"It's my job to facilitate uncomfortable conversations"
It’s a big and busy role, there’s no doubt about it,” smiles Millie Kerr, England’s first ever local authority Anti Racist Lead Practitioner.
“It’s a role I’m really passionate about, and I think it’s brave of Brighton & Hove to create this role with an explicit focus on enhancing anti racist practice within children’s services and social work, to enable our teams to work better with our Black, Minoritised and Global Majority children and families.
“After the murder of George Floyd, there was a flurry of organisations writing anti racist strategies, but there’s a sense that many of those strategies have remained strategies, with limited action. We are working hard to ensure we’re progressing our Anti Racist action plan, and bringing it to life, so that we can better meet the needs of the community we serve.
“And while many places scrambled to employ EDI officers or anti racist leads on short term contracts, my role is a permanent position, highlighting the fact that anti racist work is not a quick fix. It’s a lifetime journey, and in fact I don’t think we’ll fix it completely in my lifetime. It will take time, as the next generations become more proactive.”
Millie first moved to Brighton over 20 years ago, after qualifying in 1994, and cutting her teeth in frontline children protection work in boroughs across London. Since taking on this role in November 2020, Millie has quickly turned ideas into actions, facilitating weekly anti racist discussion groups, and providing consultations and case formulations with social workers.
“Some people may think that weekly anti racist sessions must be a bit intense, but it is working for us, and everyone - from senior leadership to admin - is expected to attend on a rota basis,” she says.
“Every six weeks, I do a themed discussion workshop, on issues like stereotypes, perceptions of Black knife crime, or working with Black dads. These sessions are geared towards getting people to think a bit more deeply about cultural sensitivities, and to reflect on cultural bias, prejudice, assumptions, and discrimination. Every step of the way, Brighton & Hove is working with families with lived experience of racism. They are best placed to tell us how we can do better.”
Millie explains that a big part of her work is facilitating ‘uncomfortable conversations.’
“I always start our sessions by acknowledging that, of course, it’s uncomfortable to have uncomfortable conversations about race, but that the reason for these discussions is to enable us to sit with that discomfort.
“I GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION TO GET IT WRONG NOW, IN THIS SAFE SPACE, AND BE REFLECTIVE, SO THAT WE CAN GET IT RIGHT GOING FORWARD WHEN IT MATTERS, FOR THE BLACK, MINORITISED, GLOBAL MAJORITY CHILDREN AND FAMILIES WE ARE SERVING WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.
“Somebody may come and want to discuss a family or young person they’re working with, and the challenges they’re experiencing.
We discuss everything from asylum seekers to cultural identity. One week we discussed the way in which certain communities view disability as a ‘punishment from God’ and we talked at length about how belief systems differ across different cultures, and the impact of that. The conversations can steer anywhere.
“Some people are initially quite nervous, and may just sit and listen for a few sessions, and that’s OK. It’s about equipping our workers with the confidence to have these conversations with young people and their families on issues like racism and identity, and it can be a process.
“We’ve had lots of social workers, as well as ASYEs and students on placements, admit they were worried about saying the wrong thing, and being thought of as racist, but now feel comfortable. It’s wonderful to see people starting to speak up.
“I sometimes hear things in sessions that are offensive, of course, when people have been relaying things that have happened.
“The key is sensitive education. I don’t rush in there and make anybody feel bad, because I want people to come back to the next session, ready to learn, and develop the understanding they need to get it right when the time comes, within their language, assessments and court reports, and with their Black colleagues and peers.
“IT’S NOT ABOUT SHUTTING PEOPLE DOWN, OR SHAMING OR EMBARRASSING ANYONE.
“I want people to open their eyes to the ways we sometimes see the people we work with through a deficit lens born out of the stereotypes we’re constantly fed by the media.
“Of course it’s early days, but I can already see the impact of the work we are doing within children’s services and the council as a whole, and am encouraged to see families beginning to feel we are listening to them.”
Millie also meets monthly with the Anti Racist project board and senior leadership team, and engages and builds relationships with Black, Global Majority and Muslim communities across Brighton & Hove City Council.
Brighton & Hove is also one of 18 local authorities piloting the Workforce Race Equality Standards to measure improvements within the workforce as regards the recruitment, retention and development of Black & Minoritised and Global Majority staff members.
“As a local authority, we’re holding ourselves up to the light, and providing data to show how we’re progressing in this area,” says Millie.
“I’ve set up a Black & Minoritised workers support group, in addition to mentoring staff members within the council, to support retention, development, and career progression.”
In terms of how she views the years of work ahead of her, Millie says her goal is, ultimately, to affect change.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s been two years since the death of George Floyd, can’t we move on now?’ My response is no, there’s nothing to move on from, we all need to continue working together to move towards enhancing anti racist practice in social work.”