Interviewing Saida Bello, Chair of the BAME Employee Network at Bristol City Council

By BWV reporter Laura Hillier

BWV Community Reporter Laura Hillier met with Saida Bello, a solicitor working in Legal Services at Bristol City Council. Saida chairs the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Employee Network at the Council, and she provided us with an overview about the role of the Employee Networks in promoting inclusion, equality and diversity. Saida has worked as a housing solicitor in social housing for 15 years, and is also now working on her ‘Senior Leadership Apprenticeship’ at the Open University.

What are the Employee Networks?

In June 2018, a report went to senior leaders at the Council, which proposed a relaunch and a new structure for the Employee Networks, which were previously in place. These act to represent the needs and concerns of different employee groups at the Council, including the BAME Employee Network, the LGBT+ Employee Network, the Disabled Employees Group, and Young Employees Voice.

The intention of the Employee Networks is to improve diversity and inclusion in the Council. Under the Equality Act 2010, the Council have a legal and statutory duty to uphold equality, and the Employee Networks are one way of working towards upholding this law. Membership of these groups by Council employees has been increasing, which shows there is keen interest amongst staff in their activities.

Priorities for the Employee Networks include following up on the recent reports of diversity and inclusion issues at the Council. A key part of this involves providing a space that allows employees to express their views and concerns, which they may have previously felt unable to do.

What do the Employee Networks do?

The Employee Networks are working differently this time around. All the groups work together collaboratively on common challenges, meeting every week to discuss how to achieve 32 different actions. A crucial principle and priority underlying the Employee Networks’ work is ‘intersectionality’ – understanding that people can belong to different groups, which can overlap and interact to result in differing forms of disadvantage.

As many Council staff members do relate to multiple groups, the Employee Networks are working together closely on the same issues. Saida feels that by taking this intersectional approach, the methods of the Employee Networks are forward-thinking, ‘all diversity matters, and the more we focus on, the better’.

Another significant change to the way the Employee Networks are working is the frequency of meetings held with senior leaders at the Council. For instance, the groups meet every two months with the Head of Human Resources (Mark Williams), and the Head of Paid Service (Mike Jackson) every three months, who has also volunteered for the role of Equality Champion. This is hugely positive for Bristol City Council, because ‘the best practice for equality and diversity is to get someone at the very top of the organisation to be an Equality Champion’. These connections to senior leaders at the Council are also important for the Employee Networks because concerns by staff can be brought directly to those with leadership responsibility in the relevant areas. As Saida notes, ‘having direct access and regular meetings provides an effective channel to tackle these issues’.

All Employee Networks also have the opportunity to host ‘Hot Coffee Hot Topic’ events, that are organised by the Mayor’s office. The BAME Employee Network hosted one of these on the 1st of March, which was titled ‘how to create a more inclusive culture in Bristol’. The event was open to both internal and external attendees, and the high turnout showed that this topic was relevant and of interest to many people. There are also plans for a six-month follow-up event to take place on Friday 27th of September, on the theme of ‘Inclusivity/Intersectionality’.

What are some of the other initiatives in the Council which focus on improving inclusion and diversity?

Saida was a participant in the first year of the Council’s ‘Stepping Up’ programme, which is a Positive Action Programme introduced by Deputy Mayor Asher Craig. The programme provides one year of leadership training, which aims to address the issue of the low number of BAME individuals in leadership roles in the Council and across the city more widely.

In its first year, 49 people went through Stepping Up, and approximately 60% of these have received promotions since being involved. The programme is now in its second year – this time with 56 participants – and has now been opened up to also include women and disabled employees, to improve diversity in these areas in leadership roles too. Saida describes how motivated and empowered she felt by the programme, and how inspirational the programme’s director (Professor Christine Bamford) was.

The Mayor’s Commission for Race Equality (CORE) is also running drop-in sessions for BAME staff in the Council to come along and discuss any concerns they have. Staff that attend will have the chance to discuss their views with relevant experts, including members of CORE and other organisations such as SARI (Stand up Against Racism and Inequality).

Why is this important for Bristol as a city?

Bristol unfortunately remains an unequal city in many ways, as highlighted in the 2017 Runnymede Trust report into disadvantages and inequalities for ethnic minorities in Bristol. Saida explains how important it is that work is done to close these gaps, of which having the Employee Networks plays a part. ‘If we empower our staff, they are empowered to do more for the city. If we can deal with the issues now, we’re more alert on equality in general and we can intervene sooner’.

The Employee Networks at the Council also have the potential to have a positive influence on other organisations across the city. One idea proposed by the Mayor has been to develop a ‘Employee Network Charter’ with other organisations in Bristol, to support and set the standard for Employee Networks.

In June this year, a progress report will be taken to senior leadership figures on the achievements so far of the Employee Networks. This will also contain proposals about what needs to happen next, to keep the momentum going. Saida emphasises that although it takes a while for systems and cultures to change, ‘things are changing, and we want the Council to be a more inclusive place to work’.

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