Saluting our sisters

For more than 30 years, October has been designated as Black History Month in the UK. This year the theme is ‘Saluting our Sisters’ which pays homage to black women, whose voices have been silenced and whose many contributions have been ignored and side-lined. This week, I have handed my blog over to some of the remarkable women of colour who work with us in Newcastle Hospitals so that they can tell their own stories, and I sincerely thank them for their personal and honest contributions and their overwhelming dedication to our team.

Lee-Ann Naidoo

I sit here and remember the words from Martin Luther, ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way’, so I write to you from my heart, because that is where we hold our sisters. By my sisters, I mean every one of you women that have crossed my path, or may never, but have been through the same struggles. I stand in solidarity.

I want to thank you for allowing me to share a little bit with you all to what brought me to this exact time and place. I was born in a small town in Botswana called Francistown. It had one road through the whole town. My mother is mixed race, predominantly white, black, Malaysian, and Dutch. My dad is mixed too, predominantly Indian, and Irish. So, I grew up as a mixed person in Southern Africa. I loved my childhood and have very fond memories, however, there are parts of it I struggled with and did not understand where I fitted into society and still don’t to a large extent.

My family moved back to Zambia, to be closer to my mother’s family. After this my parents moved to Cape Town as my father’s parents lived there. This period was pivotal in my life. It was during the period of Apartheid. I know a lot of you would have probably heard or watched television programmes about it, but living it was a whole different experience.

Apartheid means “apartness” in Afrikaans. It was a mandated system of racial segregation amongst the people of South Africa from 1948 to 1994, in which a set of laws governed where people could live, work, learn and worship based on their skin colour. Segregation and white supremacy had already been in place, but the National Party took it to the next level by enacting many laws over the next decade and beyond, and officially classifying humans as either native (Black), coloured (Mixed), Asian (Indian or Pakistani) or white.

The architects of apartheid sold the ideology as being “In harmony with such Christian principles as justice and equity. It is a policy which sets itself the task of preserving and safeguarding the racial identity of the white population of the country; of likewise preserving and safeguarding the identity of the indigenous peoples as separate racial groups” – per a pamphlet issued by the National Party in 1947 before they were voted into power.

One of the first laws that passed was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, outlawing marriage between white people and people of any other race. It was followed in 1950 with the Immortality Amendment Act, which legislated that no white person could have sex with anyone of a different race outside of marriage. My great grandparents are affected by this. My great grandfather was Indian, and my great grandmother was Irish. They fell in love, and she acquired documentation to state what she was Indian even though visibly she was clearly Caucasian and lived her life in an Indian community. She never saw her family again.

In the same year, the Population Registration Act was enacted. That meant that every single person living in South Africa had to register their race, and if there was any question about someone’s racial authenticity, it would be decided by the Race Classification Board. Race was determined by the darkness or lightness of skin, the curliness of hair, facial features, and lineage. This again directly affected my family. My sister and I were born to the same parents, yet when we were registered, she was registered as an Indian according to her features and I was registered as a coloured.

Under apartheid, African — or Bantu — groups were relegated to living on 13% of the land in South Africa, while whites kept the mineral-rich areas and the cities. According to South African History Online, more than 3.5 million people were made to leave their homes and jobs from 1960 to 1994. Blacks could not own land. They could not vote. Blacks, Indians, or coloureds were not free to move out of their prescribed territories. They were not permitted to even be in other races’ areas unless they were employed there and they better have proof. If they were caught without this it would result in them being arrested, beaten up or worse. This is still evident today in residential areas.

Like all other things, Christian houses of worship were segregated by race, as were the schools and universities children were allowed to attend. Bantu children, or Blacks, were given minimal education, designed for their futures as servants and laborers. Law decreed that “it is to no avail” for them to be educated beyond that. Why would they need to know about history, art, or science if their roles were just to serve whites? Is this not the case today still?

