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In Focus: Black Lives Matter with Barbara Kasumu

In Focus: Barbara Kasumu

Position: Co-Founder, Inclusive Boards

Specialism: Diversity, Governance and Third Sector

Board portfolio: Non-Executive Director, YHA (England & Wales); Interim Chair, The Kids Network.

Inclusive Boards sat down with Barbara Kasumu to discuss recent events in the Black Lives Matter movement and what it might mean for long term change.

What has been your experience as a Black woman in leadership? 

I’m the eldest of three children so I’ve always assumed a position of leadership and responsibility from a very young age.

So when I think about my leadership journey, the principles started at home. Whilst we didn’t grow up with a lot of material things, all of us were instilled with a sense of aspiration. For example it was very clear to myself and my siblings that we would all go to university because getting a good education was the most important foundation for our future.

Doctor, lawyer, accountant were considered stable careers to pursue but access to career advice and role models in these fields was very limited. At the time I wanted to be a lawyer, so whilst the aspiration was there, the know how, the social networks were non-existent. There was no-one that looked like me or had my background that I could relate to in law, so I felt very aware of the need to be proactive in ‘bettering myself’. This even saw me travel across London to attend a sixth form that wore a uniform.

Fast forward to now and the one piece of advice I received that accelerated my career very early on was to get as much work experience as possible. So I spent a large part of my 20s, interning, volunteering and working- sometimes simultaneously! As I had decided not to pursue a career in law, I was keen to be in a career that allowed me to help groups that were traditionally sidelined, considered vulnerable and under-represented when it came to access to opportunities and economic progression.

I was very fortunate to have what we would call today ‘sponsors’. They were people that liked me, liked my work and thought of me when opportunities arose. So when I think of my journey one thing I was always very aware of was being one of the very few Black people in the room, one of few women and often the youngest. At times has heightened my experience of imposter syndrome but at the same time, I’ve learnt to recognise my differences as a superpower. I recognise my lived experience is often unique, that I shouldn’t be intimidated by the fact I may be seen as a minority in terms of my race, gender or age. I’ve used that uniqueness as a strength and as a reason for why I should be in the room or at the table

Do you feel things have improved for Black people accessing more senior positions in relation to the third sector?

I think the challenge with the third sector, because it is a social sector, because it exists to serve the local community, to support some of our most vulnerable in society, to ‘do good’ there’s an expectation that the sector should be leading by example and this hasn’t been the case when it comes to diversity and inclusion, especially around race and disability. Inclusive Boards released research showing that charity boards were behind even the FTSE 100 in terms of governance and board diversity. 

Too often we see a bottleneck of Black talent in junior positions in an organisation.The sector needs to be more intentional overall. The excuse of not having the resources is prevalent and it isn’t always the case. Take for example recruitment, simply reviewing where you advertise or tracking the diversity of your applications are quick steps to seeing where you may have gaps. The talent is there but the sector definitely has to challenge its talent pipeline.

Have you seen improvements in Black people accessing senior positions?

I’ve always been of the mind that there has always been talent and some sectors have been better than others at attracting that talent. Progress has been made and we are seeing more platforms championing diverse role models in senior positions. However the rate of change can be faster. Visible diversity is a lot easier to spot if it’s not there and more needs to be done to challenge the status quo and move beyond just lip service and tokenistic gestures.

What do you make of recent events in the Black Lives Matter movement?

We’re finding ourselves in a very unique period of history. Firstly, we’re in a global pandemic, we’ve seen the world literally pause. It has provided a shared experience the world over. Then in the midst of this the horrific murder of George Floyd, a Black man in America, by a white policeman has which has sparked global outrage not just from the Black community. 

The Black lives matter movement provides a heightened sense of hope for me. This is a movement that needs our backing, needs our support. Momentum has been accelerated to challenge peoples’ stances and advocate for an anti-racist agenda across all aspects of life and work

When I look at the recent protests I see such a diverse turnout both in terms of the demographic of people  but also where demonstrations are taking place. It’s not just limited to the Black community. People have shown that this is the time to take action- the whole world is watching.” 

What do you believe Boards can do to show Black lives matter?

I’m always of the mind that this shouldn’t become a tokenistic movement. These are people’s lives here. So when boards look into this more they need to move beyond just having a nice diversity and inclusion policy and ask; what is the substance behind this?, how does our commitment produce an inclusive working practice and an inclusive working culture, how do we build this into strategic working plans? 

I don’t think the appropriate response for boards is to say “ok well, let’s get a few more Black faces on the board”. That’s tokenism. It’s not the progress we want – we want to see organisations become more inclusive. 

Of course, the quick wins are going to be through recruitment and changing board diversity but there’s a long term goal here and it’s around achieving equity and improving inclusion. What is really important is that organisations are authentic, they’re not going to get it right overnight, it’s about creating that positive vision.

How do you feel this can be achieved long term?

I don’t think diversity and inclusion should be treated any less seriously than an organisation would treat health and safety or safeguarding. We need to constantly be asking the question, ‘who is not in the room?’, ‘how is this group being affected by this particular policy or programme of work?

Is there anything else you would like to say?

A Lot of people will be asking what next? With lockdown beginning to ease and people adjusting to a ‘new normal’. I think for a lot of people this has been an overwhelming time, in terms of knowledge transfer or how racism might affect you personally. For some of us, our work allows us to automatically champion the agenda, such as Inclusive Boards. This doesn’t always mean creating something new, it’s about seeing where you can make a difference based on your circle of influence. 

Let’s not wait for big businesses or governments for things to happen because we could be waiting for a long time.