Episode 17: Bridging the personal and professional in anti-racism and decolonisation. Lena Bheeroo interviewed.

About this episode:

Lena Bheeroo (Bond) introduces us to Bond’s Anti-racism and Decolonising Framework and the wider work she’s done in tackling racism across organisations in the development sector. Lena highlights the importance of bringing in people working at all organisational levels as part of a collective effort. Lena outlines how Bond’s framework maps out the process of addressing racism from a personal and professional perspective, and aims to demonstrate the interdependence of organisational structure, and therefore the need for a holistic approach. She opens up about the personal and professional costs that come with speaking up about situations of racial discrimination or injustice within organisations, and highlights how processes of decolonisation and anti-racism must involve everyone.
Episode 17: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 17

Bridging the personal and professional in anti-racism and decolonisation. Lena Bheeroo interviewed.

Lena: [00:00:00] It’s not just the responsibility of HR or the leader or people who are on the board. Actually, it’s all of our responsibilities. And this is what the framework is trying to show. Because these issues are so embedded across all of our working environments, we really need a holistic approach.

And we need to not shy away from the fact that this is a huge problem and it’s all of our problems. It’s not just one person is going to solve this in our organisation and suddenly your organisation is not racist. That’s not how it works. Actually, we all need to start taking responsibility for it, and you can do that.

Kate: Hello. In today’s episode of the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, Lena Bheeroo from Bond introduces their anti-racism and decolonising framework and the wider work she’s done tackling racism across organisations in the development sector. She highlights the importance of bringing people working at all organisational levels as part of the collective effort on tackling racism.[00:01:00] 

Lena outlines Bond’s framework and maps out the process of addressing racism from a personal and professional perspective and aims to demonstrate the interdependence of organisational structure, and the need for a holistic approach. She also reflects on her personal experience of experiencing racism in organisations and the impact that had on her as a professional and an individual.

Listen on for more. 

Charmaine: Hi everyone, and welcome to the Power Shift: Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and activists to share ideas, inspire change and identify tools for practical action. I’m Charmaine McCauley, a body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program called Racism in Real Time.

And my co-host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development Hub. As a Black psychotherapist and a [00:02:00] White development professional, we’re using our own lived experience and professional skills to frame the way that we approach the topic of decolonisation. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Hi Charmaine. Hi. So I’d like to introduce today’s guest, who is Lena Bheeroo. Lena leads the anti-racism work at Bond and their wider decolonising sector work, working with members and global partners, initiatives and movements. She’s co-author of Bond’s ‘Racism, power and truth: Experience of people of colour in international development’ report, and the ‘Anti-racist and Decolonial Framework’.

Lena is also trustee of EachOther, a working group member of the Racial Equity Index to hold the global development sector to account. She’s a busy and committed activist and is also a member of and organiser of Charity So White, the award-winning campaign, which aims to root out racism from the UK charity [00:03:00] sector.

For more on Lena and her work on power and anti-racism and her work with Bond, please click on the show notes below this episode. Charmaine, back to you. 

Charmaine: So, a warm, warm, warm welcome, Lena. So lovely that you could be with us today. So I have several questions. I hope they’re not too hard, but I think that you’ll be able to answer them.

So, the first one that I would like to ask you, Lena, you’ve worked with the BIPOC – Black, indigenous people of colour – for those who don’t know what that means or across the development sector to create the anti-racist framework, and can you tell us, what is the framework and what is it that you hope that it will achieve in that sector?

Lena: Thanks Kate, thanks Charmaine, really lovely to be here with you both. So since 2020, I’ve worked with Black and Brown people from across both the domestic charity sector in the UK and the international development sector. And these are people who are at varying different levels of seniority and [00:04:00] work focuses.

But they are in NGOs working in the charity sector. And so it started out of discussions to when we came together in 2020 to think about how can we actually create change after the murder of George Floyd, after the global protests? I mean, it sparked something across I would hope many, many, many millions of people around the world in lots of different sectors. And when we think about racial justice and injustice, particularly when it pertains to international development and what we are saying that we are here to deliver on our missions, it really hits differently.

 And unearthing some of that really means changing the system that we’re in. And so racism and all of everything that goes with it is not a new issue or problem. It’s been around for generations and generations and generations and hundreds of years as we know. [00:05:00] And I felt talking to close friends and activists, how are we going to make a move on this? Is there something in the air at the moment? There’s momentum in 2020 in the summer. How are we going to, what can we do differently? And out of that and a lot of conversations with people across the sector, we thought about a different approach and out of all those conversations came the ‘Anti-racism and Decolonising Framework’.

