What a pivotal year 2020 has been for shining a spotlight on discrimination and provoking discussion around equality, inclusivity, and diversity.
Seismic events such as the tragic killing of George Floyd and movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ have all come to the fore – and the housing sector has taken notice.
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.
In the final instalment of 2020, we talk with Steven McIntyre about his career in social work, becoming the head of LGBTQ+ housing provider Stonewall Housing, and the importance of being your whole self.
HD: How did you get started in housing?
SM: My background is in social work, and for the last 20 years or so I’ve been working really in child protection, and that kind of field. And what’s really interesting about that is it crosses over with every aspect of vulnerability within the UK. So poverty is a huge aspect, mental health, drugs and alcohol misuse, domestic violence.
All of those things are integrated into child protection work. And that of course is also some of the issues that we face when we’re looking at housing and homelessness and lack of secure housing.
I’ve always worked in the voluntary sector, so I’m a charity kind of a guy. I did Action for Children, NSPCC, Barnardo’s, The Simon Community in Northern Ireland, which is another homelessness organisation.
I worked for the YMCA in the states, and I did a couple of little stints working for local authorities. So I worked for a local authority in London, and I also worked for the local authority in Central Australia and doing that kind of child protection frontline work.
Then more recently, I started getting really interested in leadership. Thinking about how we can effect change by effecting the practitioners rather than the service users themselves. How could I influence a number of people so that we could then have this kind of wider aspect of change?
So I started getting into my leadership career, and I recently went back to uni and did an MBA. I won the scholarship for the voluntary sector MBA at Cranfield University, which was awesome. And they teach you how to run organisations. That’s the point of that qualification. From there, I started thinking about what kind of organisation I’d like to run.
And then this came up with Stonewall housing. It’s just a perfect fit for me because it’s getting back to that kind of right where I started, back at the YMCA working with people who need support around housing, but also it’s in that LGBTQ+ space as well.
HD: What challenges have you faced in your career around inclusivity and diversity?
SM: We’re a bunch of social workers, right, so we’re like fully committed to anti-discriminatory practice, anti-oppressive practice, that kind of thing. Pretty much my whole career has been in an inclusive environment.
But actually that doesn’t mean it has always been diverse. And I think there’s a really interesting experience of someone coming into an organisation or into a sector at a young age compared to someone who’s got 20 years of experience…
…so before I came to this job, I kind of saw it as my responsibility to be super ‘out’ everywhere I went around the large children’s charities that I worked in. So I would always talk about my husband and, oh, my husband and I did this on the weekend, trying to set an example and to show people who maybe weren’t feeling as confident in their identity that not only is it okay, but it’s absolutely to be expected that you would bring your whole self to work.
So that’s an interesting point for me. And then the other one is, I say that places have always been inclusive but not necessarily always diverse. And in the social work field it is really interesting to look at that because, I don’t know the stats, but…when you look at the managers and the senior managers, they’re all men.
So, how do you have this whole industry of people who are women, and somehow they’re getting stuck as they’re thinking about promotion and thinking about the leadership within the organisation? I think it’s interesting.
HD: Why do you think most senior positions are held by men?
SM: I mean, there’s always really good, kind men leaders. But I wonder if this is maybe a hangover from the sort-of glass ceiling age, where the discrimination and the additional vulnerabilities that women hold inherently keep them back from succeeding in the top jobs.
Hopefully it’s changing and hopefully we’re seeing more women in the top jobs. We do see women in leadership roles, but it’s fascinating to me that even in that industry, you see that happening.
HD: Do you think it is changing?
SM: I think if we look at anecdotal evidence, like if you go onto LinkedIn and search for top CEOs in voluntary sector organisations, you will find women there, but I’d love to know the stats.
What is the difference between the number of women in an organisation and the number of women around the leadership table. What’s the difference in pay? The gender pay gap. That would be really interesting to look at.
HD: What would you say are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
…we don’t have the stats around it – there isn’t any reliable statistics around LGBTQ+ homelessness, they just don’t exist in the UK. We’ve got some research that’s been done, but we don’t have prevalence information. That’s really hard because I want to know how much I need to grow in order to meet the need. And you can’t determine that if you don’t know what the level of need is.
And then of course – I mean, I almost stopped myself from saying this but I thought I had to – it’s that ongoing issue of funding. You know, who is going to fund this work? Do people see this work as important enough to make sure that it gets funded? And how can we ask for funding when we don’t really know the level of need?
