Tackling Systemic Racism, one Social Ladder at a Time
Our planned pilot to build pan-European professional communities to close the gap.
It’s been four months since I settled into my role as Director of the ENAR Foundation and co-Director of ENAR (the European Network Against Racism). I’m quickly discovering that time flies when you’re working to bring about change in one of the most pressing issues of our day: racism, intolerance, and perpetual discrimination. Our world may still be (somewhat to very) uncomfortable with the topic. Still, many of us are increasingly unable to turn a blind eye to the systemic, historical and entrenched inequities individuals and communities face.
Many of our efforts concentrate on ensuring that legal protections and remedies exist to address through the force of law that these hard-fought for fundamental rights and that the values of equality, inclusion, and fairness remain at the heart of societies committed to the rule of law. But increasingly, we are also coming to grips with the reality that to address a topic as broad as systemic racism, we need to factor in all of the contributing factors that are making these unequal outcomes possible in the first place. It’s not just because we’ve changed a law that the reality on the ground will actually evolve, the wealth gap is a prime example of the enduring nature of discriminations that have been enforced for centuries.
One of the aspects that I find particularly compelling is the contribution that social and professional capital and networking makes to these unequal outcomes. As is often the case, the mechanisms that foster and perpetuate biased and racist outcomes are so omnipresent and “natural” that we don’t even perceive it.
Our social ladders operate as much on merit as on the social connections one is able to make. In my view, professional networks that enable racialised individuals to progress and become agents of change are a part of the solution we must implement to achieve true systemic change.KIM L. SMOUTER – CO-DIRECTOR OF ENAR
Allow me perhaps to demonstrate with my own personal story… The journey to becoming part of the ENAR and ENAR Foundation extended family is as much the results of hard work as it is a story of the support and the door opening provoked by the contacts I was exposed to and therefore able to make and the contacts they had themselves in their own network. Because I was attending the school I was attending, I was able to make contact with an individual who was instrumental in connecting me to the organisation which hosted me for my first internship. From that internship, I can trace my entire professional trajectory all the way to my taking up my post. I will always remember that had I not had that first contact through my school and were I not in a school whose teachers had such powerful connections, I perhaps would not be standing where I am standing today.
Our social ladders operate as much on merit, but perhaps even more so on the social connections one is able to make and maintain. How often will recruitment simply be through word of mouth and the result of personal recommendations from someone you know? Clearly, the quality of the social connections that one can make is as much dependent on yourself as it is on your socio-economic reality. As a result, the social ladder that is possible remains dependent on many factors, a lot of which are the product of circumstance and not in your control. It therefore remains a symptom of the enduring impact that historic and systemic racism has.
So what do we do about it? North America and the UK in particular have long histories of establishing professional networks for racialised communities, many do incredible work elevating the collective social capital (and correspondingly the opportunities) for racialised individuals to progress and become the agents of change that close the gaps. Some of the results of these can be judged for example by a larger presence of racialised individuals in higher places of decision-making. That isn’t to say that it’s fixed all the problems, but it certainly helps! One of the issues, I see, is often that these communities are focused on national contexts and with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU project, Europe will be inclined to increasingly turn away from exploring the UK as an example to follow. So the ability of UK-based networks to push similar initiatives on the Continent are diminished, and yet these sorts of networks are in my view a part of the solution we must implement to achieve true systemic change.
Having worked for over a decade for a professional community, I have seen first-hand their power in creating opportunities, in growing potential, in helping individuals facing tough times to benefit from solidarity, and as safe spaces to learn, grow and change. We need more of these sorts of communities for racialised individuals who face very particular, specific and recognised burdens.