It’s really about trying a different approach because it felt to a lot of people that what we’ve been trying to do up until that point, yes, there’d been progress. But it wasn’t enough and people continue to still be harmed. We don’t see enough progress in a lot of areas in terms of structure and hierarchy.

What can we do to show that this isn’t just something to do with hiring in organisations across the sector? It’s not just what the CEO does. Actually, this is an everyone problem. How can we map [00:06:00] this out? How can we bring both the personal and the professional together so that people who are in positions of power can start to unlearn, dismantle, open up their own minds and what they understand when it comes to addressing racism.

So this is what the framework is, it maps out the different areas across any NGO, I would say. And I would also say it’s probably transferable to other sectors and businesses to some extent. But it maps out all different areas that are generally in NGOs and shows how you are part of this bigger change that needs to happen.

All of these organisations have communications functions, fundraising functions, campaigning policy, HR, you’ve got governance and the board as well. Some have research facilities as well. And when it comes to addressing racism, we all need to start to shift things [00:07:00] in our own departments, in our own roles, wherever we sit in our organisation.

It’s not just the responsibility of HR or the leader or people who are on the board. Actually, it’s all of our responsibilities. And this is what the framework is trying to show, because these issues are so embedded across all of our working environments, we really need a holistic approach.

And we need to not shy away from the fact that this is a huge problem and it’s all of our problems. It’s not just one person is going to solve this in our organisation and suddenly, ” your organisation is not racist.” That’s not how it works. Actually, we all need to start taking responsibility for it, and you can do that.

So the framework, after talking to many people, because they’re across the sector in different functions and different departments, it really became clear that we needed an all-in approach. And that’s what the framework maps out for us. And the hope, you asked about what the hope is.

The hope is that with the framework, because we didn’t want to [00:08:00] reinvent the wheel, there are so many different guides and things that we have out and recommendations for how to start to address racism in your organisation and your work. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but what we did want to do is bring people to a table, open that conversation up.

So if you are new to the sector, if you are in your organisation, you’re in your policy department, you’ve never thought about addressing racism or how that fits in terms of decolonising the work that we’re doing, here are some entry points for you where you can have some starter questions. You can talk to your immediate team, to your department, where you can start to interrogate some of the ways that your work, your own privilege and positionality, open up to, what does that even mean for you? It provides some guidance in that way and allows people, wherever they are in whatever department to start to think of what it means when you’re thinking about racism in communications, in HR, in programs, wherever it may be.

There is always a question that you [00:09:00] can ask yourself to open up this conversation, to start to change the way you work, because that’s what we need at the moment. 

Charmaine: I’d like to follow up and explore the theme a bit more. When you talk about ways power and privilege in the development sector not only blocks movement for change within organisations, but also the visceral impact, right?

And for me as a Black woman and for you too, we often will feel that and it can really take our breath away and sometimes it can be so difficult to even rally against that and to come back and even to feel slightly human. So I would like to talk about the visceral impact that the imbalance of power and privilege has on the body, psyches and souls of the BIPOC members.

Can you share, if it’s okay, share with us a personal story of where you were impacted by being in one of these organisations? How was that for you? 

Lena: Yeah. There’s been many different ways that it’s impacted me. I guess one of the biggest ways, which [00:10:00] led me to really understanding the deep impacts that racism has on the visceral impact it has on your body, on your psyche, was having to deal with a colleague who unintentionally or not, was actually creating an environment where I was very triggered and aware that I didn’t feel safe with this person. And in terms of what it did to me, took a while to understand, but the way that it led me to come in, go into myself, which is not something that – naturally, I’m very much an outgoing person, talkative and very free, kind of flowing and happy to chat to anybody. But I noticed around this person and in meetings when I was with them or others as well, I would start to put filters on myself and I would start to not say what I really felt and I would start to, when someone asked a question, I wouldn’t be the first person to answer, [00:11:00] even though that would be in my nature, because I love to get into conversations.

I wouldn’t do any of that, and I felt it myself. I started to, you know, that did affect my own self-esteem. Whenever I got communications or emails, I would take much longer to respond because I was really considering everything that might be – if I was my true self and was honest and talked about how much I was hurting and in pain, that that would then make them feel uncomfortable.

