One highlight of this past August for me was going to the cinema for the first time since lockdown 2020, and watching the film Summer of Soul. In 1969, a club singer, concert promoter and raconteur named Tony Lawrence convinced the New York City Parks Department to allow him to produce a series of summer concerts in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park). He found a sponsor in Maxwell House coffee and had an advocate in John Lindsey, the progressive-for-his-time New York mayor. Now, this nearly-forgotten extraordinary event has come to light in the form of an excellent documentary after nearly 50 years.
The year prior to the festival, 1968, had seen riots in Harlem after Martin Luther King’s assassination, as well as a campus occupation at Columbia University inspired, in part, by sympathetic white students upset the school was building what was essentially a racially segregated gymnasium in Morningside Park.
The concerts, together officially called the Harlem Culture festival, highlighted different avenues of Black music, in the heart of Harlem. People said that they’d never seen such a large gathering of Black people in one spot before. The NYPD presence was diminished, and Black Panthers provided security for the musicians and celebrities of note.
Happening at the same time was the Woodstock Festival which became synonymous with the ‘60s counter-culture generation. While out of Woodstock came a 3-record album and a financially successful documentary shown in cinemas around the world, the footage and soundtrack of the Harlem Cultural Festival was buried and mostly not heard, emerging only this year.
As tomorrow marks the end of Black History Month in the UK I ask myself, what’s changed? While things have certainly progressed since 1969, Black History Month is still a crucial and necessary time to champion and celebrate Black voices, as well as to critically reflect on race, racism and the inclusion and diversity agenda.
“As tomorrow marks the end of Black History Month in the UK I ask myself, what’s changed? While things have certainly progressed since 1969, Black History Month is still a crucial and necessary time to champion and celebrate Black voices, as well as to critically reflect on race, racism and the inclusion and diversity agenda.”
Twelve months ago, I wrote about how organisations had responded to Black History Month. A cultural shift had taken place following Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd, and we were seeing organisations of all sizes and scopes embrace the event with renewed vigour.
A year later, and the world has changed once again. For starters, we’re in a different phase of the pandemic, with vaccines widely available in some parts of the world but many industries are being crippled by supply chain disruption. Moreover, after a year of preparation for COP26, in which we saw yet more evidence of global warming-related weather disasters, sustainability has never been higher on the agenda. Against this backdrop, has inclusion remained as urgent a priority as leaders promised it would in the summer of 2020?
After all, we’ve seen great strides in some spheres, such as the US welcoming its first female and ethnically diverse vice president. But we’ve also had confirmation of how far there is still to go; it is not easy to forget the torrent of racial abused faced by the England football players after the Euros final in July.
To reflect on this question, we have spent the past month at MBS catching up with board-level leaders from right across the public and private sector, to hear how I&D is being addressed around the top table. After all, a Board’s role is no longer limited to just governance and oversight. As detailed in my signature report Boards of the Future, the non-executive function has a responsibility to guide organisations into the future, and driving progress on inclusion must be part of this.
Certainly, board-level leaders recognise the seismic shift that has taken place since 2020. “The main difference is that there is actually a conversation on ethnic diversity,” reflected Sim Scavazza, non-executive director at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and deputy chair at University of the Arts London. “Before last year, the topics of race, racism and ethnic diversity simply weren’t on the agenda around the Board table. Now, I’m talking about my colour and my race in a professional setting more than I ever have in my whole life.”
Encouragingly this groundswell in engagement is, in some cases, being met with action. In the past eighteen months, we’ve seen corporate giants such as McDonald’s and Amazon make pledges to hire more ethnically diverse leaders, organisations gather and disclose (sometimes shocking) data on the ethnic diversity and leaders make bold public statements denouncing racism. In other areas of diversity, too, businesses are committing to change. KPMG, for example, recently announced plans to recruit more working-class staff in a bid to bring “fresh thinking” to its organisation.
