Re-thinking Equalities: In Birmingham with Joy Warmington

February 3rd, 2011

Joy Warmington, CEO of brap, an equalities and human rights charity based in Birmingham, discusses her organization’s commitment to developing more progressive and inclusive approaches to equalities that can benefit everyone, irrespective of their ‘race’.

Cities of Migration: Outside of London, Birmingham is one of the UK’s most ‘diverse’ cities. It is also a city with one of the biggest gaps between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’

In your recent comments on the UK’s new Equality Act, you cautioned that “legislation is not a magical panacea” and that we will have “to change the way we think about equality” to enjoy the benefits of a fair society. Can you elaborate on this distinction?

Joy Warmington: Whilst I’m pleased that more people are potentially protected by expanded provisions in the Equality Act, I am also worried about the people who aren’t. People suffer discrimination based on all sorts of factors, not least their socio-economic background. We have to find a way of designing legislation so it doesn’t just cover certain people in certain situations, but provides protection and security for all people, regardless of who they are.

Connected with this point is the question of what equalities legislation actually does. So far our laws have worked well – perhaps very well – in protecting people from discrimination. But eradicating discrimination is not the same as promoting equality. Equality is about recognizing that we don’t all start from the same position in life. As much as we like to think otherwise there isn’t a level playing field in society, and, as such, we have to provide some people with additional resources and support so they can achieve the things in life they truly value. Ensuring this support is provided as a right is central to creating a fairer, more equitable society. I don’t think it can be done through legislation alone.

The biggest challenge is to rethink what we expect of ourselves and society. Inequality and unfairness have become so pervasive that people think they’re inevitable, a necessary fact of life. I don’t believe this. There is evidence to suggest that inequality has many consequences: higher levels of crime, mental illness, child poverty, and so on. However, I don’t believe we should accept this as an acceptable side effect of the way we’ve chosen to construct society. We need to have the courage to challenge the media, politicians, and other people who tell us this is the case. We need the courage to believe that better is possible.

Cities of Migration: You challenge us “to reinvigorate our pursuit of equality” by removing the barriers that hold people back. Give me an example of how that might look to a Birmingham constituent?

JW: Often, the barriers that hold people back are complex – they change depending on the individual person and the context. One of the things we do at brap is spend some time thinking about what barriers are relevant to who, how they play out in service delivery, and how they can be dismantled. We’ve recently finished some research, for example, looking at the impact of social networks on reducing poverty amongst BME people. The results were pretty surprising!

The example I remember from my teaching days is how quickly children who were labeled as ‘underachievers’ or ‘trouble makers’ were marginalized within the system. They were rarely encouraged or challenged to do better. They were expected to behave badly and they did behave badly – it didn’t occur to many of them that another option was available. Often, the worst poverty people can experience is poverty of aspiration, to believe that they aren’t capable of achieving something better.

At brap, one of the things we try to do is to make equality real for service providers in this way: to show them what equality means for their day-to-day role and how they go about changing the way they do things to ensure the barriers holding people back are removed – even if this is one teacher at a time.

Cities of Migration: At the 2010 Cities of Migration conference, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice talked about the importance of recruiting the “skeptical middle.” How has brap gone about bringing the ordinary Birmingham resident on board?

JW: Most people don’t like to disagree with the pursuit of equality. No one want to be labeled a ‘racist’ or a ‘sexist.” At the same time this is not the same as our united acceptance that equality is a good thing. brap has been using human rights as a concept to engage the people in understanding how equality can be meaningfully applied to their lives. We have developed a toolkit, which can be used to re-assess service quality and create better benchmarks of service delivery. Once people see how equality can be applied to make things better for all – not just for some – they are more likely to engage and to develop ownership for this agenda.

Cities of Migration: What were some of the more important lesson you took from the Cities of Migration conference?

JW: I really enjoyed the conference. There were some very cutting edge ideas there. I especially liked the marketplace idea. It was an opportunity to figure out what’s happening and to take some really good practical ideas away. And a really good opportunity to network!

The thing that struck me actually wasn’t so much a particular good idea from the Marketplace, but how we evaluate our ideas. I found myself asking why there weren’t more opportunities to examine our understanding of what works. What ideas or practices can really progress opportunities for migrant communities?

So that’s my good idea! I’m going to set up an evaluation conference in Birmingham when I get back.

Cities of Migration: Any surprises?

JW: ‘m surprised it doesn’t happen more often, given the critical issue of ‘under opportunity’ and under-utilization of talent, discrimination, and far right issues in Europe. I think more of this should happen. More dialogue, more exchange and opportunities.

Cities of Migration: Are there lessons from Birmingham for other cities of migration?

JW: In Birmingham, it used to be the case that when public bodies wanted input on a new project or initiative, they would consult with people from particular communities. This was based on an assumption that there is something different about people from a BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) background which must be uncovered to ensure ‘fair’ service delivery. Through brap, I spend a lot of time arguing against such ‘identity-based’ thinking, pointing out that it reified cultural divisions, reinforced stereotypes, did not recognize the diversity within communities, and did little to encourage serious, structural reform of public services.

The argument has not been won by any means, but representation and engagement with BME  communities has changed significantly over the last ten years in the city. Now at least we’re asking the right questions – what are the principles behind fair and transparent engagement? This is already leading to more effective involvement of the public.

Cities of Migration: What do you love best about your Birmingham?

JW: The fact that people still talk to you whilst your standing at a bus stop!

Cities of Migration: What is your favourite city?

JW: I’d have to say Birmingham, but Toronto comes a very close second.

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Good Ideas using a human rights approach to education:

Putting a human right approach to work @brap:

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