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Black history: not just an issue to be discussed in October

Black History Month

This month, our blog is being written by Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall. One of our Senior Investigators, Vivienne has extensive experience in diversity matters and is a part-time lecturer at London Goldsmith University.  

I was very happy to be asked to contribute to the SCOAF blog to mark Black History Month (BHM).  At first, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about, but after consideration, I thought I would explore why I think that black history should not be confined to just one month of the year.

This year’s BHM theme is “Migration”.  Reflecting on my personal experience, this is a fitting theme. Over a decade ago, three of my colleagues in the HMRC and I, decided to engage closely with our senior departmental managers to help them gain a better understanding of their BAME colleagues (invariably descendants of immigrants) beyond the stereotypical. In other words, we wanted to put in place a programme that allowed us to share our lived experiences on an ongoing basis. We achieved this by creating a Reverse Mentoring programme from a diversity perspective –senior managers being mentored by junior staff from a BAME background.

As one of four “guinea pigs”, I was matched with my first mentee – a director-general.  To help her really know who I am I shared the story of my mother’s migration to, and life in, the UK. I told her how my mum left six children in her native Jamaica, including a 3-month old baby girl that she never saw or held again, as she died at the age of 2 years from pneumonia, and the psychological impact it had on her for the rest of her life.  I told her how my mum worked every day of her life in this country, that she was a devoted wife, teacher,, best friend, dependable sibling and selfless citizen – an inspiration.

In front of my eyes, I saw my mentee transform as she listened to my story.  She confessed “…I did not realise the extent to which I was infected by the background noise of society”.  Translation: she had bought into the stereotyping of people who look like me. But through our conversation she realised, we had much in common. We were both children of immigrants (she being Irish), the first child in our families to attend university and both feminists.

The programme had such an impact on her that she mandated her senior civil servants to be part of it; commending it as an essential tool to further inclusivity.

Ten years later, reverse mentoring is commonplace across the civil service.

I am now on my 5th reverse mentee, who I have been with for the past 5 years. He is a 2* within the MOD and we have had the most incredibly genuine and meaningful exchange of cultures. Him – a white, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated, middle-Englander with a young family. Me – a black feminist who went to a red-brick university and has grown up children. Yet we have so much in common. We are both part of large families, have suffered the grief of multiple miscarriages, and he is also a feminist ally.  As he experienced difficult times, some of our sessions felt like mutual therapy – “I think you are saving me a lot of money on counselling”, he would occasionally joke.

The experience has been profound for us both. I now “know” every member of his family, particularly his 3-year-old miracle daughter, who I have watched grow up through pictures and video clips he has shared with me at each of our meet-ups.

Reverse mentoring is a powerful experience, and there is an onus on the mentee as well as the mentor. We are all capable of being the change we want to see, but we need to invest time in it throughout the year.

Black History Month isn’t only for those of any particular ethnicity or race – because black history is all of our history.  A diverse and inclusive society needs allies – of all shades – every day of every year.

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