Becoming anti-racist isn’t always easy or comfortable: but it’s the right thing to do

Georgios Pappas

Outlining Jisc's journey from a non-racist to an actively anti-racist organisation

People with fist put together during support group session

The 2024 Black Leadership Group (BLG) conference, taking place today and chaired by Robin Ghurbhurun, managing director of further education, skills and advice and training at Jisc, encourages us to be courageous and to challenge systemic racism for the benefit of all.

Since becoming the first national organisation to affiliate with the Black Leadership Group, Jisc has been working hard to progress from a non-racist to an actively anti-racist organisation.

The important distinction is that instead of passively being opposed to racism without taking action, we work towards being upstanders: to proactively oppose racism when we witness it, eradicate it from our policies, systems, practices and culture, and inspire others to do the same.

By acknowledging that mainstream equity, diversity and inclusion practices often fail to weave anti-racism into organisational cultures, we are actively working to shift the dial.

Beyond striving to sift everything we do through an anti-racist lens, we are delivering dedicated initiatives sponsored by our CEO, Heidi Fraser-Krauss, to ensure we combat structural racism within our organisation and inspire our partners to do the same.

A people-first approach

Since 2021, Jisc has taken a holistic approach to embedding anti-racism, and we have built relationships and trust across our workforce to lay the foundations of having honest conversations about lived experiences within Jisc.

Senior leaders from across the business and I have taken the time to get to know our people, actively listen to their personal experiences without judgement or the provision of quick fixes, and truly signal their commitment to creating an anti-racist culture.

We then invited external consultants to create a safe space for our colleagues of colour to discuss their lived experiences of working at Jisc and help us identify the areas where we could have the greatest impact.

The outcomes included: enhancing the diversity of talent at Jisc, improving the disclosure rate of employee data by reinforcing messaging around race, establishing a cultural framework, empowering management teams across the organisation to take accountability for inclusion in their areas, and driving forward conversations around race and inclusion.

I am extremely proud of Jisc’s progress across these priority areas to date. We have engaged with external experts to equip colleagues across the organisation to take an anti-racist approach, and our executive leadership and employee network co-chairs have pledged their support for anti-racism and inclusion.

With the support of our CEO, we also revamped and relaunched our diversity and inclusion monitoring form, leading to a 30% increase in disclosure the following year.

As part of our internal leadership programme, Jisc introduced a ‘leading for anti-racism’ masterclass and partnered with external experts to deliver a conscious inclusion programme for Jisc’s senior leaders.

We launched an anti-racism and racial equality employee network, increased the representation of people of colour in our workforce and launched early careers opportunities for young black talent through an apprenticeship initiative called 10,000 Black Interns.

What we found

Most recently we launched an anti-racism manifesto, which is a springboard for us to stretch ourselves further. Conversations about racism are rarely easy or comfortable and drafting our manifesto, we expected to uncover pockets of frustration or resistance.

But we also knew that these conversations would shine a light on ‘unknown unknowns’ and challenge any existing assumptions about our culture and the lived experiences of colleagues throughout the organisation. Leading with courage, empathy and active listening has provided a psychologically safe backdrop where we can embrace discomfort or vulnerability rather than resist it.

By engaging in a bottom-up and top-down approach simultaneously, our staff were able to be honest and open, knowing their experiences and views would be listened to and valued. In turn, our senior leadership prioritised creating the time and space for those conversations to happen.

Most importantly, our commitment has gone beyond words into tangible action. We never want to disillusion our workforce or allow something as important as anti-racism to sit on a shelf.

We pride ourselves in our “you said, we did” culture and are ensuring communication channels with our colleagues across the business remain open.

Next steps

Our focus remains on diversifying and retaining great talent who represent the communities we serve.

Despite greater diversity across our workforce, we continue to experience underrepresentation of people of colour at senior leadership level and we are taking an inward and outward approach to mitigate this.

By working to identify colleagues across the business with the aspiration and potential to lead, we hope to unlock the right opportunities for the best talent. Externally, we are also reviewing our recruitment practices, strategies and communications to ensure that we attract a diverse talent pool and are well equipped to bring them on board.

We have set ambitious targets (quantitative and cultural) and milestones to drive our future. We can confidently say that even if we don’t always get it right, we have created and maintained significant momentum, and a strong sense of accountability which ensures that anti-racism never becomes a box-ticking exercise in Jisc.

Our advice to anyone who hasn’t yet started this journey is to be bold. Don’t shy away from starting a conversation because you fear where it may lead. Once people feel genuinely listened to and involved, you will be surprised by the level of dedication and commitment that colleagues will bring forth to make a positive difference.

Find out more

Visit the Black Leadership Group website for more information on how to be active, authentic and authoritative in tackling racism in your institution.

About the author

Georgios Pappas
Diversity and inclusion consultant, Jisc