Housing Digital has teamed up with the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) for a series of monthly #housingdiversitystories with sector leaders from a range of backgrounds.
Liam Turner talks with Lorri Holding, head of Customer Services at Warrington Housing Association, about how normal it was when she was growing up to hear people shout racist abuse; Britain’s first black trade union leader, Bill Morris; and the work that still needs to be done to improve equality for both women and minority ethnic groups.
How did you get started in housing?
About 25 years ago, I started off as a primary school teacher. One thing I quickly started to learn working with young people is that, if you didn’t have a stable home or a stable background, you really struggled. And a lot of the work that we do with these young people is quite complex work. A lot of young people have had all sorts of behaviour issues. I found that where young people had stable backgrounds, somebody there for them, somewhere safe and clean and tidy, with their own bedroom or space, they were able to thrive and they seemed to do much, much better.
Wherever young people didn’t have that, they really struggled, their behaviour often when they came back into school was really marked against the young people that did have what you could call a ‘safe environment’.
It really opened my eyes, but I don’t think I really understood it to the level that you’d expect to at that time, until you see it in action, and you can see that actually if there isn’t somewhere where somebody wants to go home too and feel safe I think they really struggle.
So, that was where the obsession of making sure that the young people that I was working with had somewhere safe to be, and that just kind of grew and grew.
Have you always worked in an inclusive environment?
No, of course not, I think we need to be realistic. When I first started in housing, there were lots of opportunities for people who came from all sorts of backgrounds to get involved in housing, all sorts of schemes and you were supported all the way through, to encourage people to get into housing.
After I’d been in housing for a short while, those courses, those opportunities, seemed to drop off. I don’t know whether the money fell away to support. I suppose there are apprenticeships now, and certainly at Warrington, we’ve been really focused on apprenticeships and volunteering as a way to encourage new people, new opportunities. But in general, if I think about my experience in housing – no.
“If BME people and LGBTQ people are in the minority, you’re not going to be the same as them – you’re automatically going to be something that’s outside people’s comfort zones”
For somebody who is not white, it’s not always the easiest environment to work in. People in any industry recruit in their own image. Those of us who have been in housing for a long time tend to either stay in where they’ve really connected with customers and get that feedback directly from customers every day, so that’s the key driver for them that means they stay connected. That’s certainly been a component for me in housing.
But if you just think about just general housing, often you’ll find if you look at stats, people of colour don’t stay in housing for very long, you have to ask why and actively want to understand and do something about it.
Why do you think that is?
It is harder to travel up the ladder. It’s more difficult for a range of reasons, there are less opportunities for us. Like I said people want to employ somebody who looks like them, who sounds like them, and we don’t.
It is getting better, I think people are much more aware of that. Though, if you think about unconscious bias – I’m not a true believer that people are biased without knowing that they’re biased, but there has to be an element of that. People feel more comfortable around people who look like them, sound like them, who come from the same backgrounds or have similar experiences as them. And if BME people and LGBTQ people are in the minority, you’re not going to be the same as them, are you. You’re automatically going to be something that’s outside some people’s comfort zones.
Things might be getting better, but is progress slower that it needs to be?
Yes, the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve probably seen this about four or five times in my time. Through teaching, housing, and all sorts of careers. It’s been up and it goes down when people get bored of it, and it goes up when an event happens and it goes away and it comes back and it goes away.
Unfortunately, although I hope I’m really wrong, I do believe something similar will happen again, I see it already, I read it already, people saying that now the government think tank are writing a report we should stop talking about it. I do see differences with the events from the summer though, young people are open to being more aware about it, more challenging, and so I think it’s probably got a little bit more traction than the previous years.
It’s difficult for people to accept. People don’t deliberately try to be unfair to people – well, some people do – but the majority of people don’t come to work to make somebody else’s life difficult, they really don’t. They’ll go to work, do a great job, and go home.
The way things have always been done are stacked against people so often and so things just carry on. It takes quite brave people, people who are really looking at things to say, actually, let’s try something different. And I’ve always tried to choose organisations where I think there are individuals within that organisation who want to work like that.
What can be done to keep the conversation going and make lasting change?
I used to believe that if you change laws or if you change processes and policies it wouldn’t make a difference. But actually, the older I’ve got, I think that sometimes when you do that it eventually changes people’s psyches.
When I was growing up, though it still happens now, it would be the norm for somebody to shout racial abuse at me on the way home from school or college. That was the norm. Not that we thought it was okay, but it happened that often that we didn’t think it was a big deal, it’s just what happened.
Then laws changed, the race hate laws, all those things came into force; and people would challenge other people on the street. If you said something to me, I could go to the police and say, you know, Liam said this thing about me, and it would be dealt with. Not always well, but it would absolutely be dealt with. And that’s because it’s written in law, there are rules that say Liam could get into trouble if he does that. And over time, people don’t do that now because it’s seen as unacceptable.
So there’s an element there where changes in policy make a difference. It doesn’t get to people’s hearts and minds, but actually sometimes it gets to people’s minds in the respect of, actually, I don’t want to do that, that’s not the person I want to be seen as outside.
“When I was growing up, it would be the norm for somebody to shout racial abuse at me on the way home from school. Not that we thought it was okay, but it happened that often that we didn’t think it was a big deal, it’s just what happened”
So policies can make a change, and I definitely think that there is more policy changes that should be done. And that’s not just for BME that’s also for LGBTQ, I think we all struggle with those same negative impacts when society or individuals or organisations aren’t as comfortable with difference as they could be.
