Making a Dent in Inequalities

Alfred Nelson is the Integration Co-ordinator and chair of the Embrace network at the Growth Company. I was excited when I came across Alfred’s work and the Growth Company because it is very much in alignment with the approach that I take to diversity and inclusion in the book that I wrote, Inclusive Growth.
Headshot of Alfred Nelson

The Growth Company is an award-winning, accredited social enterprise with a mission to enable growth, create jobs and improve lives. Its vision is for a society where economic growth and prosperity are inclusive and sustainable and leaves no person or community behind. Based on that organisational purpose I invited Alfred onto my Inclusive Growth podcast so I could explore his work more.

Before we got talking about Alfred’s role as chair of the Embrace Network, I asked him to tell me more about him by asking, ‘Who you are, Alfred, what you do, And what led you to this point in your career?’

‘I work for the Growth company. I’ve been here for four-plus years and worked in this sector for a long time now. What led me to this is I’ve always supported people, ever since leaving university, school really. I’ve done a lot of work with youth organisations, a lot of work around the world with vulnerable and underrepresented groups, and naturally it’s just evolved into working with big organisations and supporting more and more people, so I currently work as the Integration Co-ordinator and integrate services by looking into what is missing in society.

I cover all of Trafford, some of Manchester and parts of South Manchester. If there’s a vulnerable group of adults, so eighteen plus, that are not being represented and do not have the correct services to support their needs, I speak with the council. I speak with other organisations to try and make sure that those things are available. That’s my nine to five job. On top of that, I am the chair of the Embrace Network, as you said, which is a network that supports race. We look at inequality in the workplace. We look at improvements for people from a wide range of backgrounds. I’ve been doing that for around four months now. I was part of the network before, and I am now enjoying taking the lead and trying to make a change and some difference.’

When I looked on the website of the Growth Company, one of the first things that struck me was how large it is and how many activities or programmes it runs. It’s been going for quite some time now. I asked Alfred which programme he works on?

I work on a programme called the Work and Health programme. It’s the third of a series of programmes to support people with disabilities. This was actually created by GMCA,  Greater Manchester Combined Authorities, after they got the original devolution of funds. The programme was set up as a kind of experiment to see what would happen if you take a section of society that is currently getting no support, so people with disabilities that were not getting any support, they were just getting their disability benefits. The idea was to see what would happen if you offer a full inclusive support system for them. That includes a key worker, mental health or physical health professionals and a full wrap-around support system to see if you can take away some barriers and help them become self-sufficient.

That went really well. I worked on that with another organisation. Then the second version of the Working Well programmes was another one, again, to support disabled people. But they expanded it a little bit more to help a wider range of people. The third one, which is what I’m working on now, again, supports people that are long-term unemployed, people with disabilities, refugees, people that have come out of care, or previously been a carer, anyone that’s been in the armed forces or a partner of somebody that’s been in the armed forces. These are the vulnerable groups that we support.

The idea is that a specialist supports you. Then when you get a little bit of extra help with your mental health and physical health, which usually combines, if there’s one, it usually affects the other, you see what you can achieve with extra bits of support.

I used to support the clients and customers on a day to day basis. Then after many years of knowing all the support that we can give them, I decided to get into the integration role that looks into why somebody isn’t getting the support.

There’s an interesting story about the work. We worked with somebody who had bad teeth and because of that, he had no confidence. The knock-on effect was that he couldn’t get a job, didn’t have money and couldn’t afford to pay for the private care for his teeth. So with a few interventions, speaking to the council, changing procedures, we got help to fix those teeth and the same for anyone on the programme then. You would think it’s nothing, but there was a big knock-on effect on his mental health, physical health and everything else.

We ended up changing the procedure locally so nobody would be left behind in that way again. We did that with help from the dental students doing the pre-work, and then any NHS dentist not being allowed to turn away somebody because of the level of dental care that’s needed. So yeah, it’s a strange story that we talk about from time to time. But that describes where somebody’s fallen into a gap, and nobody can figure out who can help first. A lot of the work that we do is to find out if somebody is getting the right support? If not, why? And if we figure out why we ask what can we put in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?’

I also wanted to find out more about Alfred’s work as chair of the Embrace Network, which as he said earlier is about race and ethnicity. I asked Alfred to tell me a little bit more about what the Embrace Network does and why it exists?

‘It’s been a strange journey for the Embrace network. We were set up as a group to highlight any gaps within the organisation that are not being met. We came up with an action plan of all the things that we think should be in place for an organisation of this size. It’s evolved. It’s very difficult. We are dealing with societal problems and trying to stand out from society and make sure that our environment, our working environment, is an inclusive one that is not following the same lead as society.

