equality

Watching my privilege

Trustees of the Mary Seacole Trust (from left) Jean Gray, Lisa Rodrigues (vice chair), Karen Bonner, Dawn Hill (President), Trevor Sterling (chair), Roxanne St. Clair (treasurer), Jermaine Sterling, Ros Trennick, Steve Marsh (secretary), Raf Alam.

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. 

This stinks. It is institutional sexism amd racism. I have written about it before, and how Mary Seacole can help us challenge such shocking stigma and discrimination. 

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. 

Thank you. 

 

My nine lessons for Christmas 2016

  1. In November, my friend Sally took me to The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney and reminded me about The Levellers. As she read aloud from Thomas Rainsborough’s famous quote, I felt a shiver. “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he. After this terrible year, surely we can remember this, and act accordingly?
  2. History shows that, when times are hard, false prophets can persuade those who are suffering to blame the “other” rather than the ones who are the true source of their misery. And cause them to use their precious vote in ways that challenge more liberal values. But if we merely condemn such choices, we have no hope of turning the ugly tide lapping our shores. After the results of Brexit and the US presidency, I have come to realise that we need to judge less and listen much more so that we can understand why people are so angry with the established order.
  3. This year we lost far too many extraordinary people, including the wonderful Jo Cox MP. She wasn’t afraid to work with those on the opposite side of the political divide nor to challenge orthodox views. I have concluded that members of political parties who spend all their time arguing or blaming one another rather than seeking common cause, as Jo did, are a major part of why so many are mistrustful of politicians.
  4. This month, the government announced that, as a society, we are not doing enough to prevent suicide. And that there will be league tables published soon to show which areas are lagging most. As one who devotes time to volunteer in suicide prevention, I find this extraordinary. We can do a great deal to reduce the incidence of suicide by tackling stigma, offering education and training and supporting voluntary services such as the Samaritans. But ignoring the main reasons for the rise in the rate of suicide is dishonest. Benefit sanctions, fitness to work assessments and cuts in social care support are causing hunger, homelessness, and shame from being a burden amongst the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. And for a growing number, the only options at night are a tent, a homeless shelter or a shop doorway. No wonder that life feels increasingly unbearable to some.
  5. And while the government congratulates itself on low rates of unemployment, zero hours contracts and minimum wages are directly causing the rise in reliance on food banks, payday loans and other expensive credit. It is not refugees or so-called benefit scroungers we need to fear. It is people who “create value” (what a meaningless and loathsome phrase) from the misery of others. The Mike Ashleys and Philip Greens of this world. And the Rupert Murdochs and Paul Dacres who would have us believe that fear of the other, rather than compassion for our fellow citizens, is what should drive us. But I realise that grumbling to those who already agree with me is not enough. I’m going to do better in 2017.
  6. I have been learning how to apply the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to use in my practice as a coach. I could bore for Europe on this subject, but suffice to say, it has been a revelation. And the greatest insight of all has been finally appreciating at a very personal level what Carl Rogers meant in 1961 when he said: “What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly.”
  7. I have also been learning how to be a Samaritan. I will be writing more about this next year. All I need say for now is that I gain as least as much as I give, and that the training and support for volunteers is absolutely wonderful. And with all that I mention above, and at this time of year, Samaritans are needed more than ever.
  8. This year, we lost so many wonderful people, including Twitter friends @GrangerKate and @GraceAndGloryDan. I would like to thank Zoe, courageous mother of Adam Bojelian. Adam sadly died last year. And Zoe reminded me that people who are bereaved value nothing more than being given the kindness of time to talk about the person they have lost.
  9. Finally, I have learned that people like pictures of cats. So here is William, my personal pet therapist, to wish you peace at Christmas. And may those who are lost, lonely or grieving find kindness among strangers as well as friends.