Reflecting on one year of active anti-racism at Shelter

Published: by Anti Racism Steering Group

This June marked one year since Shelter and Shelter Scotland made the commitment to become an anti-racist organisation. For over 12 months now we’ve been actively working on anti-racism, following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. In that time, we have seen an upsurge in engagement in anti-racist action across different sectors. We’ve also seen barriers to anti-racist progress: the rise in anti-Asian hate; the denial of women’s own experiences of discrimination; The Sewell Report, which we responded to here; sections of mainstream media erasing Black members of the English Euro 2020 football team from their coverage, and a huge increase in racist hate-crimes following the final match result. Whilst we are making progress, there is still a long way to go.  

One year on, we asked colleagues to reflect on the work so far and consider the future of anti-racism at Shelter. 

What does a truly anti-racist organisation look like to you?

Sophia Smith, Anti-Racism Steering Group*: An inclusive, non-hierarchical organisation, that shares power and understands how intersectionality and race impact its people, clients, and the housing emergency. One that uses this knowledge to dismantle systemic racism from the inside out. 

Alison Mohammed, Director of Services, and Ally Group**: Properly diverse and representative, with people who are confident that they can be their true selves at work, without having to hide aspects of who they are. And all of us thinking about how to tackle systemic change, not just interpersonal acts of hate or discrimination.  

What or who has inspired you during the past year of this work? 

Alison: All my colleagues who rose up last June, put their heads above the parapet and called out Shelter for not doing enough on racism. Especially the chairs of the affinity groups and Ally Network, and all the members of the Anti-Racism Steering Group (ARSG) who have worked tirelessly to keep the issue alive. And my own kids who have really leaned into the issue.  

Sophia: The strength, wisdom and vulnerability of Black women and women of colour over the last twelve months have inspired and challenged me. Ideas of decentering whiteness and decolonising my perspective has shifted how I think about everything, particularly the structures, institutions and policies that govern our society. I’ve specifically enjoyed learning from educators and activists like Alok Vaid-MenonLaverne CoxKelechi OkaforDr Shola Mos-ShogbamimuJames Baldwin and Angelica Ross to name a few. 

What have the last twelve months of anti-racism work been like? 

Cecil Sagoe, Anti-Racism Steering Group: The last year at Shelter has flown by. Being anti-racist, tackling internal racism and highlighting and tackling racism within our housing system have become increasing priorities for Shelter. It is wonderful that this is happening. People of Colour within Shelter, ARSG members, our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion affinity groups and others within the organisation must be commended for all their hard work, often outside of their usual job roles and responsibilities. This is contributing to change at Shelter.  

I am proud to be part of the ARSG. It is full of inspiring people who have worked tirelessly to create a strong foundation for Shelter to be an actively anti-racist organisation. A personal highlight has been working with Adah Parris to help design, deliver and disseminate results from the anti-racism theory of change sessions. So many people put so much of their hearts and minds into these sessions – this has led to a great set of recommendations for work that Shelter needs to pursue as part of being an actively anti-racist organisation.  

Sophia: Positives include collaborating with some of the most talented, driven, diverse and insightful colleagues I’ve ever worked with, specifically the steering group members and People of Colour affinity group. We would never have crossed paths like this otherwise, I’m proud of what we have achieved over the last twelve months and how everyone’s individual confidence and understanding of their value has grown. I think the biggest shift we made as a team that enabled this, was to power share, give a platform to the people who know the most/have lived experience, amplify their voices, expertise and let them lead. I hope this continues to be a model at Shelter moving forward. 

How has your engagement in anti-racism changed your world view? 

Chris, Ally Group Member: The one piece of information that changed my worldview this year – and indeed the hardest pill to swallow with regards to Anti-Racism – is the realisation that racism “works.”  It continues to do what it was designed to do and it does it rather well: surreptitiously, insidiously, and effectively.  People – even woke, well-meaning folk – often don’t notice it’s there.  And when it is pointed out, they’re invariably more preoccupied with the need to defend themselves against being called out than they are by the desire to actively engage with the issue and do something about it.  

Sophia: Recognising that people who have been historically excluded, and as a result marginalised, do not experience their different identities in isolation; you cannot separate struggles against the same problem e.g., white supremacy. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “None of us are free until all of us are free.” 

The average life expectancy for trans women of colour is 35 years old, which shows how deadly systemic inequity is for people with multiple marginalised identities. Yet where is the accountability? These are the same queer, trans women/non-binary People of Colour who have been at the forefront of so many liberation movements. Not only are they frequently side-lined as opposed to celebrated, but society also accepts and perpetuates this level of violence against them. You can’t be anti-racist without addressing how systemic racism and inequity manifests in all its forms. 

Claire Leslie, Fundraising, and Ally Group: That it’s impossible to be truly anti-racist, because of the way racism is embedded in every aspect of our lives. However, the goal of becoming anti-racist is really important, and we can grow together as we improve at practising it. I found it helpful to understand that it’s a process of learning from Jay Smooth How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race – identifying a prejudice you hold doesn’t make you a terrible, terrible person – it’s another opportunity to change and improve. I’ve also been reading about the importance of equality in rich countries in a book called The Spirit Level: why more equal societies always do better. There’s compelling evidence that alleviating poverty really does benefit everyone in society. 