Therefore, I didn’t want to do that and I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I wouldn’t do that. So I wouldn’t say anything, so I wouldn’t put name to it and I would just keep it to myself, keep suffering. And it made me, after a while, think, am I doing the right thing? Am I good enough? Question my own self-worth, my own self-esteem?

 Because it also made me think, who can I talk to about this issue in my organisation that I was at the time? Who can I talk to [00:12:00] who, number one, I trust to not shut me down? But number two, who would actually understand and hold space for me to be able to share something that I’m really feeling in my body that I’ve experienced and continue it to experience and who won’t just sweep it under the carpets and, you know, that I couldn’t really think of anyone at the time, which made it even harder for me and how I didn’t realise how long it had been going on, and it was just something that I learned to live with.

Oh, whenever I need to talk to that person, this is how I’m going to be feeling. Very tight. My nervous system took a huge battering. I think in this, my anxiety was way high. I was thinking about it and overthinking about it, not only when I was in work, but also outside of work in my personal life as well.

It went on for a long time and I just learned for it to become normal to me. Wow. So whenever I was in that situation, [00:13:00] that is how I’m gonna be on high alert, really going to be filtering myself, overthinking about anything that I say and how it’s taken and how it’s not taken.

 I was in pain because I was scared of sharing that I had been impacted and I think it had been something that I had learned previously where I had in other organisations when I was more junior raised issues that I felt, but that when I asked for kind of a sounding board or a second opinion, and it was mostly from White colleagues. They did say, no, that’s nothing to worry about. That’s nothing to worry about. And that came back on me like, oh, Lena, what are you talking about? You’re making things up now. There’s nothing going on here. Even though you feel it in your body when someone says something a certain way or looks at you a certain way, you feel it.

And it’s continued. That kind of action is continued and you see it regularly. You just start to doubt yourself. And so when I’d asked and raised in a couple of jobs ago, I raised [00:14:00] issues, I was met with that kind of, what are you talking about, Lena? That’s nothing. So that was a learned habit, a learning for me that when I then went onto my next organisation and this happened, it was a real question of who can I actually share this with that I trust and that I will get an answer other than, Lena, you are making this up. This is not real. They don’t mean it, it’s fine. All of those questions, all of those things that come up. I think was a really hard situation for me. In the end, I did find support, but it wasn’t in that organisation, it was outside of that organisation with more Black and Brown folks, who when I shared my situation and what had happened with me, their response was, I totally get it. Yes. That wasn’t something I was used to when raising it with some of my White colleagues, experiences that I’ve had in previous roles, in previous organisations as well.

So when I found more [00:15:00] support outside of that organisation, it was life changing for me. Because I didn’t have to explain and unpick and unravel myself to explain how hurt I was and how I’d been holding onto this hurt and trying to protect myself as much as possible by dimming myself and making myself small because they got it.

I didn’t have to. They were just very much accepting and their experiences resonated, which just reinforced like, I’m not going crazy. This is not me. This is real. And that is invaluable. And kind of long term and moving through that, I’ve learned different techniques to try and support myself whenever I come up against things that do trigger me or where there are new and improved ways of racism that I come up against, which is forever changing its form. 

Charmaine: Can you just briefly, if you don’t mind, talk a little bit about what are the techniques, what are the tools that you’ve had to [00:16:00] learn to use to mitigate, I’m just going to call it trauma because that’s my world, but , it does have a significant traumatising effect on Black and brown bodies, on your souls, in your ability to think, in your ability to have your confidence, in your ability to show up for your job, and to do an excellent job. But if it’s constantly being undermined, then there’s also the feeling of failure that I’m gonna fail at something, but actually you’re probably overqualified. But in those kinds of spaces, it’s quite amazing how quickly we become less than. And so can you just talk briefly about some of the tools that you learn, that you have learned that has really helped you be able to bring back your focus, bring back your self-confidence, and do the job that you know that you can do, and most of all, show up in the best way that who you are.

Lena: Yeah. I think I’m still learning as well. And I’m always open to new ways, but what really helped me at that time was, I went on a breathing course [00:17:00] and that’s, I just can’t tell you how much that helped me. You think it’s a very simple thing to just say breathe. And I really noticed and became more aware and connected to my body when I was going through terms of stress and high anxiety, and race-based stress where I wasn’t breathing. My breathing becomes much more shallow. My shoulders go up and then I only notice it when I step away from the laptop or the meeting room or whatever, and then my shoulders drop and I was like, oh my God. I’ve also learned about myself though, and this might not be typical of most people, but I’ve got a very high, high tolerance of pain, which is not helpful.

