Trustee talk: Stepping up to the position of chair

Emilie Filou interviews Evelyn Asante Mensah, chair of the sexual health charity Brook.

I was chief executive of the Black Health Agency in Manchester for 14 years, and that has informed my approach as a chair.

The agency grew phenomenally while I was there, and I was privileged to lead that change. The experience gave me an understanding and knowledge base of the problems Brook, the sexual health charity for young people, is grappling with. Working with ethnic minorities is not unlike working with young people: they can feel excluded and that what's on offer does not suit or help them.

I also learned the importance of maintaining your ethos in the face of pressure from commissioners and funders. It's easy to lose touch with your community, but the Black Health Agency made sure it did not start projects without consulting the people who would benefit from them.

The transition from executive to non-executive has been fairly straightforward. I have been chair of Manchester Primary Care Trust since 2000 and a non-executive director there since 1998.

Having sat on both sides of the fence, I know what makes boards tick and how they operate, and I know what a difference a good chair makes. I'll be working with the chief executive to define our roles and establish a pattern that works to both our strengths.

My priority at Brook will be to strengthen our network and drive our strategic planning forward. As chair, I am constantly challenged and have learned to operate outside my comfort zone.

There are thousands of organisations run for and by ethnic minorities: communities help themselves all the time. But few people from ethnic minorities get involved beyond those opportunities. We need more role models and opportunities for people to talk about how they could contribute in other sectors, on boards and in areas they had never thought about.

Voluntary organisations also need to look beyond traditional recruitment hot spots for board members. They should be more open and look at people's experiences in terms of skills and competence, not just positions held.

My main job is head of equality and diversity at the Northwest Regional Development Agency. I still chair Manchester PCT and I am an equal opportunities commissioner. I hope I will be able to bring some of the lessons I have learned to my new position at Brook.

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