As they have for so many, the events that have unfolded across the world in the past week, initially sparked by the disgraceful killing of George Floyd, have horrified me – as has the quality of some of the debate that has followed.
It has been compounded here by the unavoidable truth that coronavirus (Covid-19) is having a disproportionate effect on the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community as a whole, and the Black population in particular.
Acknowledging this situation is obvious. Knowing how to respond, both individually and corporately, is harder. At Sport England, we have not found it easy to determine how best to react to the events that began in America but have rocked the world through outcry and protest.
It is not because we do not have something to say – or no desire to speak out. Everyone feels impacted and I have many Black colleagues in particular who are hurting and finding recent events traumatic, and some who have taken to our internal networks to express this powerfully.
And we have already focused much of our work on tackling long-standing and deep-rooted inequalities that mean currently only just over half of Black people in England reach the recommended amount of physical activity every week.
There are some things which we can sincerely feel we have achieved – not least some groundbreaking research into the levels of activity of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups that seeks to make a genuine difference and was vividly brought to life at a major conference we hosted earlier this year in Birmingham, and a partnership with Perrett Lever which has in the past year placed 23 candidates – 61% of whom are from the wider BAME community - onto the boards of sports organisations. Sport England itself also focused on ensuring a genuine diversity in its Board membership, with over a third of its membership coming from Black or Asian heritage.
But it did not feel appropriate to add our voice to the Black Lives Matter conversation earlier this week. In part that was because we are very wary of a trite or contrived response. Mostly though it was because we wanted to step back, listen, seek to understand and then genuinely say what we are doing to help make change. I felt that particularly keenly on Tuesday when observing the Blackout day on social media. That gave space to pay attention to voices that at that moment mattered far more.
It won’t be on this blog that we will be judged. It will be on our actions in the future, and the positive change we can help to deliver.
Because in my view the truth is that sport has never done enough properly to tackle racism, has never felt entirely comfortable discussing race, has too often been a follower not a leader, and is not honest about why so many Black people feel excluded and are let down by a system that perpetuates a significant ethnicity gap, both in terms of participation and leadership.
We have had conversations within Sport England that have rightly been uncomfortable this week as we have sought to support and listen to Black colleagues who have particularly found this time so challenging, and asked questions of ourselves as to what we are actually doing to make change.
Among the questions we have been asking ourselves is how we as an organisation of influence can say that we abhor racism and injustice and are committed strategically to tackling the inequalities that prevent people taking part in sport, whilst not at the same time being honest that collectively we simply have not done enough.
This was laid out starkly for all of us who attended the ‘Sport for All?’ event in Birmingham - where we set out via an in-depth report the deep-rooted inequalities that exist across this country when it comes to participation in sport and activity, and where it was obvious that despite years of well-intended investments and interventions, we have just not gone far or deep enough to make long lasting change.
It is apparent internally too in both the number of Black people employed overall across Sport England and particularly in our most senior roles.
So what are we going to do? Initially as chief executive my focus is on three areas:
Be a part of the change we want to see
Sport England must do better as an organisation. Beyond the Board, the organisation itself is significantly lacking in diversity and not nearly representative of the communities we are looking to serve. We have some immediate action in place – including dedicated organisation-wide race awareness training with Business in the Community - but there is much more we can do to redouble our efforts and have greater impact, not least in our recruitment practices. The internal colleague network we have for our BAME colleagues will play a key role here in helping shape our future, but primarily this is the responsibility of leadership.
Use our coronavirus response to focus unashamedly on those members of our community hardest hit
We have just launched a £20 million coronavirus ‘Tackling Inequalities Fund’ with a focus wholly designed to reach out to under-represented groups, including BAME communities. This sits alongside other elements of our approach that specifically seek to support hardest hit communities and organisations that work with them – and our ongoing support for partners like Sporting Equals and other important key stakeholders in this area.
Use our next strategy as a catalyst for long-term change
We are in the middle of working on a new long-term strategy for Sport England. We are listening hard to what both organisations and individuals are telling us, and are determined that this will focus around disproportionate attention on, and investment in, communities least well served currently. This will be at every level of the sporting infrastructure that we have responsibility for supporting – including the talent development pathway, with a project already underway to focus more than ever before on ensuring genuinely diverse, culturally representative England and Great Britain teams in the future.
There is no easy response. I am not sure either personally or corporately our publishing this blog is the right one. But it represents a sincere view, one that properly reflects Sport England’s role and need to take action. But it won’t be on this that we will be judged. It will be on our actions in the future, and the positive change we can help to deliver.