About me – how I came to work in equality and diversity

I am a Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellow.  When I tell NHS colleagues, and anyone else for that matter, they generally look quite mystified.   As mystified as the woman next to me in my Pilates class looked the other evening when I told her I was an Equality and Diversity manager.  Hopefully if you read my first two blog posts, you’ll know what they both are – well what I think they both are, at least.

In 2008 I got my first job in the NHS and my first job as an Equality and Diversity manager.

Before then I’d worked for further education colleges, teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).  My students were initially adults who had come to live in this country from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Later I taught people who were born in Poland, Egypt, Thailand and Russia, amongst other places, and I taught Kurdish and Iraqi asylum seekers.  Listening to the difficulties they experienced navigating public services in this country taught me a lot, as did the experiences some learners shared with me of racism, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle.

In April 1993, I was pregnant with my mixed race son (his father is of Nigerian heritage) when Stephen Lawrence was murdered.  Eventually, in 1999, following the campaign led by Stephen’s parents, the government asked the Macpherson Committee to look into why the investigation into his murder was of such poor quality and the resulting definition of institutional racism encapsulated for me the systemic unfairness and inequality many of my students found themselves up against.

Institutional racism is: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Replacing the words “colour, culture or ethnic origin” in this definition with “sex or gender” produces for me an accurate description of the institutional sexism which affects me.  Making connections with my personal understanding and experience of sexism helps me to understand how racism and other forms of oppression operate.

I hadn’t believed that legislation could help to remove the systemic, institutional unfairness that reduces the life chances of black and ethnic minority people, of women, of disabled people and of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.  But the Public Sector Equality Duty, introduced following the Macpherson report in 2001, and at that initial stage focusing only on race, aimed to do just that.

In 2008, following what was for me a disastrous college merger (but that’s another story) I was made redundant and became an NHS Equality and Diversity Manager.   I was so pleased that I’d landed a paid job that was about reducing institutional discrimination.  And I’m pretty certain that without equalities legislation that job wouldn’t exist.

Fast forward a few years and I was feeling very frustrated at how little I seemed to be able to achieve in what had at first seemed like the perfect job for me.  In my commissioning organisation (now there’s another mystifying concept) I felt quite distant to work that was actually improving services.  I often bumped up against the thick silo walls that seemed to mean different teams and different local NHS organisations didn’t even communicate with each other, let alone work together. On my bad days I felt like my only function was to cover my organisation’s back and protect its reputation.

But then I became a knowledge mobilisation research fellow!  Find out about that in my next blog.

This blog is about my experiences as a Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellow, funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).  The views are my own and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.