What has been the biggest challenge this year, or will be a challenge in the year to come? 

Cecil: Despite our progress, there is so much that we still need to do. The racialised nature of the housing emergency demands it. We need to figure out what issues to campaign on to tackle racial inequalities in our housing system, to end the housing emergency for everyone, including other socially marginalised, excluded, and oppressed groups. Prioritising this work will also help us pay attention to staff welfare; this work can be emotionally draining and, like many others, I have felt so burnt out. Getting our priorities right, will mean we can be an anti-racist organisation that also has the welfare of its staff at its heart.  

Sophia: For Shelter, the challenge has and will continue to be people stepping up and being anti-racist in practice, so the burden of driving this work does not sit with marginalised colleagues. Constant learning, relinquishing space and power for historically excluded voices, decentering whiteness, listening, and sitting in discomfort; many people are all for anti-racism until faced with this, and then it becomes a little too hard. If they have the privilege of not having to experience racism or marginalisation, they can ignore it, or substitute real allyship with performative gestures.  

Another challenge for Shelter will be to remain focused on anti-racism specifically, and maintain the integrity of the work to date as responsibility for outcomes is delegated across the organisation. Like most not-for-profits, Shelter is a majority White organisation and leadership team; without constant self-reflection, coaching, challenge, learning and evaluation there is a risk we could default to past learned behaviours. Finally, with all the progress made over the last twelve months by the ARSG and Affinity groups, it would be easy for people to sit back and assume the work has been done as opposed to just beginning. 

What has been a positive outcome of your anti-racism work?   

Alison: Getting people to think about this issue a lot; for some people, this might have been the first time they had really thought about the impact of racism. And we have really thought about how we can be anti-racist in all the different parts of Shelter. For example, my role is Director of Services; we are thinking about what legal cases we take on, something we never considered previously.

Is there anyone you would like to give a shout out to for their anti-racism work at Shelter? 

Sophia: The ARSG, People of Colour and LGBTQ+ affinity groups: their time and expertise has been invaluable. Shelter has so much talent within these groups, whose members essentially stepped into an expertise and leadership vacuum to accelerate the organisation’s progress over the last twelve months.  

Specific mention goes to the ARSG Senior Project Manager Maiya Rahman, Cecil Sagoe ARSG Policy Lead, Tarun Bhakta and Roli Barker, the People of Colour Affinity Group Chairs. Maiya came onboard to support the ARSG and coordinate the emerging workstreams. She very quickly made sense of the chaos and navigated a sensitive project demonstrating a sound understanding of Anti-Racism, empathy, and resolve; we could not have done any of this work without her. Cecil is super smart, a brilliant thinker and leader who first proposed and then led the theory of change. Tarun delivered some incredible work on the shared lexicon and Roli Barker, who has now left Shelter, has been a fantastic co-lead throughout this entire project. 

Alison: It has to be Sophia Smith for stepping up and taking on the enormous burden of anti-racism work, Roli Barker for leading the People of Colour Affinity Group, Lisa Smith and Clare Biggar for making the Ally Group a place for learning and self-reflection. And everyone else who has been a member of our affinity groups; we shouldn’t underestimate the massive toll this work takes on people’s wellbeing.  

Cecil: Massive shout out to Sophia and Maiya for being absolutely outstanding in leading and steering the ARSG and our work. We are so lucky to have you.  

Massive shout out to everyone on the ARSG who have put their whole selves into our strategy development and into internal and external comms and blogs, which have been highlighting the work we have been doing over the last year.  

Massive shout out to Fabrice Baker-Livingstone, Tarun Bhakta and Shakeela Mandil who have led the work on our shared lexicon, and worked so diligently on it over the last year. It is such a useful resource for us.  

Massive shout out to Musurut Dar for working with so many grassroots groups on the #SocialHousingNotScapegoating campaign. And a massive shout out to Meghan O’Neill and Tatora Mukushi for leading the #FreedomToCrawl campaign. These are wonderful examples of acting in solidarity with racially minoritised groups and are campaigns we should all be inspired by and learn from.  

Massive shout out to everyone on the Race and Housing working group at Shelter, who have all been working so hard and thinking so carefully about the research we should be conducting on race and housing, and how we can work with other organisations to do this.  

Massive shout out to everyone who worked on our response to work on the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration. It’s wonderful that we have laid down a marker that will, hopefully, help us to campaign on this in the future.  

Massive shout out to everyone working on tackling No Recourse to Public Funds. This is a policy issue that is close to my heart and it is great to see that we are being proactive in challenging this.  

This is all hard, emotionally draining work – much like most work at Shelter. So, everyone should be commended for this.  

* In June 2020, colleagues from across Shelter came together to create an Anti-Racism Steering Group, which aims to understand where we are now and where we need to get to in order to become a truly anti-racist organisation. 

** The Ally Group was created to help staff and volunteers develop awareness and education in the area of anti-racism, through the lens of intersectionality.