Listen closer

By Martin Pratt

| 27 September 2019

I don't know about you, but I find that sometimes there's an alignment between the things I'm thinking about at work and themes that emerge from what you might loosely call ‘cultural activity'. Thinking which was neatly packaged as a work-related issue is illuminated and challenged by hearing a different, often deeply personal perspective from elsewhere. That's happened to me in the last couple of weeks.

In London we've been giving serious thought to the complex issue of promoting greater diversity in the workforce and in particular in positions of leadership. Despite good intentions and years of talking about this issue we still aren't seeing enough people in leadership positions which reflect the profile of either the communities we serve or our workforce. There is something which is still preventing talented Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues progressing in representative numbers to senior leadership roles in children's services and schools. That's not to say that there aren't exceptional individuals who have, it's just that after talking about this issue for at least the past 30 years, they are still the exceptions.

For the sector in general, and for ADCS in particular, this has to be something we understand better and address, not just by thinking about support and opportunities for individuals, but also by challenging the processes and systems we use to develop and recruit people which continue to produce similar outcomes. Programmes like the Staff College BALI (Black & Asian Leadership Initiative) course are making a real contribution but we also need to think more systemically about the invisible and, I am sure, unintentional barriers which are denying opportunities to our colleagues and impacting on the sector accessing new talent. Actively applying unconscious bias training to our recruitment process is a positive start.

At the same time we continue to see, again in spite of years of apparent effort, disproportionate numbers of black children in the criminal justice system, in the care system, in the school exclusion figures, and as victims of violent crime. These are difficult things to talk about and difficult issues to confront. As a result, there is a danger that we avoid the subject and so cease to challenge our thinking and our ways of working or cease to challenge our institutional and cultural approaches which continue to produce the same outcomes. In other words, we accept things as they are rather than having the courage to fundamentally change them.

This brings me to the insights at the beginning of this blog. Like many colleagues, I've been reading Lemn Sissey's memoir, My Name is Why. Although much of the story unfolds in an era well before I started my career, the system feels familiar and is acting in a way which many people working in it seemed to assume it should. However, seeing the impact of that system on Lemn throughout his childhood and adolescence is shocking. It framed a child's life with a false story, interpreted his responses through the prism of a culture without understanding or compassion, and each decision compounded the injustice of the previous one. This should cause us all to pause and think very carefully about our own era.

My second "moment" occurred when listening to the BBC Sounds podcast Have you Heard George's Podcast? by George the Poet. I recommend the whole series but episode 1 is called Listen Closer. In it, George invites the community to re-write its own narrative, and in doing so he sets out their reality, framed through lived experience, and challenges the lazy stereotypes that so often inform the common story told about black communities. He invites the listener to really hear what's being said in street culture and start new conversations about people's real lives.

Hearing human stories and nurturing all aspects of diversity allows us to not only gain fresh insights which can lead to new solutions, but hopefully renew our own commitment to real change. In the busy-ness of our professional lives perhaps we should all listen closer.

Martin Pratt is executive director, supporting people, Camden Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website

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