In 1973, aged 18, I joined the NHS. My first job was at a learning disability hospital. It was a backwater for patients. And also for staff, 50% of whom were Black, Asian or other ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds. Since its inception, the NHS has recruited internationally in order to meet staff shortages in less popular parts of the service. That hospital relied on nurses from Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and the West Indies to look after some of the most vulnerable people I have ever met.
Three months later, I left my new BAME friends to start nurse training at the prestigious Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street (GOS). Here, things were different. Of the 150 student nurses who started in 1973, 150 were female, almost all were middle-class, and every single one was white.
There were of course BAME staff at GOS. They worked in the kitchens and cleaned the wards. They served us in the canteen. There were a handful of black and Asian nursing assistants, and the occasional agency nurse. And there were BAME pupil nurses, doing a shorter, less academic course than ours, who would eventually become State Enrolled Nurses, a second-class role which precluded them from promotion to becoming a staff nurse or sister. I cannot recall a single black ward sister.
This is not a criticism of my alma mater, by the way. Things were the same across all the London teaching hospitals.
41 years later, we discovered that not much had changed. In March 2014, the year I retired from the NHS, Roger Kline published his excoriating Snowy White Peaks report. We learned that whilst 70% of the NHS workforce was female, and 20% BAME (30% BAME amongst nurses, and 40% BAME amongst doctors), the top of the NHS was almost totally white and predominantly male.
On Thursday 29 June 2017, 1 year minus a day since Mary’s beautiful statue was unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital, we launched the Mary Seacole Trust at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Our aim is to use Mary’s legacy – compassion, creativity, dynamism, entrepreneurship and most of all, never giving up – to inspire people of all ages to achieve their best in whatever walk of life they choose. You can read about our first two programmes and a bit more about us on our new website. Plus a lovely 5 minute film made by one of our trustees, Jermaine Sterling. Do take a look – it’s great!
But when I was asked by our chair, Trevor Sterling (who left school at 16, yet is now a renowned lawyer and partner in a prestigious law firm plus one of the funniest, nicest and most effective people I have ever met) if I would be the new charity’s vice chair, I had to think hard. I felt the need to challenge myself about whether such an honour was deserved. I have had my share of difficult experiences, but I have not experienced racism. White people like me have to take care to avoid cultural misappropriation. We have to watch our privilege.
So I talked to my BAME friends, including some of the other trustees. And they said this. They reminded me that we are all part of the human race, brothers and sisters under the skin. And they welcomed my support because making sure everyone achieves their best is not just their fight. It is our fight.
So I said yes. I promise them and all of you to use my talents, such as they are, plus my experience and connections to help inspire people of all ages to achieve their best, based on merit, passion and hard work. Not what school they went to, who their parents are or the colour of their skin.
Just like Mary Seacole. Mary had to fight many fights. She never gave up. And nor shall we.
To sign up as a member of the Mary Seacole Trust, or just to learn more about us, click here.