I have never seen myself as a woman of colour. I am not oblivious or ashamed of my identity, but it is not what I have conventionally used to define myself. I have, however, always defined myself through my work and voluntary activity. It is just a coincidence that most of that work is focused on other people’s identity and experiences of inequality and diversity.
When it was suggested to me that I might wish to stand to stand for the role of chair of the voluntary sector body Navca, I agreed on the basis that I saw this simply as a development of my role as chair of Barking & Dagenham Council for Voluntary Service. If I am honest, I had been quietly surprised by the fact that in a borough still associated with the far-right that I, an Asian woman, had managed to become and remain chair of such an organisation. Working locally is fine – you can hide yourself away and, given the 50 per cent cut in the organisation’s funding just as I took over and the large-scale changes facing the sector locally, there was hardly a rush to fill the position.
Standing for the chair of Navca was different. I was putting myself forward as the best candidate on a national platform.
The debates on diversity at trustee board level have been bubbling under the radar for some time, but they have become more public recently. Recent outreach and targeted campaigns to increase the diversity of trustees, such as that of Samuel Kasumu’s Inclusive Board group, have awoken civil society organisations to the need to ensure diversity at the highest levels in their organisations.
When John Tizard was announced as the other candidate for chair of Navca, my initial reaction was to withdraw with good grace. I have personally admired his work for some time – I respected and agreed with his judgement and questioned why was I bothering. But then a competitive element kicked in. I had got through the application and interview process, so why should I not try to see how much further I could get?
There were inferences on Twitter about this being a debate about diversity, but I was clear that I was campaigning as the best candidate to help Navca advance its purpose and mission.
My profile in the sector is very different from that of my opponent. I’m far more muted and associated with equality campaigning, as opposed to being well known in the charity sector and a critical friend to government. How could I readdress the imbalance and prove my credentials in the policy arena? I did not move in the same networks, the same experience or the same connections that would resonate with the membership.
I wondered whether this was a by-product of structural inequality or because of my own failings. I was starting to over-analyse. Then someone suggested seeking endorsements. I remember being rather bashful, diving straight into the worst stereotypes of an Asian woman and almost giggling at the very thought that anyone would ever think of endorsing me. "This is no time to be humble," was the response.
It was time to embrace my brand. I was the diversity candidate and the best candidate because of my understanding of policy. That was nothing to be ashamed of.
The result of the election is due at the end of September but, regardless of the outcome, I am grateful for the opportunity to stand. If we are to be successful in creating diverse boards, we need to understand two key areas. First, diverse candidates have to come from diverse organisations, and that might mean looking again at how and who organisations recruit as part of the volunteer and staff workforce. Second, diverse candidates bring more than their diversity; they can and do also engage in "mainstream" discussions and can be motivated by more than the inequality argument.
Rita Chadha is chair of Barking & Dagenham Council for Voluntary Service. Voting for the role of chair of Navca closed on Friday