Making Change Last: Black History Month

Reflections from the worlds of business, politics and the arts

In honour of UK Black History Month, Finsbury held a panel discussion looking at what action can be taken in the arenas of business, art and politics to foster greater equality amid today’s state of heightened awareness.

Speakers on the panel were Shadow Justice Secretary Rt Hon David Lammy, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director for the Young Vic and Dorothy Burwell, Partner and Global Board Member at Finsbury, moderated by presenter, award-winning author & Diversity expert, June Sarpong, OBE.

An opportunity to have an honest conversation about social justice

The speakers agreed that the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year was a seismic moment impacting the worlds of business, government and the arts for decades to come.

The panelists noted that we have been offered a significant opportunity to look inward and have a conversation take place about race in a way in which it has not up until now.

Dorothy Burwell said: “American companies have had to move faster, and tailor their response to their market with commitments to eradicating injustice. Though a lot of British companies are still reticent to say something publicly. What has been heartening is that companies who have not pushed out communications are actually looking inward. They are asking better questions not just about recruitment but about building a culture so that once people arrive [in their business] they want to stay.”

The global COVID-19 pandemic has meant arts organisations have not been able to facilitate the discussion to help people educate themselves on the issues. Kwame Kwei-Armah commented that we will see the ramifications of this period in every form of art – be it music, theatre, or visual art – unfold over the next 5-10 years.

 “I am magnificently proud of our youth – particularly our young black women – that have deepened the listening of our white friends and colleagues. We are all slightly afraid that this will be a moment and not a movement. But I am of the belief that what has been heard now cannot be unheard. We will make more than incremental steps forward. It has deepened our understanding for a while,” Kwame stated.

Unlearning past behaviours that stand in the way of progress

Many people still feel intensely uncomfortable talking about race. In recent months, there has been a great deal of educational resources circulated, but this hasn’t translated into action.

David Lammy suggested we must have more conversations about “unlearning certain behaviours and habits” that move us beyond not wanting to see and know about racial injustice.

David stated that we have been having a different conversation from the one required. He said: “The big question is not about blackness – it’s about whiteness and why despite all the resources that exist to support the dialogue, this hasn’t yet resulted in greater action.” 

Kwame agreed, stating that: “It’s about turning the lens on whiteness but it’s also about turning the lens on fulfilling our own human potential to make everybody be their best self.”

Dorothy advised those in positions to hire and promote others, to create opportunities for black people in the corporate world to be seen and heard for the fullness of their abilities.

“Going forward, we all need to try to be more engaged and find out what people are thinking and make them feel more comfortable. We should also applaud those that use their voice. We need to be more open to differences of opinion because you may learn something.”

The role of leadership in creating a positive culture that benefits everyone 

Our speakers discussed what is required of leadership within politics, business and the arts to create greater outcomes for black people.

Dorothy suggested that business leaders must open their networks, bring different types of people into their lives and look creatively at developing the pipeline of black talent within their organisations via shadow positions on their boards.

David spoke on leaders instigating greater action rather than call for further evidence or recommendations. David also called for greater challenges to the BAME prefix used to describe ethnic minorities when what is meant in actuality is black.

Within the arts, Kwame suggested that the role of leaders is to look at healing and attempt to de-escalate fear.

Key actions for making lasting change in combatting racial inequality 

  • Educate yourself. Take every opportunity to learn and then build diversity into your business strategy, appraisals and definitions of what success looks like.
  • Stop feeling helpless. Helplessness is an attitude of despair. You are given opportunities to make changes in people’s lives every single day. Use them.
  • Speak up. When you see a black person about to be passed over for an opportunity they are well suited for, simply because of a lack of a close relationship with those in a decision-making capacity, use your voice to advocate and intervene.
  • Be bold, be brilliant and take a course of action that serves your own personal legacy.

For more information regarding the panel discussion or D&I communications, please contact Dorothy Burwell at Dorothy.Burwell@Finsbury.com.