With that in mind, when I got asked to support, and then a few chairs had stepped down from the position, I ended up as the one and only chair at the moment. That’s the history of where we were.

I’ve done a lot of work on inclusion and a lot of work about training up members of staff, on educating people on some of the barriers that people have and some of the problems that we notice. Off the back of that work, I guess they thought I was a good person to take over.

The new vision is that we are a network that will look at change and create an environment that’s closer to something that everyone wants. But we are also there as a support system. So if somebody is struggling in the workplace and doesn’t feel that they want to go down the usual HR route, or speak to the manager, they can come to a network as a safe space to speak and get advice and guidance. We’re doing a lot of work to make sure that it is a safe space. We’re doing a lot of work to make sure that we’ve linked in with other networks that can support people of different backgrounds, different heritages, to get that support in the workplace.’

I wondered if Alfred could say something about the types of challenges that people bring to the Embrace Network that they feel that they can’t take to the HR department? In my line of work, I think it’s really important that organisations are creating that safe space for colleagues.

‘It’s difficult because, I guess, when you put your face out there and speak about equality and speak about making change, you all of a sudden become the face of change. So everyone comes to me. People come asking for advice, whether they’re black, brown, white, or anything else. They still come if they feel that something is happening that they are not being equally represented or considered.

I’ve had everything. I’ve had, “I don’t believe I was given a fair chance to get a promotion in the workplace because I’m a woman”, “I don’t feel that I’m being treated fairly in the workplace because of my sexuality, because of my race”. So there are a lot of things that go on. And what I have to do is make sure that I’m here to listen, and make sure that we can find a way and figure out why they do not want to go down the traditional route.

I’ve worked in many organisations, I’ve run some of my own businesses, and you get the same things where you just have to pick through all of the information that’s given to you and say, “Well, okay, what can we change to make sure that this environment is a more warm and friendly environment for you that you feel you can go down the normal routes?”

Here’s a random example of any workplace. If I feel that there has been some sort of injustice on myself or somebody feels that then we have to look at why do they feel that? What can we change? I don’t like it when people say, “That’s your perception of this, that and the other.”

So I want to look at, “Okay, this person is living this feeling. What can we do to support that?” Right now, what we are trying to do is pick through all the information and look at why some people have lost faith in the traditional routes.

Again, this applies to any organisation. Do I feel that if I say this, am I going to get treated fairly or am I going to get edged out of the door? And I know, as a Black male with plenty of lived experiences, sometimes we all just sit back and say, “I’ve seen this before. I’ve mentioned it once, If I keep mentioning it, I’m gonna be that guy.” And that guy is the one that, the next round of who’s going, or next round of promotions, “Oh, he’s the one that complained about. This, this and this procedure in the office, or anything else, or said that there is inequality, said that he’s not treated fairly or they are not being fair.”

We’ve all been in those situations where you wonder, do you stick your neck on the line? I guess I had a moment at some point that said, “Well, yeah, I’m going to be the voice of people. Be the voice of the ones that don’t want to be earmarked. I don’t mind being earmarked.’

Alfred laughs, ‘I just want some level of equality.

The position that Alfred is coming from is one where he is representing a group of people.

‘So it’s not you, Alfred, as an individual going to HR, it’s like you go along and speak for a bunch of other people. Because what you described, people do not want to speak up because they are then seen as the one or the troublemaker or the one that’s always complaining, I can totally relate to that. I used to run the Disabled Staff Forum at the BBC. As the chair of that network, I ran into exactly the same challenges. Individuals do not want to go to HR because they were then being perceived as being awkward or demanding or that kind of thing. And all we wanted to do was have equality for our disabled staff in the organisation.’

I know that in 2021, Alfred did a lot of work around Black History Month. I asked him to share some insights on the work that he did then.

‘I think if my timings are right, the previous year had the backdrop of the George Floyd incident. There was a lot of talk and people were speaking more and more about racial inequality. So Black History Month was coming up, and I put myself forward to do something. Again, I’m not one of those people that says, “Okay, let’s send out an email, let’s highlight something, then forget about it.”

I guess this is how I’ve ended up in the position I’m in. I decided to put on an event every day of the month for Black History Month. I think we ended up with something like 28 days. I think I ended up doing more than one a day even at some point. But the main reason for it was that I’ve had discussions about Black History Month, and some people think it’s a good thing, some a bad thing. But I know that for me, my background is varied.

I grew up in inner-city London but moved out to Norfolk, Norwich. And the contrast is huge. From a multicultural, every country in the world, in my primary school in London, I moved out to Norwich. People were touching your skin and your hair and they’d never seen a black person before.

I’m talking in school. I’m talking while walking down the road. I’m talking in all aspects of life as a little eight-year-old kid, and you then realise that “Okay, something’s a bit different here. People are acting a bit differently towards me.”

