BLM ­- change is a long time coming

Racism in the UK housing sector is real ­- we all need to take action to create an equal society and we need to do it now


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John Brewster

Former executive leader at UK housing providers and an NHS Trust

As the Black Lives Matter protests unfolded across the world it gave my 91-year-old father another opportunity to remind me of the racism he faced while he lived in England for almost 31 years. He left Barbados in 1956 and moved to England almost penniless. He left a young wife with, at the time, four children. He was able to bring her to join him in England a few years later and they had three more children. His experience was, to say the least, a testing one. They lived in 23 different flats over a period of six years before buying their own home in Brixton, south London. In many cases he was asked to vacate the accommodation after receiving just a knock on the front door from the landlord.

He and his friends had to endure constant scrutiny from the police and often had to work “twice as hard as their white counterparts” to gain any consideration for promotion in their jobs.

At the age of 57 my father decided they had had enough and returned to Barbados. Fortunately for them they had invested wisely and thankfully have been able to live without working since their return. They taught me a lot about life and have been my role models.

Fast-forward to myself and other BAME men and women and our experiences have some similarities to those of my parents. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the racism we face today is more covert. So, what was my experience and what lessons must be learned by today’s leaders?

Racism in housing

As a person who worked in the UK housing sector for more than 20 years I have seen racism from all sides. I received letters asking why this “Black W**” was given the position of chief executive to manage an organisation; letters sent to regulatory bodies making false claims about my treatment of company assets and having them investigated; unfair treatment from senior officers and board members. I remember as a young man often being called racist names and like my father before me having to work “twice as hard” to achieve the “little” I did.

The final straw for me was the lack of true opportunity and racist treatment at my last position as chief executive of an ALMO, which I had led to achieve two stars from the Audit Commission with promising prospects for improvement. Disillusioned with both the housing sector and the UK, I made the tough decision to move to Barbados in 2016.

“As a person who worked in the UK housing sector for more than 20 years I have seen racism from all sides”

Waste of talent

It is this same treatment for friends who then also made similar decisions and have realised more of their potential in other sectors, or even working for themselves. Sadly, this is a waste of talent and the removal of black senior officers from an already institutionalised sector that at its “best” (in my 20 years) has seen at most six people from BAME backgrounds as chief executives at the top 100 housing associations.

The persistent claims by many senior UK politicians and senior housing sector leaders that progress is being made to tackle racism and that there is no institutionalised racism in housing and other sectors is difficult to support or indeed understand. The question remains as to why black people and families are often found in the lower, or bottom, levels of social indicators – very little has changed in these areas for years.

When will this change happen? Are BAME people to wait while the snail’s pace of change continues?

Black role models

We already know where we stand. Therefore, we need a unified strategic approach to how we can change things for the better in housing. We need black role models at senior executive and board-level positions to show to the incoming generation and junior staff that it is possible for black people to reach the top and, of course, influence organisational strategy.

Steps must be taken to ensure a legacy of change. In doing so, it is right to focus on young people – despite the injustices experienced right now – because young eyes are watching and questioning whether they will ever live in an equal society.

We know that this is a time for greater joint action. We believe we ourselves, our organisations, and the power of senior black professionals, together with the community, can and should do more to make the UK the kind of place and economy that our young people deserve. We must give young BAME people genuine hope for the future, to allow them to believe that they will have an equal chance of fulfilling their dreams and potential.

Despite everything, I remain an optimist. I keep a keen eye on social matters in England and I am hopeful that change will come but this has to be NOW.

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