Black History Month: England Athletics colleagues on what it means to them

As part of October’s Black History Month, we spoke with England Athletics’ Michael Davis, Head of Finance, and Lorna Boothe MBE, Board director, former elite athlete and now coach, about the importance of recognising the generational contributions that black people have made both inside and outside of sport and also to share some personal insight.

Lorna:

“Black History Month is important as it gives an opportunity for everyone to understand and celebrate what black people have achieved through the ages. It recognises achievements that are so often hidden.”

Michael:

“Black History Month is important because it at least positions a point in the year where we are encouraged to think, discuss and learn about the history, heritage and culture of black people in all their diversity.”

Lorna:

“For now, Black History Month reminds everyone in society including myself of what black people have contributed and experienced throughout, but the time must come when the acknowledgment is all year round and not forgotten or hidden.”

Michael:

“For me, Black History Month means that, hopefully, other cultures will take advantage of the opportunity to delve into areas of life and culture that they might not otherwise engage in throughout the rest of the year.”

Lorna:

“Born in Jamaica I didn’t experience racism until I emigrated to the UK at the age of five. Raised in a predominately white populated area (we were the only black family for a number of years) I would be regularly called ‘N’ and told to go back to Africa or experienced monkey chants whilst walking on the streets. Primary school was different, my brother and I were the only black children at the school, and I didn’t notice any racism from my peers, we were kids who played together at school, but only recently have I realised I was never invited to their homes, but they would talk amongst themselves having spent times together out of school. Mmmmm…looking back this is probably a result of parents’ decisions. As a family, we socialized and visited our Caribbean friends and family almost every weekend in South London, North London, and Birmingham. We did most of the travelling as we lived in a village setting outside of London which strangely enough is now classed as London due to political changes. Our visitors loved to visit but sometimes did feel uncomfortable due to the chants and stares. I was raised in the church and when we tried to join local churches, we were told that we did not qualify as we were not local, or they were full. Another act of racism? So, we continued to go to a church in South London, which was a one-hour bus ride from where we lived, but more often than not we were taken by car by our Uncle Ron in his 1930s classic. Ironically, he was white, and the church had a predominately white congregation. Great memories.”

Michael:

“My childhood was an interesting one where race and ethnicity is concerned. The primary school that I attended was fairly mixed, reflecting children from a variety of backgrounds. I had white friends, black friends, and friends from an Indian heritage. We pretty much got on with life. The first three years of my secondary school life was a little more stark, as I was one of three people from an African-Caribbean heritage in a class of 30. This was in contrast to my family and wider social life, which was characterized by a majority African-Caribbean church environment. Whilst I was always conscious about the prevalence of racism, it was significant moments like the televising of Alex Hayley’s mini-series ‘Roots’ that brought matters to the surface and provided some aspects of context for both the covert and obvious racism that many people from an African-Caribbean heritage experience or experienced.”

Lorna:

“In my professional life, I have faced many obstacles. Being black and female I was often dished a double whammy. I am a former athlete and a black woman. I have distinguishing traits such as self-confidence, focus, commitment, self-discipline, that are quite often misinterpreted as aggressive and self-opinionated. Many times, my white counterparts have been promoted above me, with management using my work to enhance or promote the business but denying my promotion. In most parts using my expertise to train the very people they promote ahead of me. One organisation where I tried to work towards equity and transparency for all, the employer tried to imply that I was a racist and was only looking out for black people. I have a similar story to Michael. I was looking for a holiday job between school and college and was interviewed over the phone. On my first day in the office, I was taken to the manager, and she looked at me with mouth open when I introduced myself. Her response without hesitation was ‘You are black!’ What is black supposed to sound like?”

Michael:

“One of the significant barriers that I have had to overcome is the warped expectations that was sown into the fabric of school life, that boys from and African-Caribbean background or heritage are not able to achieve academically or professionally. Despite my acknowledged ability at both primary and secondary school, I was being directed to leave school and sign up to the ‘YTS’ scheme, told by careers teachers that black boys don’t go to university, and told by one teacher ‘You’ll never become an accountant’. In my early working life, it was often the uncontrollable surprise (more like shock/horror) that I experienced from colleagues on meeting them for the first time after several months of phone contact – not realising that the person they had been communicating and working with was a black person. One person actually said: ‘I didn’t realise you were black; you didn’t sound like a black guy on the phone’.”