“How do you have this whole industry of people who are women, and somehow they’re getting stuck as they’re thinking about promotion and leadership?”
A lot of the people we work with are very vulnerable and have experience of mental health issues, domestic abuse, all of the things that many people in our society experience, and on top of that they’re experiencing homelessness, and on top of that they’re experiencing the vulnerabilities that come along with being LGBTQ+.
Our job is to try and keep them on a path toward independence and keep them on a path toward sustaining tenancies and really having security. And sometimes people aren’t able to do that, or their behaviour makes it very difficult for them to do that. So there’s that dilemma of, at what point do we actually say, this person is an adult and they have the right to make their own decisions, and at what point do we say, actually let’s not give up yet, let’s keep going.
HD: Has the pandemic has made that harder?
SM: Much harder. In some ways it’s kind of taken away some of the dilemma because we’re just kind of like, this isn’t normal times, we’re in a completely different scenario, so let’s just focus on making sure every one is okay, making sure everyone’s got enough food, making sure that people are checking in with people to make sure that they are not isolated, that they’ve got access to their mental health medication if they need it.
It’s almost like going back to basics, making sure we’ve get all of this done. But then of course, it’s been going on for seven months and you start to move out of that crisis mode and into a bit more of a business-as-usual mode. And then, how do we navigate this with our funders, with our partner agencies, with our service users, with our ambassadors. How do we come along this journey together, and that’s challenging as well.
HD: Who have been your biggest inspirations?
SM: I think it goes right back to when I was a student, and kind of coming into the sector and into the field for the first time…
…so she really taught me I think how to be myself at work. People who know will see that when I’m doing a presentation in front of lots and lots of different people within the sector, they’re like, oh, that’s literally how he talks normally. It’s just me but just in a different scenario. Like today, now, talking to you, this is just me, this is just what I’m like. I really see value in that, and I think I got that from Deanna. She really taught me how important that was.
HD: How have the events of 2020 influenced your views around equality, diversity, and inclusion?
SM: What I’ve learnt over the last kind of year or so is that not everybody who says they’re anti-discriminatory or anti-oppressive are. They may think they are or they may profess to be, but that doesn’t mean that they are. There’s two things for that. It’s helped me to be more critical and really to try and see through the facade and really understand what’s going on.
Secondly, it’s helped to hold a mirror up. If others can say they’re anti-discriminatory and they’re not, what does that mean for me. I’m quite a reflective person, and I’ve been able to reflect on my own views and my own thoughts and my own kind of prejudices that I hold and really think those through.
And then the other thing I’ve been thinking about is…
…and then the other thing is about really understanding the difference between not being racist and being anti-racist. That real kind of fighting against racism. So someone like me, in my position, where I am employing people into an organisation, where I’m making decisions about the path that the organisation is taking or the future direction for it, what can I do to make sure that the organisation is not just not racist but it’s actually anti-racist?
HD: It sounds like being anti-racist is about being proactive rather than being passive.
SM: Yeah, and the other thing is that is that for me it’s about understanding that I don’t have to be some kind of big campaigner or somebody who is actively trying to change the law in order to be anti-racist, you can do what you can do within your realm of responsibility, or your area of influence. What can I do as somebody who’s leading an organisation?
One of the things I can do is have a look at the difference between the number of staff in my team who are black and minority ethnic, and the number of service users that we work with who are black and minority ethnic, and ask the question, are we reflective of the people that we work with?
“I don’t have to be some kind of big campaigner or somebody who is actively trying to change the law in order to be anti-racist – you can do what you can do within your realm of responsibility, your area of influence
And if the answer is no, which in our case it is, then what do we do about that? How do I make sure that when I’m advertising a job, that this job is available and we’re actively encouraging people who are black and minority ethnic to apply for this job?
HD: Do you agree that people sometimes perpetuate discrimination without realising that they are doing so?
SM: Yeah I do. If we think about why that might be the case, I think sometimes – and if I put my LGBTQ+ hat on – people are a bit scared of doing the wrong thing, and so they don’t do anything. I think in this world that I’m in, sometimes the language is quite difficult for people to get their heads round. And they’re worried about getting it wrong, or it feels uncomfortable.
You know the discussion around pronouns? For some people, they’re like, it feels uncomfortable to me to ask someone what their pronouns are. Or, it doesn’t sit right with me to call someone they and them rather than he or she. For that reason, it can kind of feel a bit alien to them and can make it difficult as well.