When I came to the UK, I thought things would be different. Land of equality and opportunity they say, though my experience was very different. People of colour definitely have experiences that make you face the real facts. You will always be different, even when you convince yourself that in this new land people don’t think that way. Very quickly I came to realise this in the UK and I face this daily. When I started dating and the day came for me to be introduced to his parents, I had to ask, ‘Will your parents be ok with me?’ When I walked into my classroom in college, and I was the only person of colour. When my partners’ colleagues said that they ‘didn’t realise he was into black girls’. When I was not invited to join the mums at school functions, and when I asked a friend, she reluctantly told me that it was because ‘I was different.’ When the kids came home in tears because their hair was too curly, or their mum looked weird.

All of these are regular events that I have faced time and time again. You have to navigate life, and work is no different. One of my first experiences was going for a job interview with a London department store at the tender age of 18. I did not get the job and the suggestion they gave me was maybe if I straightened my hair, I would fit in better. Fit in better? Why don’t I fit in as myself? As a result of that, I always straightened my hair for interviews, until I was older and wiser and decided people would just have to accept me as I am. You see there are many challenges that I face all the time and some I just don’t have the energy to manage, yet I have to deal with anyway. When you go for a job interview, the experience is bad enough without wondering whether people see you or your colour. I was told from a young age that ‘you will always have to work harder to prove yourself’ and this has indeed been my experience. I am not sad to have gone through it, because it has made me the person I am today.

Hopefully this gives you a little insight into my world and highlights why it is so important to share these stories – and why it is important to raise the profile of Black History Month. This is not because black people want to be more important, want special treatment, want an easy way out or an easier route in. The reason is, all my sisters fight everyday to prove themselves. There is a powerful quote by Maya Angelou, ‘You may kill me with your hatefulness but still, like air, I will rise.’

So today I Salute all my sisters who show up everyday despite knock backs, closed doors, tiredness, and at times despair. I stand with you in your times of pain, when this has been the tenth time you have been denied the job that is rightfully yours. I see you when you have gone home and cried behind closed doors at hateful remarks you received at work, and no one stood up for you. I feel the pain of not being included in that social group because you speak with a different accent; look, behave, or dress different. I hear you when your voice is not heard in meetings and someone else makes the same suggestion and it is taken forward. I understand and acknowledge you when you raise a concern, and it is swept under the carpet like so many people before. Yet through all these situations you rise up everyday and try again. I salute you!

Chinwe Amakalu

Hello, I’m Chinwe and I’m a HR advisor within the HR advisory team that supports clinical boards 3, 6 and our facilities team as their first point of contact on HR operational issues. I was drawn to HR because of my passion in helping people. I am a law graduate with Master’s in human resources management and I support a charity that works with women and children.

I draw my inspiration from people who are faced with difficult challenges in life, but they get up every day finding ways to make a difference for the next generation like Lolo Kate Uzoamaka Ezeofor founder of the charity Umuada Igbo Nigeria and in Diaspora; and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala the Director General of the World Trade Organisation who is the first woman and African to lead the World Trade Organisation as Director General. They are inspiration to young girls, to work hard and inspire to achieve greater heights.

I look forward to an era where there would be no need for Black History Month or diversity awareness programmes. Where the world would embrace its rich diversity and cultural heritage and one is measured by their personal ability.

As a black women living in the UK, I understand that even being faced with the double human barrier of being a woman and black, I embrace my cultural heritage as an Igbo woman and I teach my younger ones that they have to work twice as hard to succeed and understand that even if you receive a negative response today, you can learn from it to help you receive the yes response tomorrow.

As an Igbo person we are enterprising, independent, adventurous and known for our food, music, dance, beautiful colourful outfits and hair styles.

Titi Ameobi

In December 2023 I would have been qualified for 10 years, all of which have been spent working at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in my substantiative post. I am a highly motivated and driven delivery suite core midwife who is committed to excellence and passionate about making a significant difference, whilst leaving a positive impact on the lives of the patients and colleagues I have the opportunity to encounter.