Lorna:

“Black History Month is a start but more needs to be done to improve awareness. It should not be a once-a-year celebration or recognition. Black history should be integrated fairly into all educational curriculums, schools, universities, clinical and various industries. Acknowledgement should be given out fairly and truthfully.”

Michael:

“I think there has been more improvement/awareness because of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. Organisations such as ours (England Athletics) adopting Diversity and Inclusion policies and implementing Diversity Action Plans is a vital part of the process to bring about better understanding and engagement. I also think a lot more can and should be done to bring greater education and awareness. Updating the education system and curriculum is fundamental to ensuring the very deep and stubborn roots of racism are fully uprooted. This should include the adoption of the full and complete history of Africa and the world (long before the period of slavery). Educating and improving awareness throughout the year rather than just in the month of October would yield even greater results.

Lorna:

“If they have a dream, go for it. Don’t be put off by negative people. Keep driving for what you want. If they shut the door on you find another way through that door.”

Michael:

“I would say they should be committed and focused. They should not be put off or distracted by the negativity, but have the attitude that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to and be whatever they want to be.”

Lorna:

“The people I hold in high esteem are Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Jesse Owens. They all had to face major danger and adversity. They had the courage to stand up for what was right and followed it through to the end.”

Michael:

“I have many heroes inside and outside of sport, but if I had to pick one for each, I’d say the trio of (it’s difficult to single out one) Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson who in the face of unacceptable and disgraceful racist chants and taunts led the way in establishing the pathway to professional football for many people of African-Caribbean heritage. They were also very exceptional players! Outside of sport, it has to be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. An absolutely outstanding person who, in the face of real and direct adversity and the known threat to his life on a daily basis, had the strength of mind, courage and character to stand up for what he believed.”

Lorna:

“The inauguration of Barak Obama, during a time of many challenges and uncertainties.”

Michael:

“There are so many moments in sport that stand out as making a positive difference. One of the biggest moments of achievement from a sporting perspective has to be Usain Bolt’s 9:58 world record in 2009. I’m sure every person of African-Caribbean heritage across the world had a very big smile on their face that day and felt as though they too had run and won that race! Outside of sport, it has to be the inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the USA. This is something that many thought would/could never happen in their lifetime, but it speaks to the many years of protest, campaign, struggle and suffering yielding some reward.”

Lorna:

“I would like to see inclusivity, transparency, and fairness as an integral part of sport and society without focusing on specific groups in order to encourage what should be the norm.”

Michael:

“It’s perhaps idealistic, but it would be a step change if we are able to move beyond the structures of policies and plans to simply treat people as human beings and ascribe to each the rights and privileges that ought to prevail without question in a modern, so-called, civilized society.”

Lorna:

“Athletics and running I feel is more diverse than most sports in terms of participation but more encouragement, trust, accessibility, hand holding and sharing needs to be given lower down in the sport for administration, officials, committees, boards and coaches. The sport is working on this but still some work to be done. There are still many sports that systematically do not encourage access to make them more diverse, some due to financial restraints some due to class. If young people are identified at an early age, better support should be put in place to encourage and follow through. It shouldn’t matter what school, club or colour you are to be supported fairly to reach a goal/achievement.”

Michael:

“I think we could be more intentional in establishing links and collaborating with organisations that are more closely aligned to the diverse ethnic communities that we are trying to reflect and represent within our sport. I also think with the right approach we could create more ‘mentoring’ and ‘coaching’ opportunities in our administrative roles as well as our practitioner activities.”

Lorna:

“I think with improved representation from diverse communities, trust will be encouraged thereby more diverse persons will support the sport other than in participation.”

Michael:

“I’m very proud of this achievement as some of the improvement has come about because of the intentional approach adopted by the Board and its committees (particularly Nominations and Governance) which I was involved in shaping. It will help to assure people from diverse ethnic communities that England Athletics is serious about its approach to diversity and inclusion, and, hopefully, encourage more diverse involvement at all levels of the sport.”

Lorna:

“England Athletics has a Diversity Action Plan which is continuously reviewed by its diversity team and made visible to the Board. Areas where extra support is needed to ensure diversity are visited and actioned to move towards integrated diversity for the organisation.”

Michael:

“The Diversity Action Plan is the key mechanism for ensuring there is a continual focus on representation and participation from the various black communities. The plan is reviewed on a quarterly basis and has visibility at Board level. Beyond this, everyone within England Athletics continues to ensure the ethos of diversity and inclusion is woven into everything we do so that it does indeed become second nature.”

Click here to read the England Athletics Diversity Plan