5 minutes with… Debbie Epstein

Who are the people that make inclusion an everyday reality? This feature gives you the chance to find out more about the team behind Inclusive Employers - our values, stories, motivations, and inspirations.

This month, Debbie Epstein, shares her top inclusion moments with us. Debbie is the Head of Inclusion & Diversity for Sport at Inclusive Employers, leading on Inclusive Employers work to promote inclusive cultures and diverse workforces across the sport, physical activity and leisure sector.

1) Can you tell us how you came to be in your role?

I started work for a development charity in my late-20s. I was involved in promoting our work in the UK to encourage people with appropriate skills to volunteer overseas. When I first started I found the culture really alien. I could not understand what people were talking about in meetings or how decisions were made. The culture felt impregnable and was utterly confusing to me, although I had previously worked for a Local Authority and a small charity.

It felt cliquey, and as I have always done throughout my life, I found this stifling and pushed back against it. This left me feeling on the outside. Over time, I witnessed how if you were a certain ‘type’ you were more likely to be viewed as a good ‘fit’, and were valued and promoted more quickly and easily. 

My introduction to the world of inclusion came from an organisation I joined outside of work. It focused on understanding how past experiences and structural oppression impacts the way we see the world. It was about supporting our personal growth and development but also about global change. Along with another colleague, we helped to start an ethnicity network and I was able to shape a role for myself which focused on recruiting volunteers from under-represented groups. 

After a few years I completed a Masters with a view to working in inclusion. I worked for Camden PCT in patient and public involvement, and then in the Diversity and Inclusion Team at King’s College for 12 years. I ended up as Head of Diversity and Inclusion there (covering both staff and students). 

Towards the end of my stay at King’s, I realised I really wanted to work in an organisation that had Inclusion at its heart. I wanted to carry on in my area of expertise, but without having to work through the politics and challenges that come with being situated in a large complex organisation. I wasn’t disappointed – Inclusive Employers is an incredible place to work, it felt like family from the off.

2) Can you share an ‘inclusion moment’ with us – a time when you have felt included either at work or in your personal life?

For some reason this moment always comes to mind. I was scheduled to deliver a session on Religion and Belief for members at our offices in Short Street. I approached the planning and delivery of the session with trepidation. We were going to be covering Antisemitism and Islamophobia and given the tensions around these two topics in the wider world, I was worried about how the dynamic in room and how conversations would play out. I was expecting the worst. 

On the day a really religiously diverse group of people attended from a broad range of public and private, small and large organisations. The session ended up being a joy to deliver, people listened to each other intently, were engaged and we had a thoughtful and meaningful discussion.

I was on cloud nine afterwards. Something I was dreading and expecting to be personally very painful and triggering was the opposite. It made me feel very hopefully about what we can all achieve!

3) What do you love most about your role?

Respectful, thoughtful, animated conversations with people (colleagues, participants on courses, members etc) where individuals work together collaboratively to come up with new and creative ideas.

4) What is a typical day like for you?

Every weekday morning, I start the day with 10 minutes of mindfulness practice. The Inclusive Employers team all completed a mindfulness course in January 2021 to bring everyone together and extend our support systems during lockdown. I have kept it up and am still learning the practice but am sure it has helped me with the intensity of working from home and dealing with the ups and downs of family life during this period.

Then it’s about getting my two kids off to school. One recently started secondary school and the other is almost ready to walk to school alone now, so it’s not too onerous.

I have normally planned my day in detail in advance, so I try to follow the plan as closely as possible. I am very task focused so need to be reminded to connect and be human with colleagues. Fortunately, the team has some social times planned in during the week – like the Friday casual chat and Coffee Roulette so I don’t become a complete hermit.

My day comprises lots of meetings, training delivery and consultancy work for clients. Michelle Daltry and I have been focused on developing our Inclusive Sport activity since the start of 2021. We have a growing number of sport and physical activity organisations who are members and alongside this are running a funded programme with Sport England. As part of this, we are currently working with 33 organisations offering a year-long programme of development and support to help them embed inclusion into all of their activity from boardrooms to sports ground.

5) What’s been your most memorable moment in your inclusion career?

Early on in my time at Inclusive Employers, I was involved in a project with the House of Commons to draft their Sexual Misconduct Procedures. It was an incredibly valuable experience professionally.  I conducted focus groups across the UK with Commons staff, MPs and their staff, gathered data via an anonymous portal where individuals could share their experiences and worked with an academic expert on the topic to draw together best practice approaches globally. I also set up an Advisory Panel of experts who met to review and steer the activity.  It was total immersion and my understanding of the topic increased exponentially!

To meet more people that make inclusion an everyday reality, see our full series of “5 minutes with…”