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Black Lives Matter - first of all let's say it, then lets make it a reality

Donal Galligan
Donal Galligan
Chief Executive, OA
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If asked to explain what is unique or different about an ombudsman in a few sentences, the Ombudsman Association is well prepared. We talk about an ombudsman being free, independent of those they investigate, inquisitorial rather than adversarial, of ‘humanising’ the bureaucracy and so on.

If we were asked to boil all of that down into one word, one single word that captured the rationale for why ombudsman schemes exist in the first place, what motivates those who work for an ombudsman, and what they’re trying to achieve, I think we’d probably settle fairly quickly on ‘fairness’ (one of the OA’s five key criteria for ombudsman schemes).

Whether the society we currently live in is ‘fair’ or not has of course been brought into sharp relief by the horrific death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that have followed in recent weeks.

A common reaction was one of shock at the brutal way in which he was killed, the calmness of the police officer with his knee on his neck, all captured of course on camera. What there didn’t appear to be from many of us was much surprise that this had happened; that yet another unarmed African-American had been killed by a white police officer.

It is always easier to judge and give advice to others than reflect on our own failings and I’m probably not alone in tut-tutting at times at our ‘strange’ American cousins, attributing their failings to a slightly unique mix of their own history: slavery itself; the Civil War; reconstruction; Jim Crow Laws; Second Amendment rights; and the seemingly ongoing culture wars.

Of course, those protests have now spread around the world, sparked by the horror and revulsion of George Floyd’s death and a desire to show solidarity; to unequivocally declare that Black Lives Matter. But in each place, be it in the UK, France, or Canada, it has also unbottled pent up frustrations about the discrimination that too many people still face on a day-to-day basis simply because of the colour of their skin.

I’m immensely proud to work in a sector that, perhaps because of its core focus on ‘fairness’, is not ignorant of these issues. Our conference this year (which was cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown) was to have a theme of ‘Strength through diversity’.

We had external speakers lined up to talk about ‘promoting belonging’ (focusing on the difference between ‘representation’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘belonging’, especially among minorities and women in the face of stereotypes and implicit bias), of ‘burnout on the front line’ (which appears to disproportionally impact women and ethnic minorities), and how changing the environment to increase ‘belonging’ can reduce that. The Financial Ombudsman Service were going to present on what they’ve been doing to harness diversity within their organisation, including reverse mentoring by junior members of staff. The Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman would’ve spoken about the work they’ve been doing to weave equality, diversity and inclusion throughout the organisation. We would’ve had a session on mainstreaming a Human Rights based approach into casework (for the third time in as many years). And the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces would’ve just published their annual report highlighting, again, that racism was still ‘prevalent’ within the armed forces. At previous conferences we’ve had sessions on unconscious bias, on breaking the stigma around mental illness, and on not simply paying lip service on issues of disability.

Whilst not overly self-congratulatory, it would’ve been an uplifting environment; an ombudsman community aware of racial and other disparities and trying to drive improvements in the sectors they oversee, a community self-conscious enough to be aware of unconscious bias and the structural and cultural barriers that can exist, and open to hearing from external experts on how they can do (even) better to foster a truly positive and fair environment in which all staff can thrive, no matter what the colour of their skin. It would have been noted that ethnic minorities are not yet sufficiently represented at all levels in our members’ management teams and I’d like to think people would have left reinvigorated to achieve that ambition.

But the wounds that George Floyd’s death has reopened, the protests and ‘counter protests’ (I use that term loosely) that have taken place, and the slightly surreal conversations that I’ve witnessed in the past few weeks show that we’ve been far too complacent about how far we have come in eradicating racism in all its forms.

I’ve taken part in conversations recently where I’ve tried to explain to acquaintances why immediately resorting to ‘whataboutery’ in a discussion about the British role in slavery and the slave trade, or angrily proclaiming ‘all lives matter’, is a red herring.

Doug Williford, an American author, has expressed it more eloquently than I was able to:

If my wife comes to me in obvious pain and asks “Do you love me?”, an answer of “I love everyone” would be truthful, but also hurtful and cruel in the moment. If a co-worker comes to me upset and says “My father just died”, a response of “Everyone’s parents die”, would be truthful, but hurtful and cruel in the moment. So when a friend speaks up in a time of obvious pain and hurt and says “Black lives matter”, a response of “All lives matter”, is truthful. But its hurtful and cruel in the moment.

I’m proud to work for an organisation and in a sector that can unequivocally say ‘Black lives matter’. Clearly, we all need to do more in the environments we operate in to make that slogan a realty. I’m hopeful that the bravery and humanity shown by Patrick Hutchinson and his fellow activists in London, and the iconic image that produced, will inspire us all to do more.

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