Making a diversity strategy that changes things

To mark Pride month, Board member Mark Fletcher shares his thoughts on ForHousing’s new Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategy. Here he shares why EDI work is never ‘finished’ and why the sector should focus on culture.

Some skills and areas of expertise can be learnt, but there is nothing quite like first-hand experience. Little did I know when I was growing up – as a person of colour living on a council estate – that I was gaining vital lived experience for my future Board member role in the social housing sector.

Joining ForHousing felt like a bit of a full circle moment for me. Having had a varied career covering everything from sales and sponsorship to events and heading up Manchester Pride, it now feels like I was supposed to land in the housing sector.

Embedding equity, diversity and inclusion

It’s been a privilege to support ForHousing in developing its new EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) strategy. Though work to improve equity is a core part of most housing associations.

From what I’ve seen so far, I believe the social housing sector is spearheading EDI – a long way ahead of other sectors I’ve worked in. Housing associations are living their values and showing how EDI becomes a thread running through absolutely every part of an organisation.

EDI shouldn’t just sit with leadership or HR. It shouldn’t be about ticking boxes and appearing to be doing ‘the right thing’. For me, it’s about the whole culture.

When recruiting Board members, it’s obviously important that housing associations’ teams have the necessary experience and a grounding in good governance. But we absolutely need lived experiences too, or we are not effectively serving our communities.

As a relative newcomer to the sector, I’ve been immediately struck by the unique values we share. They are something to cherish. I’ve worked in many different fields and I can say with sincerity that in housing we must keep living by and focusing on these shared values.

The principle of equity

At ForHousing I’ve been encouraging a focus on equity. This goes for all tenants and colleagues. Yes, we are absolutely striving for equality but we cannot have this without a level playing field.

If we give every person £50 it’s an equal amount of money, but if some are starting in their overdraft, some have zero balance and some have a nest egg already, the £50 has a different impact. This is why we have to focus on equity first.

How can we remove barriers? How can we pass the mic? How can we create a culture of fair access? These are some of the questions we ask as a Board and this is why ForHousing’s vision centres on building more inclusive systems.

We are on a journey and have further to go, but the fact that 92% of staff ‘feel they belong here’ is a strong foundation to build from.

I’ve also been reassured by the genuine commitment of my colleagues on the Board to EDI. I believe we all have a responsibility to live our inclusive values. But without commitment at Board level, efforts to embed EDI are not going to be genuine and could end up causing more harm.

I also believe my Board colleagues and I are on the same page when it comes to EDI work in that we understand it’ll never be ‘completed’. Learning, listening and unlearning takes time.

We shouldn’t be striving for perfection because we need the space to make mistakes, to learn from them and grow. Nurturing a culture which encourages curiosity and uncomfortable conversations is important and we appreciate that it won’t happen overnight.

At the same time, we need to benchmark how we are doing and if we are making actual progress. We are committed to ensuring that we measure the outcomes we seek to achieve, recognising that systemic change takes years to fully embed.

Focus on hope

In all honesty, my own personal experiences of social housing were mixed. I have first-hand experience of being on the receiving end of my neighbours’ biases. And sadly, I still have to navigate racism and homophobia today.

But that doesn’t stop me from feeling genuine hope that we can learn and do better for our fellow human beings.

When I walk around ForHousing communities I can see the impact of regeneration; I can see thriving places.

All the small things we do as individuals have a big collective impact so let’s not lose sight of this when we hit those inevitable challenges.

Let’s focus on how we can leave this world a better place for the next generation.