Black history for diverse futures

Tracie Jolliff, head of inclusion and systems leadership at the NHS Leadership Academy, talks about Black History Month and the importance of racial equality across the health system.

Many of you will have seen the short video which has been circulating on Twitter this week. It shows a small black girl at the Charlotte City Council meeting in the US. She speaks passionately to an unseen audience about the treatment of black people. The whole video lasts for only 45 seconds, yet few people could not be moved by the courage and conviction of this young child, as she breaks down in tears with her words faltering. 

The message she utters is a simple but powerful one. She begins by saying “I believe that…” She then bows her head as she is overcome by emotion. The unseen audience then call out words of encouragement to the child, as she silently tries to contain her emotions and begins to sob. “Do not stop!” one woman is heard to shout. With much cajoling from the crowd, the child again lifts her head and says: 

We are black people and we shouldn’t have to feel like this. We shouldn’t have to protest because you are treating us wrong. We do this because we need to have rights.” At the culmination of these words, the crowd applauds and the child lowers her head once more as her body again convulses as she weeps. 

A beautiful woman, who happens to be one of the alumni from our Nye Bevan programme, sent the link to me. She has talked about how the programme impacted her toward inclusion. I opened the link in the middle of the night and I was myself moved to tears as viewed this small figure, with her hair piled high on top of her head, and her spirit seemingly broken. I asked myself, how is it that this nefarious racial harm can still continue today, with its focused potency; a detriment to one generation after another, and apparently still well and truly intact? 

Carter G Woodson is celebrated as one of the founders of what we now call Black History Month, which focuses on the telling of under-told stories that are pertinent to the history of the now widely dispersed population of people originally from Africa. 

His words give voice to important truths about story-telling, which are often little understood, yet are as pertinent in the Black Lives Matter movement today as they were when they were first uttered about a hundred years ago. 

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” 

The stories of black people’s struggles for human dignity and equality need to be heard. The history and experiences of the oppressed must be accepted as the first step towards change.   

The voice of the small black girl for me is the song and the wish for freedom. As I ponder her words, my own experiences, and those of others like me within the NHS, come to the fore in meaningful ways. Please hear them with me again as I reflect upon some recent happenings. 

“I believe that….” – most will say that inclusion is important. They say this with all sincerity; this is not in question. But what is important is not what people say, but what they do. This is the test as to what our true values are; we wear them and live them and others will feel them. If we believe that equality, diversity and inclusion are essential qualities for the system to embrace, the first action is to test our commitment by being prepared to ask those from groups that experience discrimination “how are you experiencing me in this?” A huge dose of humility is needed for this, as ego or any hint of arrogance will get in the way of hearing the answer. 

“We shouldn’t have to feel like this.” – These words speak to a myriad of tales across the NHS, where black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff are subjected to increased levels of bullying and harassment, discrimination and unfairness. They consistently tell me that they are marginalised, ignored, overlooked and undervalued. The distress from these encounters is often hidden and unseen; these are the veiled stories that remain untold. 

“We shouldn’t have to protest because you are treating us wrong.” – A recent conversation where I had to ‘call out’ some behaviours and make a plea for change reminded me how hard it is to both carry the burden of discrimination, hurt and disappointment as well as having to be a lone voice of challenge. An experience made all the more acute when you’re apparently the only one who is noticing the micro-inequities which are taking place on a daily basis. The little girl spoke to a subject. Who I wonder is the ‘you’ that she speaks of? Notably, there is an implicit invitation beckoning the ‘you’ to begin a conversation. When we think about the work needed for inclusion within the NHS, I wonder to what extent we can all really say that we are willing participants in these conversations, about difference, and across difference. Are we really ready to make the changes necessary for equality to emerge or is this work of inclusion merely about words? This is difficult work and it requires from us intention, a depth of engagement and critical self-reflection. When it comes to it, this work of inclusion is the work of those that are willing to be courageous. 

“We do this because we need to have rights.” – I was personally reminded this week how often the protests of black staff are misunderstood. It is easier for those in positions of power and privilege to dismiss these challenges with suggestions that BAME staff are being difficult; rather than understanding them as being appeals for fairness, dignity and equal rights. When people recount experiences that those in positions of power and privilege do not ordinarily encounter, it’s perhaps a swifter exit from personal discomfort for them to suppose that there is little credibility or worth in the story the messenger has to convey.  

These are examples of the kinds of  inequities that continue daily, and that we all need to notice, speak up about and decide together to bring them to an end.   

So what can this little black girl and her history to date teach us in the NHS? For me, these words tell us that we can decide to learn how to address inequality – to hear, acknowledge and act upon the stories of those who have the most to lose from the continuation of discrimination. Everyone can make this decision, irrespective of their race. This is the beginning of the journey towards a flourishing future for us all. 

Have you got a story to tell? Would you like to become an NHE columnist? If so, click here.


Karen Lynas   12/10/2016 at 10:26

I shouldn't be surprised at how beautifully Tracie puts this, and yet I am moved again by her words. The practical challenges are so useful too. Every single day we should ask ourselves these questions - and what have I done to make this better?

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