A conversation with Sharon Amesu

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Posted by Joanne Wood - 25 June, 2019

A conversation with Sharon Amesu...

Sharon Amesu

Sharon Amesu is a Criminal Barrister turned multi award-winning Professional Speaker and Leadership Communication Specialist, as well as a RISE consultant and coach. I spoke to her about her approach to D&I (diversity and inclusion) and culture change. She is based in Manchester, UK. 

Sharon: I'm being increasingly asked to sit on panels and give talks on diversity and inclusion and I was reflecting on growing up during the 1970s and 80s in the UK. There were times of really sharp tension between BME communities and the wider population, but I recall my personal experience living in a cul-de-sac within a very multicultural community. We all coexisted together, the kids used to play together and have water fights. There was no hint of racism, except for one particular family.

When I look back to why that might be, what I point to was an implicit assumption of trust and good intention. I feel that in order for us to be able to hold quality, real courageous conversations on diversity and inclusion, we must get to an implicit assumption of the best intentions because these conversations are really challenging. They're going to take us into vulnerable territory where we'll be confronted with our own biases.

So what does that actually look like? In this conversation, you might say something that might cause you to feel quite awkward and I hear it and it feels awkward. I'm not assuming that you're trying to offend as I am holding best intent. That allows for you not to have to continually apologise. And permission for me to say, “Jo, that caused offence”. Whilst the natural response will be a pinch to the heart, it won't be a cut to the heart because within the space of best intent, we can hold offence very lightly.

This is very much about what RISE is about. Diversity is one piece of what we do with helping people to hold courageous, real conversations. This sits at the heart of that for us in our conversation today, in conversations in the community more broadly and the way in which we encourage our clients to hold conversations.

Jo: What if you are working in an organisation and you don’t think people are holding those best intentions?

Sharon: So let me give you the way that I approach it with my children, in particular my middle son who's a 16-year-old Black boy growing up in the UK. Statistics point to the fact that he is a minority and will continue to be a minority in so many respects, in the education system, the criminal justice system, the workplace that exist before he's even got there. In certain places, he already exists at a point of disadvantage relating to external perceptions and history. There's a whole combination of factors which will disadvantage him in any one of those contexts.

I have a choice as a parent, I either set him up with real anxiety about his existence in his world, and send him out with the biggest chip on his shoulder and paranoia, or I say to him, “assume the best until people prove the worst”. That holds him in much better stead. If he’s just minding his own business and a police officer is driving past in a car or walking down the street on the other side and makes eye contact with him, if the assumption that he holds is that they are out for him, then that will show up in his behaviour. .

That's not about naivety either, Jo, I don't want my children to grow naive as to the conditions that we exist in. What I'm speaking to is their specific individual engagement with that narrative.

From my own personal experience, most people are great. Most people want you to achieve and succeed and those who don't, their unconscious bias will play a part, and usually it's not malicious intent. So, approach the world with that. It's Albert Einstein, I'm totally destroying the quote right now, “is this universe a friendly place? How you answer that question essentially is the way in which you engage in the world.”

Why is that relevant in the workplace then? Yes, there will be people who will not have the best of intentions to this agenda. There are some people who are so jaded by the whole D&I conversation, they just don't care and they don't want to get involved. They just want things to stay as they are. There are some who've enjoyed the status quo. But if I approach the conversation with those sorts of hang-ups, then that will completely diminish and undermine any real progress that I might make in that space.

Jo: What do you think is important in culture change in organisations, relating to D&I or not?

Sharon: Intentionality is very important. You cannot change the fundamental characteristics of an organisation, the way in which they have existed without being absolutely clear about wanting change. So firstly, identifying where you are right now. How do you do what you do? How do you engage, paying attention to that and understanding truly why that's not working for you.

What causes people to be immune and resist change? Fundamentally people have to be connected to a reason as to why things cannot stay as they are because if things can stay as they are, you'll leave them as they are. But if you're recognising that you're having an issue with, for example, growth and productivity and your prevailing culture has created that, then you understand something's got to change.

So understanding what is the current state of play, what impact is it having, and then being absolutely, unapologetically bold, courageous and determined about changing it and being willing to wrestle with the mess. Because it's going to get messy and that's why I always come back to this assumption of the best intentions. People will miss misspeak. People will misstep. People will misunderstand. People will make assumptions. They'll say things that aren't appropriate. We need to create a space where I have permission to speak to that, you have permission to speak to that, and we have clarity and commitment to a shared objective and goal. “Here's where we're going. We need to get there. I know it's going to be painful, forgive me.”

The same applies to any form of culture change, but also diversity. And for me, diversity, is actually infinite. It's not just about protected characteristics, that by way of compliance we must adhere to. But actually, it's those overt, explicit aspects of diversity. So ultimately what we need to go for is inclusion and even more so belonging. What does that mean? For me, diversity is presence. Diversity is about me getting into the room. And then inclusion is about me being able to participate fully in the conversation, so I feel as though I have a voice and I can be heard. Belonging is about knowing that my offering is valued.

When I was first going on my journey to the Bar to practice as a barrister, we had to go through the process of dining. You have to be socialised into being a barrister to help you to understand the social norms of the system. You do something called dinings at one of the Four Inns of Court which are where barristers would historically convene and be taught how to be a barrister and how to present themselves in a barristerial way.