My role enables me to predominantly provide intrapartum care to both high and low risk women, and on occasion also antenatal and postnatal care.

I thoroughly love and enjoy my role as a midwife and see it more as my calling and something that I’ve been graced to do as opposed to a job. I pride myself on personal and professional standards, striving to always bring the best version of myself to work which enables me to be a good support and point of contact for women within my care alongside being a good team player to my colleagues. I am a proficient autonomous practitioner; determined and reliable, accomplishing with excellence what I set out to achieve. I thrive on patient contact and gain personal satisfaction from being an advocate for women and their families.

I remain one of only nine ethnically diverse midwives within the trust. Whilst the trust has made some improvements recently in tackling the divide between the ethnically diverse and caucasian staff population by recruiting international midwives, there is still a long way to go as the legacy of bias is still very much evident.

I have a desire to progress in my career, but was unaware until recently of the negative impact of not having ethnically diverse role models in senior midwifery positions. I also feel the characteristics that accompany my ethnicity (for example being outgoing and attaining the confidence to question authority when required) has to some degree prevented me from progressing my career further due to the stigmatism that I have encountered.

My ideal progression route would not be the traditional standard management pathway, but from a clinical perspective which would enable me to still have direct patient contact and continue to work cohesively with my colleagues. I have a desire to change the status quo and help encourage other midwives from ethnically diverse backgrounds to step forward and not be afraid or shy away from career progression, which would help break down organisational and professional boundaries that are still very much present.

According to the Office for National Statistics, around a quarter of women giving birth in England and Wales are from minority ethnic groups. These women have poorer pregnancy outcomes and experience poorer maternity care than caucasian women. To identify and implement positive change for these women, the planning of their care should have input from medical professionals who are also more ethnically diverse, which in turn would provide more equitable care for ethnic minority women.

I was born in Nigeria but have spent the majority of my life in the UK being raised with strong Christian and African values which are still at the core of who I am. I believe I’m in a unique position to drive forward positive change, as I can identify with both black and caucasian cultures alike and desire to help establish equity so the distinction between the care that is provided to ethnic minority women in comparison to caucasian women is not so diverse.

As a result of being raised in the minority and as a direct result of my Christian faith, I have developed a certain level of strength and resilience, which has been crucial to my survival over my career when I have experienced and been subjected to unconscious bias, discrimination and micro aggression from both patients and colleagues. I’ve also had to endure three counts of overt racism and an uncomfortable number of covert racism incidents from patients.

I am accountable for maintaining a safe and responsible approach to my own sphere of practice and development, which is why I enrolled on the ‘Maximising your Leadership Potential: A Development Programme for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic Staff’. I must admit that the course content was good and it enabled me to quickly realise that my negative experiences working within the trust were not specific to me alone and I was shocked to hear of the discrimination, micro aggression and racism other colleagues experienced. I was also very surprised that a course which was specific and targeted to ethnic minority staff was predominantly delivered by an individual who was not ethnically diverse in any way shape or form. I personally felt this inhibited me from being as free and open as I maybe would have been if this wasn’t the case.

I’ll end with this thought; I’m aware that our trust as a whole is progressing, but there is still so much more work to be done to level the playing field. I want to play my part in creating a service and atmosphere that I would be comfortable and proud for my family and friends who are ethnically diverse to receive.

Odeth Richardson

To whom much is given, much will be required – Luke 12:48

Growing up in the Caribbean, you are taught from a young age that life will have challenges, but you cannot allow these to stop you from reaching your goals. You were also taught that if you have been blessed with talent, wealth or opportunities, then you should use these to help others. Whenever you can do something to make another person’s life brighter, then you should do so, expecting nothing in return.

My current role as head of service for occupational therapy at Newcastle Hospitals is one that I enjoy immensely. This role entails the operational management for the trust-wide occupational therapy service and OT professional lead. As part of this role, I also manage a number of services as well as deputising for the associate director of therapies. I strive to lead with compassion.