Because I only really notice my brain. My brain kicks into my body and my pain when it gets really bad. And that’s not a good thing to have. So, these things helping me to become more aware of the fact that I’m not breathing, that actually I need to check in with my body, do simple things like body scans to see where I am in pain or where there’s a niggle that might turn into something else.[00:18:00] 

How my body feels after I’ve interacted with a certain person or in a certain meeting or whatever it might be. Taking that time to check in with my body has been really helpful because I’ve just for so long been avoiding or ignoring it. And I think for me, that was more of a survival mode that I had been in for so long.

Having been, I would say, conditioned by my own experiences of knowing that and doubting myself internally. I just ignored my body, but my body knows, and I now completely trust my body. The breathing courses that I do when I feel my anxiety get higher and higher. And I certainly didn’t ever think I had anxiety, to be honest with you.

I was like, I don’t have anxiety, but I’m feeling very stressed in this moment and this is happening a lot and my heart rate has increased and this and that, and I’m like, okay, there is something going on here. So I become more aware, and so I take more breaks especially when it’s in the working environment to step away and to do a breathing technique, I [00:19:00] start my day with it in the morning, I do it after I finished work as well, I also meditate. That’s the other big thing for me. It really helps me disengage with drawing the line, especially when we are working more remotely when we have more than one aspect to ourselves. Everyone does. I’m also a carer as well, so the line between home and work is very blurred and just ending the day, not just by closing your laptop or coming out of work, it’s actually shutting it down for me is part of that, coming out of that where my body feels more reset. But definitely creating spaces, which is what I did at Bond as well actually in terms of the POC group that I run. But having my other spaces in terms of the activism spaces, which are fully BIPOC.

Knowing that you have that support is invaluable just to decompress and to get that sounding board and I don’t need it as much now, but when I started to [00:20:00] learn more about this, it was about that second opinion. It was about that validation of yes, what you’re feeling in your body is right.

Don’t doubt yourself. Knowing the people that you trust, knowing who are your people is so important, especially when it comes to really personal, vulnerable things like experiencing racism. And all the different ways that it is because it’s not just one thing. It’s so multi-layered.

 It looks very different and it impacts you. And all of these things, they impact you in a very big way over time as well. 

Charmaine: Well, thank you for that. I wanted to ask you, sort of on that, but I know that you have conducted over 100 interviews and extended data from people who work in the development sector regarding their personal costs they have suffered.

And you talk a lot about the imbalance of power in the development sector. So for example, this provides an example of the distorted views held by some within the sector and how [00:21:00] these views help perpetuate the myth. These include the trope, like we do not have BIPOC experts with the right qualifications and experience.

They’re just not educated to our standards. And one I’m going to add only basically because of what you have just said is that when there is a racial component like you’re talking about, our self-esteem drops, right? And the ability to do the work at our educated level drops, and that becomes part of the trope.

How does this perpetuate the status quo and blockchain within the development sector by having that kind of narrative?

Lena: I mean, these are all stereotypes, which we’re trying to unpick And I see a lot of organisations across the sector starting to have these conversations. We had a number of case studies that we did for that specific report, ‘Racism, Power, and Truth’, which really was about those impositions of power leading organisations, why are they not more diverse when it’s not for lack of people in the sector? So what is [00:22:00] going on? And it was trying to unearth all of that. We had a fair few case studies and just before publication, for a number of reasons, we had a handful of them withdraw, and that was really fascinating to us because it was a reflection of where we were as a sector, the fact that people and all of these case studies were taken anonymously but yet the environments and cultures within organisations that existed in 2021, and to a certain extent still exist, wasn’t one that supported people to share their experiences and their real honest, true experiences, even though we talk about it a lot. 

These stereotypes do continue and to some extent, I think even though we’ve had the summer of solidarity in 2020 statements put out across the sector, there is something that goes deeper than just the tick box exercise that is stopping these these [00:23:00] stereotypes to be overcome. It doesn’t make us any richer as a sector to continue to think that one type of person is better than another type of person, the racial hierarchies that exist. The lack of understanding one’s own self, which may or may not be something people are open to, but I do really believe that’s an important piece. If you are in the charity sector, no matter where you are. To understand what your own biases are, what your own prejudices are, what you may have, because everyone is impacted and is a product of their experiences no matter what you look like.

