“The change we’d like to see in our cities, and which we talk about, starts with us having the courage to come forward and do something we wouldn’t usually do. Less talk, more action.”
In the third of our series of blogs from our twelve Aspirees’, Sheika Johnston shares what she’s learnt so far…
Although my parents’ origins are in Cameroon and Chad and although I call Cameroon home, I consider myself a pan-African having moved around Africa growing up. Growing up in Africa, my identity as a black African woman was never questioned or threatened because I grew up feeling part of a majority. Division was dictated by class, status and wealth as opposed to race and as such, I never had to think of myself as ‘Black’ – I was just me.
I arrived in the UK age 18 to study and 20 years later, I look back and realise how much my outlook on life, race and identity has evolved.
In the last few years, I have had the opportunity to access the middle management ranks of the corporate world through my career in Construction Project Management. As always, I applied myself. I thrived to treat everyone with respect, to raise my hand when I did not know and to not be ashamed to admit I had something to learn from everyone around me. However, for the first time in my life, I felt out of place. I was starting to miss being around people that simply looked like me, people I didn’t have to explain myself to.
By then, I was well rehearsed in being ‘the only’. Engineering school and later the Faculty of the Built Environment were male-dominated, so it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only black female in the entire lecture theatre.
Like many of the Aspirees and many people around the world, 2020 became a pivotal point in my life, not only because of lockdown and the inability to take anything for granted anymore but also because of events across the Atlantic that curiously deeply shook me.
Someone whose life had seemingly nothing in common with mine, was brutally murdered for all to see and in that moment, his death felt like a personal attack on me. Colleagues and my family-in-law would send me messages asking me about my thoughts about it all – On the one hand I felt as though I was expected to be the spokesperson for every black person in the World and on the other hand it did fill like a personal bereavement.
Concurrently to this, I experienced two losses of very close family members in very quick succession. I was able to travel to East Africa and to be there for their home-sending and got back safely but I don’t think I have ever been the same since.
During the months that followed, I made the decision to leave my job and to give myself the space I needed to reflect and to reconsider and question everything.
I was suddenly unable to put on my work persona everyday (the way I had been doing for years) and to switch back to my own self every evening. Doing this for years had left me exhausted. Having to explain my views or for an easy life, having to silence them had left me exhausted.
What was needed
I gave myself permission to sit out – in the discomfort of not being busy for the first time in years – I felt it was absolutely necessary to stop and to no longer hide behind the need to provide to justify being part of a ‘room’ I didn’t feel heard in. I thought of my two daughters, whose identity and experience as brown children born and growing up in the West is miles apart from mine and I decided to do something (on a small scale and however best I could at my level) to contribute towards an easier future for them – So they may feel that they can be part of any conversation regardless of where they chose to live and who they chose to be.
Fast forward to March 2022, I heard about Aspire and the BeOnBoard programme in a completely serendipitous way, as tends to happen. I was straight away compelled to apply to the programme as it aligned with my vision of how I wanted to contribute. BeOnBoard put in words what I had been struggling to articulate in terms of what I wanted to do next.
I have sat on three workshops so far and am in awe of the combined experience of the Aspirees and programme organisers. I am taking it all in and feel privileged to be amongst people who feel like-minded in so many ways, despite having such hugely varying experiences.
I recognise that BeOnBoard may not result in instant change regarding the lack of diversity on the boardrooms across the country. I am also conscious that it is up to me to figure out how to make meaningful contributions and to add value to the charity I have been paired with, through my lived and professional experience. However, I am optimistic that it is the start of a bigger movement, and that people are ready to listen.
The boardroom experience is new and exciting to me, as is the charitable sector. It seems full of people with a genuine altruistic ambition to change the status-quo.
It is challenging and at times exhausting to continually be the one who has to explain, educate and correct people who say or do the wrong thing, but I see this as a position of privilege that must be carefully utilised to start creating the change we so long to see, not only in the boardroom but in society at large.
My hope is that we might get to a point when initiatives such as BeOnBoard or Diversity & Inclusion departments in corporate organisations are no longer needed – If not in my lifetime, maybe in my children’s.
5 top tips for organisations
- Find ways to create room at the table for a diverse workforce – not in a tokenistic way but in an enforced, genuine way.
- Think outside the box when recruiting – An interview panel tends to award the job to whoever they best relate to. Figure out ways around this, while remaining mindful that awards are based on merit.
- Join career programmes for young people and specifically ask to work with deprived schools. It is almost too late by the time young people have got to the end of secondary school/college/University.
- Try to achieve diversity and representation amongst senior management within your organisation.
- Do not tokenise the few members of staff representing a minority. We all have a different story and life experience. No one can speak on behalf of an entire group.
- Being an inclusive organisation/Board room relates to more than just race.
ASPIRE is BeOnBoard’s diverse leadership project, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, that aims to break barriers and disrupt the leadership status quo by diversifying boards with People of Colour to increase representation across the VCSE sector.
To find out more about ASPIRE, visit our webpage HERE
Click HERE to read Sara Telahoun’s blog and click HERE to read Olubbodunrin Tokosi’s blog.