How many of us operate in sectors where we feel we are the only ones from our lived experiences breaking everyday glass ceilings and overcoming countless microaggressions that are imperceptible for our fellow working colleagues?KIM L. SMOUTER, CO-DIRECTOR OF ENAR
I’m interested in exploring how we develop these safe harbors for every profession and make them pan-European because I believe in this lies one of the conditions for building systemic inclusion. At the moment, breaking ceilings rests all too often on the exceptionals and extraordinaries who must carry the weight of entire communities on their individual shoulders. There’s one problem with that and there’s a reason why they’re exceptional and they’re extraordinary: there’s very few of them! My interest, therefore, is developing mechanisms so that communities’ shoulders are broadened… so that we can help individuals up every social ladder possible and to do that in a pan-EU perspective to complete what already exists.
Will it be a panacea that fixes all of the ills of the world? Probably not, but I think it can be one of the many levers that need to simultaneously be actioned to achieve an inclusive transition.
I’ve been brainstorming about this with my colleagues at ENAR who are experts at network building, but also been talking to leaders in economic sectors where racialised individuals’ voice may unfortunately not be heard at the volume that they really should be. I realised ENAR (and indeed many organisations) works with a lot of consultants, micro enterprises who have a lot of impact on their customers and therefore represent a huge multiplier potential to embed new approaches, but due to the nature of their work there isn’t really a place for them to congregate and exchange. What a great starting point to explore how we can develop professional communities for racialised individuals to help fix broken social ladders and take a baby step towards addressing the social capital gap faced by racialised professionals!
ENAR works with a lot of micro entreprises for whom there isn’t really a place to congregate and exchange. What a great starting point to explore how we can develop professional communities for racialised individuals and address the social gap they experience.KIM L. SMOUTER, CO-DIRECTOR OF ENAR
I’m very excited that before the year-end through the ENAR Foundation’s new Inclusive Society programme, we’re looking to pilot such a pan-European community specifically for consultants who are racialised and are working on the hot topic of fostering diversity and inclusion in enterprises (and other employer organisations). ENAR and ENAR Foundation are concerned that many of these programmes are simply designed to clear consciences without really addressing the problems of micro-aggressions and discriminations that are baked into companies’ very DNA.
But also, as the topic of diversity and inclusion has become hot and trendy, a growing market has been seized by organisations who are after a profit and not necessarily interested in the broader systemic aspects that should be at the heart of these efforts. Once again, the individuals who should be listened to, those with lived experiences and therefore direct first-hand knowledge, are left out of a space where they are sorely needed.
At the same time, organisations that feel ready to make the leap towards becoming inclusive organisations can sometimes struggle to find the right expertise that will coach, challenge, and outright call them out if they are heading in the wrong direction when it comes to fostering a working environment that attracts rather than repels historically and systemically disadvantaged individuals. That’s where the concept of establishing a Directory managed by the ENAR Foundation through this community seems to have a lot of value, and I’ll explore in another blog why, in my view, such an offering is a crucial part of the solution.
We’re creating a community that aims to add value to consultants’ work, help fast track careers, and build structures of solidarity for racialised individuals.
It will be a very interesting exercise to see if we can add value to these consultants’ work using ENAR Foundation’s resources and ENAR’s collective experience as a convenor of grassroots power to effect system-wide change. I’m very honoured that we have in Tamara Makoni, herself a racialised consultant working on DE&I, a co-pilot who will help us bring a disconnected community into focus but also to identify how such communities can really add value, help fast track careers, and build structures of solidarity so that racialised individuals do not feel so alone when navigating in their professional sectors and careers of choice.
Are you a racialised individual consultant who’s working in DE&I? I’d love to hear what this community could mean to you and how we can shape it to add value to you and your endeavours. Respond to our survey to share your views, and join the contact list to remain informed about next steps. And don’t forget to spread the word to others in your network. ‘Cause if you are interested in being part of a pioneering initiative to dismantle systemic racism, my ears are wide open for your ideas, thoughts and suggestions to make this a success for you and the communities we seek to empower! Reach out in my DMs or send me an email: email@example.com
Kim L. Smouter, Co-Director of ENAR