Written by Lee Mason, Chief Executive, Active Partnerships
Blog: Active Partnerships tackling racism and racial inequality learning journey
12 months on from the death of George Floyd, Active Partnerships CEO Lee Mason reflects on the journey the network has embarked upon to tackle racism and racial inequality.
As we reach the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, it is timely to reflect on the transformative journey we have begun across the network of Active Partnerships over the last year. A journey that has seen us build together a more in depth understanding of the causes and effects of racism and racial inequalities, to recognise it in our communities and consider what we need to do to tackle the impact it has on our mission to create the conditions for an active nation.
When the shocking death of George Floyd caught on video in the US last summer sparked protests and a national debate, many of us recognised a need to act. But we were unsure quite how to respond. Some white colleagues were nervous about speaking up, we had after all been talking for some time about amplifying the voice of those with lived experience and ‘nothing about us without us’, so who are we to speak out on racism and racial inequalities we haven’t experienced? As a place based network, the issues seemed very different across the country, much more live and apparent in some areas than others, so is it equally important everywhere? Whilst the issues were very visible in professional sport, many hadn’t experienced it to the same degree in grass roots sport or indeed in their lives, so did we understand it well enough to make informed decisions? And anyway, we are small teams with limited resources and influence, so what difference could we make? Colleagues wanted to act, but were concerned about perceived tokenism, after all tackling inequalities has always been at the heart of the work of Active Partnerships, so why haven’t we made more progress?
So, rather than rushing to make a statement, which could perhaps be a little defensive or make the usual commitments, or knee jerk reactions that might be misplaced, we recognised this was an opportunity to do something different. We decided to take a step back, take some time to reflect together and consider a more robust approach, to ensure this time we do much more to address racism and racial inequalities within sport and physical activity in a meaningful and lasting way.
To help guide us, we are blessed with some outstanding leaders in our network including @Fergusrun100, @steveCEOWesport, @Sadie_Mason and @ToveOkunniwa who were happy to provide initial leadership and a call to action to help galvanise the network.
But we wanted a broader coalition of activists so I was delighted that others also stepped forward to form a working group involving 10 CEOs from across the network. The group has continued to meet and we have had some great discussions, as we seek to provide mutual support and develop a network wide, bottom up approach informed by those with lived experience as well as incorporating wider perspectives.
We were keen to be action focussed, but quickly realised we needed to build confidence, understanding and commitment first so developed an approach to achieve that. We decided to focus on the CEOs as the leaders of the Partnerships, creating a ‘safe space’ to help the journey from ‘clumsy’ to ‘courageous conversations’, with an expectation they would cascade the learning and commitment through their teams and Boards which many have successfully begun to do.
We set about creating a learning event for CEOs which subsequently developed into a series of sessions supporting our collective journey. Firstly we wanted to create a safe space for open and honest discussion, sharing experience and views, acknowledging our weaknesses, informed by those with lived experience and some external perspectives, in order to build awareness and confidence amongst our leaders. Then from a more informed basis, we could begin to identify what we want to achieve and the tools available to help to do so. Only then moving to action, agreeing and implementing tangible actions that we believe will make a difference at national, local and individual levels.
We have been very fortunate to secure the support of Dr Karl George MBE to act as a facilitator for our learning events and who has become a really helpful critical friend.
At the first session we were delighted to secure the input of John Amaechi OBE to stimulate our discussion. John’s input was fantastic and got our journey off to just the start we needed, having quite a profound and further galvanising effect on many of our colleagues. In addressing ‘white privilege’, the ‘all lives matter’ retort which was prominent at that time, his ‘whataboutery’ mantra landed with us and helped us build a shared understanding of why we should focus on racial inequality separate to but as well as other under-represented groups, rather than general inequality which was perhaps the predominant approach to date.
In our next session, we had three guest speakers and mini workshops; Olivea Banks talked about micro-aggressions, Joel Blake spoke about Unconscious bias, and Craig Pinkey led a session on building equity. We discussed what these meant for us personally and in the sector, and this along with lots of research colleagues were doing and sharing reinforced the value of taking time out to build our collective knowledge and understanding.
Whilst this learning and sharing continues, our third session continued the journey from a safe space to courageous conversations, with Sadie, Steve and others providing very personal perspectives which has also been powerful in building understanding and empathy as well as galvanising real commitment to make a difference. David Gent the Humber came ‘out of the stands’ to share a perspective from a white leader passionate about this area and an area with a less ethnically diverse community, encouraging colleagues to come ‘out of the stands’ and take the leap from being non racist to anti-racist organisations. Hayley Lever shared her local experience in Manchester as we began to agree a vision for what we can achieve together, galvanise our collective and individual commitment and the actions we will take.
One theme emerging from this discussion was the specific approaches that might be appropriate in areas with less ethnically diverse communities. How do we position and frame our work on this when it is not a visible issue locally? How do we give this sufficient attention and capacity when it isn’t an identified priority in our area? How do we recruit a more diverse Board with such a small pool? With a lack of diversity in our team and board, we don’t feel well placed to champion this agenda?