And then the other thing is…
…I’m much more one of those people who says, oh, do you want to have a conversation about it, and we can talk it through, and to do that in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re having an argument and doesn’t feel like I’m trying to impart my knowledge onto you. But actually we’ll have this kind of conversation that would allow us to really understand the issue from each other’s point of view.
HD: What can we do to improve inclusivity in our personal lives and in the workplace?
SM: I think really understanding yourself and knowing where you come from, so knowing that you might hold some prejudices based on your experiences when you were growing up or based on the experiences that your parents had or whatever, that might happen. And then being able to reflect on that and say, what does this really mean for me?
Do I really think that everybody should be included in whatever this is. Do I really think that, and if so, am I behaving in a way that allows that to happen and can kind of make sure that inclusivity is just part of who I am and the interactions I have on a daily basis? So I think reflecting inwardly first of all and getting your own head straight.
When I used to work in child protection, sometimes we would be removing children from families’ houses, and I used to spend some time just to get my head straight. I would say like, right, why am I doing this, what am I trying to achieve, what is going on here? You know, just getting my own head straight. And then when you go into the encounter with the family, everything you do and say comes from that place of what it is that you are trying to achieve.
“I think sometimes people are scared of doing the wrong thing, so they don’t do anything”
For me, I always find that things went better if I got my head straight first. So I would say, get your head straight around this stuff for yourself, then look externally and think, right, okay now, where am I here? What’s going on in my family? What’s going on in my workplace? What’s going on in my social life? And start to think, right okay, how can I influence this so that it becomes more inclusive?
And I think for me, my approach to that is to try and do it in a way that brings people along and doesn’t kind of alienate people or give people a hard time. For me, I think it’s much more effective whenever we say, hey, let’s talk. Let’s talk it through.
HD: Can you tell me a little bit about Out for Good?
SM: Out for Good is an organisation that I founded a couple of years ago, and the idea is that we demonstrate to people in our communities that LGBTQ+ people have got something to offer, have a positive influence in society, and can make a positive difference. And so what we do is we get together and we do something that benefits our community. That’s basically it.
So we try and do it once every couple of months. We’ve been on hold for a few months because of COVID, but one of the things we did was we painted a community yoga studio, and it was super fun actually, we had the best day doing it. That yoga studio in turn raises money to help put kids into sports training.
So this really lovely kind of opportunity to do something positive, we helped at the London marathon last year, we raise money for organisations, we put together care packages for homeless people around Christmas, we supported Wrap Up London. We did this thing in Croydon last Christmas where we wrapped Christmas presents to help raise money for the local voluntary centre there.
We just do these really lovely events that have some kind of positive influence in the community, and we do it while we’re being LGBTQ+ really openly.
HD: What has the overall reaction been to the project? Has it been well received?
SM: Pretty much. If there’s been anything negative then it’s not come my way. But we have about 40 people who are part of out for good, and our own members are wholly positive. For them, it gives you this opportunity to give something back, and for me as well, I’m one of the members, it gives me the opportunity to give something back and to be your authentic self while you’re doing it.
So that feels really good and really positive for people. And the organisations that we’ve helped, we did one where we went and helped dig up a wildlife area, which was super fun as well, but the organisations that we help, they just want us to come back. They’re like, oh, will you come back next year and maybe do something else? So it’s going well.
HD: How do you go about deciding which initiatives to launch or support at Stonewall Housing?
SM: I think the first thing for me is to make sure we’re doing everything we can in those areas that we’re already delivering. So, we have services across London for the advice and advocacy work. But actually, we don’t provide any advocacy work outside of London, and if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from lockdown, it’s actually that we don’t need to be in the city in order to offer support.
The next thing I want to understand is the different models that are available to us. So, what are other housing associations doing? What are they doing that would be beneficial to our client group, LGBTQ+ people? And how can we either work in partnership with them, or create a model of our own that delivers that same level of support?
Then the other thing that I’m really interested in is the reason why people become homeless or at risk of homelessness. We’ve got already a domestic abuse worker, we’ve got a mental health worker. What else do we need to think about in terms of being able to meet the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness?
Do we need to skill ourselves up around drugs and alcohol, for example? Do we need to be thinking about more of an outreach type of approach, where we are actually kind of actively going out and looking for people rather than waiting for them to come to us?
There’s a number of different things, but I think for me, it’s taking the time to really learn about what we need to do and how we might be able to do it.
More from the Housing Diversity Stories series:
- 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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