Black lives matter: How some leaders are driving change


In truth I’ve never spoken to so many people as I have done in the last six months. Covid lockdown has forced to use technology in a way that we barely could imagine. But there it is, on a regular basis I and, I’m sure, many others have been asked to speak to audiences that in one session could be in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, better still they can live comment if what you’re saying is relevant or rubbish. And they do!

But even more than the numbers, and they are a bit mind-blowing, it is the depth and breadth of the conversation this extraordinary time is allowing us to have. In societies across the world Covid -19 has not only wreaked havoc but it also laid bare structural inequalities as never before, and some of the worst of those inequalities super exposed and amplified in the USA and the UK have been racial. This along with the brutal death of George Floyd, and the subsequent Black Lives Matters protest have convulsed many in our society to have conversations as never before.

I’ve often said in these Zoom or Teams meetings that perhaps for the first time in my life time that I’ve witnessed so many white people, many in positions of power who have been ready and open to see life through a Black lives lens. This empathetic quantum step has a momentum to  become a transformative moment in British history, because it means that so many have acknowledged that, “although these things don’t readily, if ever happen to me, like a police officer instinctively viewing me as a violent criminal, I believe you when you tell me this occurs to you. I can also see it by the data too.”

In the last 25 years of my own political civic activism my starting point when talking about race inequality with institutions and individuals has often began at let’s say at minus twenty or minus ten, and my role would be to get them to minus five and then zero, after that we could get things done.

This historical moment of race inequality enlightenment has catapulted a lot of people right now to zero, and that’s very exciting, because I and others don’t have to convince those as to whether there’s a problem or not, but rather we  are discussing how we go about solving it.

I had one of those talks some months back to an audience of senior educators organised by Advanced HE, the body that helps universities and colleges to be the best they can be. During the talk I called upon the Vice chancellors, professors, and managers to step out of shadows and lead the charge for substantive change in this area of race equality, arguing: “If not now then when, if not by you then who?

As activists we give these speeches because we believe what we say, and we hope that for some it will encourage or inspire action. Well last week I got my answer.

Before giving another speech, this time to university and college governors CEO Alison Johns made some introductory remarks:

"Simon Woolley, Lord Woolley, the last time you spoke at our last event you threw down the gauntlet for us to lead by deeds and not just words. Well, I took up your challenge and have begun a number of initiatives and practices that on their own might not seem much but collectively they could be transformative. They include:

  1. CEO Race Action group
  2. A budget to support our ‘race equality activities’
  3. Timetable to adopt the Race Equality Charter for ourselves
  4. All staff Race awareness training
  5. Created a lead executive post to work on delivering our race programme
  6. Appointed Paul Miller, Prof of Education, Leadership and Social Justice as our Strategic Advisor Race, Culture and Leadership
  7. Creating board opportunities for Black staff."

As she read through the list I smiled warmly but I could have easily cried. It was an emotional surge from the realization that when leaders acknowledge, and then act great things can happen. Of course it’s just the beginning and we often talk about, ‘it’s a marathon not sprint’, but a better way to illustrate the change would be to see it as building the foundations for transformative change.

There are many others like Alison who are seizing this historic moment, but it’s not without its challenges. There are those who are less enthusiastic about this, with a few almost full square against.

Rather than accept the reality there are some who would like to couch this as a ‘culture war’ stating,; "why are they attacking our institutions our history, and if you’re a white man sweeping the roads you don’t feel white privilege". Many of us are more than happy to have that debate but when tackling deep seated racism is positioned as being anti-white and particularly anti white working class then that takes the debate into the Trump despicable play book of divide and rule.

My instinct is that despite the powerful entities that would seek to divide us there are many leaders like Alison who are  using this as an opportunity to strengthen their own organization, deliver better services, and at the same time begin to unleash talent from within.

Thank you to Alison and all those other leaders who are at zero, ready to build foundations that we turbo charge equality, diversity and above all talent.

Simon Woolley