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Black History Month: “Don’t climb the ladder, be the ladder”

Across Bush & Co and divisions within our Group, employees have been educating themselves further on Black history and sharing recommendations of stories and films by black authors and actors, podcasts and music by Black artists and services and products by Black owned business.

This education has culminated in fundraising activities for the Mary Seacole Trust and so as Black History Month comes to an end, we spoke with Trevor Sterling, the first Black senior partner at a Top 100 UK  law firm and chair of the Mary Seacole Trust about what the ‘Action not Words’ campaign means to him and how we can all continue to educate ourselves on Black history but more importantly, how we can deliver on actions and not words.

We asked Trevor what ‘Actions not Words’ means to him both personally and professionally and here’s his insight:

“What we’ve seen In the last few years, particularly since George Floyd is that there is a general acceptance that there are issues around inequality, and that is something that should have been known for some time, but what George Floyd did after his death was create a universal acceptance that this was a significant issue and something needed to be done; we can’t keep talking about the issues.

“So, from a professional point of view, what we’ve done at Moore Barlow is we have created a Diversity and Inclusion Committee with clear terms of reference which included collecting data across our business and really getting to know our people and their ethnic backgrounds.

“We made sure these forums are about discussions with clear next steps and actions. One of those actions was to hold an event which we did and we heard from many people who spoke about their backgrounds. I shared my own background so that people understood where I have come from and that’s important because it puts people’s achievements into context and that’s really important for things like employment. If you’re an employer and you set the bar at a first or a 2:1 for recruitment what you then do is exclude people with a 2:2 as their starting point. My starting point was I didn’t go to university and I am proud that I qualified as a legal executive and am now the first black senior partner in a Top 100 UK  law firm. Understanding a person’s starting point really does open up one’s mind and in turn diverse and inclusive routes into the workplace.

“It’s important to also remember what diversity is. Many people see it as different racial backgrounds or genders and actually that’s not the best approach. Diversity is about the concept of ‘diversity of thought and what minds and life experiences you have sat around the table. If your meeting room is filled with people from a narrow group of backgrounds and life experiences then you will only be delivering services or products or decisions for a small group of society.

“When I think about ‘Actions not Words’ personally it’s about celebrating where we’ve come from and not reflecting on negative experiences. I am asked to talk a lot about my background and in doing so I celebrate success in order to motivate others.

“It’s also about other people listening. If we know that people around us are listening and therefore can understand those challenges then they will help clear obstacles out of the way. That’s what we call ‘ally-ship’ – it’s more than me telling my story and celebrating success it’s the people around me recognising the imbalance and taking action so others can also succeed.”

We talked to Trevor about what we’ve been doing to educate ourselves and asked him what we could do more of.

“The simple answer is listen. What I was really struck by when telling my story about my parents who came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation is that they had no idea that was my back-story and when they became aware of it they wanted to make sure other people had obstacles cleared for them.

“Our managing partner Ed Whittington put it perfectly recently in a LinkedIn Post. After the killing of George Floyd he called me up, not to say this is terrible and this is what we should do, but instead he said ‘this is terrible and how are you feeling? What do you think we can do because I know we need to do something’ and he listened.”

As our fundraising efforts have been for the Mary Seacole Trust, we then asked Trevor to share some of the important progress the charity have been making since it was first set up to campaign for the Mary Seacole stature which was unveiled as the first bronze statue of a black female in 2016.

“Our initial goal as a charity was to unveil the statue, to properly restore Mary into the history books and for her to be recognised for her role in British history and we did that. She is known for her attributes as a strong black female, a traveler at a time when racism and slavery was rife and she went into a war zone at the age of 50. She faced rejection but above all she was caring and compassionate; nursing anyone who needed her.

“The Mary Seacole Trust’s work today focuses on those attributes and we regularly talk to school children about Mary’s story, run our Young Ambassadors initiative where children can nominate their own modern day Mary and we run a NHS leadership course to help those involved in healthcare and to give them the leadership skills to break through. We’ve also recently consulted on a film called ‘Seacole’ coming our staring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Worthington which is a biopic of Mary’s life.

“People now contact me not to ask who Mary was but to tell me a story about Mary; it’s pretty fantastic.”

We ended our chat with Trevor asking him to share his own book or film recommendation for all of our employees during Black History Month.

“I recommend everyone to read ‘In Search of Mary Seacole’ by Helen Rappaport. About 20 years ago someone came across a portrait at a car boot sale and on further inspection they removed the cover on it and found a portrait of Mary Seacole underneath. It was painted in the 1860’s and when Helen acquired it (it’s now in the National Portrait Gallery) she became really interested in Mary’s story and started researching it.

“The book is a biography of Mary’s life and transports you back to the 1800’s. It has so much detail in it, you really feel transported back to the time when Mary was on the ship travelling to the Crimean War, meeting Florence Nightingale and the fact that we discovered Mary had a daughter called Sarah who travelled with her.

“People can also visit the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital if they’re interested to learn more and in London. If you do visit Mary’s statue then please do send me a photograph too.”

About the Mary Seacole Trust

The Mary Seacole Trust was established in 2004 (previously names the Mart Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal). It was set up to educate people on the life, work and achievements of Mary Seacole, a nurse in the Crimean war who was a source of inspiration for a fair, diverse and inclusive society; whilst also emphasising the importance of nurses and the nursing profession.

The charity fundraised tirelessly to erect a statue of Mary which was erected in London in 2016 and is the first bronze statue of a names black woman in the UK. As well as being guardians of the statue, the Mary Seacole Trust campaigns so that the public including young people benefit from Mary’s legacy and understand why her story is so powerful in today’s society.

For those living within ethnic communities who encounter racism on a daily basis, Mary Seacole is an inspiration and the charity continue to highlight discrimination and work with others to find solutions.

The charity is working on a number of key programmes including an education programme and a diversity in leadership programme.