24th May 2021
By Jo Gordon
Chief Operating Officer, SafeLives
Let’s start with full disclosure. I am a white, middle aged, middle class, heterosexual, woman. I was brought up by liberal socialist parents in the 80’s. I was given free rein to interpret my gender and my sexuality in whatever way I wanted, especially by my dad. My grandad fought at the battle of Cable St, I still have my Anti-Nazi League student card, I campaigned for Greenpeace and I trained as a community worker. I raised my sons to know their rights if they got stopped by the police. My life oozes liberal privilege from every pore.
I’ve worked in the domestic abuse sector all my adult life. I have been comfortable in certain knowledge that I was challenging male violence and that this was a good thing to be doing. Then last year, a man called George Floyd was murdered. It wasn’t the first time I had been aware of racism and it wasn’t the first time I had seen police brutality but something happened in that moment and everything started to change. My colleagues challenged me – I am Chief Operating Officer; What was I doing to stop racism? I felt much less comfortable about what I had achieved. When I grew up it was all about being politically ‘correct’. Being called racist is one of the worst things I can think of and I felt exposed.
So I started to read and talk. I talked to a colleague who I respect and she didn’t pull her punches. My anger came. I started to realise that what I had done so far doesn’t amount to a hill of beans because what I thought I had achieved has been through my lens of privilege. I realised that I have been saying for a long time that violence against women is men’s problem and that men should sort it so then racism is my problem and I need to sort it. How can I have lived my life in a society so racist and been so comfortable? Well Joe Strummer would say - The money feels good and my life I like it well.
The notion of ‘nothing about us without us’ is key to my ideas of community work and I know that those who have experienced racism are the experts but that can’t be an excuse for me to feel good about doing nothing. So I listen when people want to talk and generously share their experiences but I'm not going to abdicate my responsibility. If I'm not part of the solution with all my power and privilege; then who?
So I started to take baby steps. I’ve done everything from having conversations I didn’t used to have and reading books I hadn’t read to spending my money in black owned businesses. At work, we have an action plan to address equity, equality, diversity and inclusion (cos we quickly realised that our shortcomings weren’t just about race) and we are overhauling how we think about each of these things. We are changing how we recruit, how we work internally, how we communicate, how we measure what we achieve, who we work with.
So how do I feel a year on? If I'm not careful I feel frustrated and disheartened that change is slow. I’m old enough to remember the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the officers who beat him. I understand why people were surprised that Chauvin was convicted. I know that this moment is part of progress not the end of the road. I remind myself of the white supremacy culture characteristics in an article which has been creating debate at SafeLives recently. This highlights the notion that the desire for quick fixes mixed with frustration is part of the process of dismantling racism. I am fighting my resistance to this. My narrative - ‘that’s just an excuse for why I haven’t fixed things yet’ - shows me that I am still part of the problem.
Change won’t come from sharing social media posts or good intentions. This is going to be a lifelong battle, but I am here for the long haul.