Leah is currently the first EDI Lead at St John Ambulance, helping form their diversity and inclusion strategies for the next couple of years. Interviewed by DJM's D&I Officer Tzeitel Degiovanni, Leah speaks about the reasons why she moved into this work - especially in the third sector - the differences between 'Diversity and Inclusion' and anti-racism, and how her previous experience qualifying as a Solicitor at a Magic Circle law firm has helped shaped the work she does today.
What motivated you to work at St John Ambulance?
I needed a real change in my career on a personal level. I qualified as a Solicitor and was working for a law firm in the City, but there were just some things in that industry that didn’t suit me or what I wanted out of a career. I was doing a lot of work in the EDI space whilst in that role, trying to juggle being a lawyer and having an interest in these areas. I quickly realized that I wanted to be somewhere where people were focused on tangibly doing something good for others. So working for the third sector and working for a charity was a way I could get that, and focus on what I was really passionate about. My legal skills will always be useful in this space so I was able to bridge that gap really nicely!
What does ‘EDI’ look like and mean to you personally?
I think on a basic level, it’s the idea of everyone having fair treatment and opportunity. So my ‘EDI’ job role is ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ lead and I know there’s been a lot of back and forth on whether it should be ‘equality’ or ‘equity’. For me, equity is at the centre of all of it. It’s about equipping people with the resources to be able to have and give that fair treatment and fair opportunity. It comes down to seeing people as individuals and not as a homogenous group. Within St John we’re such a long-standing and historically rich organisation in many aspects, so it’s really about having that new and fresh set of eyes to see where we can improve as we move forward.
I’ve had so much interest from both our employee and volunteer community since starting, so it’s really about being able to pull all those resources and experiences together and essentially lead the conversation in the right direction, not to command or control it. We’re very keen to be reflective of the communities that we work in and in order for us to do that we need to be able to properly understand them, engage with them and reflect them.
Visibility is a really important point when it comes to EDI – representation matters. So that’s been a big piece of introspection for us in thinking about how we can authentically and visibly show that we are listening to and understanding those communities. As an organisation who works on a national scale (as well as an international one), it’s a big piece of work that other smaller charities or companies perhaps might not have to look at from so many different lenses. It’s really important for us to consider our young people, our more experienced people, those in urban areas or rural areas, and everything in between that we need to cater for. So the intersectionality of it all is really key for us on our journey.
We’d love to hear a bit about the anti-racism training you do, as EDI and anti-racism is often conflated but really they are different things.
The anti-racism training I do is focused on essentially taking things right back to basics, asking questions like what is racism, what’s it’s history and how does it seep into everyday practices in the workplace? We work with really engaged groups within companies and focus on it being interactive (so we go into break-out rooms and discuss distinct topics like privilege, for example, or certain case studies that come up in the media). This helps people understand what different interactions can look like to those from different backgrounds and how it affects them.
The training is very much focused on race and identity in that respect, but it also encompasses some wider issues like xenophobia, islamophobia, and so on. It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to engage with a wider audience and many different levels of understanding. For example, at the moment we’re preparing to work with a company based in the US, so our approach there is a little different than it would be for a UK company. Anti-racism work sits within EDI as an umbrella, but yes anti-racism training and EDI can’t really be conflated at all.
What have the results of those training courses been?
They’ve been really successful and opened up further dialogue on the topics. The company I do this with run unconscious bias training as well as anti-racism training, and often the anti-racism training will come as a follow-on from the unconscious bias to contextualize, build on those key concepts, and dig a bit deeper. The sessions helps people navigate those conversations they perhaps didn’t know how to previously, and equip them with the cultural understanding how and when to speak to colleagues from currently underrepresented backgrounds on these issues.
What is your approach when doing this work?
I think the best approach is to be direct and to the point on some of the issues. Often I think within EDI we worry a little too much about protecting everyone’s feelings, and I understand the need for that – but when you’re trying to get to the root of certain big issues like racism, it really needs to be clear to people what is acceptable, what isn’t, and why. Us defining key terms at the offset and then having case studies and lived experiences to exemplify those points really helps people to engage and see things from a different perspective.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing EDI at the moment?
Right now working from home is proving one of the biggest challenges. For some, working remotely is fine, but for others it’s really changed the way that they interact with their colleagues, the way that they do their job, and that can be quite tough from an inclusion perspective.
Besides that, I think policy development is a really important area. EDI is a constantly evolving area, so there’s the tendency to feel as though we always need to amend policy to reflect this, but not necessarily focus on the outputs. It can be a really difficult balancing act between making sure that the policy provides the mechanism for accountability, but also isn’t something that you have to be constantly reviewing. You have to be able to have an adaptable and fluid policy or strategy to refer to that enables you to navigate through all the unknowns that I’m sure we’re going to continue to face.
How do you think your background in legal and as a solicitor has helped you in this space or shaped your approach to EDI?
The academic perspective has definitely helped me. I did a law degree, trained and qualified as a solicitor and always had a strong passion for human rights, equality and justice. So that understanding of legislation and how it’s evolved is really useful, as it underpins a lot of principles.
Professionally, having worked in a number of industries, I’ve seen the effect first hand of being someone from a marginalized community, whether as a Black person, a woman, or someone from a certain socio-economic background. My time in the legal industry was the one where it really struck home that I was one of few that looked or even sounded like me in a room. That definitely put a lot of things into perspective for me, which is why when in that role it was really important for me to be a voice for others and try to open the door up. The industry, like most others, faces its own nuanced issues and the more advocates the better.
What would be the advice you’d give organizations across the country, or EDI teams, who are looking to improve their diversity, inclusion and culture?
The first thing I would say is be very open. And when I say that I mean having that ability to acknowledge where you’ve made mistakes, because we all will – we’re human! EDI is very much a moving piece so we’re never going to get it right all of the time. But that ability to put your hands up and say, “you know what, having looked at this, we probably didn’t take the right approach here, but this is what we’re going to do about it” is crucial, and puts some humanity and authenticity back into it.
Also, try and make everything a dialogue, a two-way process that isn’t just fed top-down but also up and through all the channels in between. It all boils down to openness and transparency, trust and accountability. Unless you have markers that can be used to judge progress on, there’s not really much that we can do to see whether or not you’re actually taking that diversity and inclusion pledge seriously.