This October marks the 30th year of Black History Month in the UK. Given the year we have had so far, it feels a poignant time to reflect and think about what the month means to me and how we can use it to bring about change in the future. For me, this month has always provided the opportunity to recognize the impact of those Black Britons who have helped shape the country and contributed to our society, often through tremendous sacrifice and bravery. I especially like to use the month to learn about the stories of inspirational people that may not have received the spotlight they deserved. I truly use “inspirational” in all senses of the word, as so far this month I have learned about everyone from Desmond Douglas, a British table tennis player who won 11 titles in the 1970s/80s, when the sport was dominated by Chinese players, to Dr. Harold Moody who fought against racial injustice and led the first effective black pressure group in the UK, the League of Coloured Peoples.
However, whilst it is fantastic to have the spotlight on Black History and it is right to celebrate it during this month, it has always made me wonder why we have to single out just one month of the year to celebrate these heroic, creative and fantastic people and their stories and achievements?
This summer at Russell Reynolds Associates London office, we hosted a series of Courageous Conversations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests across the US and UK. These conversations represented a safe place for small groups of colleagues to talk openly about their feelings to the events, learn about the experiences of others and ask questions. One of the themes which emerged from these conversations centred on education, or rather the lack of education in the school system about black history in the UK. It was something which I had never thought about, but on reflection despite going to a traditionally well-regarded school and then onto Oxford University, there were large parts of black British history which I was never taught about. It was only through my own reading and research that I came across great people such as Mary Seacole, Oliver Lyseight and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. There are also very important historical events which were missed out of the syllabus altogether. As I think of my son growing up and learning at school, I would hope he is taught equally about all parts of his history and not just for one month of the year. This month and those conversations tell us that education, starting early, and small steps are all really important if there is to be change going forward. This is just as true when thinking about D&I in organizations, as it is with society more generally.
What I also enjoy from reading and learning about Black History is that it is also a reminder of the change that people and organizations can drive with the right focus and mindset. At Russell Reynolds Associates, we have to remember the privileged position we hold as advisors to some of the most prominent global leaders in business. I have been extremely heartened to see that the recent events have increased the interest many of our clients have in driving change in diversity – not just in race but across gender, age, sexuality, disability and social background as well. We are in a position to continue to hold these leaders accountable and also help to advise them around how to best achieve these important goals.
We are also turning the mirror on ourselves which is equally important. Even though we may feel like we are making small steps and the question of “what can I do” comes up, history shows us that actually just doing something is a good start. In London, we are starting this process with some fantastic initiatives such as looking at our own hiring and launching an equitable search process, which will ultimately help us to deliver greater diversity of candidates to our clients; becoming a founding member of the “Change the Race Ratio” in association with the CBI, a campaign which ambitiously calls for British businesses to set and publish clear targets for greater racial and ethnic diversity with a particular focus on senior leadership. We are also supporting Chelsea Academy, a local school in London where we can really make a difference through helping these young people develop skills, learn about careers and generally become more comfortable socially with “business people.” These actions really do matter and will continue to help gain momentum. During this month we can find countless examples that show how making a contribution comes in all shapes and sizes.
I hope we can use this month to continue to celebrate and learn about Black History in the UK and all take inspiration from these great stories and people forward in our lives both individually and here at Russell Reynolds.