David Olusoga, the British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster and film-maker, gave a keynote address at the IWFM’s annual conference this year. Here, he tells Herpreet Kaur Grewal about the challenge to the workplace status quo posed by a new generation.
What does history have to do with the built environment? According to David Olusoga, author of Black and British: A Forgotten History, it has never been more relevant.
“Normally as a historian, the challenge is how do you make history connected to the modern day? But I don’t think that is the challenge, because history has exploded into the present,” he says.
“Events from the past, forgotten chapters in British history, particularly to do with colonialism, are on the front pages of newspapers. Statues that no one noticed for a century are now being toppled or being defended or being argued and debated about, so history is absolutely at the centre of everything.”
He is referring to the statue of slave trader Edward Colston (a man complicit in the deaths of 19,000 Africans), which was thrown into a river during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in June 2020. This paved the way for local authorities up and down the country to review, modify or remove the names of colonialists, racists and slave traders on streets, buildings and schools and rethink the placement of statues, plaques and other memorials.
Many of those involved in Black Lives Matter protests (and even the climate-focused Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in recent years) are known as the Generation Y and Z cohorts. Companies have been analysing the needs of these generational groups for years in order to keep workplaces relevant and attractive for incoming graduates and recruits. Those needs have included a greater emphasis on equity and wellbeing within the workplace. Research by apartment search site Nestpick in 2019 described Generation Z – the term given to anyone born between 1997 and 2012 – as a cohort of “digital natives who value security, diversity, and autonomy, and aim to achieve it through pragmatism and determination”.
Olusoga says the vigour with which young people engaged with the Black Lives Matter protests signalled “a shift of consciousness” brought about by a generation who see the world radically differently than previous ones and “a moment comparable with the 1960s”.
The BAFTA-winning film-maker says many in this younger generation are “furious” about what the Brexit vote means for their futures and have a keener sense of social justice.
“If you walk into a workplace in Britain, you will see diversity at the bottom, you will see black and brown faces in security, catering and cleaning – and not at the top. We’ve got so used to that and we’ve normalised it and they [younger generation] don’t. They see that as an injustice, they recognise it almost instantly, in a way that we don’t and that is the challenge facing almost every sector – we’ve normalised the abnormal.”
Olusoga, who is also a professor of public history at the University of Manchester, has recently made a foray into writing children’s books. Black and British: A Forgotten History has been published in a simplified version for a teenage audience. How tough a challenge is it to simplify such complex concepts for a younger audience?
“When I write for adults about these histories, I’m trying to reveal things that will come as a shock because they have an alternative vision of British history.
“Young people don’t have that alternative vision,” Olusoga explains. Accordingly, he is not revealing to them something that shocks them because it clashes with what they thought they knew; they don’t yet have what Olusoga calls the ‘fantasy island story’ version of British history – “so they are far more open.”
He also says that he has noticed that children around the age of 11 have “understood that the world is not as nice as we would want it to be, they are beginning to understand that there is inequality” and “so they are braver and they are more willing to confront these things than I think we often give them credit for”.
Olusoga recounts a story of the time he used to work for television companies with big offices. He says he used to suffer from insomnia and would often get on his bike and go into work at 5am and encounter cleaning staff from countries such as Nigeria and Iraq working their graveyard shifts.
“What shocked me as somebody in his late twenties-early thirties is that nobody saw that – it was invisible,” says Olusoga. “It was almost as if you would watch one group of people leave, and another group of people arrive at these big, clean, shiny offices. These non-white people were like ghostly apparitions, the others didn’t talk to them, they just passed them in the corridor, and their worlds just brushed against each other and that’s appalling and it didn’t shock anyone, people didn’t even notice it."
When the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its Invisible Workforce report about the cleaning industry in 2014, it shone a light on the experiences of the kind of workers Olusoga refers to. Testimonies from cleaning operatives – largely women, migrants and older workers – describe employees being sexually harassed by supervisors; being racially abused; being ridiculed for asking for the pay they were entitled to when they actually have received less; and having to take breaks in cupboards.
What is more, at the time during the research process, the commission wrote to more than 400 cleaning and FM firms (typically those who carry out standardised cleaning in the office and retail, transport, healthcare and leisure sectors) to conduct the research, but they only got a handful of replies. To be precise, researchers received nine written submissions and interviewed only 15 firms out of that number. The low response rate is most telling in itself and perhaps indicates a reluctance by the sector to address difficult issues head-on.
What would success look like?
Outsourced service provider Sodexo UK and Ireland recently announced a mean ethnicity pay gap of 5 per cent – revealing the inequality that is still alive in the corporate sector. Olusoga points out how half the working population of London consists of black or non-white workers. But: “When was the last time you saw a board in a company in London that was half non-white? Never. But all that would be is a reflection of normality.
“People ask what would success look like in a society that’s confronted with race and disadvantage, as well as class and sexuality issues? It would look like – when you left the streets, got out of the elevator on the top floor of a building and walked into the boardroom, it would look like the street you just left.”
He concludes: “That inability, that myopia that affects older people in the society is not a condition that you find amongst the young. They are energised by the fact that they see the inequities that we do not. Our challenge is to be inspired by them and start making the changes that they will anyway.”
Image credit | David Olusoga