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Blog: Our commitment to diversity and inclusion

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Posted 28th May 2021

In the week that marked a year since the death of George Floyd, our Chief Executive, Nigel Harrison, has reflected on the organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and reflects on how the last 12 months has generated even more momentum to this integral part of our work.

Three years ago, towards the end of her role as CEO of Sport England, Jennie Price organised a day’s workshop in London on Diversity and Inclusion in the sport sector. I was privileged to be with around a hundred people from a huge range of organisations to work out what we, as a sector, needed to do to address some of the inherent and embedded issues we have. It was a wake-up call for me and I suspect many others who attended.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we hadn’t been doing anything. I could point to our targeted programmes; the previous employment of ‘Equity Officers’; the production of equity plans and the badges of Equality Standards / Disability Standards that gave us validation. We have always had a predominantly white workforce, but the communities we serve are far more ethnically diverse, so it has never felt quite right. But then, every other organisation in the sector was the same, weren’t they?

It was all okay, but a bit box ticking. The journey home was full of reflection of what did I, as a person and we as an organisation, really understand. I am white, male, middle-aged, heterosexual, have disposable income, and have the physical abilities to do most things. Just facts that I can’t or wouldn’t want to change, but it does give me a certain in-built view of life that need be to constantly checked and challenged by me and those around me.

Enthused, I returned and did what we always do as an Active Partnership – I set up a group. An internal group of colleagues bringing their own views and experiences to the table. We were determined to do things differently. For the first year, there were no real meeting agendas, no action plans, no apologies for absences. We just talked, listened and thought. What does diversity and inclusion mean to us? What do we want to become? How does it feel to work for us? What do people see and feel when they work with us?

Inevitably, and quite rightly, we wanted to change things and do things. Our vision was to create a culture where diversity and inclusion ran through the blood of the organisation in everything we did. We needed to look, sound, act, feel – every day and in every way – that people felt included.

We looked at Touchstone, a mental health charity that we have worked with for a number of years and said: “We want to be like them.” We invited their brilliant CEO, Alison Lowe, to our team away day to tell us about their organisation and how inclusivity was at the centre of how they operated. We looked at their plans and have copied, learned, adapted – they are truly our benchmark.

The ‘doing’ included poring over our policies and procedures, re-looking at our website and publicity material. We changed our recruitment practices. We carried out different training on a range of topics and took real steps towards our own learning. We established an external expert group to really challenge us on what we did and how we act, no holds barred.  We started to change.

And then, in May of 2020, the killing of George Floyd shook the world.

At first, I have to regrettably admit, I didn’t pay much attention to it – it was just another story on the news, in among all that was going on Covid-related. Then, after a few days, I was aware that our own team were looking at me asking, ‘what are we going to do about it?’ and ‘what are we going to say?’ And I had to say that I didn’t know. On the one hand, making a public statement intuitively seemed to be a bit superficial and jumping on the bandwagon. Saying nothing seemed uncaring and inappropriate. I wrote a note for all our team explain the dilemma and the real issue was how we were going to learn and act around racial injustice. In the end we signed up to the Sport and Recreation Alliance statement, which was probably not enough.

Of much more importance though was how we were going to react and act as an organisation and as individuals. Over the following few months, and indeed throughout the year, we have all been learning more about issues relating to race. We’ve talked, listened, shared reading, videos had guest speakers, attended training. We have recognised it is no longer ok to be racially aware, we need to ‘come out of the stands and on to the pitch’ to become deliberately and pro-activity anti-racist. No longer can we see racial injustice around us ‘tutting’ at it; we need to get involved, and do all we can.  We are passionate about that as individuals and as a collective. It can no longer be someone else’s responsibility.

Once you are alert then it becomes more obvious. In a short period, there were three fairly high-profile cases of accusations of racism in the structures of sport in Yorkshire. Not on the pitch, but in the structures and operations of organisations.

