Make Black history matter for the other 334 days of the year

23 Oct 2021, 6:03

New networks in college are having a ripple effect, writes Arv Kaushal

We make a big fuss of our children or partners on their birthday, but we actually do so because we love them all year round.   

This is the 95th year of celebrating Black History Month, and it’s time we looked at it the same way – something to be especially commemorated each October but also to be at the front of our minds for the other 334 days of the year. 

Now that’s an easy aspiration to have and to express, but at Milton Keynes College Group, we’ve been trying to build structures and processes to make it a reality.   

We’ve set up a series of employee resource groups to look at the way we work, and we’ve appointed chairs, which makes that responsibility an opportunity for individuals to grow and progress in their careers.  

These are people who are already passionate and eager to try to create that better future, but who have never really had a mechanism through which to achieve it.   

Each network also has an internal executive sponsor to give guidance and to be that essential voice at senior level.  They are all people with strong voices within the organisation.   

Our director of marketing sponsors the cultural diversity employee resource group, while our chief people officer looks after the LGBTQ network.   

The principal for MK College’s prison education arm supports the women’s network and the principal at College and South Central Institute of Technology does the same for the men’s network.  

Meanwhile our senior operations director supports the disability group. 

Gradually, people who’ve had no other alternative but to “cheer from the sidelines” when it comes to issues of diversity and equality have a reason to get more involved, to go to those external events, to look for opportunities for change.   

To give even greater weight to the networks, we’ve brought in external mentors who’ve kindly volunteered their services free of charge.

So we’ve been hugely fortunate to win support from some highly knowledgeable people, each with a very specific understanding of the areas covered by each network.   

Among these we have some senior civil servants and highly experienced people from industry. 

These include Justin Placide, from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is co-chair of the Civil Service Race Forum; and Hayley Brown, co-chairwoman of the Ministry of Defence Gender Network.  

Caroline Eglinton from Network Rail is the company’s disability and access ambassador and LGBTQ specialist; and Meena Chander, founder of Events Together Ltd.

The reaction has been so encouraging. At the beginning I was contacting people and asking, “Do you know about this event?”, or “Do you think it might be good to speak to this person?”.  

Now the networks are getting in touch with me, telling me about the places they’ve been and the people they’ve met and the ideas arising from them.  

Based on a model of allyship, the groups are taking on lives of their own

Based on a model of allyship, the groups are taking on lives of their own and each network is already creating a gentle ripple effect running through the whole college. 

This approach can only hope to succeed with buy-in from the top. Management in many organisations can be reluctant to see employee networks of this kind grow in confidence, just in case they call for uncomfortable or expensive change.   

It’s a risk, and we’re fortunate enough to have unstinting support from the executive level to the extent that the chief executive, Julie Mills, is the executive sponsor for the whole initiative. This leaves no one in any doubt as to the group’s commitment to positive change. 

Black History Month is about celebrating individuals who achieved greatness in spite of the prejudice they faced. It is an aspiration but also a challenge, to make the fight for equality, diversity and inclusion in all its forms a 365-days-a-year campaign.  

Black History Month should be regarded as a signpost, to black presents and black futures.   

One day, we won’t need to remember it exclusively any more. Hastening that day, is surely what remembrance is all about.

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