Sunday, May 29, 2011

We're all in this together. No... Seriously!

David Cameron and George Osborne may have turned the phrase into a cause for cynical mirth. Yet, when it comes to diverse communities working in each other's interests, the words 'We're all in this together' really have to mean something


A few years ago, when I was first elected for what was to be a three year term as chair of the North West Equality and Diversity Group (NWEDG), I made a little speech about the responsibility I felt I would be taking on.

The North West Equality and Diversity Group

The NWEDG was originally set up in 2005 to help the North West Development Agency (NWDA) research and consult upon its' first ever regional equality and diversity strategy.

NWEDG subsequently went on to be jointly supported by Government Office North West and what was then called the North West Regional Assembly. These three public agency sponsors were followed later by the strategic health authority (NHS North West) and the new Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The group brought together many dozens of stakeholders from every equality strand, along with organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors. It functioned as a critical friend to the public sector agencies, but also grew into the most comprehensive locus for discussing equality and diversity in the region.

By the time I decided to step down as Chair in April 2010 the NWEDG had over 100 members. I was succeeded by two joint chairs, Paul Martin (of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation) and Louise Barry (of Merseyside Disability Federation).

Following the announcement of the NWDA's intended demise, just after the May 2010 general election, Paul and Louise now have the unenviable task of repositioning the group to survive in the new world under the coalition.

However, I digress...

A philosophy of mutual advocacy

My little candidate speech concerned the inevitable question in peoples' minds whenever someone seen as a single issue advocate takes on the responsibility of leading and representing people from different communities.

To my colleagues at the time I was perhaps best known for having been a very successful advocate for the rights and needs of transsexual people. It was inevitable that, because I was there initially to make that voice heard, people might think that was my sole interest or the limit of my capability. However, as chair I would have duties to represent everyone.

The viewpoint I spelled out wasn't just a ruse to get elected though. It was something I had always believed in and tried to practice.

I explained that, as their chair, I considered it would be my duty to learn continuously about the needs and agenda of all the equality groups who belonged to the group, as well as the concerns and limitations of the public sector sponsors.

Our intersecting interests

As I explained to my colleagues, I never considered myself to have a single set of issues to begin with.

  • As a trans woman whose background wasn't apparent to strangers, I had plenty of experience of many of the concerns faced routinely by other women. I had met glass ceilings and pay differentials. I knew when I was being patronised. I knew the fear of deciding whether places were safe for me to go at night. I was a carer. And I had a personal experience of how and when public services hadn't taken my needs into account.
  • Having a mother in the terminal stages of Alzheimers, and having worked for five years helping to manage a medium size social care provider, meant that I also had a position from which to appreciate how disability affected people directly, and as carers or relations. I understood why the social model of disability and our use of language and presumptions mattered, for instance.
  • I couldn't do anything about the colour of my skin. I'm white, British. Yet when my friends and associates from other backgrounds told me of their experiences I had the empathy and consideration to listen and be aware of my privilege. I also knew what it was like to be a stranger abroad, when you find yourself as a minority in another culture.
  • Then, of course, all those years of working with other members of the LGBT communities meant I had a start in understanding the issues which were at the top of the agenda for gay, lesbian and bisexual people ... plus an encyclopaedic knowledge of the different kinds of trans people.
  • Lastly, being in my mid fifties at that time, and seeing how my parents coped in their eighties, I also had a stake in the issues of ageing.

Excepting individual variations, I reckon this isn't a unique experience of mine. In Equality and Diversity jargon we call it 'intersection'. It's the fact that most peoples' opportunities and limitations are a combination of factors relating to their direct or indirect experiences of gender, race or ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, age, economic position, and status as carers, parents, spouses, etc... Few, if any of us, are just one thing.

Where we don't have these experiences ourselves, we know or care for people who do. And, in some cases, age will bring more our way. I may not have any serious impairments today but I accept I may become disabled in one or more ways before I die.

So, I wasn't setting myself up as unique in having a knowledge or interest in all these other strands of diversity besides the obvious one. I was just reminding people that we all have this ability if we stop to think.

Speaking in support but knowing our limitations

As I explained to my colleagues, I had also kept my ears and eyes open enough to be aware of my own limitations - to have an idea of how much I didn't know, and to want to try and narrow the gap.

I'm also aware of the risks of being arrogant. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Or, as I often express it: "None of us knows what we don't know we don't know"

Yet, within those limitations it had struck me that there are all things we can do for each other. As their chair there would be times when I had the opportunity to try and convey important aspects of everyone's individual concerns and agendas. Being a good chair would mean working to increase my knowledge continually so as to do this better.

I would always try to create the opening for experts on disability to talk for disabled people, or for lesbian women to talk expertly about their concerns. It's one thing to spot the opportunities. It's a different thing to think you can replace the true experts.

Something everyone can do

But I was clear this wasn't just something the chair ought to do. I invited my colleagues to consider how they could do it too.

Why shouldn't stakeholder experts from (say) the disability organisations talk more often about sex, race and LGBT issues when they had an audience, for instance? Disabled people face these issues too. There really are old and young disabled black lesbian trans women. If they were caring about the whole of their communities then it meant thinking about having a care narrative that's fully inclusive.

If we all did this then the biggest beneficiaries would be some of the smallest communities, who would gain from many more people talking about their issues. So, yes, I admitted that it would be rather nice if everyone talked more about trans issues too.

But it also meant something for our engagement as a group. It meant that people around our table should not begin to think of tuning out and checking their Blackberry if the next item on the agenda should be something they imagined didn't concern them. I was setting out my leadership approach.

That means you

This philosophy of mine is something I've tried hard to stick to, albeit not always perfectly.

As an equality and diversity consultant it's something I'm bound to do of course. We all do. Those of us who purport to be able to teach the subject need at least a working knowledge of every community's needs and issues, along with the humility to want to keep learning and avoid repeating mistakes.

Yet I'm not sure that everyone shares that vision.

When I use facebook or twitter to write or 'retweet' news about some equality issues then I can spot the different ways in which my different audiences react. Some will pass on the items about women's rights, racial discrimination, mental health or physical disabilities, sexual orientation, age and so forth. But it's interesting how often they don't. Especially when the news is about trans issues.

But just imagine if they did. Just imagine if everyone tried my approach more often and widened the scope of what they told their own followers. Think how much more diverse and aware all our conversations would be.

After all, we are all in this together.


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