Undoubtedly, the Black Lives Matter campaign definitely focussed our minds and accelerated the work. But it’s not just racial discrimination. All forms of diversity and inclusivity are crucial. Since then, the issue of women and girls feeling safe on the streets has been highlighted; we’ve become acutely aware of each others mental health; we’ve focussed on learning around neuro-diversity to support a member of our team; there continues to be complexity around trans people in sport.

We continue to learn and get involved. A group of us have undertaken ‘unconscious bias’ training. While it seems to have a bit of a bad press nationally, we felt it was good for us and added to our awareness. We successfully applied to become part of Sport England’s ‘Inclusive Leaders’ programme. That has resulted in people from all levels of our organisation learning alongside others from across the country. We signed up to the Sporting Equals charter and were thrilled to have Arun Kang OBE, the CEO of Sporting Equals, as a guest on The YSF Podcast. We have worked alongside other Active Partnerships to agree on a national commitment and a national approach to anti-racism of how we will work together. I’ve been really proud to work alongside some great people.

We have changed and continue to develop. We’re not yet where we want to be and nobody will be looking at us yet like we do Touchstone – but we are getting there. Our Board is increasingly diverse, although our staff profile remains overwhelmingly white British and isn’t yet reflective of the communities we serve.

And now we do have an action plan. A big one. Too big. We’re working on it to make sure we’re not just talking but are taking real steps day-in, day-out.

There’s much more to we need to do and learn. I’ve read and watched a lot of experienced and skilled people on the issues so I feel a bit of a fraud, but here are my learnings as the leader of an organisation that has been going through this cultural change over the last few years:

A commitment to diversity and inclusion

There is nothing more that matters in an organisation – you either want to be that kind of organisation or you don’t. Once committed, and I mean real commitment, then everything flows from it. It embeds a culture of caring, listening, learning, speaking out, speaking up, where everyone’s voice is heard and matters. These are not high ideals and glib statements; these are hard conversations with hard choices. And once embedded and commitment made, then all our performance improves. We are simply better at doing our job.

Culture of learning and a culture of diversity/inclusion are the same 

At the same time as changing culture around Diversity and Inclusion we’ve also been pushing our learning culture. But the two aren’t separate strands. You can’t be diverse and inclusive without learning; you can’t be a learning organisation without diversity.

Creating time for listening and learning is crucial 

Listening and talking are valid uses of time. And properly listening. We have two ears and one mouth – and they should be used in that proportion. If we don’t listen, then can’t hear the people we work with, and the people we want to support. We trust each other that statements made and questions asked all come from a place of us all wanting to be better.

We need to be bolder 

Sometimes, deliberating over things too much, worrying how some may react, being too concerned not to upset anyone just isn’t right. There are times when you just need to say how it is quickly and swiftly. Simplicity and clarity of message, both internally and externally is crucial.

Coming out of the stands isn’t easy

Difficult conversations are called that for a reason – they’re difficult. But we can’t shy away from them if we are to be truly anti-racism, sexism, homophobia and challenge all the other ways people keep others down. We all need support in building confidence to challenge behaviours, even sometimes with families and friends. We also need to be open when challenged ourselves.

Doing is important, but feeling and acting have more impact 

Vision without a plan is just a pipe dream (I heard it from Leeds Rhinos CEO, Gary Hetherington, last week) so it’s right we act and do. While we initially resisted the action plan, we now have one and are working through it. But just as important is how people feel and act. Behaviour is something you can’t tick off, but need to be always aware of. Regularly taking temperature checks throughout the year is crucial, not just left to a sit-down annual review discussion.

Language we use can often be exclusive 

The words we use are important. We’re only good communicators if people can understand what we say. If they can’t then that’s our fault and we are excluding people. For many years, we as an organisation have committed to using Plain English and undertake regular training and review our own standards. It’s important to us as it sets the tone of inclusivity. Of course, we consider ourselves and colleagues as professionals so we need to know the terminology being used, however, we do need to use it with clarity and not clutter with jargon.

The last year has kept diversity and inclusion firmly at the front of the agenda – for many it always has been. There is a wider momentum and a willingness to create lasting change. We must continue to seize the moment, so we can all look back at the end of each day, each week, each year, and know we are truly diverse and inclusive.

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