NHS Digital has been hosting a variety of internal events throughout October to celebrate Black History Month covering topics such as racism, the empowerment of our black staff members and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black History Month offers an opportunity to raise awareness of black history by celebrating the past, reflecting on the present and looking forward to the future.
This month, we have welcomed speakers including: best-selling author Rasheed Ogunlaru, a coach, speaker and author; Magid Magid, a former politician and the youngest ever Lord Mayor of Sheffield; and Black Ballad, a media membership company for black women, talking through the findings from their Motherhood and Black Women in Britain surveys.
As part of Black History Month, the EMBRACE network, which focuses on supporting minority ethnic staff and diversity at NHS Digital, is hosting three ‘EMBRACE Unplugged’ sessions where members of the network answer questions and share their views on topical issues.
Two of the participants of the ‘EMBRACE Unplugged’ sessions; Ammar Mesari, Senior Research and Insight Officer, and Adam Shabbir, Head of Product, share their thoughts about the importance of Black History Month and diversity in the technology sector.
Why did you decide to get involved in Black History Month and the EMBRACE Unplugged sessions?
Adam: I wanted to share my experiences of teaching diversity to children. During the pandemic and over the summer I’ve spent a lot of time at home with my children. In this time, the Black Lives Matter movement has been shown all over the television and while it started in America, there have been a lot of protests here in the UK. My daughter has asked a lot of questions relating to this and I wanted to teach her about what was going on in the world and find resources for her to learn from. As the Black Lives Matters movement has had such a big impact and has risen as many questions from my children as the pandemic has, I wanted to share that experience and the resources I have found.
Ammar: Black History Month is a great opportunity to learn from each other, celebrate diversity, share experiences and support each other. I believe that all change starts when we recognise our differences, and that conversations are the first step. For me, the sessions offer colleagues a chance to share their truth, and for others to learn from those conversations. There may not be an overnight change in how people think, feel and act, but it's a starting point.
Why do you think it is so important to celebrate Black History Month?
Adam: For a long time, there has been an imbalance on what has been taught about history, particularly in schools, and it’s often very Europe focused. It is important to address this imbalance and be more proactive in our approach, especially as there are now so many resources on the internet, we can no longer turn a blind eye. We have a shared history that effects everyone and we all should have an understanding of that.
It is also a celebration of unsung heroes in history and it is important to show positive stories relating to black history and not only negative ones, such as the injustices that occur.
Ammar: Celebrating Black History Month is important for lots of different reasons. From my own viewpoint, Black people have played a huge part in our society, as have many others. Unfortunately, we still have lots of examples of racism and discrimination at the same time. Celebrating Black History Month is an opportunity for reflection, and with that comes learning and understanding one another.
What did you discuss or are hoping to discuss in the EMBRACE Unplugged sessions?
Adam: I discussed how we teach diversity to children and about how the way we teach diversity needs to change. As the world has changed, education needs to change too. Children need to be taught more than to just be accepting of everyone; we must teach them about the origins of injustices and the social policies that give context to the events that are happening today.
I discussed some practical tools, books and resources that can be used to address the lack of education surrounding black history and the importance of changing people’s mindsets. It is not enough to be not racist; you have to be anti-racist to really make a difference.
Ammar: I'm supporting the sessions by moderating the discussions. So far, all of the panels have been fantastic but I'm looking forward to our heritage panel where we'll be discussing the difference between heritage and belonging. As a person of colour, being asked where I'm really from reduces everything about my identity to the colour of my skin and doesn't exactly make me want to continue the conversation. I think it's an important nuance to understand and hopefully the sessions will offer a different perspective.
What more do you think could be done to champion diversity in tech?
Adam: I’ve worked both in industry and in the public sector. In industry, you often work with diverse global teams as design and coding in tech is something that is understood universally. I haven’t found this as much in the public sector, despite delivering the same type of technology.
I think leaders globally are becoming more diverse and it would be good to see this reflected more in the UK. The users of tech are diverse and therefore the thinking within teams needs to be diverse from the start, not only when it comes to the testing stages. For example, some AI has been unable to detect Black people and this is often a result of not having enough diversity of thought in the teams creating this product.
Ammar: I think we need to take a step back and look at the end users. Over the years I've done lots of work with seldom heard communities on health-related issues, and tech has come out as an engagement issue. In the digital age we find ourselves in, we see services moving from offline to online, but that often impacts the most marginalised and vulnerable communities that don't necessarily have the means to access digital services. This doesn't necessarily mean that someone doesn't have a smartphone, but rather making sure that we understand the barriers and work with end users to make sure they can access any digitised services.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Adam: It is a time to celebrate, educate and to reflect. We should celebrate unsung heroes and address imbalances in education when it comes to black history. It is also a good time to ensure we are reaching people who aren’t already aware of black history rather than preaching to the choir. It is also important to reflect on the injustices, sacrifices and ongoing struggles that many face.
Ammar: Again, it’s a time to celebrate black history, reflect and understand one another.