Mary Seacole

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. 

 

What would Mary Seacole do today?

Mary Seacole Trustees Karen Bonner and Jermaine Sterling

​On International Nurses Day, I have been thinking about what nursing means in our troubled world. And how nurses through the ages and across the planet have devoted their lives to helping others.

It was lovely for the Mary Seacole Trust to be invited by one of our trustees Karen Bonner to hold a stall at St Thomas’ Hospital as part of the Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust’s International Nurses Day celebration. Our display was right by Mary’s beautiful statue. We sold books and badges and signed people up to our mailing list. But most of all we talked with nurses and members of the public about the legacy Mary Seacole has left us. Despite all the challenges she faced, she refused to give up on her mission to help the sick and dying, including soldiers in the Crimea fighting a world war. She knew that nursing, in the 1850s not yet a recognised, respected profession, is so much more than delivering medicine or other treatments. It is about being with people in life and also in death. It is about combining compassion with practicality. And it is about speaking up when something is wrong and fighting for the rights of those at the bottom of the pile.

Mary continues to be a role model for millions of us. As a middle-aged woman of colour, she knew discrimination and hardship. Mary’s mother was a free-woman in around 1805 when Mary was born, having previously been a slave. Mary experienced racism when she came to the UK, as well as many other challenges and setbacks. But through her courage, tenacity and entrepreneurship, she gained recognition and gratitude not just from those she nursed, but also the British government and media, and even Queen Victoria herself. And yet Mary died in penury. It is only recently that her legacy has begun to be recognised.

Some of the skills and knowledge I acquired as a nurse from 1973 – 2000 remain with me, although I would need considerable retraining if I wanted a job in nursing today. The same would apply to Mary. But the core qualities and values needed to be a nurse have not changed. The ability to listen without judging. To see the person not just their disability or disease. To stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Never to give up on anyone. And to seek out and build on the shared humanity that brings us together rather than the differences that can drive us apart.

Were she alive today, on International Nurses Day 2017, I wonder what Mary Seacole would do? And as I look at her statue as she strides calmly but resolutely towards the Houses of Parliament, I can almost hear her telling me and others who have chosen to become nurses never to give up on our fellow humans. Because we are all part of one human race.

Baby boomer meets digital natives

The organisers @DanielOyayoyi and @RebsCullen and me

On Friday I spent a morning in Leeds with 100 trainees from the 2015 and 2016 intakes of the NHS Graduate Scheme. They had arranged a conference about digital media #NHSGetSocial. Thank you  @DanielOyayoyi and @RebsCullen for inviting me to talk about raising awareness via social media. That I, an ageing Baby Boomer, should address a group of Digital Natives on this subject felt hilarious. As so often these days, I gained much more than I gave.

En route to the event I did a bit of crowd sourcing via Twitter to help illustrate my session. This was the first response:

wp-1479493894180.png

The audience seemed to agree. They could think of examples of leaders who seemed uncomfortable with social media using it poorly, mainly to broadcast rather than interact.

There were also differences between how those with extrovert and those with introvert personality preferences interact with social media. Some had very sensible anxieties about tweeting first and regretting later. And others were honest about how hard they found it to decide what, if anything, to say via social media.

So I shared my social media tips:

  1. Do it yourself.
  2. Don’t rise to the bait or tweet when angry or under the influence of dis-inhibitors.
  3. Share opinions but remember they are only your opinions. Others may disagree.
  4. Where possible, stick to facts and values.
  5. Don’t believe everything you read.
  6. There ARE trolls out there. But not as many as you might be led to believe.
  7. Be kind, always – to yourself and to others.

And I shared some of the responses I had received that morning, including these from @nedwards1, @forwardnotback and @anniecoops

wp-1479493989114.png

wp-1479494053825.png

screenshot_20161119-162506-002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wp-1479493727507.png

 

The audience also seemed to agree with the Twitter response to my second question. We talked about the Daily Mail and other media that love to name, blame and shame politicians and those who work in public services but seem much less keen to call out wealthy tax avoiders or those who “create value” by paying minimum wages and offer zero hours contracts. And how even when they get things wrong they rarely apologise.

We talked about agent provocateurs and others who make things up and then either delete them or simply deny they have said it, even when there is photographic evidence to the contrary. The conspiracy theorists who lap this stuff up. And the anonymous characters who lurk on comments pages and bang on about no smoke without fire.

And we talked of the damage this all does to those who dedicate their lives to working in public life, but also how clinicians and managers can work together to call this dishonesty out, live by their values and counteract the post-fact world poison.

My other three questions were about patients and a paperless NHS.

wp-1479493848408.png

wp-1479493815830.png

wp-1479480664459.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again, although hardly a representative sample, my Twitter replies accorded with the audience. They said that attitudes mattered as much if not more than IT. I told them the story of a medical colleague who would write to me every six months or so during my 13 years as an NHS CE listing everything that he felt was wrong with how I was leading the trust, including the inadequacy of his secretarial support, in a 3 -4 page letter typed, somewhat ironically, by his secretary. I would always reply, by email. By contrast, my own psychiatrist, a world renowned professor at another trust, personally typed his update letter to my GP during our consultation and gave it to me to pass on. He would have used email but it wasn’t yet sufficiently secure.

