes in order to make sure what we are doing will make a sustained difference. My departure, and that of the wonderful Dr Habib Naqvi, from the WRES team is the perfect time for the CPO and the new very senior managers (VSMs) for equality, diversity and inclusion, to take a look at the WRES programme, and perhaps revise it, improve it and make it fit for a changed and very different post-pandemic future, compared to the one we thought we would have before Covid-19 hit us hard. The WRES initiative set out to raise awareness of race inequalities and to help win hearts and minds in the NHS and beyond, I believe it has succeeded in doing that. However, all programmes and initiatives, no matter how successful, must be evaluated. The WRES programme is under the scrutiny of the independent evaluation being carried out by the University of Sheffield. It will be important for the new leadership on this agenda to take learning from that evaluation, and to implement it as appropriate. Finally, during this BHM I would like us all to remember and celebrate all non-white staff working in the NHS. These are people that, from its inception in 1948, have helped the organisation become one of the best healthcare systems in the world. I don’t need to rehearse the statistics here; people know without a doubt that in the absence of this group of staff, it would have been nigh on impossible for the service to have got through the last six months of the pandemic – perhaps the most difficult time we have ever known in the NHS’ seventy-two years. Today, as I write this blog, Covid-19 is on the rise again, and again we will need to look to those black and minority ethnic members of staff to help support the health and social care system. Clapping and cheering the NHS for a few weeks during the pandemic and perhaps raising a glass of wine to celebrate BHM is great, but I believe that by remembering the energy, sacrifice and toil that people of colour put into their work every day, can only be truly demonstrated if there is equity of access to services for patients and equal opportunities for staff all year round and not just during BHM.

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