Discussions about race and racism are no longer taboo among practitioners at Northamptonshire Children’s Trust (NCT). Set up just months after George Floyd’s death in 2020, NCT has actively made changes to create an inclusive and open culture for practitioners, that promotes equality and diversity.
Under CEO Colin Foster, NCT has strove to encourage greater dialogue, listening and understanding around inequality.
Many new initiatives were set up, including an equalities strategy steering group, an equalities forum and the creation of ‘influencers’.
Beverley, a youth and community worker, who has worked in Northamptonshire for 29 years and is part of the steering group, says that since she became an ‘influencer’, colleagues in her team come to her with issues regarding families from Black or minority ethnic backgrounds to ask for her advice.
The idea behind being an influencer is that they will attend the equality forum and then go and talk to their colleagues about it, to get the dialogue started and promote understanding around particular issues.
“I often speak with colleagues, and in team meetings, checking how that person would like to be addressed and if it is ok to use the term ‘Black’. This is often the same when working with young people and families.”
She says terminology is so important and often people are unsure as they don’t want to offend others by using the wrong language when it comes to race.
A culture of listening
Colin Foster, the CEO of NCT, has also invited Beverley to a senior leadership meeting to share her thoughts.
Beverley says: “I’ve seen a lot of managers come and go, you can talk to him [Colin], you can raise stuff with him.”
She told the managers she wants them to listen in supervision and ask her as a Black woman about her experiences.
“I have spoken about the stereotypes [associated with] Black women [and] how they are seen as aggressive, angry, loud, rude, uneducated etc. I have had this said to me on many occasions in the past. One has to rise above this, and show them the positive side of one’s culture,” she says.
The equalities forum was set up so staff can come and talk about different issues that affect them and to educate colleagues in a safe space. Topics include some of the characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act such as age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, religion and belief and race – which are all on the table for discussion by anyone who wants to take part.
Kirpal and Mikesh, both social workers in managerial positions, developed and deliver cultural competency training, and Kirpal also shares her personal experiences in a CPD session called ‘My Heritage, Identity and Me’.
Kirpal and Mikesh believe this has created psychological safety for Black workers to share their own personal and professional experiences.
“The candid presentation opened the door and helped white workers to be able to realise the lasting impact of racism as another form of abusive behaviour. This also complements the cultural competence training whereby workers begin to think about where and how their personal values come from and are formed over the generations of time.
“The overall aim is for all workers to be able to reflect upon their own behaviours and biased views, be they conscious or unconscious, to make the required changes,” they say.
Louise De Chiara, assistant director of quality assurance and commissioning at NCT, says: “Colleagues have said our equalities forum is the best equalities training they’ve had because it really brings that personal experience and raises awareness around things that people may not have been aware of before or deepens their understanding around particular issues.”
A learning curve
Cultural competency training was also developed by the steering group and offered to everybody at NCT.
The trust carried out an equalities survey in 2022 and found that on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is unsupported and 10 is fully supported for diversity and inclusion needs, the average ranking was 7.54.
For Louise the last few years have been a learning curve.
“The whole idea of white privilege and it’s not always just white privilege – it’s privilege in a variety of different things in terms of social graces – has been really eye-opening for me to realise the barriers I haven’t faced personally compared to barriers that other people do face.
“The ease that I’ve had to be able to get to where I’ve got to in life, being white, being from a middle-class background, the area I grew up, all these different things I didn’t fully realise what ease that had meant for me compared to other people.
“We know we’ve got a long, long way to go but the feedback that we’re getting from our workforce is that people do feel that equality issues are being taken a lot more seriously and people are having a lot more of the conversations that they perhaps didn’t have previously,” she says.
NCT has been invited to take part in anti-racism conferences after its work in this area was recognised externally.
Changing the narrative
Colin is trying to change some of the language used around social workers who are recruited from abroad to work in England.
He says: “Social workers are incredible people – wherever they come from. I am shocked by the term international social worker; it even has an acronym [ISW]. A social worker is a social worker who has committed their life to making a difference for children, young people and families. So we have stopped referring to colleagues as international social workers. They are social workers.”
Theresa has been a social worker since 2013 and moved to NCT from Zimbabwe five years later.
Migrating can come with a number of challenges but a three-month training and settling in period, as well as a relocation package, helped her adjust to a very different work environment.
“Even though we speak English, there are different terminologies. It’s a cultural shock as well and we are just trying to fit in. The Social Work Academy was quite helpful. What they did is that they placed a Zimbabwean manager to help support us,” explains Theresa.
Theresa says that it’s not just learning about the systems used in the UK, it is also about getting used to things like the food, language, weather and British customs.
“There are ways that we say different things in Zimbabwe. We call our managers ma’am in Zimbabwe but here you call them by their first name. It takes time to adjust.”
Theresa has been promoted twice since she started at NCT in 2018, which she felt gave confidence to her overseas colleagues who have seen her, as a young woman from Zimbabwe, progress. She has also been nominated for the 2023 Social Worker of the Year Awards in the leadership category, for her role as a consultant social worker.
Theresa says: “It’s good when you’re working with managers who can identify your potential. The PSW recognised my potential and said, ‘Theresa you’re fit for this role, go for it’.”
And she has nothing but praise for Colin. “He has great leadership skills and he’s got humility,” she says. “He goes above and beyond and he’s trying to put things in order, it’s a privilege to have him as our CEO”.