‘Nothing is gonna change unless you get involved’ – how to tackle racism in the workplace

As we celebrate Year of the Black Worker, it’s fitting that the One Weekend equalities gong should go to someone who’s done an enormous to combat racism in her workplace and contributed so heavily to UNISON Eastern’s work for racial equality.

Josette Kennington has helped revolutionise anti-racism at Cambridgeshire County Council. She’s been active in supporting the growth of her workplace equality, diversity and inclusion network which is doing great work challenging CCC to overhaul systems, provide training and make sure racism is treated seriously.

She made sure Cambridgeshire was the first county council to sign up to UNISON’s Anti-Racism Charter, making leadership commit to going beyond not being racist, to being actively anti-racist.

And regionally, she has helped kickstart a Cambridgeshire and Peterborough local government Black members’ self-organised group and is getting stuck into Black Members weekend and other activities.

Thabang Thacker, Josette Kennington and Stephen Moir outside New Shire Hall

But she’s keen to point out the achievements aren’t all her own.

“It’s work I’ve entered into with my UNISON family and the equality, diversity and inclusion staff network and it was a joint effort of lots of people. They were encouraging me when you get those lows, thinking it’s pointless. My UNISON family have been great at spurring me on.”

She’s been part of the UNISON family for two decades since she started at the council, but being based away from the main office, she didn’t really get active.

“But with the change to online meetings I was able to get involved and attend the AGM. There was a proposal to set up a Black members self-organised group with my colleague Thabang Thacker and I was very enthusiastic about that.”

She was moved to action by the murder of George Floyd, the Black man killed by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck for nine long minutes.

“Our chief executive had put out a vlog saying the council is committed to equality — we had to go: ‘No really, we’re way behind.’

“So we set out what needed to happen and we’ve been working with Cambridgeshire County Council ever since.

“We thought we’d just tell them what was wrong but they gave us all the work to do. We wrote a business case to create an EDI team which is great because we have people who understand to negotiate with and support the agenda within the council.”

That’s helped get UNSON’s Anti-Racism Charter signed and led to an anti-racism toolkit that’s about to be launched.

UNISON's Thabang Thacker and Josette Kennington watch Cambridgeshire County Council chief executive Stephen Moir sign the charter

The toolkit came about when a social worker spoke to Josette about Black and Eastern European workers being discriminated against by service users.

“Some older service users would do things like insist they had a white social worker, there’d never been any push back. The manager said she couldn’t help so go elsewhere so the worker came to me.

“We wanted a policy in place like the NHS zero-tolerance policy. We realised there’d been other incidents like sexism against female library workers so it’s morphed into something bigger.”

The council could end up refusing to directly provide care should users refuse to continue with discriminatory behaviour. There’s still a statutory responsibility to deliver adult social care, but commissioners may fund support rather than subject their staff to racial discrimination.

It’s an impressive amount of work but Josette isn’t finished yet, at this year’s AGM she and Thabang became joint women’s officers for the branch – watch out sexists!

So what is that drives Josette to work so tirelessly?

“Nothing is gonna change unless you get involved — you have to speak out about things. There’s not necessarily an unwillingness to change but sometimes employers do nothing for fear of getting it wrong. You can work with them to make the changes we need.”

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