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Godfrey from BEIS - “Why Black History Month is Important to Me”

Category: BAME

Image of the words black, asian & minority ethnicity on a red background

October marks the beginning of the 31st annual celebration of Black History Month (BHM) in the United Kingdom. A time dedicated to recognising and celebrating the importance of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage, and to promote a greater understanding of the UK’s diverse culture, participation and experience throughout history.

The month was created by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo in 1987, a civil servant just like you and me, who worked at the Greater London Council in special projects. Akyaaba was stirred up in the mid-1980s by the identity crisis that a large majority of Black children faced.

Ever since I can remember during Black History Month we usually discuss the lives of Dr Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and other famous Black icons. This October is set to remind both BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) and wider communities of the important roles Black people have taken in creating the social, legal, and political worlds we live in today.

The FAME Network encourages everyone to use this opportunity, through gathering colleagues at team meetings and over lunch, to explore and raise awareness of the contributions Black people have made and are making in their local communities, countries and the world at large.

When I was at school, Black History Month was the one and only time I got to learn about history that I felt was remotely relevant to me. While history lessons were Eurocentric, BHM was a time when I could explore my heritage in an open and welcoming space.

I was fascinated by some of the things I learned:

  • Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse who helped soldiers during the Crimean War.
  • Black men and women had lived in the UK since the 12th century.
  • Black soldiers contributed to war efforts, preserving freedom and democracy in European countries (despite many hailing from countries ruled under European empires)

Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797) was a former slave who went on to become a radical reformer and best-selling author and became the first Black person to explore the Arctic when he sailed on the same ship as Horatio Nelson. In 1786 Equiano also became the first Black person ever to be employed by the British government, when he was made Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the 350 impoverished Black people who had decided to take up the government’s offer of an assisted passage to Sierra Leone.

The phenomenal action of Black pioneers today will become future history. Take Black Panther – this year’s biggest grossing movie and the first film to get a general release in Saudi Arabia in 35 years. The artist Akon lighting Africa via solar panels and now employing over 5,000 people in 14 African countries. Or Sharon White the Chief Executive of Ofcom, the first black person, and the second woman, to become the permanent secretary at the Treasury.

Why is it still important today?

  • Unemployment among BAME people is nearly double that of white Britons.
  • Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded from school three times as often as white British classmates.
  • Just over half of white adults eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, compared with a third of black adults.
  • Job seekers with an English-sounding name were offered three times the number of interviews than an applicant with a Muslim name.
  • The 2016 #Oscarssowhite furore – there was a total absence of BAME actors among the 20 nominees.
  • Of the 1,049 individuals in positions of power in the UK just 36 are BAME, that is only 3.4%.
  • Women from BAME backgrounds are even less likely to be represented, with just seven BAME women on the positions of power list – less than 1%.
  • For reference in the UK, 87% of people are White, and 13% belong to a Black, Asian, Mixed or Other ethnic group.

What has been done to change the narrative?

  • The Prime Minister has published an audit on disparities in the treatment and outcomes in Public Services for all races and ethnicities. The audit highlights disparities in educational attainment, health, employment and treatment by police and courts.
  • Various programs to support the progression of people from BAME backgrounds in society.
  • Within BEIS we have a target of 19.50% staff from BAME backgrounds by 2026 / 2027 as well as in the SCS.
  • BEIS was also awarded the accolade as one of the Best Employers for Race in 2017 by Business in The Community.

How are we celebrating Black History Month?

On 2nd October at BEIS we are launching the Civil Service Black History Month celebrations. Our main event – a keynote speech from Trevor Phillips (former television broadcaster/ex Head of the Equal Opportunities Commission) on Race in Britain Today.

We will also include a panel discussion on the lack of success in the Civil Service Fast Steam recruitment of Windrush descendants, with an update from Vicky Elliot and Roxanne Ohene, Deputy Directors of the Ethnic Diversity Programme from the Cabinet Office.

Other key note speakers will include Alex Chisholm – BEIS Permanent secretary, Richard Heaton – MoJ Permanent secretary and Civil Service Race Champion and Jaee Samant – DG, Market Frameworks.

Lunch will be provided on the day with compliments of the Cabinet Office, the main sponsor of the event. The event is open to all staff.

As part of the FAME Network Book Club we will be reading ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ (The Sunday Times Bestseller) by Reni Eddo-Lodge so feel free to join from home!

Written by Godfrey Atuahene Junior, Policy Advisor 

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