Almost six months after becoming a 2027 Programme Graduate, I look back and reflect on my placement at Big Society Capital and the springboard that provided both myself and the organisation, the opportunity to advance Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
The journey to 2027
2027, sounds like I’m talking from the future, and in a way I am – when trying to fix a problem in the now, particularly one that is deep-rooted and unchallenged, to start with the vision of what it could be like tomorrow if things changed for the better, you begin to see a way to turn the problem around.
In short, 2027 is a training programme set up in 2017 with a 10-year ambition to address the evident problem of class diversity within the funding sector. The programme takes on 15-20 frontline professionals from working class backgrounds each year over the course of 10 years, providing a 12-month paid placement at a funding organisation. It prepares associates for decision-making roles in the sector and brings valuable deep frontline experience to host organisations. Primarily focused on addressing the diversity challenge in the grant-making sector, the 2027 programme was also adopted by Big Society Capital who wanted to bring diverse perspectives into social impact investment.
Why did I apply for the 2027 programme? Having spent 10 years working in the social sector, I was constantly reaching burn-out point and observing colleagues in the same boat - working tirelessly on the frontline, often disjointed with other services due to the systemic failures and competitive environments charities find themselves in. Mainly working with marginalised communities across several social issue areas ranging from housing/homelessness, employment and community development - I too had a vision to create systemic change but I was baffled by the structural and cultural barriers to affect change. The 2027 programme seemed like a great opportunity and the value it placed on lived as well as learnt and practice expertise spoke to me.
My experience working on the frontline was both informed and driven by my lived experiences of intersectional injustices, of being bullied from the very first weeks of starting secondary school, just for looking different, I struggled to fit in and do well at academia. It didn’t help that I was borderline dyslexic, making my case for additional support ineligible. So, it wasn’t a surprise I left with an E for English GCSE. Battling mental ill-health in silence, being a young primary carer and the need to desperately earn a living to financially support my family was also added pressure. Thankfully an apprenticeship-like opportunity came my way to work in housing at the Local Authority and things started to turn around. My so-called vulnerabilities became a guiding light and I started seeing them as a source of strength, resilience, and resourcefulness in connecting to and supporting others.
My first-hand experience of injustices provided me with a deep-rooted understanding of how systems can oppress and marginalise working class communities. All too often the value of lived experience in social change can be dismissed or overlooked yet a glance at history of pioneering change-makers reminds us why this needs to be centred in our work as detailed by Baljeet Sandhu in her 2017 lived experience report.
There are a lot of buzzwords surrounding diversity and inclusion and the meaning can sometimes get diluted, lost or misunderstood altogether if we are not clear. So, for clarity, it is important to define what and where equity (not the financial term) fits into the equation of equality, diversity and inclusion.
Equity in this context, promotes justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems. This meaning of equity was a new learning for me, yet I was living and breathing this whilst working in and alongside marginalised communities - equity is a quality of being; it is the oxygen within us and what is sought to survive in the polluted air of inequity that often engulfs us. The lessons of recent times have held up the equity mirror for all to reflect their current make-up and to get real, to understand that equity must be part of our fabric and DNA, governing everything we do if equality has any chance of being authentic and wholesome.
Therefore, to achieve equality outcomes the starting point has to be equitable. Diversity asks - who is in the room? Whilst equity asks - who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Inclusion asks - has everyone’s ideas in the room been heard? But if those who aren’t in the room and need to be don’t get heard - we have a problem - and trust me you see this problem and the solutions loud and clear when you aren’t in the room!
And when those missing are included in such rooms, as in my case, you can start to create new doors and access points for others too….and even imagine a room without doors and walls altogether!
The stepping stone for me to get into that room was through the 2027 recruitment process, a straightforward equitable experience with no requirement of CV until the point of matching with an organisation. Five to six questions through an online application, which notably honoured the value of lived expertise, led me to a group assessment where I successfully demonstrated relevant skills and competencies in a practical way. I was then selected to join the programme and matched with Big Society Capital.
Putting lived expertise into practice
Following an induction by the 2027 programme, I joined Big Society Capital full of beans and ready to put my deep frontline experience and insight of issues affecting communities into practice.
One of the first projects I supported was the development of the Women in Safe Homes fund. Here, I ensured the impact metrics for the fund would also reach ethnic minority women, going further than just advancing gender equalities but also reducing inequalities. My main involvement was coordinating the fund-raising efforts of the complementary grant delivery programme, a peer-led model that I advocated and played an active role to engage the smaller specialist by-and-for women’s sector organisations. As my placement came to an end, I was accepted as a member of the Grant Advisory and Decision-making Panel for the Women in Safe Homes Grant Programme to continue this equality drive for all.
In addition to supporting the development of new initiatives, I brought in new perspectives and networks to the organisation, such as inviting an infrastructure organisation serving the Caribbean and African community to take part in our Virtual Festival; an opportunity for Big Society Capital to hear directly from frontline services impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This connection to niche organisations leading and working from the margins led to a new programme of work at Good Finance, Addressing Imbalance, which I was then subsequently recruited as a freelance engagement specialist to spearhead.
The Addressing Imbalance programme aims to bring diversity and inclusion to life through equitable partnerships with infrastructure organisations that are led or work with ethnic minority communities, so that access to information about social investment becomes more inclusive than it has been.
Completing the 2027 programme has been a fantastic learning experience, it has led me to new career opportunities to advance DEI across the funding sector - and inspired by my colleagues at Big Society Capital, I have become a trustee at Citizen’s Advice Maidenhead and Windsor and will soon start as an observation Trustee at Barrow Cadbury Trust. I am also supporting the 2027 Alumni as a Community Manager at the Centre for Knowledge Equity (CfKE), a ground-breaking infrastructure body uniting lived, learnt and practice expertise to advance transformational change. For Big Society Capital, the programme has evidently been invaluable in helping the organisation advance its approach to DEI - reaching new networks, strengthening decision-making; bringing knowledge and deep expertise from lived and frontline experience; and improving the use of feedback to inform new product development.
There is a saying I came across at a workshop focused on organisational change that has never left me – when you place the hand (employee) in the river (organisation), what changes? They both change!
I look forward to seeing Big Society Capital continue its journey and share progress as it builds on its equality, diversity and inclusion plan.
To close, I would like to invite the wider social impact investment sector to consider such investment in equitable approaches that yield the best interest for all.
Here are some reflections on the value of a 2027 Associate from some of my colleagues and partners I worked with during the programme: