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BLM and what we can learn from it

Rachel Alvarez-Reyes

The events of 2020 have undoubtedly changed the world as we know it. The brutal police killings of black men and women in North America, which has unleashed a global wave of protest against racial injustice,  have prompted some deep reflection on the world we currently live in, and how we might want it to change (or rather, how we might want to change it!). The fight for racial equality has encouraged people to take a closer look at the systems we live and work in, their historical underpinnings, and inspired a call to action to address these systems to be fit for purpose in the 21st century.

I have been reflecting on how this all serves as a lesson for those of us working in the humanitarian and development sector, a sector that should have human rights and equity at its core. What can we say about the systems we are currently part of and how they foster or undermine equality and inclusion?


There have been many recent articles which have highlighted the issue of racism within the aid sector and also calls to overhaul how our history of colonialism is taught in schools. Diversity can drive innovation, creativity and improve organisational effectiveness, as increasing research has shown. How can we build a more diverse, open and accepting sector, so that we can really walk the talk of equality and inclusion?

Here are some thoughts on what we can do individually and collectively to contribute to this:

Build diversity: Organisations operating in this sector need to review internal processes of hiring and supporting staff to encourage more diversity. This needs to go beyond hiring quotas and box ticking to look at how to attract, support and value staff from marginalised communities. Examples could be scholarships, proactively recruit for different strengths and personality type, provide paid internships and coaching/mentoring aimed at supporting professional development. Unpaid internships are pervasive across the sector, barring entry for many.

Listen: As individuals, we must get curious and really listen to peoples’ reality. To educate ourselves about race and privilege and have honest conversations with those around us, both within the organisations we are part of, and on the programmes we work on. We need to withhold our natural predisposition towards judgement, suspend our assumptions and just listen to people as they share their experiences, views, values, perspectives and preferences.

Ask questions: Let go of any beliefs that to ask questions is to look ignorant. Be respectful, be prepared to be wrong, withhold judgement and build on active listening. This takes practice and skill and courage, but it’s the only way to deeply understand, appreciate and value differences.

Reflective practice: Commit to continual learning. Ask ourselves questions like: What was the impact of what I did or said (in that meeting/during that event) on those with whom and for whom I work? What shift in perspective did I experience when I really listened and understood someone’s perspective? What happened when I left space before talking? By trying out methods of reflection and personal inquiry we can nurture greater self-awareness, imagination and creativity, as well as systemic, non-linear modes of thinking and analysis.

Part of working to undo racism and inequality is having the humility to know when our understanding is limited. As individuals, we need to recognise that our perception of reality is not the only one. The very structures of our society prevent us from seeing certain aspects of the truth about the systems within which we live and operate. The shift required in working for racial justice and equality is a shift in perspective: a shift in understanding and empathy that leads to a change in what we say and do.

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