Black History Month 2017 : “Empower and Exceed”

9 Nov 2017

This year marks 30 years since the introduction of Black History Month. The theme for this years’ event within the Civil Service is “Empower and Exceed” – a timely message and one we should carry with us year round as I discuss this month in my blog.

This year marks 30 years since the introduction of Black History Month in the United Kingdom. The awareness month has its origins in the United States – first as a history week in 1926 before being officially declared a month-long national event every February since 1976. While the population and history differ across the two nations, the purpose of Black History Month is the same – to acknowledge, celebrate and honour to contributions black people have made to better our society.

Black History Month image

When it was introduced, Black History Month was about challenging preconceptions, harmful stereotypes and misinformation. Although the social and political climate has shifted for the better, it remains as vital as ever to focus on these issues and achievements so that we can continue to work towards building a truly inclusive society.

In the 30th year of Black History Month in the UK, this is the focus of the Civil Service. Under the theme of “empower and exceed”, Departments have run a number of events, many of which members of my team and I have attended. Ranging from historical walks, exhibitions and panel discussions, dealing with fine arts, retrospectives and intersectionality to name a few, the programme truly ran the gamut of what Black History Month can and should be.  It underscored the importance of the theme and demonstrated that it is only by empowering underrepresented groups that society as a whole will exceed.

But of course issues that concern the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community should not just be limited to one month a year, nor should they be the concerns of only that community but of everyone who believes in a fairer and more inclusive society. As the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces I try and ensure that I am focussed on these issues, like all others, year round in my role to provide independent and impartial oversight of the internal grievance system for Armed Forces personnel in the United Kingdom.  This role is for all Service personnel, including the roughly 7% who identify as BAME and that means that it is my role to monitor the system and ensure that it is not only fit for purpose but that the Services are addressing diversity issues that may give rise to complaints.

A few ways I have demonstrated my commitment to these issues this year include:

  • As part of my reporting role, I expressed my concern in Annual Report 2016 about the continued overrepresentation of BAME Service personnel in the Service complaints system and called for MOD to commission a study to determine the root cause of this overrepresentation and to take action to redress it.
  • Diversity, including race and ethnicity, was a key topic for discussion at 9ICOAF which my office co-hosted earlier this month. Delegates from Ombuds Institutions from across the globe gathered to discuss barriers to building diverse armed forces and how we can work to improve this and improve access to the services we provide.
  • On 22nd June I was honoured to attend the unveiling of the first ever memorial to African and Caribbean Service Personnel in Brixton. It was a moving and important ceremony, not least because it was held on Windrush Day and in Windrush Square – marking the anniversary of MV Empire Windrush into Tilbury Docks and the beginning of post-war immigration.
  • I continue to provide advice and work with a range of organisations, including the Ministry of Defence, on Diversity and Inclusion issues where requested.

While it is important to keep sight of these issues over the course of the year, having a dedicated month to focus our attention and put these discussions front and centre helps to keep the forward momentum. We have come a long way in 30 years; just imagine where we will be in another 30 years!