The best things come in small packages…

Sometimes it can be the smallest thing, the tiniest of gestures that can make a newcomer feel welcome in an organisation, that can help them feel as if they belong and indeed, want to stay. Perhaps it’s a cheery wave good morning, an invitation for a lunchtime catch-up or the assurance from a colleague that, yes, you can wear your hair that way and that no one will judge you or look at you differently.

This last example was certainly relevant for Sally Dwamena, manager in Supply Chain and Procurement, and co-lead of the Black at Baringa initiative, who was able to reassure a new member of staff – and fellow black woman – that she could wear her hair in an afro or braids if she so desired. This simple thing, she explains, perfectly illustrates why it’s so important that Black at Baringa exists.

“We want to really build a community, a core group that any new joiner, or anyone who's in the organisation, can come to our network to ask questions that they may not be comfortable asking their manager or their team. And some people might ask, what’s the point of that? However, this is why: a few months ago, someone asked me whether Baringa was the kind of place you could have an afro and feel comfortable about it and I was able to appreciate the nuances of the question. To be able to have those conversations and shared experiences and to hear a response from another black person, who can understand why you asked that question in the first place is, I think, important.”

The exhaustion of assimilation

Sally herself is no stranger to feeling ill at ease in certain situations, citing examples of unconscious bias in the form of ‘compliments’ as well as more overt criticisms. She describes this constant lack of authenticity emotionally draining and exhausting because “you are always thinking about what to say, what you sound like, and will other people accept me as I am”.

“People sometimes make assumptions or ‘micro-aggressions’ to minorities or black people. For example, someone has said to me before ‘my goodness, you are so articulate’ with genuine shock and surprise. You sit there and think, ‘why wouldn’t I be articulate?’. It is supposed to be a compliment, but I think it highlights an unconscious bias because in the back of that person’s mind there is surprise that you sound the way you do.”

A sense of belonging

Such nuances, whether to do with hairstyle, recruitment, or career progression, all form the basis for the Black at Baringa network, founded earlier in the year by Sally and senior consultant, Abisola Fatungase. Operating within Baringa’s broader Ethnic Diversity Network, it focuses on the company’s black community.

“We felt that putting every ethnic minority together potentially dilutes issues that specific groups face,” Sally explains. “For example, my kind of experience in the workplace is very different to somebody who is from the Middle East or Chinese. We wanted to highlight that there are specific things that are relevant to the black community which are not as relevant to other people.

“We have three core aims and objectives: recruitment is a priority, but we’re also focused on retention, on making sure that we’re bringing in all these fantastic and incredible black people and that they are staying because they love it. And lastly, we want to celebrate the cultural diversity within the black community.” 

Recruitment is a particularly passionate topic for Sally, who spent her early childhood in Ghana, West Africa, before moving to Bedfordshire aged nine.

“I look at it through two lenses,” she says. “One is early careers – what is the grassroots focus? How are we getting in more interns, more junior staff who will hopefully progress through the ranks? It’s also important to make sure that we’re representative at the director and partner levels, too, so people can see role models and that you don’t just have lots of great black talent at entry level. That just creates an image that this isn’t a place where I can thrive and progress because all the people who look like me are at a low level.”

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Clearly considerable progress is still necessary, but Sally is appreciative that Baringa is working hard to drive change and that its support of the network is hugely positive. 

“It says a lot that two people who were relatively new have been able to have an idea and run with it. That doesn’t happen in a lot of organisations. You often encounter a lot of bureaucracy and governance, but we have been given the freedom to highlight where we think there’s a gap, provide a solution, absolutely run with it, and deliver it. It demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit that we have at Baringa and makes it such a great organisation.”

The network launched in summer 2022 with a hybrid event bringing British and American colleagues together to share the objectives of the network as well as career stories, and icebreakers– all designed to foster a sense of community and to bring people together and encourage a sense of authenticity.

Hot on the heels of the network’s launch came Black History Month in October. For both Sally and Abisola, it was important that there was very much a positive vibe. Alongside an educational session, there were health and wellbeing events, a self-care and confidence workshop and yoga sessions. A Black Pound marketplace, where small, independent, and local businesses could sell and share their wares, ranging from vegan leather journals and planners to fruit crumbles, was also hugely popular. 

We’re all in this together

Following the launch of the network, support and engagement from the organisation has been beyond what she expected. Sally is optimistic about the future and that the Black at Baringa Network can only go from strength to strength, supporting her black colleagues while also engaging with allies, even if there are awkward conversations to be had.

“If there are teams that are looking at specific interventions or activities to be more representative of the black community, there are lots of recommendations we can make, whether that’s talking to recruitment agencies about how they advertise their roles or sharing experiences on how to engage with black colleagues to foster a more inclusive, compassionate community. 

“Learning about the challenges the black community face and leaning into uncomfortable conversations to increase understanding, is so fundamental to being an equitable, inclusive and empathetic organisation. It makes us all kinder people, and we shouldn’t forget how transformative seemingly small changes in our behaviour can have on people around us." 

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