'We are denying ourselves access to a wealth of talent that remains unheard'
Why are we seeing such a lack of BME housing professionals in senior and leadership roles? Arawak Walton chief executive and BMENational chair Cym D'Souza guest blogs for CIH.
Arawak Walton housing association is a black and minority ethnic (BME) specialist housing provider working predominantly in Manchester but also in neighbouring Trafford and Stockport. We were set up following the Moss Side riots of the '80s, by the first generation of African-Caribbeans who'd come to Manchester to help rebuild Britain after the second world war.
The association works in some of the most economically challenged wards in Manchester, providing good quality homes to a very multicultural customer base. It is proud to say that through its work these neighbourhoods have turned into some of the more popular places for people of many backgrounds to aspire to live.
CIH's Presidential Commission
I was invited to join the Presidential Commission, back in 2015. It was set up when Steve Stride became CIH President and challenged our sector to promote diversity at the very highest levels. I had just recently been appointed as Chair of BMENational, the umbrella group for BME housing associations working in England. It therefore seemed only right and fitting to accept the invite.
What became evident from the very first meeting was that this was going to be a group dedicated to making things happen. We did not get 'bogged down' in the business case, moral case, et al - believing these arguments had already been made - but instead concentrated on how we were going to create a framework in which change could happen at the top. This was especially important to me as the BME housing sector has long shown that having diversity at all levels within an organisation is good for creating successful, thriving businesses.
I was given many opportunities to progress in housing as a result of people who had seen my ability and not my colour - and I believe that the housing sector should be at the forefront of showing how a diverse workforce could (and should) result in creating diverse leadership.
Representation in our organisation
Arawak Walton employs over 30 staff members and has 10 board members. I can confirm that in terms of diversity, we mirror the customers we serve. Not only does this make our work easier because our customers can relate to us, but our staff can also relate to our customers in terms of their life challenges, which many of our staff have shared.
During the many years I have worked at Arawak Walton I have seen staff who've started in very junior positions rise to managerial roles. Some members of staff have moved into the 'mainstream', in other senior positions. We have provided a work and development framework which has nurtured talent and abilities - and that's not always captured by paper qualifications!
In addition, we have seen many of our customers thrive following access to good quality housing that they can now call home. They put down roots, become part of a community and send their children to local schools, and many go on to find work and become valued members of their neighbourhoods.
How can we achieve what we want to?
Too often the media focuses on the failures, such as BME HAs that have got into financial difficulties. However, BMENational can point to over 70 organisations that have remained successful despite challenging beginnings and now provide much-needed, quality housing in the most economically challenged inner city areas of the country.
CIH statistics from 2015 showed that just 11 per cent of CIH members and seven per cent of housing's leaders were from BME backgrounds. My first priority would be to promote the work that many BME HAs have done in recognising talent and nurturing staff to rise to the highest levels within their organisations. I would challenge mainstream associations to do similar. CIH's Presidential Commission heard evidence that discrimination continues in the sector. As a result, we are denying ourselves access to a wealth of talent that remains unheard at junior levels. We must in the next four years take action to put this right.
In the challenging times we face - not least the cuts to our income over the next four years - we need to make the most of the capacity within our staff. We must work more efficiently and cost effectively.
For the organisations which have not signed up to the '10 by 20' challenge put down by the Commission, I would ask:
- Can you hand on heart say you are making the best of your workforce?
- Are you nurturing talent within your organisation, whatever it looks like?
- If you have a majority white, male senior team and board, what is that telling your staff teams at junior levels about their role and worth within your organisation?
Rise to the 10 by 20 challenge and make your good organisation a great organisation to work in.