I was a member of Middle Temple and you had to do twenty-four 4-course dinners. I think they've reduced it to 12 - lightweights! I'd wanted to practice law from the age of 14. I was clear that I wanted to be a barrister, first person in my family to go to university. I get to Middle Temple and I have to engage in this dining malarkey. I think it dates back to Elizabeth I, so you can imagine what it looks like inside and you can imagine the demographics of its constituents. So I go in and I see about 24 knives and forks, about 15 wine glasses, per person. I’m thinking, what does one do with this? I see on the wall, all of these coats of arms, I'm hearing people say coats of arms and I'm thinking “don't all coats have arms? ” I just felt so out of place.

Now, there was nothing explicit that said, you are not welcome here. There was no one who I genuinely sensed look at me and thought, “God, what are you doing here?” But I could not identify, I couldn't relate. I felt very much like diversity had got me in the door, but I didn't feel part of it.

It almost ended it for me. I almost got to the point where I thought, “I don't want to do this because I don't feel that I can fully participate in this”. I felt like an organ that didn't have the right conditions to remain. That's what diversity is on its own. If you transplant an organ into a body, without creating the conditions for acceptance, then it will be rejected. Inclusion really is about rejection and ensuring there's full acceptance.

Can we find the place of common conversation? I think in the chambers that I started in, there was a real intentionality about finding the place of common connection. Then belonging says, “we value you”, so it's not just that you're included.

The business case is so clear. The value of being willing to wrestle with the mess is proving to be worthwhile. The reality is, it is in your interest as a leader and your organisation to engage in this conversation. Leadership the key to this - there has to be buy-in at the decision making level, not simply in terms of resourcing financially but resourcing morally and ethically.

Lead by example, demonstrating that this is not going away and that the leadership has bought into this, and they're committed to seeing it through and acknowledging that it doesn't have a start and end point. It is a continually emerging process that will ever evolve, in the same way that you don't stop with your growth strategy in an organisation and go, “right, that's it”. You continue to look at where you can sharpen, grow, increase, advance. It's the same with the diversity and inclusion conversation.

Jo: I am also interested in talking about what we can do at RISE, as a growing community ourselves, and then also how we work with clients.

Sharon: The key is doing what you're doing, Jo. Actively engaging everyone in the conversation and getting us to reflect on what diversity, inclusion and belonging look like. Gathering that data from the community, individually, having the conversation the same way that we are now across the board about intersectional issues existing at various levels.

As a Black woman, I have obvious characteristics that would draw people into a D&I conversation with me. But what are the other things within the community that might cause people to not present their whole self in this space, some hidden and some not so hidden?

Back when I was watching everyone to see which fork they picked up first, the hidden thing was my social status. I felt excluded by virtue of my social status at the time. There'll be in the community any number of things that might be prohibitive for people showing up.
It's not necessarily that you want to get that specific information, but having a conversation, “what will help you to show up as your whole self? What factors might prohibit that?”

If we role model the conversations that we want our clients to engage with, then we're able to give them real lived experience of how difficult those conversations might be, of those things that we may or may not be aware of, and of our own biases.

So let me give you a for instance, which happens a lot with me. Oftentimes White women will see my hair and say, “I just love your hair. Can I touch it?” And before I had an opportunity to say “no, don't do that” they just do it. It's not going to stop me from showing up, but it's really important for us to be able to have permission to say what we do and don't feel comfortable with in this community. Because we then may say to our clients “look, these are the sorts of things that can come up”. How do we ensure that we give people permission to go, “no, I really don't want you to do that” and the person not be offended because we've given each other permission slips.

We have to talk. We have to be able to say, “I'm okay with that. I'm not okay with that.”. It has to be about individuals sharing their experience. The less we make assumptions about a particular person in the world or a particular group and the more we're willing to ask questions, with each person holding the assumption of best intentions, the more inclusive our culture within RISE will be and we'll be able to demonstrate and illustrate the practices and habits that we have adopted in order to create a more inclusive environment.

Jo: I think it can be a tricky one, depending on the intentions of the person asking the question, and the assumptions the question can highlight. At a Christmas party last year I overheard a conversation where a man had found out that the woman he was speaking to had married another woman. He was asking, “but you’re both women - what did you wear!? Did you both wear dresses!?” I remember standing there and judging him for his assumptions, but maybe I should be more appreciative of him actually asking the question, which he seemed to be doing sincerely.

Sharon: So that scenario speaks to an important point. If the hearer assumed that he was ridiculing, it would be an offensive question. But if she assumed pure curiosity on his part, then it is just a question from a person who doesn’t know.

Now, that's not to say that any question goes because there ought to be an internal filter somewhere that says, “that's not okay to ask”. There are some questions that they're just not okay to ask. I don't care how curious you are, that's just not okay.

There's a talk that I'm preparing called “meet me at the bridge”. The bridge represents that point of communion where I leave my side of the river, you leave your side of the river and it comes to that meeting point of conversation and inquiry and question, trust and hope. And in that space of vulnerability, it grows in union. But they have to be willing to step onto the bridge and meet.

Something else that is important - I was speaking at a conference on a panel last week and I said, I despise the expression, “I'm pale, male and stale”.

Jo: I actually mostly hear White men using this expression.

Sharon: They're saying it to appease women. Just don't say it. It's polarising, it's divisive. What I want to encourage are White male advocates. We won't get them if we keep calling them stale and pale. I don't want to be characterised by any diminutive descriptor therefore I won't do it to the people that I need to be in partnership with.

Topics: consultants, spotlight, Culture

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