We also discussed the pros and cons of clinical staff spending increasing amounts of time away from patients collecting and recording data that someone somewhere thought might be useful. And that the gold standard of a fully connected wireless NHS when patients and staff  freely shared information via iPad or other tablet device would happen one day. But that given the current state of connectivity, they probably shouldn’t cancel the contract for supplying paper and pens anytime soon.

Finally, I shoehorned in a reference to my muse Mary Seacole. I said that she, a 19th century health care entrepreneur, would have loved social media. And I gave Daniel and @HPottinger, in the picture below, my last two Mary Seacole enamel badges.


At the end I said that I would be writing a blog about the day. And I really hope some of them read it. Because those 100 young people made me think. Despite the financial challenges, morale problems, almost infinite demands plus the debilitating impact of our post-fact world, I think the NHS may be OK.

nhs-grads

And you know why I think that? Because these young leaders, and thousands of other clinicians and managers like them, will make it so. With shining integrity, stunning academic AND emotional intellect, insatiable appetite for understanding, capacity for working smart as well as hard, courage to speak truth to power, and wisdom far beyond their years, they will do it. They will help our creaking NHS adapt for the new era. Whilst holding hard to our core values of high quality, safe care for all, regardless of ability to pay.

And as one who is likely to need a lot more from the NHS in the future, that makes me very happy.

What would Mary Seacole do?

Professor Elizabeth Anionwu and me

Professor Elizabeth Anionwu and me

On difficult days, I ask myself what Mary Seacole would do.

Those who seek to denigrate her memory are more than mean – spirited. They not only question her nursing contribution in the Crimea –  for which she was honoured by the British Army, the Times newspaper, Her Majesty Queen Victoria and 80,000 members of the public who attended celebrations in her honour. They also question whether she actually was a nurse. They say that she wasn’t really black. And having campaigned as hard as they could to undermine the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, they now say that it is OK for there to be a statue to commemorate her, as long as it is small and not in a prominent position.

I will not stoop to naming these people nor to referencing the nastiness they have whipped up. Articles in The Independent and The Guardian have helped set the record straight. And today my dear friend Professor Elizabeth Anionwu CBE, Vice Chair of the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal, pictured with me above, will be on Woman’s Hour talking to Jenni Murray about the importance of Mary’s memory to all who believe in equality.

And today is the day that Mary’s beautiful statue, created by renowned sculptor Martin Jennings, will be unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Mary will proudly face the Houses of Parliament across the river. And she will be the first statue to a named black woman in the whole UK.

This is what will be written underneath:

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

Sir William Howard Russell, War Correspondent, the Times Newspaper, 1857

We need Mary’s legacy now more than ever. The referendum campaign has unleashed xenophobia and racism. The poster of people with dark skin queuing for refuge with that hateful slogan underneath said it all. Some hoped such ugly days were over. Many knew this was not so. Fear and hatred for “the other” lie behind words such as “I’m not a racist but….”.

The NHS is not immune to racism. Or sexism. I have nothing against able and honourable white men. But when the NHS workforce is 70% female and 20% BME, why does the top look so male and so white?  This excoriating report by Yvonne Coghill and Roger Kline tells us a lot. About unfairness and disadvantage and about how NHS staff who experience these things can lose hope. It was published earlier this month. It is in danger of sinking without trace unless we do something different now.

I have no personal experience of racism, although I have seen it in action. Sometimes I have done something about it. And sometimes I have not. For this I am ashamed.

I do have experience of anti-Semitism, of being teased for having a “funny” surname, and of sexism. I know about the stigma of mental illness. And I know that, had I stayed where I started, at a London teaching hospital, I would not have become an NHS chief executive. My face would not have fitted.

It was for these reasons that I, a white woman, felt I had something to contribute to the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.

Trevor Sterling, new charity chair, Leon Mann, ambassador and me last year at the site where Mary's statue will be unveiled tomorrow morning

Trevor Sterling, new charity chair, Leon Mann, ambassador and me last year at the site of the statue

And now, trustees of our new charity, the Mary Seacole Trust, chaired by the brilliant lawyer Trevor Sterling, will be calling on Mary’s legacy to inspire those at risk of disadvantage. In schools, universities, communities and workplaces including the NHS. We will encourage people to work hard and do their best. To be compassionate AND entrepreneurial. To aspire to great things. To speak up for what is right. And never to give up.

Despite not bring born in the UK, Mary Seacole never gave up playing her part in helping those from a country she loved. Throughout her life she remained proud of her dark skin and her heritage.

I urge anyone in despair or need of inspiration to visit Mary’s statue. It depicts her coat furling around her as she strides defiantly into the wind to meet her destiny.

These are very difficult times. Let us join Mary Seacole. And let us never give up.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Health Service Journal. I have updated it for my blog and to increase access beyond the NHS. I will update it again with photographs of the statue.