Turning the dream into reality

The Policy Lead for the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard marks the start of NHS Equality and Diversity Week with a call for sustained bold action:

Everyone in the NHS has the right to equality of opportunity to progress, and to receive fair and equitable experiences within the workplace.

These are the aspirations that we all share, and which are at the heart of the NHS Constitution.

Although the dream of equal opportunity for all has not yet come true, its promise still exists. But words alone will not meet the needs of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff in the NHS; needs will only be met if we act boldly, today, every day, and in the years ahead.

That is why in 2015 we established the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) and why, earlier this year, we included it firmly within the NHS Long Term Plan.

The WRES holds up a mirror to organisational performance on this agenda. The latest WRES data for NHS trusts shows that several of the WRES indicators are improving over time, but many organisations and parts of the NHS still have much work to do.

We must face these challenges head-on. Unless the challenges are shared, the failure to meet them will hurt us all. Just as if financial systems are weakened in one part of the world, prosperity is affected everywhere.

But whilst we may be humbled by the task before us, we are also firm in the belief that, together we can, and must, make a lasting difference on this agenda. We all have a role to play in turning the dream into reality, and in narrowing the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time.

So, we have a choice: we can be bystanders to this issue or we can come together and tackle the very root causes of workforce race inequality. But inequalities need to be addressed, not just by words, but by deeds.

The race equality agenda is not just for BME folk to work on, it requires the collective efforts of everyone. White allies have a key role to play. If we walk away from these issues and retreat into our respective corners, we will not be able to make the improvements that our staff and patients need and deserve.

We may have different stories, but we need to have common hopes. We may not all come from the same place, but we all need to move in the same direction.

This agenda should not be viewed as a weight of responsibility, but as the opportunity of a lifetime. It is not a crisis to be managed, but an opportunity to right wrongs and improve.

To understand what it means to be white in the UK, and break the silences that often surround it, requires persistent and soul-searching work. Sadly, too many of us stop short of that level of deep self-examination.

We may assume that good intentions and eagerness to help are enough, and multi-ethnic communities and organisations are engaged, with the expectation of being liked and trusted. But trust isn’t something granted simply because people show up.

Trust is to be earned, again and again. Or better said, there is a need to become trustworthy allies; people passionately committed to eliminating systems and deep-rooted cultures of discrimination that unjustly benefit one part of the workforce.

We frequently enter conversations on race expecting BME folk to open-up and share how racism and discrimination affects them, without being willing to share an equivalent level of vulnerability and self-disclosure.

We need to be ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’ and own the level of privilege that some of us have. And indeed, it is possible to become trustworthy allies, but only if there is a willingness to move out of comfort zones, risk having assumptions challenged, and our way of viewing the world transformed.

The work of explaining and undoing discrimination shouldn’t fall on those most affected by it. This work must also be taken on by those who continue to benefit from it. Only then will we be able to shift the dial on inequality and turn the dream into reality.

Dr Habib Naqvi

Dr Habib Naqvi has a background in equality and diversity policy, public health, and health psychology. Habib is the Policy Lead for the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard and is leading on the inclusion of the WRES within national policy levers.

Before joining NHS England in 2013, Habib worked on the development of national equality and diversity policy at the Department of Health, where he led on the development of the Equality Delivery System for the NHS and took the lead for coordinating the health sector’s response to the Ministerial review of the Equality Duty.

Habib has experience in academia and research, including holding a strong portfolio of healthcare research.

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