More than 100 people of colour express solidarity with staff who faced racism at ActionAid UK

An open letter signed by more than 100 people of colour in the international development sector has called for accountability over a report that found “systematic denial, disbelief or indifference” at ActionAid UK.

The letter, published on the website of the campaign group CharitySoWhite this morning, expresses solidarity with affected staff at ActionAidUK and called for their voices to be at the centre of the organisation’s response.

It also rejects the idea that ActionAid UK is one “bad apple”, saying that “a culture of white supremacy prevails” in the international development sector.

An internal independent race audit, carried out at ActionAid UK last year, found that staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds felt “less valued, less supported, less empowered” and had fewer opportunities to fulfil career aspirations than their white counterparts.

The audit found there had been “systematic denial, disbelief or indifference” to racism staff members had experienced, which left them feeling “unheard, disrespected and excluded”, according to a summary seen by Third Sector.

In response to coverage of the report, the letter says: “We are deeply concerned to hear of the pain and harm caused to PoC in AAUK, particularly within an organisation that professes to be anti-racist as well as lauds its feminist principles and how these are instilled in its culture and behaviours.”

The open letter describes itself as having been “created by a collective of People of Colour working within the international development sector” who represent themselves and not the organisation that employs them. At time of writing, it had 117 signatories.

The letter says signatories would like to see “a clear understanding of who within AAUK’s leadership will be held accountable for the racism that appears to be endemic in the organisation and how this accountability will manifest in tangible and meaningful action.”

In addition, they want “the voice, leadership, and perspectives of PoC affected by racism in AAUK to be prominently centred in future reporting and response to the systemic racism that has taken place within the organisation. Their voices and perspectives have been notably lacking in the media coverage of these events thus far.”

The letter also criticises the appointment of a white human resources specialist to lead the charity’s reforms in the response to the report, pointing out that the rest of the senior leadership team at the charity is also white.

“If AAUK’s senior leaders and its board of trustees are truly serious and sincere about rooting out historic racism, and centring the lived experiences of PoC in the organisation going forward, then such responsibility ought to have been given to a PoC with racial justice expertise,” the letter says.

Srabani Sen, chair of ActionAid UK, stepped down last week to focus on her own EDI consultancy.

The letter warns that tackling the issue of institutional racism should not “take a back seat” while the new chair is appointed.

It goes on to say: “The racism experienced by PoC in AAUK is not a case of one ‘bad apple’ but rather a reflection of systemic racism in the international development sector; a sector that is in need of its own reckoning.”

The letter says that the international development sector’s “roots in colonialism means that a culture of white supremacy prevails”, which in turn means that institutionalised racism is tolerated or minimised and there is a lack of accountability at the top of organisations for tackling the issue. 

It also describes “a culture of fragility and silence” that reigns where senior individuals with power protect one another by not calling out poor leadership” in the sector, and accuses international development organisations of being “overwhelmingly focused on superficial diversity and inclusion initiatives rather than addressing long-standing issues of power and privilege”. 

In a statement, Frances Longley, chief executive of ActionAid UK, thanked the group for its letter, saying the charity welcomed the spotlight on racism and shared the group’s commitment to tackling the issue.

“It remains incredibly important to all of us that we listen and learn from feedback from People of Colour within, and outside of, ActionAid UK and we understand that the only way to move forward and become an actively anti-racist organisation is to openly and constructively have these difficult and uncomfortable conversations,” she said. 

“We recognise that some staff do not accept the findings of the audit report and have been disappointed by our presentation of its findings and recommendations internally. 

“We are sorry for any hurt that we may have caused. We are actively listening to colleagues and will continue to seek ways to address concerns raised.”

She said the board remained “wholly committed” to the charity’s anti-racist work and the senior leadership team recognised that such work must include people of colour with lived experience.

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