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When it comes to racial justice, is the only failure a failure not to act? - Arv Kaushal

8th June 2023

By Arv Kaushal, equality, diversity and inclusion manager at MK College Group

Be it in education or business, charity or politics, we’re used to our leaders setting goals and then being judged on whether they achieve them. If you want to achieve racial justice within your organisation, don’t expect miracles; don’t expect perfection.

That’s one of many messages which has come through loud and clear during this year’s Milton Keynes College Group FE Voices podcasts (https://mkcollege.ac.uk/events/fe-voices/), where students, EDI experts, business leaders and the Further Education Commissioner tried to define racial justice and talked about their experiences of where it has been lacking. For instance, founder of consultancy Diversity Marketplace Gamiel Yafai said that “done is better than perfect” when talking about the importance of business leaders taking actions towards a more inclusive workplace. He also said that “if you’re not collecting data [on ethnicity representation in your business] then you’re not being anti-racist”.

If one thing is clear since the recording of the five episodes, it is that we really have no properly fixed idea of what racial justice is. Ask three people already working within the EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion) space and you’ll probably end up with five different answers. How then could we expect leaders for whom this is not their day-to-day, to have a refined grasp of what it means? Like pretty much every other activity known to humankind, EDI has developed a jargon all of its own, but clear definitions are harder to come by. If it’s something you wish to see more of within your own organisation, you have to identify targets, make them clear and specific so everyone understands them – and then be prepared to fail.

Failure is not going backwards. Failure is moving forwards, just perhaps not so far as you might want – but that’s okay. Sixty years after the first petition was handed to parliament demanding votes for women, the Local Government Act of 1894 allowed females to vote in council elections. Full voting parity would not come for another thirty-five years. Does that mean the 1894 act was a failure? No. It was progress; something we can judge more clearly with hindsight. Similarly, if your aim is to recruit equally across all communities in your area, to have a workforce that perfectly reflects the people who are your customers and suppliers, be prepared to accept incremental improvement, and most importantly, make sure the people in your organisation can see it that way too.

The poet and activist, Maya Angelou, said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

The only failure is failure to act.

This is not a natural perspective for leaders. The boards and the staff to whom they answer or who rely on them are used to the idea that if the boss says, “We need to improve this by x percent,” that x represents success and x minus one, therefore failure. In other words, we need to judge our EDI failures in the context of history. Are things better, fairer, than they were last year or the year before? That is the only reasonable way to judge progress.

One of the hard things about this, is it makes planning more conceptual and less concrete. Explaining to people that a policy will move the needle in the right direction but will not be a magic bullet to end all our problems, is not an easy sell, but it is an essential one.

Often leaders want to make change, but they don’t know how to go about it. A good starting point, the whole purpose of FE Voices and discussions like it, is to listen to the real lived experiences of the people affected by a lack of perfect fairness. One of our podcast guests, business leader and governor of MK College Group, Shalom Lloyd, said that “Every day when I walk out my door, I can tell you at the end of the day what I’ve experienced because of the colour of my skin.” A current MK College student also discussed in one of the podcasts the racial discrimination they face on a regular basis. By finding out what obstacles they’ve faced, we can look for ways to at least lower those barriers. Our final guest, FE commissioner Shelagh Legrave was adamant that “I want individuals to think very hard about the racial injustice that other people suffer, and not only to hear about it but to take action” and that “the highest priority for achieving racial justice is in education, from primary school through to those in their sixties and beyond.”

People with a genuine desire to improve matters, often talk about hard-to-reach groups. This is wrongheaded. If the numbers of people from minority communities engaging with your organisation are limited, it suggests it is you who are hard to reach for them. It is far more likely that changing your approach, be it in recruitment, promotion or even acquiring customers, will be far easier and more widely effective than hoping that they will somehow, as a group, change theirs.

You may find the improvements you can make frustratingly small, but in the great arc of history, the great leaps would not have been possible without those tiny inches forward.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.