Eric Collins, a portfolio non-executive director and CEO and Founder at Impact X Capital – which invests in underrepresented entrepreneurs from across Europe – told me that all the organisations he’s involved with have undergone some sort of auditing process on their systems and people to see if and where they’re lacking on inclusion since the events of last summer.
While these developments are a vital step in the right direction, there is still a long road ahead. Pamela Leonce, Chair at the Inquilab Housing Association and a non-executive Board member at Sovereign Housing Association, expressed her concern that inclusion and diversity are still not being treated with the urgency they deserve at Board level. “I’m not sure there’s enough evidence that the last eighteen months have made a real, tangible difference,” she said. “Conversations are happening, yes, but are we really seeing Boards driving a culture of inclusion?”
Eric reiterated this concern. “I’m not sure we can say with any certainty that lasting change has taken place. In many cases, organisations haven’t allocated sufficient resources to make inclusion a reality.” Speaking on the digital sphere in particular, he reflected that: “Venture-backed companies are the most disruptive in the world, capable of smashing open entire systems – so it’s disheartening that we’re not seeing the same level of creativity and problem-solving acumen being applied to diversity.”
Encouragingly, one area that we’re seeing progress – and some level off innovation – is in data collection. Sam Gyimah, non-executive director at Goldman Sachs and former minister in UK parliament, suggested that “there has been an increased focus on data. Companies are gathering information on who’s joining their organisation, the rate and pace of promotion and digging deeper into how different groups progress.” Indeed, our research at The MBS Group over the past year has highlighted this, finding that organisations across the consumer-facing sectors are beginning to demonstrate commitment and resourcefulness in their data collection efforts.
“there has been an increased focus on data. Companies are gathering information on who’s joining their organisation, the rate and pace of promotion and digging deeper into how different groups progress.”
One thing that has been sustained since last summer is the consumer and employee pressure to weigh in on injustices and play a role in fostering a more equal society. “Since the pandemic,” commented Sam, “the lines between business, government and society have become increasingly blurred. There’s now an expectation that businesses will address social issues, especially in and for the communities they serve. A social license to operate isn’t just about delivering on profits – but demonstrating purpose.”
Eric provided a compelling example of this, sharing that he personally demands of his bank and law firm that he has Black colleagues working on his accounts. “If they need to hire more Black people to make this happen, then that’s what they’ll have to do.”
While consumer pressure is certainly being felt, chairs and non-executive directors also have a real opportunity to demand change of their organisations. “As those at the top,” Pamela commented, “we need to say: we’ve got this, it stops with us, here are our commitments and here are some smart actions.”
To incite real change, corporate boards must demand better from their entire ecosystems – from suppliers, from customers and from employees. “Imagine what would happen on diversity or sustainability if chairs and chief executives of institutions were clear about what they expect as a minimum service standard,” said Sim. “Anchor institutions can play an active role by forcing the change that is needed and exerting positive pressure on every aspect of the supply chain”
“To incite real change, corporate boards must demand better from their entire ecosystems – from suppliers, from customers and from employees. “Imagine what would happen on diversity or sustainability if chairs and chief executives of institutions were clear about what they expect as a minimum service standard,” said Sim. “Anchor institutions can play an active role by forcing the change that is needed and exerting positive pressure on every aspect of the supply chain”
Making considered, intentional hires is a critical part of driving up I&D. Positively, we are seeing different backgrounds and perspectives around the Board table, and specific appointments being made at executive and non-executive level designed to drive up inclusion. Crucially, however, organisations must avoid being tokenistic. “There is a real danger of tokenism,” said Sim, “and putting people who aren’t qualified into important positions simply because of the colour of their skin.”
We all have a role to play in fostering a more equal society. Thinking back to Summer of Soul, 1969 was a real moment in history. It was a paradigm shift – a new civil rights generation was emerging with the assassination of first Malcolm X and then Martin Luther King. Rescuing the historic event of the Harlem Cultural Festival from obscurity through the film gives the filmmaker, Ahmir Thompson, a chance to correct history. Can we as a generation achieve the same after the Summer of 2020?