And it’s about unpicking them and opening up where your blind spots are. If we don’t do that, then these stereotypes that we are hand fed, that we have been through media, through society, through everything that we’ve experienced through education, these are something that we’re going to continue to carry. And it feels like cutting ourselves very short as a sector because we are not open to really [00:24:00] creating spaces where all people can thrive if we are not aware that they bring value. And that’s the whole point of diversity to make our sector every area that we work in much more richer. And it shouldn’t be seen as a threat. Because you are opening something up doesn’t mean you have less, this whole idea about power and if I give my power away, I will have less power. This is not how our power works. And there can be something else more than just what we have now and what we see now, but we need to be brave enough to actually vision that and see actually we can work in a different way.

We can share power and it can work for everyone. But these kind of ideologies, I think they’re very early and we are going up against ideologies that have been around, as I said, for hundreds of years. It’s going to take a long time. But certainly from the case studies that we took, having spoken to so many people, and indeed the [00:25:00] reaction from the report that we put out in 2021 when some people had read that report and seen the video, they mentioned and shared with me that they thought, “this is 2021, what you are writing and share about in this report, surely that was in the fifties.” This is how far apart we are when it comes to people who are experiencing racism and people who hold positions of power. The sector is so big, but yet people still believe this is solved. This is not an issue anymore , and we know why, because it doesn’t directly impact them. And it’s not something that they have to experience every day, so therefore they don’t see it. But that is no longer an excuse. When we have the evidence, we have the case studies, we have the numbers, and we continue to build on that as well. And I feel like it’s our responsibility, everybody within the sector to start to take on this challenge and start to dismantle racism because it will in the end help all of us, even though there may be ideas and feelings that it is, because I do sense [00:26:00] that sometimes, that it is a threat. And I think that’s just completely backwards personally. 

Charmaine: So just to reiterate, I guess what I’m hearing you say very strongly, it isn’t just a Black and brown problem, it’s also a White problem. And unless the majority, the White majority, unless they start to do the deep self-reflection, and to really look at the positions that they hold and they carry in the body, then we’re going to have this problem.

And I guess what you’re saying with the data that you have now, it’d be really good if you could just intravenously give it to everybody, and suddenly the next day we’re all changed. But, and that would be hopeful, but I guess, it’s going to be hard work for I think a lot of White people to actually shift in their presentation and what it is that they hold as power. It’s not something that even myself, I would say, I don’t necessarily want to shift and share my power because it feels nice to be on top. It feels good to be able to direct others, but yet I understand what you’re saying.

The [00:27:00] first thing it’s gonna be self-reflection and self-acknowledgement and self-responsibility that people are part of the problem, they’re not separate from. 

Lena: Yeah, absolutely. And I do think, well this is my view, there isn’t an in between. Either you are actively working to be anti-racist or you are complicit.

There is no in between because if you don’t care, you are part of the problem. You are actively choosing to do nothing and that’s not enough for me. 

Charmaine: Mm, thank you. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Yes. Thank you Charmaine. Thank you, Lena. I’m very struck by the answers you’ve given Lena.

And one of the reflections I have is on what you were saying about how the racist bullying that you were experiencing in one of your previous roles, how undermining it was and how it made you clam up and made you smaller, made you lesser, and [00:28:00] I just think in terms of what you’re talking about now and the kind of transformation and the transformation that’s needed within the sector.

 One of the things that’s clear to me is that if we don’t make these changes, then we can’t achieve our potential as a sector. So, part of this is instrumental, isn’t it? That we can be more effective as a sector as a whole if racism is dealt with because then we’re not shutting down some very effective people through racist bullying and so on.

So that’s one reflection, which is around the instrumentality of tackling this, which of course isn’t anything like the whole story, it’s a part of the story. And another reflection is that, you were saying that some of the feedback you’ve had to your report on racism was that people saw it as being narratives from the 1950s and that “oh we’re not like that now, it’s all changed.” And [00:29:00] I think you see this. A lot politicians talk like that. Oh, well, that was in the past and we’ve changed now. And I think it’s very convenient to frame things as being in the past, because if things are in the past rather than the present, you don’t have to make changes. And what you are doing is you’re saying, actually, we’ve got all the evidence that this is a lived experience right now in the sector.

