Dr Safina Islam, head of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Education Trust, reflects on the need to embed diversity, inclusion and equality in organisational culture and practice in order to effect meaningful change across the heritage sector
[This article originally appeared in the ARC magazine, produced by the Archives and Records Association UK & Ireland, November 2020 edition]
I used to think that diversity issues of magazines and industry journals were a pro-active way of getting likeminded people together; a way to fuel progress by sharing experiences and solutions within a group or sector. But 20 years and several sectors later, I think they’re actually part of the problem.
Sidelining Black, Asian and Global Majority voices and channeling them into a once-a-year special issue segregates us from the mainstream and immediately curtails our voices. Rather than allowing us the freedom to explore our professions, our creativity and our ideas, we’re expected to discuss and reflect on our personal experiences in the context of our differences.
“When diversity, inclusion and equality aren’t embedded within the culture and practice of an organisation, the burden of responsibility falls to the people who are already suffering the negative impact of structural inequality.”
For many of my African, South, East and South East Asian diaspora colleagues, these experiences include psychological trauma and deep-rooted struggles to reach senior positions in the face of systemic and institutional racism. Yet the nature of these special issues – usually unpaid and with little or no reward for the emotional labour required – requires us to re-live these experiences with no evidence that the process will lead to change. And, while it can sometimes be helpful to know we are not suffering alone, it isn’t a solution to addressing the lack of workforce diversity or recruitment bias.
When diversity, inclusion and equality aren’t embedded within the culture and practice of an organisation, the burden of responsibility falls to the people who are already suffering the negative impact of structural inequality. By asking under-represented groups to share their experiences in special issues and projects, we absolve the dominant groups of their responsibilities to bring about change. Rather than developing expertise and dedicating specialist resources to address structural inequality, we package it neatly in an annual special issue.
I specialise in community engagement and inclusion. My role as the head of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Education Trust affords me the privilege of being able to speak on behalf of the community organisations I work and partner with, and I have a long career and specialist training to draw upon. But all too often, people are expected to use their lived experiences and speak on behalf of others – alongside their day job, for no additional reward – simply because they have the appearance of someone who fits within a protected characteristic.
“Tackling structural inequality isn’t neat or linear or a social media hashtag. It’s messy and challenging and requires people to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. It’s hard work.”
Rarely does the discussion lead to solutions, and underrepresented professionals from marginalised groups aren’t supported to develop their careers. Instead, they go from being invisible with unmet needs to being very visible with unmet needs, for a limited time only. Ultimately, a special diversity issue isn’t helping them or others like them to progress.
This year, we have witnessed the cultural and racial inequalities exposed by COVID-19, at the same time as huge numbers of people turned out to protest in support of the Black Lives Matt er movement. There is a lot of genuine goodwill and a desire to change, but many organisations made statements in solidarity and support without any evidence of how they were going to follow through on these commitments. Tackling structural inequality isn’t neat or linear or a social media hashtag. It’s messy and challenging and requires people to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. It’s hard work.
How do we do it, on a personal level? We all need to do the reading, do the listening, do the learning and the unlearning. We need to understand the context of privilege within structural components of organisations, accept that it exists and not be overwhelmed by it – everyone can do their part.
We should ask ourselves, “What can we do in our space?” In my organization (AIUET), we recognised that as well as not having any archivists from an under-represented group, it’s a difficult profession to enter. It took time, resources, collaboration, thinking differently and widening the standard application process to ensure we reach more people from a wider range of backgrounds. We appointed a community heritage project lead to our shortlisting and interview panels and recognised experience of working in grassroots community organisations as being valuable.
As a result, we now have three archive trainees of African and South Asian heritage who wouldn’t have passed the original selection process.
For a business project to be successful, it should be scoped, with experts appointed and resources allocated. Timelines are developed, outputs agreed, targets allocated to individuals. We need to put the same effort into diversity and inclusion, rather than expecting a few colleagues with protected characteristics to deliver the changes required.
Rather than only talking about diversity once a year, we should create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to talk about issues that affect them as they happen. There are many organisations and sectors leading the change, with experienced diversity and inclusion specialists doing innovative work. And as the archiving sector becomes more inclusive, the people represented in the archives and records we keep will naturally follow.
Image courtesy of Mirage Islam.