Education is the key for me. Those people have never been around a Black person. And I learned very early on that this inspires hate in some people, inspires fear and all sorts. For me, that education was the key. So we had 28 days of celebrating Black History, educating people, and having discussions.

We did fun things like a cook along and a quiz, but we also put out information on Black History every single day of the month. We did profiles on people that nobody had ever heard of before. We did one piece about a classical musician that inspired Beethoven. And nobody had ever heard of this. Probably the thing I’m most proud of from Black History Month was that we had an open discussion about unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.

That inspired people to look at themselves and say, “Woah, I’ve seen this in the workplace. I’ve seen the banter, and memes being passed around the office or wherever else. Or at home or in the football ground when somebody’s chanting something. What can I do to kind of step out of my comfort zone, rather than not help and contribute to that environment by being a by-stander?”

That provoked a lot of conversation. I didn’t want it to just end with Black History Month. I wanted it to continue. So we’ve got more and more training, and more and more discussions and more and more things that are being implemented into our daily working lives that we’ll continue to teach, train and educate members of staff on little things like the microaggressions. Just making people think a little more. Essentially, it was a full month of a lot of hard work and a lot of sleepless nights.’

When Alfred said 28 events, I was thinking, “That is a lot of stuff to organise.” But equally, it sounds hugely impactful. What I like about what Alfred is saying is the educational approach. Before we can move people to action, to become advocates for race equality and diversity and inclusion, first of all, people need to be aware. Once they have awareness, they need to be interested in it.

They have to have a desire to want to change things. So you have to take people on the journey of awareness, interest, desire, and then action. The work Alfred is doing upfront around raising awareness and educating people is so important because, without that, we won’t see action.

I was curious to know from Alfred, having run all those events, what would he say is his proudest outcome that came off the back of that?

‘The feedback. I got feedback from all levels of the organisation. And that’s from somebody that just does admin part-time, to directors of the organisation reaching out and telling me that they’ve learned something. Telling me, the contents that I put out and it wasn’t just me, I had a few handfuls of people that went out of their comfort zone and supported me to proofread, to write up articles about people. For us to put in all of that work and to just get an email back saying that “You’ve changed my life. You’ve changed my thought process. You’ve changed my outlook on these issues.” We got so much, I still haven’t responded to everyone who sent through things because that’s how much feedback I had.

But it does make a difference. And it makes you realise that is the ball that needs to be rolled into some people’s lives. Some people look at it and think, “Oh, it’s just another email from EDI. Just another event about EDI. I don’t really care. It gets shoved down my throat way too much.” And they’ll never look and be interested. But for some people… It could have sparked an interest. It could have been about a musician, a politician, about somebody who did something for women, something for whatever it was, whatever it is that triggers interest.

Getting that ball rolling is the key. And if we can get people thinking about it and learning through that education process. So yeah, little bits of feedback were the proudest moments.’

Piggybacking on what Alfred said about moving people to change. We know that whenever we want to get people on board that they come on board at different stages. Some people are eager. They’re on board. They’re chomping at the bit to get going. They are your early adopters and that becomes a tipping point when you start to then bring other people on board. But there’s always this tail at the end. The people that are hard to convince, and they’re the ones that are sitting there in the meeting, crossing their arms, rolling their eyes going, “Oh, here it goes. Another woke email from the HR department.”

We all get that. But I suppose it’s about collectively moving society or organisations in the right direction. Organisations are just a mirror image of society, or they should be. An organisation should mirror the diversity of the society in which it’s based.

Alfred has done a lot over the years. I wondered what he has learned in particular about implementing sustainable change or systemic change in the work he’s done?

‘This is difficult because really and truly, the work hasn’t been done. We don’t live in a fair society. We don’t live in an equal society. I learned that at a very young age. I mentioned my experience moving to Norwich. But what really got me fighting for people is when I moved back to London. I saw inequality. I realised that with me going to a posh school in Norwich and moving back to London, the kids in inner-city London had not learned the same things that I had.

I was quickly moved up a year. And if people from my high school thought, “Oh, Alfred Nelson moved up a year”, they would have thought, “No.” They used to think I was just a basketball player and that’s all that I was going to do. But no, in London, I was the intelligent kid, having intellectual conversations with tutors. “Oh, let’s move him up a year.” So then I realised that something was not quite right here. And then you start to see that age group and think, “Well, I’m never going to fit into society, so I’ll just go down the other route.” And that’s when I started doing youth work and speaking to young people about “You’ve got more than an option.” Just because you’ve not learned something it doesn’t mean that that route is shut off. So me being a 16-year-old kid, I won’t say my age, but I’m in my thirties, deep thirties now.

