Amma Mensah reflects on the need to build a more inclusive civil society - and how we all need to work much harder to achieve genuine change.
“What in your opinion should be the role of a Trustee board, Amma?” asked Sue Charteris, deputy chair of UnLtd’s trustee board. “To make itself redundant” I retorted, with no hesitation. It was one of many questions I was asked as my suitability for the board was assessed at interview. “If your objective is to make the world a better place, then you should hope that one day you will no longer be needed.” – I concluded.
Last week, the Government released its vision for the future of civil society and in it agreed to help young people to play their part in shaping it. Not only that, they surfaced an intention of opening up trusteeship to people from non-traditional backgrounds, including young people under the age of 30. This resonates with me, as I finalise my appointment to the Board of Trustees of UnLtd. UnLtd is the foundation for social entrepreneurs, the UK’s leading organisation for such support in the sector, overseeing a £150 million pound endowment fund. They are the first organisation to have supported my vision for revolutionising education in 2011, so the prospect of sitting on the other side of the decision-making table, is an exciting one. I was 20 when I first came into contact with the organisation, so I do hope that this move is testament not only to my growth in the years since, but also to the work UnLtd does in investing in potential.
At my first breakfast meeting with UnLtd’s CEO, Mark Norbury, after my appointment to the board, I was enthused to hear his plans to transform the organisation from a foundation for social entrepreneurs, to the foundation of social entrepreneurs: A movement of like-minded social mavericks, with creative new business ideas to change civil society for the better. If I had any reservations about joining the board before, they were quickly allayed by the passion, energy and vision of the ambitious social leader behind the steering wheel.
I do believe that as an UnLtd alumnus, my appointment is a positive move in the right direction for the organisation, an effort to amplify the voices of those at the heart of our work. But, the work does not stop here. “I hear they’ve appointed a black woman to the board, pah, that doesn’t mean anything” spouted a fellow UnLtd award winner, unaware of my identity. It’s true, I thought, as the full weight of her words hit me - square in the jaw! My appointment doesn’t mean anything; at least not without the full power and force of the organisation, also moving towards a more diverse and inclusive way of working.
Often, it is the practice of large and medium sized companies to appoint individuals who represent particular dimensions of diversity in senior positions. The thinking is, such appointments will miraculously solve all of its issues around gender, race, disability, social mobility and…any other protected characteristic. I’d love to think it could be quite so simple. I conducted a detailed inventory of my skills, expertise and talents, and after a rigorous assessment of my arsenal, I can confirm that being born a black woman, from a working-class background does not afford me a magic wand. Unfortunately, this means we will all have to work much harder.
I am confident in UnLtd’s commitment to genuine change. I feel comfortable in the knowledge that I am joining the ranks at an organisation which strives for excellence. UnLtd recognises that in order to achieve its ambitious plans to improve representation and power distribution, across the organisation and civil society as a whole, together, we will have to assert genuine application across all levels of operations. We don't have all the answers yet, and we’re willing to take the risks needed to achieve our vision. But, we do know that the solutions lie with people who truly understand the problem. UnLtd are currently working alongside The Social Innovation Partnership, backed by the Big Lottery Fund to support people with lived experience of social challenges to drive social change.
If the government is going to make good on its stated goal of opening up civil society to a greater breadth and depth of people, we need to build more diverse and inclusive environments. With all of this in mind, here are my current three top tips:
1. It’s not just a nice thing to do
Firstly, and most importantly, diversity and inclusion are not just a nice thing to do for under-represented groups. It’s not even ‘just’ the right thing to do for society. It is simply the best option for business, society and our economy more widely. It’s popular rhetoric to speak about the value of improving gender parity for the UK economy: According to McKinsey, Improving gender parity would add £150 billion in GDP by 2025. But did you also know that Improving career progression for ethnic minorities could add a further £24bn to the UK economy annually (McGregor review)? Better educational outcomes for poorer children would increase GDP by £56bn per year by 2050 (Fair Education Alliance). It makes sense that the more perspectives you genuinely engage in your decision-making processes, the better these decisions will be. If we are truly to embrace diversity in our communities and businesses, we will need to address the way we think about these “buzz words”. We need an intersectional approach to looking at these characteristics and to recognise the value diversity has to offer, through every lens.
2. The only black in the village
These topics can become a little heavy, so where better to borrow some light relief than from the comedy classic, Little Britain. I have found, that people from minority groups can sometimes have a tendency to ‘want to fit in’ and in so doing, consciously or subconsciously mask the elements of one’s self which make them different from the dominant group. This is a shame, when individuals are not confident to be just that, individual, we miss out on the unique ideas, experiences, perspectives and knowledge that come with these identities. In which case, you may have what ‘looks’ like a diverse workforce or environment, but instead, it is in practice, still a homogeneous one!
3. We must start young!
It’s not enough to implement diversity initiatives in the workplace, or even through graduate schemes. By the time you are interacting with candidates, the relative diversity of your pool has already been stripped by the academic process. It is incumbent upon employers, in all sectors to engage with, nurture and inspire, a diverse pipeline of talent early in their development. Investing time and resource in the progress of our incoming workforce before they make crucial decisions about their future lives and careers.
In the cheesiest way possible, the late, great philosopher Whitney Houston said it best: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside, give them a sense of pride to make it easier…”
Amma Mensah is the award-winning founder and executive director of Beyond the Classroom (BTC), an ambitious social enterprise, set on revolutionising education! BTC clients and partners include some of the world’s leading institutions such as Aviva, Impact Hub and Milliman. Amma has a particular passion for bringing profit and purpose together, in championing impactful and responsible social business as the future of our economy. Amma is also a trustee of Business Launchpad, London’s leading youth enterprise support charity, helping under thirty year olds to start their own businesses. She was an UnLtd award winner in 2011 and a scale up award winner in 2013.
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