This Race Equality Week, we’re joining those saying ‘Let’s not go back to normal’

Our Policy and Campaigns Manager, Kahra Wayland-Larty, looks at the pandemic of racism affecting people of colour in the UK, and what we're doing at Youth Access to help build a racially responsive workforce in the youth advice and counselling sector.

It’s invisible, in fact, some people believe it’s not even real. Others recognise the damage it causes, but that it won’t really affect them, and so turn a blind eye, play it down, or just don’t realise the role they’re playing. Some are in denial and some aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Many are arguing over whose rights should come first, and how far they’re willing to be inconvenienced in order to protect those in need. 
 
Sound familiar? The coronavirus pandemic can teach us a lot about racism and how it plays out in today’s society. But while the world waits with bated breath for the day we can just ‘get back to normal’ after the Covid crisis subsides, we’ve also had to face up to the fact that people of colour in the UK have been struggling to breathe for a long time before coronavirus hit. 
 
I’ve written previously about the vital role that the mental health community has to play in dismantling systemic racism. From policy making, to service design and delivery, through to our activism, we have a lot of work to do to make this space inclusive, representative and respectful of people of colour. And there is so much at stake – this isn’t about hitting arbitrary targets or fitting into strict budgets. It’s about lives being lost, people being restrained or imprisoned, and trauma being left unresolved.  
 
The truth is, like coronavirus, there’s no blanket approach to eradicating racism that would fit every country, community or organisation – what works will totally depend on the historic context and the political, economic, social and cultural landscape. What’s for certain though, is that pretending it’s not happening, standing still in fear, or pointing fingers at other people will only make things worse and lead to massive inequalities. So at Youth Access, we’re working with our network to address the challenges we face in meeting the needs of young people of colour, and working to improve our practice in the long term. 
 
Along with our members, Youth Access has always stood up for young people who face inequalities. Our members are well equipped to cater to those young people’s needs - research shows that they are likely to serve a higher proportion of young people who are typically underserved in other parts of the system, including BAME young people, LGBTQ+ young people and young women. 
 
But serving those young people takes work. There’s no miracle cure that works everywhere. It requires constantly looking at policies and practices, honestly and critically, and asking: What could we be doing better? Who are we not serving and why? Who needs to be bought into this that isn’t? 
 
Over the month of February, we’re piloting a new learning programme, working with six of our member agencies and a plethora of expert guest contributors (including members and young people) to deliver four sessions focused on tackling some of the main challenges to equitable access for young people from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities.  
 
In our first session yesterday, we got started by focusing on understanding how systemic racism manifests for young people of colour, particularly around access to, experience of and outcomes from mental health support.  
 
Next we’ll spend time looking at strategies for outreach and what meaningful ‘inclusion’ means – unpicking the idea that institutional ‘colour blindness’ will result in equal access, and that opening your service doors to everybody doesn’t mean that everyone can, or will, come inside.  
 
We’ll move on to explore how we develop a ‘racially responsive’ workforce – acknowledging that equality and diversity strategies in recruitment play an important role, but that we need to go further in order to make jobs in mental health accessible, attractive and supportive to people who have not traditionally been well treated in the field. Additionally we’ll consider the training and organisational culture necessary to ensure staff of all ethnicities are equipped and empowered to make space for racial identity and experiences - and the politics that surrounds those – in the youth work and therapeutic environment. 
 
Finally, we’ll be discussing the vital role for Youth Access members and YIACS-type services in responding to the needs of young people of colour. Our person-centred approach lends itself well to responding to the individual experiences and identities of minoritised young people, while our holistic model offering a combination of emotional support and practical and legal advice can help address the inequalities which often intersect with race, such as housing, employment and education.  
 
I am so excited to be taking part in this learning programme, to lean, to share, and to build something better than the old ‘normal’.