I believe this role comes with privileges but also responsibilities. I ensure that staff are equipped to undertake their roles, providing support as well as ensuring staff have the tools and skills to enable them to deliver an effective service for our patients. I believe it is important that as therapists we put people at the heart of everything we do, whether that’s patients or colleagues.

In addition to this role, I am a contact officer as well as a cultural ambassador. I chair the Race Equalities staff network and the Regional Race Equality Forum. I am an active member of the health and wellbeing group. I am a member of the Great North Children’s Foundation committee and deliver the leadership component of the preceptorship programme alongside other colleagues.

From an early age my parents taught me the difference between right and wrong. I believe in the principles of social justice and know that I need to do my part to ensure this world is a more equitable and just place. This has been my focus throughout my career as I strove to be a fair and equitable leader. I have always lived by my values and ensure these are aligned with my role as a leader.

Over the years it is evident that more and more people are becoming marginalised because of their race, sexuality, disability, class and gender. The principles of social justice are being eroded in the injustices we see each day. As a black woman in the leadership space my consciousness was awakened early in my career but in the last few years, following the death of George Floyd, the responsibility for ensuring that I do my part in advocating for social justice has been heightened.

I also Chair the Council for The Royal College of Occupational Therapists and The British Association of Occupational Therapists. This role entails ensuring good governance of the organisation, representing RCOT/BAOT, the membership and profession to governments, statutory, national, international and local bodies. I ensure that Council contributes to the strategy and policy of the organisation as well as monitoring performance to ensure that Council decisions are implemented. I strive to be a great ambassador for RCOT/BAOT by adhering to the code of conduct, seeking, listening and presenting the diverse views of our members in an authentic manner without compromising my professionalism. I believe my great interpersonal skills, infectious enthusiasm and effective communication has been instrumental to my success in this role.

In my free time I volunteer for the Northumbria Police Strategic Independent Advisory Group in addition to chairing the board of Trustees at the Angelou Centre, a charity for women and girls experiencing domestic violence and abuse. I believe I have made and continue to make a difference to the people around me in each of the roles that I have undertaken.

I have been given many opportunities in life and so the onus is on me to give something back to each of the communities I interact with. I understand and embrace my purpose which is to try and make life a little brighter for those around me who are less privileged. I try to make a difference for all the people who are depending on me in each of the roles I occupy. The principles of social justice are important and I strive to align these principles with my personal values. I am not perfect, and I continuously learn and grow. I am privileged to undertake all the roles that I do. I seek to learn from my mistakes and to continually grow and develop as a leader. One of my favourite quotes is by Ziad Abdennour “Life is like a camera, focus on what’s important. Capture the good times. Develop from the negatives and if things don’t work out, just take another shot.”

A final word from Non Executive Director, Steph Edusei

The focus of this year’s Black History Month, ‘Saluting our Sisters’, is so important. Black people are so often defined by our ethnicity and it’s easy to assume that our experiences are similar, however, Black women have to face multiple levels of discrimination when racism and misogyny interact. This layering (or intersectionality as it’s called) means that Black women often have worse experiences, opportunities, and outcomes, and that the challenges we face to overcome discrimination and prejudice are greater.

We also deal with the challenge of stereotypes such as the ‘strong Black woman’ which leads to many issues around mental health and wellbeing and associated support and treatment services and could be a contributory factor in a number of health inequalities such as Black women in the UK being four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women.

So, there is much to be done, and featuring the voices of some of our amazing Black female colleagues is a small step. I was struck by the similarity in many of our experiences of prejudice and discrimination, despite coming from different backgrounds and countries. I was also moved by their bravery and passion. I ask that you read and reflect on these with an open heart. If you feel attacked or uncomfortable, sit with those feelings and examine where they are coming from rather than dismissing the message, as that leads to growth and understanding.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Maya Angelou that I regularly say to myself and others:
“Do the best that you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”