People don’t think it’s polite to talk about colour, don’t think it’s polite to talk about sexuality, so they don’t, thinking they’re doing the best thing. One of the worst things someone could say to me is, you’re just the same as me, because I’m not. I don’t want to be either. I don’t want you to be the same as me, I want you to treat me how I should be treated. I don’t want you to treat me the same as your next door neighbour or somebody that you see in you private life. I think most people want to be treated as fairly but as an individual as well.
Again, with gender inequality in the workplace, is it a case of progress being too slow?
People who want change always want it to move faster than it can, and maybe for the people who are trying to catch up with people who want to make a change, it feels too fast. I think there has to be an understanding that it’s difficult for everybody and we have to all be open to that too, and that it’s not a level playing field for each individual.
Jobs that you might go for, I would never be considered for because of certain things like my experience or my qualifications. It might be that whoever is interviewing me or both of us two has an idea of what they want that candidate to look like or be like or sound like as well as expected role requirements.
Change is hard for people in lots and lots of different ways, and rather than banging a drum saying, it’s not fast enough, and it never is fast enough, I think the bigger thing is helping people with that journey, being open to supporting someone to understand how to do things slightly differently. We’ve all got a responsibility to do that, there is a joy in helping people on that journey, even if we don’t think it’s as fast as we want it to be.
Should people be more proactive then when it comes to combatting racism and inequality?
I definitely think a lot of the narrative last summer was saying that doing nothing is just as bad, and now I wouldn’t go as far as to say that because I think that’s a bit harsh. We have to help people who struggle to have that conversation to feel more relaxed, more comfortable around that.
But I do think not stepping up and people not feeling as though they’ve got the right words or not wanting to say anything at all, that hasn’t helped, that has slowed progress over decades. It does need people who’ve got the courage to say, right, okay, this is what needs to happen.
Certainly, in the summer, I’ve come across a number of people this time round who have actively approached me and said, what can we do differently. I see much more of that, I’ve been approached by a lot of people doing work in the community, a lot of volunteering for various different groups, and I’ve actively been approached by organisations and people doing lots of different things saying, what can we do to help? How could we do things differently?
I don’t think I can ever remember a time in my career or private life where that has been so prevalent. That feels good, but now I want to see that they are true to their word, not just saying the same old thing with no follow-up actions.
Who do you see as an inspiration?
Bill Morris. He was the first black British trade union leader, he was one of the first people of colour that I ever saw on the news in a positive light. I think he started off a bus driver, he was the first black leader of any British trade union.
There’s him and there’s Nelson Mandela of course, and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at an event my dad took me to many, many years ago. I guess they’re the two people that I really look up to – him and Bill are absolutely fantastic people. People in my opinion to aspire to
Certainly, Bill, as a black person, faced all the same things my dad did, and his family faced all the things that we did as a family. He kind of always stood his ground and had everybody looking up to him, not just black people, everyone. To be voted as a union leader, surrounded by white men and women, I reckon that was really hard to get to those heights and have the strength to be a great leader.
Tell me a bit about the work you do with Village Angel & Haven (LGBT Foundation).
Initially, it was to make sure people were safe in the village or safe when they were having a night out, but actually, that work has turned into much more about supporting people who are really struggling.
So, very often, our work will involve supporting people who’ve been made homeless, and they’re in Manchester, they haven’t got anywhere to go, so we might end up supporting those. People may have had a lot to drink and may not be a great night for them and might feel suicidal.
Our job is really to make sure that people have a safe night, or we contact them to make sure they get home safely. So, we might contact a cab or family if you’ve lost your phone or left it in a bar and you can’t remember – we make sure they get home safely.
It reduces a lot of work with the police, so when we go out of Friday and Saturday, before we go out for our shift, we will meet with the police and they will give us an update of what’s going on in Manchester city centre and anything they want us to be aware of.
They need to be dealing with crime, don’t they? Not somebody who’s drunk and throwing up, so we end up doing that sort of stuff. So, yes we do clean up a lot of sick, you do wipe a lot of tears, give people lots of water, but it means that they’re not stuck with somebody who just needs to be looked after safely while a cab is coming or family members are coming or something like that. It means that we can look after people, its actually fun and it’s a great service.
What can we all do as individuals to help create a more equal and diverse society?
If we care about the impact we have on the next person, I think that would make a difference. So you care about how you say things to people in your life, being as positive and as nice as you possibly can, and that doesn’t take any effort – it just happens doesn’t it?
And I think if we all have that approach to never do harm, whether it’s BME, whether it’s anything, I think we have a duty to try and be the best that we can be, and by that mentality you can’t help but pass something good onto that next person.
And that’s not about being better in terms of what’s going on now with Black Lives Matter and all these other sorts of things. Just try to be as decent as you possibly can, because that makes a difference.
More from the Housing Diversity Stories series:
- Housing Diversity Stories / Andrew King / Stonewater
- Housing Diversity Stories / Steven McIntyre / Stonewall Housing
- Housing Diversity Stories / Denise Fowler / Women’s Pioneer Housing
- Housing Diversity Stories / Mushtaq Khan / HDN
- Housing Diversity Stories / Rebecca Clarke / CIH
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