And then that’s flagging up the need for change. And the last reflection I wanted to make was this issue about power and sharing power. And I think some people like to perceive their power as power through dominance. And it’s the power over, power over other people rather than power with.

And we’ve got collective power. We can have power as social movements, we can have power through partnerships. We can have power through effective teamwork. And it’s power with, and then it’s power to, because you can do stuff with that power through having collective action. And I [00:30:00] think a lot of people don’t really understand power.

They like it, but they don’t really understand it. And one of the things that you are talking about is about how we can really use power effectively together. And I think that’s a very strong statement and a very useful statement to make. So that’s just my quick reflection because there was so much interesting discussion between you and Charmaine and I was thinking lots more about trauma and the work on oneself to be able to cope with trauma and so on.

But I don’t think we’ve got time to dig too much deeper into that right now. So, just going back to what you’ve said and what you’ve sketched out with Charmaine. You’ve painted a very sobering picture of the state of health of the development sector, particularly in the UK because that’s been your focus through your analysis, your case study collection. I understand I could be wrong, but I think it’s quite UK focused. And I[00:31:00] , as a White person within the sector, I was pretty naive, ignorant. I think it’s not good enough to be ignorant because I could have probably gone out and asked questions, maybe shy to ask those questions, I don’t know. But anyway, the evidence is there. And I’m quite shocked about it. I’m shocked about the level of racist abuse that people are experiencing in the 2020s. But you know, that’s not enough. And what I need to do and what other White people need to do is to show up. And as you’ve said, you are either doing stuff to change the picture in the sector, so you’re either on one side or you’re on the other. There’s no gray zones in between, so you’re either blocking change or you are supporting change. What I’m very clear about is how incredibly active you are in supporting change and pushing for change. You’re really busy. You haven’t walked away. You haven’t looked at this [00:32:00] situation and said, “gosh, I’ve had a really awful set of experiences. I feel wounded and broken by it. I’m going to go and find an easier and more comfortable job because this is really hard.” Instead, what you’ve done is you’ve girded your loins and really engaged in your work with Bond, Charity So White, the Racial Equity Index. So you are seeking to combine research with activism to embed anti-racism in the international development sector.

And we don’t have time to talk through all those different areas of your work in this episode, but we will be inviting you back for another bite, so that we can talk through those in greater depth with you. But I’d like to loop back to one of the pieces of work you’ve done, which is the Anti-racism and Decolonising Framework.

That you’ve built on the back of those case study interviews that you were talking about earlier with Charmaine, and I just wonder if you could talk through a [00:33:00] bit more about the practicalities of that framework. Give us a sketch, give us an overview. 

Lena: Yeah. So, it was very much a collaborative creation with lots of different incredible people to get their insights and to make sure that their perspectives were involved and integrated into the framework.

Really at its heart, it’s something that anyone in any position, in any team that we’ve outlined can take back and discuss it in twos and threes, in a whole department, as I’ve mentioned, but it looks at different areas. So it asks the question of who’s in the room and who’s not in the room.

It asks the question of where does decision-making power sit and who holds power? It asks the question not just about how you work internally with your colleagues within your teams, whether it’s a campaigns team, a policy team, whatever it might be, but also how does your inclusion and your perspective, how is [00:34:00] it being portrayed externally?

So it recognises that the work that we must do as organisations not only sits internally, but also it’s external as well. And the reason that we try to map this out in this way is because many of the people that I spoke to saw how organisations were trying to shift things externally.

So changing the way the language they used externally, thinking about how to shift power in their programming through locally led development and things were being done in a siloed way. And it wasn’t recognising that, yes, okay, in one sense, you can change the way you run your fundraising campaigns and the way you speak about communities that you work with and your photos.

Great. And how are you talking internally and who are you hiring internally and how is the progression internally and what’s going on there? Equally, you can think about the programmatic shifts that you want to make in terms of power [00:35:00] shifting to decentralise and move power and decision making and funding to the community level.

And who’s still making the decisions and who gets fired and who gets hired and who, what projects get funding in your organisation? It’s both and it’s not just either or. And it feels like a huge amount of work because it is a huge amount of work because this is how entrenched and how embedded racism is.

