24 May 2021

Do the work

Today marks the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. This is a time to reflect on what has changed and what steps we have taken as a society in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Action was demanded from all of us, and people will rightly hold institutions to account to keep the promises they made last summer to make positive change towards an anti-racist future. Before sharing an update on our work as a trust I’d like to share my personal reflections on the past year.

This time last year I was working at Bristol City Council, where our team was responsible for conserving the statue of Edward Colston after it had been thrown into the dock. As part of my role I needed to read the public responses to the Council, including explicitly racist comments which echoed the painful images of racial violence that I was being bombarded with on my timeline.

As a man of mixed heritage, this was nothing new to me. Unfortunately I’m very familiar with the day to day experience of racism and embedded structures of inequality. The impact of BLM was that the wider world was forced to acknowledge the reality and extent of racism that Black people already knew.

I’m writing here in my capacity as a museum director, as an authority figure, but when I’m stopped by the police, as I regularly am, in that moment my professional identity is irrelevant and I’m reduced to my skin colour. I know from my own experience and that of my parents, that confronting racism can be exhausting, lonely, dangerous and that it can feel like an unachievable goal. But I’m equally sure that I must pursue that goal as a leader and as an individual and that we must work together to achieve it. One of the reasons I wanted to become director of Birmingham Museums Trust was to take on that responsibility and be in a position to make a difference.

I joined BMT in November 2020 as Co-CEO alongside Sara Wajid with a mission to ensure BMT’s work reflects all our communities and to make the service more inclusive. The team had already been working throughout lockdown to adapt and continue the work we do with our communities and also to take stock and take steps to improve our own organisation. I’m proud of what they have achieved to date whilst also knowing that there is much work ahead and that committing to becoming an effective anti-racist museum service entails long-term, root and branch change. As one of the biggest museum charitable trusts in the country in a region of nearly three million people we have an opportunity and responsibility to make a significant impact. To the many people whose lives have been impacted by racism, we see you and we will strive to help our communities come together.

As a Black father, I always knew I would need to speak to my young children one day about how the colour of their skin will shape their opportunities in life. I had planned to have ‘the talk’ with my children when they were older, but the murder of George Floyd and the events that followed, meant we had to find a way to talk to them about what had happened in a way they could understand. For now, we sum it up in a simple yet powerful lesson: ‘be kind to everyone’.

The marathon continues.

Read Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah's blog post George Floyd. One Year On