Ethnic minority lawyers

What is the point of Black History Month?

Jerry Garvey, Law Society diversity and inclusion adviser, asks the hard question.

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Photograph: Alice Mutasa

Black History Month (BHM) was launched in the UK in 1987 with the first event taking place in London. The campaign for Black History Month was led by Akyaaba Addai Sebbo who worked for the Greater London Council (GLC) at the time. The GLC chose October as Black History Month to coincide with the Marcus Garvey celebrations and the London Jubilee.

The CIPD reported in 2017 that Britain could add £24 billion to GDP (pdf) if full representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) in the labour market was achieved.

Many organisations are gearing up for a month of events celebrating black achievement and highlighting the positive contribution black people have made to society.

Do we need Black History Month?

While Black History Month is undoubtedly a celebration, there are whispers of disquiet and scepticism. By its very concept, surely it is exclusionary to non-blacks? It excludes Asians and many other groups who fall under the broad definition of black. The naysayers also question why it is confined to one month and not celebrated throughout the year.

Many businesses are not sold on BHM, either, and do not recognise it. Two major reasons for this are not having a high enough black staff profile in the organisation to make it worthwhile, and lack of budget/resources to promote it. At the end of October when the Black History Month party decorations are put away for another year the afterglow quickly disappears, and we move onto the next 'big thing' in the diversity calendar, when it should be important every month in the calendar.

The case for Black History Month

Supporters argue that it connects black people to their rich history. It is an opportunity to raise awareness and educate others about black achievement. In a business context, there are compelling arguments why celebrating Black History Month can support your objectives:

  • Being an inclusive employer can help your firm become an employer of choice
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) celebratory events and BAME employee initiatives can be used to recruit the best talent
  • Diverse teams equate to high-performing teams

What we're doing to promote and support Black History Month

2019 marks a decade of us celebrating Black History Month with our members. As with any milestone, it provides an opportunity for introspection and reflection. The legal profession has opened and become more diverse in the last 10 years. The percentage of BAME solicitors has grown from 12% in 2009 to 16.9% in 2019.

As law firms have become more diverse, they are also striving to make their businesses more inclusive. This is very positive, and the efforts of firms to attract and recruit BAME talent should be commended. Challenges remain, the profession is yet to address black retention and career progression.

At the Law Society we have promoted Black History Month by:

  • Running BHM black and Asian lawyers panel events
  • BHM  – "So you want to be a lawyer" school events
  • Regional events in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds partnering with firms
  • Quiz night raising funds for the Sickle Cell Society and the Diabetes Society
  • We're flying the Black History Month flag throughout October
  • Producing a guidance toolkit on how to set up and sustain a BAME staff network (due 2020) to support multicultural/black staff networks

Tips on promoting Black History Month

There are many ways, big and small, in which you can celebrate. For example:

  • Shoosmiths, a national law firm with 13 offices in England, Scotland and Ireland, is launching its first BAME staff network this October as part of BHM
  • Mills & Reeve Birmingham office will partner with the Law Society and Birmingham Black lawyers on 17 October to deliver a BHM student event
  • The Law Society has partnered with Irwin Mitchell ( Birmingham ) and Black solicitors North & Freshfields ( Manchester) to deliver BHM events
  • The Law Society is partnering with civil liberties firm Bindmans to deliver a BHM panel event on 30 October
  • Diversity workshop. Example:  Let's talk about race" - removing the taboo of talking openly about race in the workplace
  • Social media polls: "vote for your most iconic black person"
  • Guest speaker spotlight event
  • Videos: TED Talks etc
  • Cross network events looking at intersectionality

Internal networks

Internal networks can support businesses by making the culture more inclusive by promoting/organising events and raising awareness. At a strategic level networks can support business' wider objectives by supporting gaps in, for example, retention and diverse leadership roles.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality looks at individuals who have multiple identities and is an issue that impacts different groups in different ways. A good example is the recent women in law in leadership roundtables. I organised BAME women roundtables and one of the key insights was how BAME women experienced unconscious bias based on their gender and the colour of their skin.

Explore our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division podcasts including Is it important to celebrate diversity in the legal calendar

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Find out about the Diversity and Inclusion Charter established in 2009 by us, BT and the Society of Asian Lawyers

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