Active inclusion: widening the ‘we’

25 Mar 2019

We’re on a mission to improve inclusivity at SSE, and network manager Amy Barbor is leading this work. In this blog, she writes with candour about how ‘nice progressive white people’ like her need to challenge themselves to make the social sector more inclusive.

I am one of the white liberals that sociologist Robin diAngelo calls ‘nice progressive white people’, who care about the world and the social impact we have. I am white, able-bodied, cis-gender, heterosexual, middle class and privileged. I believe diversity is important and I want to be inclusive.

I am incredibly good at being nice. I like it when people are nice to me and laugh at my jokes, and I find it easier getting along with people with whom I have ‘something in common’.

But when I sit amongst my own family (who are white, English and middle class), I observe my partner or my friends who are not white and middle class having to navigate their way through some exclusive humour and etiquettes. These are shared customary codes that enable other white middle-class friends to flow and dance easily through the conversations.

I am also aware of how helpful I find these learned behaviours when sitting in a boardroom with other white, English, middle-class people.

I believe we need to understand that just because we ‘nice progressive white people’ are good moral people, doesn’t mean we can’t be complicit in exclusive behaviours and prejudices: racism, prejudice against those with disabilities, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. We can and we are, almost every day.

For example, I have just referred to ‘we’ – I am clearly speaking to a group of people like myself. (Look out for this ‘we’ in articles, comments and blogs: you’ll see it often. Who is this ‘we’? Is it qualified anywhere? Who does ‘we’ include or exclude?)

This is one of many behaviours that ‘we’ the people from the dominant race or gender or ability use to remain exclusive and retain power – implicitly, if not explicitly.

The social-enterprise sector is more diverse than most. But it is still dominated by white, privileged, able-bodied people. ‘We’ still have a way to go. Boardrooms in this sector are filled with too many white privileged men. That’s probably true of the majority of senior leadership levels. The workforces appear to have plenty of women, though we are mainly white and often privileged. I am pretty sure that people with disabilities are not well represented either.

ACEVO’s Pay and Equalities Survey 2018 shows that the third sector has made little progress on diversity – especially on BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) representation amongst trustees and senior managers. NPC’s ‘Walking the Talk on Diversity’ report draws similar conclusions. Clearly, the sector is not inclusive.

Awareness is a good place to start: admitting we are currently an exclusive sector and we need to do something very different to change that.

So what can we do? I don’t profess to know the answer, but below are some thoughts:

Be aware and honest about bias

Everyone has many forms of bias. With some thought we can consciously notice and adjust our automatic patterns of thinking. It’ll take awareness, time and practice, and also a level of what might feel like risk. But ultimately, bias is a habit we need to kick, in order to eliminate discriminatory behaviours.

Unconscious bias training is a step to uncovering this, but we need to take more action. Much of our bias is more conscious than we care to admit.

If you’re in a position of privilege, make space for others

Board members of social enterprises – if your board is not diverse, and you do not identify as being from a minority or marginalised group, stand down. (Quick tip: if you ask your CEO and they know the tricks of the middle classes, they’ll tell you are invaluable whether you are or not.) And I say this in all seriousness. If you stand down, you make a space on the board for someone else. That person, if the board are genuinely intending to increase their diversity, could be from a minority or marginalised group.

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party has role modelled this for us recently in her resignation as leader of the party.

Assess your recruitment practices…

Leadership teams – if you are not successfully recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, do something about it. Stop, invest and make time to make sure you get people applying for your jobs that aren’t like you (again, aimed at the white, able-bodied and privileged).

Also, don’t offer jobs to people you know and trust, without offering those jobs more widely using an inclusive recruitment process. Just don’t. My colleague Emily’s recent blog on resources for more inclusive recruitment practices is a great place to start.

…then look after your recruits

If you do successfully recruit people from diverse backgrounds, take care of them. Make sure they get a manager who understands inclusion and supports them to progress and develop in the role. And this isn’t meant to be patronising, by the way. It’s because I am assuming the new recruit will be in the minority, and that presents different challenges than if they were not.

And don’t assume that an employee from a minority group will lead on all things diversity and inclusion. They came to do a job, let them do it. Just because you are able-bodied, do you get to speak on behalf of all able-bodied people?

Practice self-awareness

The rest of us (and I am speaking again to white privileged): notice ourselves and our behaviours. Who is switching off or looking uncomfortable when I am telling one of my hilarious stories? Realise our humour isn’t funny to all cultures, find out what makes other people laugh.

Be curious and open to talking to people outside of your usual circles.  STOP BEING COMFORTABLE – and not in a self-help, trying-to-get-on-in-life sort of a way, but in a ‘shit, if we don’t all do something about inclusion it’s never going to change and we’ll continue to make the same mistakes we’ve always made’ kind of way.


I won’t be convinced that SSE is truly living the value of inclusion until I see myself and all white, privileged people – yes, even us nice progressive ones – really examine ourselves: our prejudices, our white privilege, who we are, and what we have done and do that causes discrimination and exclusion.

What do we mean by inclusion?  Is what we are asking people to be included in really working? Are we sure other groups really want to be ‘included’?

We should be testing ourselves, by putting ourselves in situations where we are in the minority. Most of ‘us’ don’t know what this is like. But I am certain that things would be done differently: we would find new ways of working, new solutions, and new ways to create sustainable social change.

We need to do something radical something that helps us to tip the balance. We need to widen the ‘we’.

I’d love to hear your thoughts @SchSocEnt or @AmyBarbor

Further learning

I’d like to signpost you to people who are writing about, and working on, diversity and inclusion, and who have inspired me to write this post. I’d love to know of more so please get in touch.

  • Angela Davis – Freedom is a constant struggle, and all her other books or talks, especially Women, Race and Class
  • Diverse City is an award-winning organisation committed to diversity and equality in the arts. The founder Claire Hodgson is an SSE fellow
  • All About Trans – an On Road Media project that positively changes how the media understands and portrays trans people. On Road also do similar projects on sexual violence, poverty and immigration. Founder Nathalie McDermott is also an SSE fellow, and I’m the chair of trustees.
  • Reni Eddo Lodge – her book, blog and podcasts on ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ provides essential context.
  • Anita Kirpal – head of diversity at YSC. Some of her articles include:
    • ‘Unleashing the potential of diversity’, in People Matters, volume VII, issue 1, January 2016
    • ‘From unconscious bias to conscious inclusion’, in People Matters – cover story May 2016

Additional note:

I went to see Angela Davis in conversation as part of the Women of the World Festival on International Women’s Day. There is a current conversation on intersectionality that is important and needs to be talked about. One thing I realised after the event was that the term “inclusion” is flawed. Have we asked the question of what it is that we are suggesting people be included in? What if that which we are asking people to be included in is the very system that had us be excluded in the first place?  Perhaps the answer is that we need to start again, to look elsewhere and ask those who have been systematically excluded what our next steps are.

By Amy Barbor, SSE’s network manager