Yemi Gbajobi, Simon Blake and Thomas Lawson: Civil society leaders and race equity

As chief executives of civil society organisations, we need to take action to address the racial disparities within our sector

Yemi Gbajobi, Simon Blake and Thomas Lawson
Yemi Gbajobi, Simon Blake and Thomas Lawson

Chief executives of civil society organisations play an important role in challenging systemic racism and creating race equity.

It is increasingly recognised that our sector – despite our well-believed and sometimes documented values – reflects the same institutional and systemic racism as all other parts of society.

As a sector we want to challenge government and wider society to tackle racism and racial disparities. Therefore we have to first take a long, hard look at ourselves and take action to address racism and racial disparities in our organisations and at a sector level.

In February, a group of chief executives committed to promoting race equity came together to discuss it at an event convened by the charity leaders network Acevo. Some work is being taken forward from this group.

All of us were clear that leaders need to shift their mindset to one where racial disparities are identified and race equity is actively promoted. We all need to be consciously thinking about race, racism and whiteness in our organisations and our engagement within the sector and our respective sub-sectors.

This short document has been written jointly by us as three chief executives with different identities and experiences. As a black woman and two white men, we understand how white privilege and racism has affected each of our personal and professional lives. We are concerned and frustrated by the slow progress in tackling racism and promoting race equity in our sector and society as a whole. We believe that chief executives across civil society are uniquely placed to lead change within our organisations.

This blog sets out some steps that all chief executives can take. We believe these steps are relevant wherever you live in the UK, because all organisations should be striving to be diverse, inclusive and equitable.

Self-awareness and understanding

· Develop your understanding about race, racism, whiteness, privilege and prejudice.

· Reflect on and develop understanding of your own privilege (Peggy McIntosh’s paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start). Develop confidence in thinking and talking about issues of race and racism.

· Lead and develop organisational confidence and fluency in addressing race, racism and privilege at all levels of the organisation; think about policies and procedures, from recruitment and selection through to training and development; and specifically about race equity training for all: staff/ consultants, trustees and volunteers.

Creating space

· There are too many occasions when conference contributors, speaking panels and policy task forces are all or mostly white. As leaders, when we are asked to speak at events and conferences or be part of a taskforce or working group, ask who else is involved/speaking. If it is an all-white line-up, be clear we all need to think about how the diversity of lived experiences is understood and to ensure that colleagues from BAME communities are provided with platforms and spaces.

Take a look at your board and your senior team and make a plan

· Whatever size your organisation, if your senior management team is all white make a plan to ensure the team has diverse lived experiences and, where this isn’t currently the case, at the very least hears the perspectives of those with diverse lived experiences.

· If you have an all-white board, discuss this with your chair and make a plan to address it immediately. Ask people to step down and recruit accordingly.

· And if you are part of an all-white board – as many chief executives are – talk to the chair and ask for diversifying the board to be part of its development plan, with immediate action taken. Don’t take trusteeships if the rest of the board is not racially diverse.


Acevo is developing some guidance specifically looking at recruitment, but in summary:

· If you are using agencies, make sure they have targets on the number of BAME candidates on the long list and shortlist.

· Seek out specialist agencies or those agencies that can demonstrate a track record of recruiting diverse candidates.

· Actively seek to build role profiles, assessment processes and selection panels that help to remove racism and unconscious bias.

All of us will have different personal and professional experience and expertise, alongside different organisational contexts. For too long there has been a lack of urgency behind tackling race equity. That is simply not a feasible position for the sector. As senior leaders, we have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to do all we can to create equitable organisations and challenge systemic racism across wider society.

This article has been co-authored by: Yemi Gbajobi, chief executive of LSE Students’ Union and Arts Students’ Union; Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England; and Thomas Lawson, chief executive of Leap Confronting Conflict

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