Driving racial equality at South Yorkshire Housing Association

Mulima Muyunda, 20 July 2022

2020 was one of the most significant years in our history. In the midst of a global pandemic, events such as the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) led to a stark awakening to the way that structural racism and inequality impacts the lives of racially and ethnically diverse people and communities.

These events have led us, as a social housing sector, to reflect on and question whether we have been doing enough to tackle this issue.

At South Yorkshire housing association (SYHA), we listened to the experiences of our staff and residents, and we learned from research data and best practice to create our Race Action Plan last year to help drive measurable and tangible change.

We embarked on a 10-month journey looking at systems, data, and learning to understand the issues of race and diversity from customers and employees. This included employees and external leaders in diversity and inclusion (D&I) participating in devising a plan of action to bring about change on a structural and cultural level.

What does the plan include?

Our Race Action Plan contains six ambitious commitments, which underpin and structure our work on tackling racial inequality over the next two years. We’ve adopted a ‘test and learn’ approach, so this plan will be a living document – updated and developed as we learn more. Our commitments fit into our overall aims of our work at SYHA, which are: delivering impact for our customers, the business and the wider system.

The plan details the work we’ve undertaken by being introspective and having those difficult conversations about the realities of racism with racially and ethnically diverse staff and customers. It also highlights key commitments and sets out a path to start doing the work with concrete measurable actions that align with certain targets.

Diversity and Belonging Steering Panel

The progress of a plan of this magnitude needs to be reviewed by ethnic minorities from diverse backgrounds with lived experiences of racism, or those most likely to be affected by racial inequality.

This led to the creation of a Diversity and Belonging Steering Panel, which is made up of people from diverse backgrounds from across our workforce. They will remain at the heart of the work we are doing to drive and shape this plan.

It’s essential any organisation embarking on anti-racism work ensures racially and ethnically diverse individuals are a part of the conversation in a manner where their voices can be heard and not shut down by others.

Why is this work important for our sector?

Social housing is rooted in addressing inequalities and, as a sector, we provide millions of homes for people across the country. We are a sector that serves many diverse communities so it’s important we drive the change needed for housing associations to be more diverse and inclusive places to work, that reflects the communities we serve.

As a black woman, race equality work is not something I get to opt out of. Over my career, I’ve navigated several workplaces that have adopted the ‘I don’t see colour’ mantra. Whilst this notion is nice in theory to drive equality in the workplace, it fails to acknowledge the reality of ongoing racism or discrimination, especially if it’s something you can’t see.

It’s also taught me that my racial identity wasn’t important and I would make others feel uncomfortable talking about it. Adopting a dedicated Race Action Plan at SYHA means we are not only facilitating more open discussions about racial discrimination but outlining clear actions we’ll be taking to make meaningful and enduring change.

I believe understanding this work never stops being difficult. Being uncomfortable is key to remaining authentic on this journey. Undoing structural racism is unglamorous work, it’s admitting that you, as an organisation, have played a part in upholding the same structures you are now attempting to dismantle.

I think SYHA’s admission of previous failings gives the organisation’s Race Action Plan more credibility. It reassures me and my colleagues this is not merely a performative attempt, but a genuine bid to achieve racial equity as a social landlord.

What’s changed?

One year since the launch of our Race Action Plan, there’s already evidence of change at SYHA across many business areas.

  • Following a systematic review of the recruitment process, the number of racially and ethnically diverse talent joining the organisation has increased from 3.7% to 22%.
  • The organisation has also employed a Race and Diversity Lead who works with our employees, partners and customers to fulfill the commitments and to make lasting and significant changes.
  • We’ve developed partnerships with organisations that serve marginalized communities and leveraging their privilege to support those organisations to secure funding.
  • The Development and Assets team is assessing how the homes we offer can effectively serve the needs of our racially and ethnically diverse residents and customers.
  • Our customer collaboration has improved the diversity of the customers who contribute to our service evaluations. Following some targeted intervention, 41% of referrals to the work and wellbeing services have been from racially and ethnically diverse customers.
  • Finally, our live well services are reviewing their referral pathways to improve access to mental health support and housing for all diverse customers.

Changing attitudes towards racial inequality is difficult, but what I like about our Race Action Plan is the focus on changing systems. These same systems encourage racial inequality to remain unchecked and even thrive.

Whilst SYHA is considerably early on its journey to improve racial equality, I think we are on the right track to embedding sustainable change on a larger scale and creating the most equal, diverse and inclusive organisation we can be.