So it’s wrapped up with power and we need to think about both of those things. So the framework is framed around different functions within organisations. It explains also why it’s important when you’re thinking about research, for example, as a function and the power of research, the power of data, the power of evidence that we give it in the sector, what that means, how it’s used, how it’s created. All of those questions are important, not just who is in the room and who is not in the room, who gets to speak and who doesn’t. It’s that and the work that we’re doing. It’s the people who are [00:36:00] in the communications meeting and the teams and who’s sending the tweets and how we’re speaking to our colleagues and how we’re working with our partners.

It’s all of it and it’s both. And so those are some of the areas that we discuss. And it is, and as you’ve said, it’s an entry point, so it might feel like they are simple questions, but actually once you get together with your team or your group and you are discussing them, it requires you to go deeper.

And it might hopefully spark that openness to self-reflection, which does need to be done. And then it obviously links to a lot of other resources that we have created through Bond and signposted to other organisations who have created more support resources for organisations to really look at power and look at how racism is upheld in their organisations.

So it’s very much a top line entry point where people can come to it, whether you’ve been part of this conversation for years or not, it’s a great place to start. [00:37:00] 

Kate: Thanks, Lena. I mean, looping back to what you were talking about earlier in terms of racist bullying and the trauma that you experienced, I think what will surprise a lot of people is how toxic work cultures can be within the development sector, within not just development agencies, but also within development NGOs and the charity sector. And what you were talking about earlier was the silencing of dissent, and how pointing out realities gets shut down.

And what you were talking about just now in terms of the siloed work where NGOs were focusing externally on how they presented their work through comms and also in terms of how they presented their partnerships, I think that was perhaps almost performative, in terms of showing that they were a racist organisation and showing that they were decolonising their work.

And what you are trying to challenge development organisations to do is to go beyond [00:38:00] the superficial and move beyond performance into actually uprooting racism within the organisation and actually go beyond organisational structures and form filling right down to the individual. So your framework actually leads through a step-by-step set of questions and challenges for different layers in the organisation at the kind of upper management level, the board, but also thinking about different elements within the organisation.

Lena: Yeah. And that’s exactly when it was being created in 2020, very much was recognising that if we can engage with those people at the top who are in positions of power, not just the CEO, the board who hire the CEO, but the director level across all of those functions that you’ve mentioned.

And another key part of the framework is supporting the people of color. That’s what I do in Bond. That’s what I do in various spaces and my activism spaces because it is [00:39:00] nothing about us without us. It has to be rooted in our experiences. And it has to be that there are spaces safe enough for us to be able to come and share and find healing, and strengthen ourselves and learn and everything else.

So it’s a two-pronged approach. It’s those people who are in positions of power. All of the work that I do is bringing this personal and the professional together. Because if we keep it in one realm and it’s just professional, we’ve seen how much changes, and this is where we are in 2023.

But it’s also about supporting the people most impacted by racism and just to say the report on ‘Racism, Power, Truth’, the data is actually not just from the UK, it’s also those people working outside of the UK as well, because we wanted to make sure that they were included. So supporting them is a really important piece to this, and we couldn’t do it without them.

Kate: Thank you. Thanks for that clarification on the report and where those case studies came from[00:40:00] and also for talking through the framework looking forwards and thinking about the people who are our audience in this podcast. I think change can feel quite overwhelming, particularly if you’re not part of a community of practice, and if you feel that there isn’t a critical mass supporting change within your organisation? Can you suggest a useful starting point? A first step that they can take, and then possibly a plausible second step, so that they can feel confident that they can support this movement for anti-racism and decolonising action within the development sector?

Lena: It’s not going to be easy. So I’ll just say that. And also I would just want to highlight that when people feel very uncomfortable in engaging in anti-racism, I’m very aware that people sometimes get paralyzed by the unknown, not knowing what to do, what to say, all of those [00:41:00] things. And that paralysis helps no one.

But I would also say, and probably hopefully from what I’ve shared, the feelings that predominantly White folks feel when it comes to engaging in conversations around racism and addressing it, and the decolonising conversation that is uncomfortable, is nothing compared to what BIPOC people feel when they are experiencing it.

That cannot be compared. And I know it because of my own lived experience, but also what I’ve witnessed and how I’ve supported other people, it just can’t be compared. So that’s something definitely for people to think about in terms of the first steps, it is that self-reflection piece.

You have to be committed to this, and the only way that you can do that is by knowing yourself and recognising without judgment your own biases and your own prejudices and where they’ve come from. Get inquisitive. For me, the whole [00:42:00] decolonising conversation is about asking and questioning the reality that we actually are in, the system that we are in.

