A new pilot project from Common Cause and the Runnymede Trust – a series of networks across the UK – seeks to support Black and Minority-Ethnic (BME) people stepping into a leadership role, founding their own projects and organisations, often for the first time. Carol Sidney, Project Manager, spoke to two people of colour who have already taken this journey.
“Sometimes people want to run the world before they’re even running a corner shop“, says Andrew Brown, the Chief Executive of Croydon BME Forum which, uniquely in London, supports African and African-Caribbean people who are setting up their own ‘for-profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. Andrew began his career with accounting firm KPMG, for a number of years ran his own venture – a coffee shop in Loughborough Junction – and then went to work for a charity offering employability skills to young people. The day that charity decided to make all their staff redundant, is the day that Andrew started his own not-for-profit – “Elevating Success” – taking him from redundant employee to business owner in just six days. His was a sudden and steep learning curve, encompassing the demand for a new business name, legal documents, a staffing framework, an accountant and a new bank account.
But those six days cannot ignore the years he had spent building contacts and networks. It cannot discount his stable marriage, a solid set of management skills and his personal savings, all of which allowed him a degree of security – which in turn enabled him to take advantage of a sudden opportunity, as well as manage its risks. Of the people who now arrive at his door, even if they are armed with a brilliant idea and a plan, he speaks of their need to focus on those often boring, incremental steps needed to realise thier ideas. And he says it, not to chill their ambition, but to help people stay grounded in reality. To stay with the slow, slow, drip, drip, drip of laborious steps which accumulate, over time, into the complex whole that finally forms the event, the project, the artefact, the entity. What one sees as a website, a flier, or a logo hides a mountain of work hours, problem solving, energy and resilience it takes to realise and embody anything in the world. And, for people with BME backgrounds, for people coming from disadvantaged communities, stepping into a leadership role comes with a series of other complexities.
I asked Andrew “who gave you permission?” He frowns at me, a little perplexed. We then go on to establish that he has a Christian faith, a resource in and of itself, which gives him a degree of objectivity that can absorb the inevitable rejections and setbacks that comes with establishing any new entity. Ameena M McConnell, founding artist of Living Space Art School based in Islington, North London, takes up this theme. She says: BME people “wait for permission” – that is, they wait for an authority outside of themselves before they start their venture or as they formulate their ideas. What they actually need to do, she says, is to be more “self-validating and courageous”. Being self-directed is not a simple thing, and comes with added barriers for those socialised by a society which routinely negates them: their colour, their body-type, their cultural heritage, their income bracket. Moving beyond these limitations has to be understood as a huge act of transcendence. For some, barring the usual hurdles of funding or access to contacts or quality information or experience and skills, sometimes the blocks to realising ambition may well be you holding yourself back, or societal norms that convey the message that you are `the wrong sort’.
Ameena speaks very personally about her experience developing Living Space Arts School. So, for instance, she struggled with the pre-judgements and meanings conferred by the label “community”. Now, after a period of testing, reflection and evolution, rather than describe Living Space as a “community organisation”, she calls it a “creative arts organisation that serves the local community”. In an interesting adjunct to Andrew Brown, Ameena says she gets frustrated at times by lack of ambition, and by BME people limiting their own ideas. Living Space recently put on an oil painting course for older adults living in her local community. Oil paintings, it seems, are still associated with wealth and aristocracy, and so part of her work had to engage with their resistance to giving themselves the chance to embrace and enjoy this medium.
Stepping into a leadership role may be exhilarating and exciting but it will also be lonely and overwhelming. The Common Cause Networks will be set up in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Nottingham. Each network will offer peer support, expert speakers, case study presentations, and a safe space for BME people as they think through, plan and then take action to realise their ideas. Seeking Ameena’s advice on setting up this series of new networks, she says BME people need “to be listened to by someone who is not going to edit them”. They may even need to be stopped from limiting themselves, especially at the beginning. Ideas and plans can always be moulded and shaped pragmatically further down the line; but the important thing is to dream freely, and to dream big.
Founding your own organisation or developing your own ideas and projects, is a challenge that will stretch you in so many different levels: from the circumstances of your personal life, to a realistic assessment of what skills you actually have, what contacts you can actually draw upon, what resources you actually need to find. Join one of the networks to help sustain your sense of drive, passion and resilience along the way.
To register for the Glasgow Network https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/common-cause-networks-glasgow-tickets-47460026216
To register for the Cardiff Network https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/common-cause-networks-cardiff-tickets-47305649471?aff=ebdssbdestsearch
To register for the Birmingham Network https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/common-cause-networks-birmingham-tickets-47304379673?aff=ebdssbdestsearch
Information about the Nottingham and Liverpool networks will soon be available.
For further information and an informal chat, please call Carol on 0207 377 9222 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org Runnymede will be registering participants until April 2019.