Taking action? Brighton & Hove City Council takes steps to address its diversity problem

Anusree Biswas Sasidharan (left) & Stephanie Prior (right)
Photos provided by Anusree and Stephanie

Brighton & Hove City Council has a problem. It represents a population where 12.4% are not white, yet there is only one councillor of colour and the employees of the council are only 7% non-white. Add to this the data showing the issues with recruitment, retention and progression in the council for people of colour and it is easy to see that there is a big problem. With the next election of councillors not until 2023, something clearly needs to be done. To address this, the council advertised for people to apply for a voluntary role to attend council meetings. Two women have been appointed, and I had the pleasure of speaking to Stephanie Prior and Anusree Biswas Sasidharan about their hopes and thoughts, and what they wanted to achieve.

Both of them have lived in Brighton for many years, and they bring different experiences, perspectives and backgrounds to their roles. Stephanie was the first black woman to win the Miss Sussex title. She also competed for Miss England, Miss Universe Great Britain and Miss Jamaica Globe representing women of colour in the beauty industry and challenging commercial ideologies that do not embrace diversity. Her current role is as a Business Development and Marketing Manager for an International law firm based in Brighton and London. Anusree studied law, then anthropology, and went on to work for Sussex County Council in the area of equalities in education, and now has a job in local government. She has also been working with Brighton & Hove City Council on a voluntary basis, so she was keen to apply when the new roles were advertised.

They both talk passionately about equality and campaigning for a fairer world, with thoughts and ideas around the things Brighton & Hove City Council need to address. They both see their roles as the voices who speak up and represent people of colour who would otherwise have no voice at the table.

Their roles in the council

I asked them both about the voluntary nature of their roles and the challenges this poses. Stephanie sees the role as an opportunity to work with Anusree to demonstrate their worth and value. For Anusree, she sees the fact that she is outside a political party and outside the council as a positive, because it allows her to question different things. She has already been able to add some valuable perspectives and also question things which had not occurred to the people in the council.

This summer saw a rise in the Black Lives Matter movement with well-attended marches in Brighton. Since then, Stephanie has been approached by businesses asking how they can support more equality and diversity in their organisations. She is proud that the people of Brighton turned out to the marches in the summer, and was delighted to bump into one of her employers during the protest. Anusree has a similar view of the events. She has not seen the discussion around diversity elevated to this level before and is hopeful about the future. She feels it was a shock to society, and particularly to Brighton & Hove City Council as they had to face up to their representation problems.

Anusree and I are from similar backgrounds and we talked about the divisions within the community in Brighton and how this has affected us. We have all found connections with people of colour this year through solidarity, however, we have also experienced divisions between different groups in the community. Both Stephanie and Anusree have had mostly positive feedback since they were appointed, but there have been hurtful social media comments too. Stephanie feels social media can be a dangerous place, but we must not let the opinions and objectives of others discourage us from having a voice.

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Hopes and dreams

What are their hopes that they want to achieve in their roles? Anusree fears the conversation about diversity is already dying down from this summer. She feels it is going to take a gentle and careful approach to drive change, and that presuming your skin colour means you can speak about every policy area with authority is problematic. The council needs to look at their structure and how they recruit, retain and develop people. She aims to bring attention to council members to what they should be looking at in everyday practices, and show that they need to employ (and pay) people for roles. She has seen councils, charities and other organisations realise that they are missing a big voice, and they need to do something about it.

Stephanie wants to work on a range of issues, such as a new carnival for Brighton to celebrate different cultures. She is keen to look at how people from different backgrounds can be supported to start businesses, encourage change in education and look at how a diverse range of speakers can be encouraged to talk at events. She also wants to look at issues around racial profiling and stereotyping and look at relationships between the police and the community.

I asked them both about timing and pace. My own experience in trying to drive change this summer by talking to the council has been very slow, and it is hard work to get any engagement from them. Anusree has worked with the council before, and she focuses on detail to help drive changes. Stephanie hopes her different perspective and business experience will enable her to drive the changes she wants to see. Both of them want to see some quick wins and tangible action taken. They both show drive and passion in wanting to make a difference.

After speaking to them, I concluded that Brighton & Hove City Council is lucky to have two people willing to give up their free time to work with them. Let’s hope they both get the support needed to drive action and real change.

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