And only when you can start to understand that and yourself, are you in a position to be open enough to have conversations about actually, I need to hold myself accountable here. I have not done the right thing, but how many of us are actually open and vulnerable enough to do that? It’s a really difficult, challenging thing to do, but yet we need that of people who are in positions of power.

It’s easy to say commit to the work, but people do follow a plan and then lose interest and go into something else. And our sector is consistently being bombarded with crisis after crisis. So it’s a hard dynamic to balance. And the only way you can do it is if you are actually really personally committed to this work and building that muscle of learning what this work is about.

 Learning about the experiences that people are talking about, and you don’t have to go and ask the people of color around you in your [00:43:00] team. You don’t have to ask them to share all of their racist experiences with you. That’s just retraumatising. Read the report, it’s all in there.

Especially in the UK, there are so many reports that keep coming out from institutions, but the ‘Racism, Power and Truth’ report centered on international development. But everything from the Macpherson report to the latest reports that have come out, the Metropolitan Police, there are so many examples of racism and the impact it has on people of color. So you don’t need to go and ask, but you can learn. You can learn through those ways. Have a look at the questions in the framework, really consider them if there’s something you don’t understand in terms of words like privilege and what that means, or words like positionality.

Google it because you don’t need to ask and put more burden on people of color to explain these things. These have been explained in multiple different arenas and I’m saying this not to say, oh, no one’s going to help. No, I’m [00:44:00] saying, it’s so easy. It’s so easy to educate yourself on this. So do it.

Take away your own excuses about doing it and do it. Build your muscle to become comfortable in asking questions of yourself and of your colleagues as well. If you’re going to be committed to this and be an advocate, then don’t just call yourself that. Do it. Stand by it, speak up and continue to speak up.

Question things because you will be able to speak in a way that people of color may not be heard in different spaces in your organisation with different stakeholders. We know that this is the truth for us. And you can be that active advocate because we do need everybody on this journey.

It isn’t just about people who are most impacted to be sharing our trauma and to be the ones at the forefront and fighting for this. We are involved and we always will be, but we need everybody to get on board now because it does [00:45:00] affect your lives as well, so get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Build your own muscle because you can read the documents and we can share some signposts, some more resources after this as well and really think about what your team could be like, or your area of work could be like, if it wasn’t in the state that it was. I think a lot of times across the sector, we come into the system and hierarchies and organisations and we just pick up, this is how it’s always been done. This is how we always looked. But actually it doesn’t have to be. And for me, when it comes to power, there are lots of different levels, individual, team, organisational.

The influencing externally as well of institutions, but everybody has power to change something within their immediate surroundings. And so what is it that you can change, and that might be for you in the way that you work, that might be for you in inviting people to meetings and the diversity of them, that might be for you and your own self-education, then sharing that with other people in your [00:46:00] team. It could be at your team level. It’s endless. You do have power to start to change things, but that’s something I think that people do forget as well. 

Kate: Thank you so much. So you are challenging people’s White fragility. And saying, don’t be paralyzed by the discomfort, move beyond that. Take responsibility for your learning. Don’t fake ignorance. Go and find out and use your power for progressive change. 

Lena: And don’t see this as a threat. This is not a threat. It’s not something to be scared of. This is something that if we truly say we work in this sector and we want to have a more equitable and fair sector, this is how we’re going to get there.

Kate: Yeah. Thank you so much. That’s been a very rich conversation. Thank you, Lena. 

Charmaine: And thank you, Lena. It’s really good. Thank you. Thank you, thank you. 

Lena: Thank you both.

This weeks guest:

Lena Bheeroo (Bond)

Lena leads the anti-racism work at Bond and the wider decolonising sector work, working with members and global partners, initiatives and movements. She is a co-author of the Bond Racism, power and truth: Experience of people of colour in international development report. Lena also leads and drives our convening through events overseeing webinars and events over a wide range of topics, from mental health and wellbeing, HR, funding, decolonising, EDI, to areas of policy like the SDGs, the future of civic space and the future of aid.

Lena is a trustee of EachOther, a working group member of the Racial Equity Index, a group of BIPOC volunteers based around the world, working to build a racial equity index to hold the global development sector to account. Lena is also a Committee Member and Organiser at Charity So White, the award-winning campaign which aims to root out racism from the UK charity sector.

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