Paul Streets: Shaping a more equal future demands re-education, honesty, and action

Being ready to have difficult conversations and work hard will be vital in a world where Covid-19 has dissipated, but the discrimination and inequality it so starkly exposed remains

In the past, race was a topic I tended to defer to ‘others’ to speak on, not feeling I had legitimacy or the right as a middle-aged white bloke.

But the death of George Floyd, the global Black Lives Matter movement and the unequal impact of Covid-19, have made me think again. Race needs to be far more central to all of our lexicons.

What is to be done? It starts with reframing the past many of us learnt. At school I was taught to be proud of the pink blocks of the past empire in my school atlas – but they carry a challenging legacy. We live in a wealthy nation quite literally built on the backs of others.

We also need to reframe our personal pasts.

I have often thought myself fortunate, but not privileged. After I left a predominately white, but by no means wealthy, community in Scarborough, where my dad was a greengrocer, I moved to London.

Radicalised by studying development economics, I embraced the predominantly Latin American Marxist ideology of the time on the nature of ‘under-development’ and found myself working in ‘development’ – mostly in South Asia and Africa, after a stint as a social worker in multicultural west London. I have always seen myself as liberal, tolerant and race-aware.

Now, looking back, I can see that the approach of people like me – to a problem which we have seen as ‘someone else’s’ – has been as significant to where we find ourselves today as the overtly racist attitudes that lay latent in our communities.

I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I enjoyed enormous privilege compared to those we invited to contribute to Britain’s modern-day prosperity as part of the Windrush generation, not long before I was born. There were no real impediments to my chance of success, once it was recognised that I was bright.

In the biography of Akala, the hip hop artist, writer and educator, he spells out what it meant to be black and bright in the Britain of the 80s, and the battle he and his mother had through school and into his youth.

He challenges the British myth of our perceived meritocracy and asks us to recognise that we have our own caste system where opportunity is far from equal. And equity is a cruel illusion.

As we re-educate ourselves, we must change things for the better. As a foundation, we have done the obvious things. We have joined the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Coalition of foundations seeking to challenge our work, and have re-examined how we actively approach achieving greater diversity, equity and inclusion within our own EDI strategy.

But while words may be important, actions matter more. This month we launched a new grants programme, focused on helping us and the sector look at new business and service models for a post Covid-19 world.

In designing that, we looked at our own data and asked ourselves questions about why we were not funding more black, Asian and minority ethnic-led organisations. Trustees have agreed that we should fund a minimum of 25 per cent of BAME-led organisations in this new cohort.

This will force us to ask why we haven’t done better before. We will be honest about this, and what we achieve. And we hope it will help us to progress as we move beyond Covid-19: when the disease may have dissipated but the discrimination and inequality it so starkly exposed remains.

This is a start, but it will be a long journey with lots of tricky sections. It will require everyone, but perhaps especially those of us with privilege, to stick with it and to build on the momentum of the last months for years to come, if we are to have a chance of arriving in the ‘better place’ proclaimed in our EDI statements.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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