Safia Jama: Why we need more Black voices in the third sector

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Until there is genuine equality, there must be investment, recognition and partnership, so Black communities can continue to access vital services

“Signs of Covid? Go check your pockets,” was how one NHS leaflet, written in broken Somali and distributed at the height of the pandemic, read.

It’s true that when you put “iminka is baadh” into Google Translate, it spits out: “Go get tested”.

But any native Somali speaker would tell you that the phrase either means “go check your pockets” or “go check your physical self”.

Neither go very far in building much-needed community trust around the Covid-19 Test and Trace programme.

Even before the pandemic, I recognised that when I’m in a room (virtual or otherwise) advising police, schools, or public health officials, I am always forced to be four people at once: a Black person, a Somali, a Muslim and a woman.

I’m often the only minority woman in the room. And certainly the only Black person. If I’m not there, none of those voices will be heard by the public institutions responsible for serving them.

The campaigning of third sector organisations led by Black organisers like my own – Women’s Inclusive Team – has never been more vital. Box-ticking diversity and inclusion efforts have failed to understand Black and ethnic minority cultures.

As the pandemic has shown us, this is a matter of life and death.

In addition to our programmes for children and young people, women’s empowerment projects, and community kitchen and food bank – which we’re pleased to say delivered 28,000 hot meals to vulnerable residents during the pandemic – WIT is also a “critical friend”.

The team has a strong track record of helping institutions identify their challenges with effectively engaging and serving Black communities, so better outcomes can be delivered.

During the pandemic, we attended every single NHS Trust meeting for our borough, because no other Somali was available to give representation and expertise about family dynamics and cultural knowledge.

This crucial engagement has paved the way to allow Black Somalis access to essential services, which have ultimately saved many lives in Tower Hamlets.

As an independent police advisor, I’m here to offer the Black community perspective because we know that – due to mistrust – public consultations set up by policing bodies won’t work as they should.

At a recent meeting with a local school about how to tackle racism against Black students, a Black teacher pulled me aside to thank me, and said he was frightened about speaking out against his employer about the racism he observes on the job. He and others should not experience this.

Until we see equal representation of Black people in our schools, at our hospitals, in our police and local government, we must have more Black-led third sector organisations being that “critical friend”.

If we don’t show up, no one else will.

But it won’t be easy. First, we need long-term investment in the advocacy activities of these grassroots, community-led organisations.

Historically, Black and ethnic minority charities have been vastly underfunded. And the recent Funders for Race Equality Alliance report found that just over one-quarter of the 34 emergency funds targeting Black and ethnic minority charities during the pandemic supported work on human rights and justice.

We also need more flexibility about funders’ requirements to free up charities to do their on-the-ground work as well as advocate for their communities’ needs.

We must recognise the vital advisory role that Black organisations play, and further professionalise it. Make it a career that young, Black third sector professionals aspire to.

All Black voices need to be heard. Yes, I’m often the Black person in the room. But I can barely represent a small percentage of Black communities.

Public and private sector organisations that engage with Black-led third sector organisations must reach out to the many diaspora groups across the country to fully understand those communities’ needs. The “check your pocket” blunder would have been avoided if WIT had been at the table.

And Black organisations need to pool capacities. By coming together, we can share ideas and resources, and mobilise around the key issues impacting our communities.

In collaboration with the LimeHouse Project, we will be leading a BAME network to work towards some of these objectives in Tower Hamlets.

I see the third sector’s role as filling the gaps that exist in essential services, but this isn’t sustainable. Only through real investment, recognition of communities’ unique needs and partnership can Black organisations continue to bridge that rift.

Safia Jama is founder and chief executive of Women’s Inclusive Team, a 2021 recipient of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service