However through the process colleagues across the country have come to recognise that whilst some Partnerships have a low percentage of their population from ethnically diverse communities, this still often represents a significant number of people who as individuals may well experience even more racism and inequality as a result of being amongst such a minority group, and that by highlighting the issue and taking action in these areas the impact could be significant. After all, we have heard in one of our sessions, “imagine if white people lead the charge to end racism”. As a result a group of colleagues from these areas are now coming together to explore approaches in this context.
From these sessions, the Active Partnerships network racial equality commitment began to emerge. The statement aims to create a shared commitment to action to tackle racism and racial inequality and importantly ensure we continue the momentum that has been started and hold ourselves and each other to account for making a difference. Recognising that this will work needs to be taken forwards locally to reflect each local context, we have tried to get the balance between high level commitment with a degree of specificity without constraining or directing local action. In doing so we have tried to link directly with our shared role and purpose, so that it is specific about the contribution we can make and everyone can hopefully support this proactive approach.
We then decided we wanted to share our learning and the commitment with all colleagues in the Active Partnership staff teams and Boards at our Convention in March to involve them in the journey with us, which was really well attended with over 350 people attending. Karl George and Rob Neil gave great presentations alongside colleagues from across the network sharing their perspectives. The feedback was really positive, indicating wide support for the network commitment which many have said provides a useful framework for discussion and action in their local teams.
We have now begun to implement the commitment as individuals, Partnerships and a network, including two trainings sessions for all staff on ‘Unconscious Bias’ and ‘It’s all about Race’ led by the Diversity Trust, which is something we will continue to do as well as continuing to share a wide range of accessible resources that have been identified by colleagues throughout the year.
As part of our commitment to becoming strong anti-racist allies, we have been exploring the use of language, and have looked at the work Sporting Equals have done and others. We have stopped using the term BAME and BLM for example, and Greatersport have explored this in the context of wider inclusion and shared some great work they have done here.
We have also recognised the importance of leadership and governance and 5 early adopter Partnerships have now begun piloting the Race Equality Code on behalf of the network. This Code, and its Accountability Framework, is designed to provide organisations with practical support to tackle racial inequality.
To improve Board diversity, we have partnered with the PFA on their ‘On the Board’ programme <link to other press release> whereby graduates from the programme can be signposted to Active Partnership Board vacancies to help in the recruitment of more diverse Boards. This has begun with the appointment of Anton Ferdinand to the Active Essex Board.
Finally, It has been hugely helpful that concurrently with this work the Partnerships have been supporting the delivery of the Sport England Tackling Inequalities funding <link>, providing tangible opportunities to work with our communities to take action in this area.
So in summary reflecting on our journey so far, I think the success factors have been that it has been bottom up led by individuals within the network taking the lead, not something driven top down by our national team, Sport England, funders or Government. Personal testimony from colleagues with lived experience was hugely powerful, but so was the leadership shown by white colleagues coming ‘out of the stands’ as anti-racist allies, along with the focus on our leaders and the commitment by each and every one of them to the process.
It would have been easy to assume that as a group of professionals with tackling inequalities at the heart of what we are about, we would have the knowledge, skills and confidence to do this. But we now recognise we had really only scratched the surface, and much more in depth and current knowledge was needed if we were to take a leadership role in this area.
Through our journey we have recognised that not being racist isn’t enough. Racism is not a black person’s issue, and whilst we understand the importance of amplifying the voice of those with lived experience, we all need to ‘get out of the stands and in the pitch’ as anti-racist allies.
Whilst we are small organisations, we have recognised the reach and influence we can have through our collaborative system leadership approach to tackling inactivity and by building anti-racist practice into everything we do. And that by acting as a network, we can support and drive each other to deliver more than the sum of our parts. But this requires us to lead by example, recognising our weaknesses, with individual and collective commitment to taking action to become truly inclusive, anti-racist organisations.
As for ‘whataboutery’ we have reflected not only on how powerful it could be if ‘white people led the charge to end racism’, but also ‘if men led the charge to end sexism’, and ‘if non-disabled people led the charge to end disability discrimination’, and so we are now reflecting on how we take forward those and other issues with similar vigour.
Whilst this journey has already been transformational for many, we recognise our work is far from done, indeed we are only just beginning on what must be a long term commitment to create the sustainable change we all want to see. To maintain momentum, share progress and challenges and hold each other to account, our CEOs have committed to continuing our journey and coming together regularly throughout the year as well as integrating racial equality considerations into all our work, learning communities and team meetings.
I hope that by sharing our journey we might inspire other groups and networks to do something similar, and we would be happy to help.
Lee Mason, Chief Executive, Active Partnerships
Active Partnerships are committed to being anti-racist organisations and proactively tackling the racial inequalities that prevent or discourage people from leading active lives and enjoying the benefits of sport and physical activity, whether as participants, volunteers or by working in the sector.