By Irene Henderson, Race Diversity Champion at the Tavistock and Portman.

Join us in celebrating the centenary of the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust.  Originally the Tavistock opened its doors on the 27th September 1920, the Portman Clinic opened its doors on 18th September 1933 and both organisations became a joint Trust in 1994, which moved to a Foundation Trust in 2004.  This overarching foundation Trust provided a range of new services in recognising and treating mental health, including forensic work, in a post war population.  The Trust has pioneered many new services and treatment modalities over the years and coupled with the Trust’s Department of Education and Training, has an international reputation of excellence in the field of mental health and education.

I’m writing this in role as the Trusts’ race diversity champion and wanted to highlight the long history and the role that staff from black, Asian and ethnic minorities have played across many areas of the NHS from the very beginning.  It is hard to think of the early years in health care, pre NHS, without thinking of Mary Seacole.  Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse, healer and businesswoman who set up the “British Hotel” behind the lines during the Crimean War in the 1800s. A truly notable achievement in seeing a need and pioneering a solution, she became known as Mother Seacole.  Her legacy in terms of training and inspiration remains as strong today.

Post war Britain needed to rebuild the UK’s infrastructure including the transport system and the NHS, and sent out a call for help, in an invitation, to the then commonwealth countries.  In 1948 the first of the much needed labour arrived from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago among other Caribbean islands on the Windrush ship.  This generation was vital in the UK’s recovery after the war.  However, even though invited to the country, they faced incredible racism in terms of housing, treatment at work and issues in most other areas of daily life.  It is well documented how many patients refused to be touched by black nurses, despite their training and capability.

The treatment of this cohort has become a national scandal on so many levels due to the racism they were subjected to on arrival, and which for many has continued to this day, including unfair and unfounded deportations, being denied access to services and the outrageous handling of financial compensation which has been denied to so many.  It is a shame that these people were not seen as the heroes and saviours of the NHS in the same way that some are now calling NHS staff for working through the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When looking at more recent history in our own Trust, the contribution of staff from black and minority ethnic communities has continued over the years with Kamalini Sarabhai who worked at the Tavistock in the 1940s and ran a major project in India.  Followed by Harwant Gill who was a key member of staff in the 1960s.

Laverne Antrobus, a clinical psychologist, became the first black clinician in the Trust and joined in 2000.   Alongside her clinical work, Laverne has gone on to produce and present programming in children mental health for national television and is regularly approached to provide professional comment on children’s mental health, which has been especially topical during the global pandemic.  She is also a driving force for change and a supportive and inspirational colleague who also manages the BAME student network.

The Trust has had many notable black clinicians and staff over the years and I personally was lucky enough to work with both Agnes Bryan, a psychotherapist and organisational coach and Frank Lowe, a psychoanalytical psychotherapist.  I have worked at this Trust for many years and I remember Agnes Bryan introducing the equality debate which included recognition of racial inequalities in the work place, at a time when it was an extremely hard sell back in the day. 

Frank Lowe was another colleague who for me, over the years, has been a strong voice and advocate for staff who were less able to speak up for themselves.  He introduced the Thinking Space programme which has provided communities with a safe platform to have open conversations on issues of racial equality among other things.  His skill and approach in facilitating and enabling difficult or unwanted conversations, while bringing people together in a way that enabled them to think and speak about issues that had previously been left unsaid,.   Much of this work led me to want to be part of the solution to racial inequality at work, and so the work goes on…..

It was truly inspiring to work along-side such people as they had the strength and tenacity to bring these issues to the fore and promote conversations to search for solutions.  This was done at a time when it seemed there was little or no public or Trust appetite for recognising or redressing racial inequality in society and the work place. 

In this Trust, as across many NHS organisation, staff from black and ethnic minorities continue to be under represented in senior positions, which is also true of this Trust’s board and senior management structure.  We have the data that clearly shows this is still the case. It has been recognised that organisations can best serve their populations when they are representative of the population they serve, so we still have some work to do in that respect.

The year 2020 has been dominated by the global Covid-19 pandemic which also has had a specific, negative effect on particular NHS staff groups, namely those from black and ethnic minorities.  The death toll has been high in this staff group with early research showing this staff group is quite substantially adversely affected by Covid-19 for a possible variety of reasons.

I had thought that the global pandemic would be the sole dominating issue for 2020 but it has in some respects been matched by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.  BLM is a global movement for change which came to the fore following the murder of a US citizen by police, caught on camera.  In response to the BLM movement the Trust Race Equality Network for black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, held an all staff meeting which was attended by around 180 staff.  It is clear there is strong feeling across the Trust, and the Trust, as well as the rest of society, is having to evaluate its own behaviours in relation to racism on an institutional level.  Again, as in all society, there are micro aggressions, barriers of opportunities, keeping the status quo, etc which are all feeders of racial inequality.   As a thinking and teaching organisation we have to strive to ensure we are conscious of our negative racial behaviours and find solutions to enable all Trust staff to feel they are valued and respected by the organisation and by each other.

The Trust is committed to tackling the complex and deep rooted issue of institutional racism and is therefore aiming to address this on many levels.  Many organisations do not have a mechanism in place to enable staff to speak up and report instances of racism, but this Trust has ensured that we have a strong speak up guardian, a race diversity champion and several equality and diversity leads across the organisation.  These roles ensure there is support for staff who need to raise issues of inequalities across all the protected characteristics, but these roles alone cannot provide the solutions to these issues of inequality at work.  This is a Trust wide issue that needs to be addressed by the entire Trust work force.  So we all have work to do.  To that end, we have introduced a Race Equality Network Allies Group, in which we hope to identify and promote good practice, but also to identify the areas that are falling well short of what is expected in the work place.  I hope as many staff, who really want to make a difference, will join that forum and voice their concerns and also hopefully be part of the solution.  It is our daily actions and interactions that will make the difference.

So while we celebrate our centenary and the many many achievements of staff from across all areas of the Trust, we also know we have work to do going forward to remain a credible mental health organisation that values, respects and invests in its work force to provide the best possible services to our patient and student populations.

Irene Henderson, Race Diversity Champion

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