Like many others, my first steps from the private sector into the non-profit were tentative, daunting, but ultimately liberating. After spending eight years working in environments such as pubs and nightclubs, moving to a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) housing association was a radical change of direction.
Working for so long in establishments that generate progressively drunken debates on the rights and wrongs of our changing society, it was not unusual to be in close proximity to conversations that were reminiscent of a 1970s sitcom script!
Alcohol acts as an extremely effective accelerant in prompting opinions lying just below the surface of people who appear to be reasonable, well-balanced individuals.
I was fortunate enough never to have worked anywhere that exposed me to racial intolerance so vile I’d be fearful to challenge it. Nevertheless, the typically coined phrases would often be overheard.
Which do you think was the most popular? The old favourite: “These immigrants, they’re taking all our council houses!”
Five years on, I am a settled staff member at a small BME housing association in Manchester with just 870 homes and 25 members of staff. When I cast my mind back to the days of pulling pints and listening to loose-lipped patrons airing the common misconception that social housing is being swamped with immigrants, I wonder: How widespread is the belief of this myth?
I am aware that public sector and non-profit organisations have an all-inclusive ethos, but being a specific BME housing association is different. We are lucky to work for organisations that empower us to assist all members of our communities, new and old, to obtain decent homes without being afraid to say it is more difficult for some than others.
But, after a while, it is easy to forget that everyone does not have the same mindset as you. That, after all, is democracy.
Our full time responsibility is to promote and embrace diversity and to keep our cause high on the agenda. With constantly changing political priorities and a sway in the way the general public are being asked to re-examine how public funding is allocated, it is more important than ever to ensure our opinions are heard.
We must send the message that BME communities are not the new plague, but a group of people who have assisted us in building the UK into what it is: a rich, multicultural and progressive society.
The rewards that come with re-housing families, who often conquered numerous barriers to achieve what is a basic human right, are untold.
In the five years of my employment, I have often defended our profession to people who do not believe in our common goal.
At first I would shrug it off and say it was a matter of opinion, but as time went on, and I met family after family in desperate need of a home, I felt compelled to champion what we do. The best way, I have found, is to humanise the issue.
Describing the overcrowded, poor conditions and extortionate rents people are forced to live with because of social and economic barriers usually opens people’s minds, but in some hardened cases you are forced to point out what has simply not occurred to them:
We re-house white British people too; they make up over one-third of our tenants.
At the end of the day, it’s about re-housing those people with the greatest housing need. And if the cuts and proposed welfare reforms bite as hard as many believe, associations like ours will be taking the strain and assisting our local community – BME or not.
Joanne Moon is a Senior Customer Advisor at Arawak Walton.