Inclusion Circles: Getting real about racism at Telefonica

Debbie Singh, co-chair of 02 UK’s BAME Network, highlights the value of making space for open conversations amongst colleagues.

I admit I was sceptical.

What was an ‘Inclusion Circle’? What was it for? How would it help? Did we really need it? And worst of all, would we be complicit in offering our stories as a pill to cure the guilt headache suffered by well-meaning white colleagues, whilst leaving the rest of us untreated for our terminal migraines?

We started to plan our first Inclusion Circle, facilitated by Inclusive Employers, around May 20th. On May 22nd details of Dominic Cummings travels broke, swiftly followed by firm plans to ease lockdown despite the higher risks to Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities from COVID-19 fatality not easing at all and the causes of such high risks remained unknown. Add to that the casually irresponsible references to “the Chinese Virus” and the corresponding increase in racism towards people with East Asian heritage, and we were convinced that an opportunity for members of our BAME network could benefit from the opportunity to just vent.

There is no roadmap for how to navigate social inequality from behind our clapping doorsteps and awkward manoeuvring to maintain 2 metres between strangers you passed on the street. “At least this time you know, they’re not crossing the road just because you’re brown” was the joke.

And then on May 25th, a video started to speed around the internet of a white American woman shrieking down the phone to police that an African-American man was threatening her life. The video captured the truth. That in reality, this woman had been politely been asked to put her dog on a leash in a part of the park that required her to do so. The video illustrated precisely the imbalance of power that structural racism charges so many with and how easy it is for any person who isn’t black, to abuse that power. It wasn’t long after that the consequences of this abuse of power was cruelly illustrated by the video of Mr George Floyd’s murder.

By May 29th, when we held our first Inclusion Circle chat, the world was spinning out of control. Coronavirus and lockdown had surfaced a range of common emotions – angry but hopeful, sad but grateful, busy and bored – that were easily recognisable whatever your race or circumstance. What had been less apparent was the extent to which those common emotions were amplified for many BAME colleagues simply as a consequence of their race.

Grief for family and friends who had succumbed to coronavirus extended not to one or two devastating losses, but to tens of devastating losses for some of our Inclusion Circle participants; social media pressure to craft and bake the perfect sourdough came with the increase in social media aggression and racism, towards East Asians; the recognisable parental plate-spinning of work and home schooling came with a hurricane of explaining and protecting children from the repeated and devastating images of black people dying, uncensored and with disturbing lack of sensitivity to the communities that would see it. The natural uncertainty about what would happen if we ease too quickly, layered with a niggling insecurity that, perhaps lockdown didn’t matter anymore because it’s mainly black and brown people dying.

The intended purpose of the Inclusion Circle was to give black and minority colleagues some unfettered space to reveal and heal. The unintended consequence was that in the subtext of those conversations, if you listened really carefully and with humility, you would hear an honest review of whether our diversity and inclusion policies and our diversity network were really working and the seeds for tons of ideas for change.  

By providing colleagues with a platform to reveal what’s really on their minds it not only offered a place of solidarity and support it also offered the network the opportunity to understand which of the diversity initiatives weren’t working, embed trust, discover talent and inspiration and create cross-team networks and friendships that often don’t naturally exist for BAME communities. After that first Inclusion Circle I realised, a bit like Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz, everything we needed to improve as a network and influence change, was in our own back yard.

Find out more about how we can support your organisations’ anti-racist action, allyship and the Black Lives Matter movement here.