In all those years, not much has changed. We had George Floyd and everyone spoke about it, and everyone brought it to the surface again, but the same problems were happening 10, 15, and 20 years ago. And a few years after the George Floyd thing, the same problems are still happening. So what I’ve learned is that we have to make dents into these problems. We’re not going to just say, “Yay, We’ve had a chat. It’s all fixed now. We have sorted it.” And why I want us to get away from in society is the shock. They love to talk about some racist football fans that were doing monkey chants or throwing something at Black players. “Oh, wow, we’re so shocked.” Don’t be shocked. It’s not a surprise. I’m not surprised, the footballers aren’t surprised, and so on and so forth. So let’s get away from the shock. Let’s look at making real change. Let’s look at organisations and society becoming a fairer and more equal place because right now, it does not exist.

If we look at our organisation or any other organisation, we would struggle to find one that reflects society. Does that mean that we are not equal as human beings in terms of abilities? I doubt it. If we look into the figures, it’s actually very, very much the opposite.

So why is it? We have to ask ourselves the honest question, “Why are we not a fair and equal society? And what are we going to do to change it?”

I guess people like yourself are part of it, a part of starting that ball rolling or starting that dent. But we’ve got to keep making dents. We love to celebrate small victories of, “We’ve spoken about this” or “This person got cancelled.”

One person being cancelled off Twitter for a week or a month, that’s not a victory. We’ve still got the same problems that we had 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And if you look at the differences, it’s tiny. And systemically, if anything, it’s become worse because it’s not the shouting abuse down the road and saying, “Oh, it’s just one ignorant person shouting abuse.” Systemically, we have deep problems that we really need to work on. And yeah, that’s the aim, that’s the lesson. The lesson is though it’s not changed. Conversation, education, and being open and having that awareness, self-awareness is key. The self-awareness that says, “This is my organisation, and it does not reflect society, why? Let’s look into why and lets put in changes and let’s make a difference.”’

I told Alfred that one of the first things I do with my clients is to do a survey to find out how diverse their workforce is and then compare that to the area where they get their talent from.

‘Obviously, you and I are in Manchester. So if this was a Manchester organisation, which is a fairly diverse city, it would be like, well, “Does this organisation reflect that diversity of the Manchester area?” And actually, that’s eye-opening, just having that and then asking, “Well, why is that happening? You know, who is not getting through the doors of the business, or who’s getting through and then leaving again, because they don’t feel like they belong here?”’

Alfred agreed. ‘That is key. Is the environment a friendly and conducive environment for somebody from a different background? And that’s one of the questions I ask on a weekly basis, whether that’s an employee or a service user that’s coming in for support. We have to ensure that that environment is a positive one, and unfortunately, if society is not, we have to try and go against the grain of society to make sure that as an organisation we are.’

Before I let Alfred go, I asked him the question I ask everybody, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘This is another difficult one because there’s the reality we’ve spoken about and then there’s inclusive growth. I guess for me we have to grow as a society towards equality. And that is not the job of a Black person or a disabled person or a woman. We do not want to be a society where we say, women are not being treated the same as men so we have to make women more like men. Or Black people are not being treated equally. Okay, well, Alfred Nelson is a very White name, well, we’ll interview him and he’ll be our token person.

I’ve had this all my life. I walk into a job interview and they say, “Oh, we weren’t expecting…” Then they don’t know what to say, and it’s that awkward moment. And I’m like, “I know. My name.” Oh yeah. So for me, we have to aim to become a better society that removes some of these societal problems. There are no ideals, but it is not what we have right now.

Anyone that’s ever been discriminated against, anyone that sees inequality would know that this isn’t the picture that we’re aiming for. If we started a little thousand-person community and we asked, “Okay, what are the basics of what we want this community to look like?”

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t look like this. I don’t know whether you want to call it a hierarchy, whether you want to call it a supremacy, or whatever we want to call it, it has been ingrained in our system, in our lives, in this country’s history for years. So open, honest discussion and taking away thinking and realising that these problems are there, that’s the key. That’s the key. There is no quick fix.

We’re trying to undo centuries of things that have been ingrained into what we believe and what we see as right and wrong and good and bad. We need more people like yourselves to speak up, more people like yourselves so we can tiptoe closer to equality.’

I thanked Alfred for sharing his thoughts on this important topic. I agree with him. It all takes a long time, but we still believe.

To learn more about all the programmes the Growth Company runs, visit their website, which is www.growthco.uk

To get in touch with Alfred he says to, ‘Reach out on my LinkedIn page. If you have any sort of project that you want support with, you want to be promoted, or you want me to get involved in, I’d love to. Anything to do with young people, inequality, racial inequality. Give me a shout, find me, message me and link in with me. The more good people we have, the more people that can have open discussions and want to make a change, the sooner we’re going to make more dents.’

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