The housing sector has had nearly 40 years of reports and initiatives on race and diversity. But, asks Olu Olanrewaju, does it have the real drive and leadership to change?
I have been reflecting on recent events, especially the unresolved issues of race, inequality and demand for justice, being powerfully driven by a generation of young people of all backgrounds.
My musings have ranged from whether this recent peak of consciousness would lead to systemic change in the way institutions address racism and discrimination as it affects people of colour, my own personal journey over the years particularly working in the housing sector and lessons for the future.
“Why has a sector that is founded on the principles of addressing the needs of unheard voices not made great strides on this problem”
For the purposes of this piece, I will focus on the first two: my thoughts on the lessons for the future is not fully formed yet as events are still unfolding.
I have worked in the housing sector for nearly 30 years across the country in various housing associations of different guises in London, Bristol and Birmingham. I have had the privilege of coming to the housing sector as a trainee at the organisation Positive Action in Housing and worked my way up the ladder to lead a range of organisations.
Over the period I have received tremendous help from a lot of allies, including bosses, mentors of different guises in terms of gender and ethnicity, and a network of BME colleagues that was set up to provide a safe space to share our experiences of working in housing, because the mainstream discussions in a number of instances excluded us.
So, I come into this wretched problem of race and discrimination in the housing sector both as an insider and outsider, and also with a nuanced insight on a complex problem that I have struggled to grapple with.
The seemingly unanswered question is why has a sector that is founded on the principles of addressing the needs of unheard voices not made great strides on this problem?
“Lack of curiosity, coupled with lack of urgency, have contributed to the current state where the sector lacks moral authority and credibility with most people of colour on this issue who I have spoken to, including those that have left or those that remain in the housing sector”
This is after a long list of race and housing inquiries, reviews, initiatives, campaigns, regulatory standards, proclamations, pledges, diversity policies, diversity statements dating back 40 years, when the National Housing Federation’s race and housing inquiry was launched after the 1981 race riots.
I have heard housing leaders espouse countless times without any form of accountability or sense of irony, the social purpose of the sector and value statements enshrined in fairness and equality. At the same time they have been presiding over organisations that even in recent times had a leadership, be it executive or board composition, which does not reflect or bear semblance to their staff, residents or working population, national or local.
The reason for this inertia leaves one dumbfounded, and in a state of perpetual despair, as one observes again examples of performative activism in response to the current peak of consciousness on racial injustice.
Undoubtedly a lot of colleagues mean well, but good intentions are not enough. We need to ask our leaders why the indifference over the years? Because lack of curiosity, coupled with lack of urgency, have contributed to the current state where the sector lacks moral authority and credibility with most people of colour on this issue who I have spoken to, including those that have left or those that remain in the housing sector. Enough good and well-meaning people have sat on the fence for so long, they have now fallen off the fence.
“Where are the personal reflections of leaders in the sector to reassure us that lessons of the past have been learned, and to provide the authenticity required to give us hope?”
As Martin Luther King said: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
The fact that we are now seeing statements rushed out on social media by organisations without any form of rigorous assessment and analysis to identify the root causes of why and how we got here is a testament to the challenges ahead.
To the best of my knowledge, no worthwhile analysis has been undertaken of why past housing sector initiatives have failed or why interventions presented now as solutions would work, when in the past similar recommendations were either not implemented or have failed to achieve the desired outcomes.
Where are the personal reflections of leaders in the sector to reassure us that lessons of the past have been learned, and to provide the authenticity required to give us hope? Has it occurred to colleagues that this is one issue that requires fundamental cultural change and cannot lead to long lasting change without authentic leadership? The issue of race and housing raises serious question about the sector leadership’s capability to lead in turbulent Britain. It is a must for leadership to be competent at leading diverse workforce, now and definitely in the immediate future.
“We are keen to work with the housing sector to shift the dial and use this once in a lifetime burning platform to rid our sector of this malaise”
This is particularly true as we deal with the fallout of COVID 19, including the disproportionate numbers of BAME people that have been infected or died as a result of this epidemic. The emerging findings associate these statistics with socio-economic factors such as quality of housing conditions and poverty, presenting further challenges for the housing sector.
About three years ago, a few of us with support from a number of allies set up Leadership 2025 to provide solutions and stimulate the housing sector to address inequalities. I am pleased that within a short period of time, we have placed this important issue back on the radar and are making some progress to address not only the talent pipeline, but crucially encouraging organisations to focus on the cultural and systemic issues that create barriers for people of colour in their organisations. The current debate reinforces our ambition to be the catalyst of sober reflection and cultural change to create a leadership of the housing sector that is ethnically diverse.
We are keen to work with the housing sector to shift the dial and use this once in a lifetime burning platform to rid our sector of this malaise. To support leaders that genuinely want to move the sector to where it should be, leading on this agenda and helping society navigate our way through the choppy waters we find ourselves in on race, equality, and justice.
On a personal note, I have a new role working in the international housing field with multinational experts and projects in different countries from Rwanda, Mozambique to Krygstan, which reinforces the importance of leadership competence in managing diversity. The importance of listening, being curious, authenticity and adapting solutions to respond to local environments have been challenging but ultimately rewarding.
Olu Olanrewaju is chair of Leadership 2025 and associate director of Altair International. From next week, Inside Housing will be publishing a series of blogs by the current cohort of Leadership 2025’s nine-month leadership development programme