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Why Kent business needs to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement

The Black Lives Matter movement has been a tricky one for many in Kent to get their heads around.

Why, goes the argument, are people taking to the streets of this predominantly white county to protest over the death of a man who lived in America? Particularly while there's a health pandemic going on.

Black Lives Matter protests in Tunbridge Wells Picture: Mikey Reed
Black Lives Matter protests in Tunbridge Wells Picture: Mikey Reed

However, it is a mistake to believe the current protests start and stop at the killing of George Floyd. In addition, it can be rather a distraction when the narrative is turned to the topic of removing statues to sometimes dubious characters from the past.

Instead, it should be seen as a very visible sign of frustration, which has stretched across generations, that so many have taken to our streets to make their voices heard at a time when the mantra over recent months has been not to gather in groups.

And an acceptance that racism, albeit often not overtly, continues to thrive in the county.

After all, can any of us honestly say we have never heard a friend, colleague or family member make a misguided comment - whether in the guise of a joke or otherwise? Or simply jumped to a conclusion judging by the colour of someone's skin - consciously or otherwise?

The current movement has broader goals than simply seeing justice served on the Minneapolis police officers.

Thousands have take to the streets of Kent to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement. Picture: Mikey Reed
Thousands have take to the streets of Kent to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement. Picture: Mikey Reed

It is striving to achieve an equality which is frequently misinterpreted by many who point to the 'Black Lives Matter' slogan and say, instead, 'don't all lives matter'? That, of course, is the very point of the uprising we are currently witnessing. All lives matter but those protesting feel, and with some justification, black lives simply haven't mattered as much.

And while schools have a role to play in ensuring youngsters do not inherit the views based, let's not beat about the bush here, in ignorance from their parents, business figures too are being urged to take responsibility for positive change.

Born and raised in the UK, and having lived in Kent for the last 25 years, business coach and managing director of Maidstone-based WSq Solutions, Dr Wayne Wright, who is black, is keen for people not to wait for this current call for action "to go away like everything else".

He points to a sub-conscious bias which often plays a role even in those who would run a mile if anyone accused them of holding racist views.

"I think people struggle to have a voice or a narrative as they feel it's just a political movement," he explains, "that they think it has 'nothing to do with me because I'm not black', or 'it doesn't affect me or my business'.

Business consultant Dr Wayne Wright
Business consultant Dr Wayne Wright

"Kent is under-representative in terms of the statistics of black and ethnic minorities but it's time for businesses to think seriously about if they have the structures in place to feel as though everyone in the organisation has opportunities, to have a voice, and to speak up."

He points to a bias many may have even when looking at CVs - frequently overlooking those with 'non-British' sounding names.

"This is not a victim discussion," he says, "what I'd like people to do is be aware there are things we have blind-spots to and we must sometimes be able to empathise. Because it doesn't touch you doesn't mean you can't communicate.

"If you had someone with a disability in your organisation and they were struggling, I would have though you'd take the opportunity to sit down with them and to understand how to make the area comfortable for them - because you understand how that person feels.

"And it's the ability to listen and empathise which is really important. Even though you may not be in a wheelchair, even though you may not be black, you can still represent those individuals and champion and stand up for them. And that's the element of inclusion.

Protesters marching in Broadstairs recently
Protesters marching in Broadstairs recently

"People just want the opportunity to be treated fairly, as a human."

And he says now is the perfect time for firms to ensure inclusivity is embedded in the ethos of companies big and small.

He adds: "I think employers need to make a statement to their people - and to be able to have the conversation.

"I was advising a company where 30% of the staff were ethnic minorities and the CEO and the board were asked for their views on the issues and they were caught off-guard. They weren't able to articulate effectively or provide the support for those who were really feeling it as it brought back so many memories of the way they had been treated in this country.

"Inclusion is about opportunities, is about providing opportunities for all and to ensure everyone in the organisation feel they belong."

Black Lives Matter protestors in Canterbury Picture: Toby Killeen
Black Lives Matter protestors in Canterbury Picture: Toby Killeen

He points also to how black youngsters are often taught by their parents they have to perform over and above their colleagues in order to ensure they are not over-looked for promotions.

But he rejects any call for quotas on boards or management.

"It's about people recognising talent," he says, "not quotas".

Jo James, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, agrees firms need to ensure their values embrace inclusivity.

She explains: "For so many of us, racism doesn't come across our day to day lives, so as business leaders the best things we could do is look at our values, at what we stand for, and to make sure we are all inclusive; that there is equal opportunity for everyone.

Jo James CEO of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce believes firms can make a difference
Jo James CEO of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce believes firms can make a difference

"And that we communicate that throughout the organisation. We are looking at the chamber's values to ensure that's clearly communicated.

"The only way to bring about change is to alter values, attitudes and perceptions. And that's where business owners and leaders can have a role.

"Irrespective of sector and size, they should effectively communicate they are inclusive and welcome diversity.

"If we do all that, we could be educating a lot of people.

"There is inequality out there in all areas, and the only way to change it is by attitudes and perceptions. I think that's a role we can take as business owners.

Jon Ford believes business people need to be alert to any sub-conscious bias
Jon Ford believes business people need to be alert to any sub-conscious bias

"We should be looking and working with our teams to look what we stand for."

Maidstone businessman Jon Ford admits to having been initially baffled by the Black Lives Matter protests at first - alarmed at the gathering of crowds during a pandemic.

Founder of Life on Time, a firm creating a series of apps to aid wellbeing for school children, he says his views changed when he spoke to Dr Wright, with whom he has worked in the past, on the issues.

He explains: "I saw the protests and was frustrated as the world was in lockdown and here were people on the streets not abiding by the rules.

"None of my friends were black and I couldn't understand it.

"He helped me understand how horrendous racism still is in society and how black people and ethnic minorities are still conscious of issues that we as white people maybe have no idea about..."

"But I reached out to Wayne after seeing a video he had posted on LinkedIn.

"He helped me understand how horrendous racism still is in society and how black people and ethnic minorities are still conscious of issues that we as white people maybe have no idea about.

"I'm in a white community in a privileged area and I speak to friends who didn't reach out to understand what was going on. And I think that leads to more racism.

"The BLM movement is really important. It's not they matter more than other people, it's all about equality. And being conscious of your sub-conscious bias. And getting that message out is key.

"I think many are scared to talk about it because we don't want to come across as racist or patronising.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the latest spark in the Black Lives Matter movement
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the latest spark in the Black Lives Matter movement

"I'm amazed people like Wayne still suffer abuse today. They don't play the victim card, they're brought up just to deal with it and this is their opportunity to talk about these issues.

"That made he realise it's OK to be frustrated but it's not OK to ignore why they're feeling like that.

"It's about kindness and compassion.

"I think people in business need to know they're not being racist by having an unconscious bias but you need to be aware of it. You may skim over things because you don't understand it or because you're just naturally going to be drawn, for example, to a British name, maybe than a different one.

"Education is key and challenging staff when you hear something which is derogatory against the BLM movement - asking them why they think that and opening that conversation up. Because you are in a place of authority you can coach them and even build it into your coaching and education into the business.

"Speak to people who are black or Asian and ask them about it and their experiences."

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