Reflecting on Black History Month – Our people

by Guest Blogger, 29 October 2020
illustration of a diverse group of people

Black History Month is an annual, month-long celebration, which honours and recognises the achievements and contributions black people have made throughout history. To mark the end of Black History Month, we caught up with Indira Vadhia, Preeti Dhillon and Mark Woods-Nunn, who are all actively involved with the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) staff network at Cambridge Assessment, to hear about the wonderful things happening across the organisation to commemorate Black History Month, and to find out more about the ambitions of the BAME staff network.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Preeti: It’s a time to elevate the voices of our black colleagues and friends, to celebrate their achievements and to share their contributions to history. I think that as an ally it is also an opportunity to educate myself and encourage change that is continued beyond the end of the month.

Indira: To me, Black History Month is about celebration but also learning and sharing. As someone who is not black and who did not learn about black contributions to British society at school, it is an opportunity for me to continue my process of re-education. Whilst of course it is important to do so all year round, October is an excellent opportunity to immerse myself in all of the wonderful resources available; the art, the literature and the history. This year’s slogan of ‘Dig Deeper, Look Closer, Think Bigger’ really resonates with me; we should all be curious and continue to challenge the world around us.

This year’s slogan of ‘Dig Deeper, Look Closer, Think Bigger’ really resonates with me; we should all be curious and continue to challenge the world around us.

Mark: It’s a celebration of achievements and of cultures. Black history is not confined to the transatlantic slave trade, abolition and the civil rights movement (as important as those subjects are). For me, that means telling the true, woefully overlooked story of black people’s contribution to the UK and the world at large. There is plenty to celebrate! Ideally this should not be confined to one month a year, but at least it provides an opportunity to focus celebrate, inform and engage in discussion.

How has the BAME Staff Network at Cambridge Assessment been celebrating Black History Month?

Indira: We’ve had so much going on! This year we’ve gone bigger than ever before. On National Poetry Day we performed readings by our favourite authors to kick off the month. We then invited John James, CEO of the Sickle Cell Society, to talk to us about the work he does in a joint event with our Disability and Neurodiversity staff network, which was absolutely fascinating. We’ve got a book club coming up (we’re reading Bread, Cement, Cactus by Annie Zaidi), rangoli competition and video by our members inspired by Channel 4’s The Talk. We’ve had two events on the topic of ‘microaggressions’, one with our Parents and Carers staff network where we spoke candidly on ‘talking about microaggressions with children’, and one workshop facilitated by Cambridge graduate and podcaster Bilal Harry Khan. The latter attracted over 120 staff from across Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press, which was super exciting.

What are the overall aims of the BAME Staff Network?

Indira: Our main purpose first and foremost is to serve our members. Whilst the network is open to everybody, we have a core responsibility to represent the needs and concerns of the People of Colour (POC) who work at Cambridge Assessment. Doing this involves lots of different things: creating community and a safe space to talk about identity and belonging, celebrating and promoting the diversity within our group, and campaigning for changes in the organisation that will make it a safer and kinder workplace for our members. For instance, we are confident that the upcoming unconscious bias training we’ve been involved in (using a train the trainer model by Pearn Kandola) will, in time, reduce the number and severity of racial microaggressions experienced by our members.

The network is very much about celebration of the diversity of ethnicities, races and cultural heritages, fostering respect and a sense of belonging for all.

Mark: We aim for the network to be a safe space to have honest and open discussions on issues surrounding ethnicity. This is with a view to bring positive institutional change by supporting initiatives that tackle racial injustice, prejudice and discrimination within the organisation. The network is very much about celebration of the diversity of ethnicities, races and cultural heritages, fostering respect and a sense of belonging for all.

What made you want to become involved with the network?

Preeti: When lockdown happened, I attended some of the network meetings and realised that this was a space where colleagues could comfortably share their thoughts and serious reflections on the change they wished to see in the world. Everyone was encouraged to speak up and share their ideas, which was really great to see. There is a real enthusiasm and drive to working towards positive change, and that has been a real motivation for me, especially during the lockdown and in the difficult climate.

There is a real enthusiasm and drive to working towards positive change, and that has been a real motivation for me, especially during the lockdown and in the difficult climate.

Mark: On one level, I want to show solidarity, challenge some of the perceptions surrounding BAME communities and contribute to making positive change. I am very aware of my own privileges and have a responsibility to help redress the balance. Whilst I cannot claim to have often been a recipient of racism, nor am I naive enough to claim that I know what this is actually like as my daily lived experience, I have heard enough stories from and witnessed racism toward those close to me, to get some indication. Besides, we need unity and inclusion. People are people, whatever the differences. On another level it is about learning from others, celebrating diversity of cultures, inclusion and fostering a sense of belonging.

How do you think employers could create more diverse, equal, and inclusive workplaces?

Indira: Equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging need to be deeply imbedded in everything an organisation does for it to be truly successful. It needs to be prioritised in recruitment, retention, training, reporting, decision-making, strategy, policy - everything! It sounds a bit cheesy, but I really do think it’s a mindset more than anything else. If an organisation truly wants to be more inclusive, it will find a thousand ways to do so.

If an organisation truly wants to be more inclusive, it will find a thousand ways to do so.

Preeti: I think an important part of this is listening. Being able to understand what employees feel is needed from employers to make the workplace more inclusive, as I think every individual’s experience and understanding of the word ‘diversity’ is different. Also, by getting involved! It was great to see some members of the senior management team at our microaggressions workshop and I hope that we can encourage more colleagues to attend future events and get involved in some important conversations.

How does the network get involved with wider issues of diversity affecting the community, both inside and outside the organisation?

Indira: We’re often invited to sit in on various discussions and are consulted on changes happening within the organisation. I do not tend to position us as an advisory network; I think it is dangerous when an organisation relies on its staff networks to complete the diversity work for them. That being said, we do contribute where we can. A great example is our involvement on Cambridge Assessment’s podcast titled ‘ Teaching migration, empire and colonialism in Britain’s history lessons ’, where we discussed the need for greater diversity in our history curricula. Mark is actually a Trustee for CB Mentoring, a new charity that will be providing mentoring to young Black people in Cambridge. We are really excited to see how the BAME Network can get involved in this initiative.

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