Rakiya Suleiman is Equality and Diversity Adviser, NHS Lothian, Public Health Department; Vice-Chair of UNISON’s National Black Members Committee and a recent winner of its 2021 Nelson Mandela Award for going above and beyond for the Black members of the union and wider society.
Rakiya has been an activist in Scotland for over 20 years, using her background in nursing and midwifery to be a leading figure in the drive for racial equality. She is also a keen advocate of The National BAME Health & Care Awards.
Rakiya, why are you so passionate about your work as an equality and diversity adviser?
I moved to Scotland as a young lady from Northern Nigeria just over 20 years ago as a qualified staff nurse and midwife.
Fresh with my experiences from home and Saudi Arabia, I believed that if I worked hard, followed the rule of the land, believed in my creator, invested in myself, were kind to people and dedicated, I would progress in my career.
Things could not have been further from the truth when I started working in NHS. I was shocked when I looked around and did not see anyone who looked like me in a senior management position across Scotland.
What was even more upsetting was that when I spoke to the few people who looked like me in the organisation of 30,000 staff, they advised me to put my head down and get on with the job.
Coming from an outspoken background, that was a challenge. And having not grown up accustomed to British workplace politics, I chose to do the opposite.
I found it extremely hard to watch Black people go the extra mile in their careers and not get anywhere.
My ambition was to reach the top of my career. And at the same time, bring others in the organisation along this journey with me. That is what I believe in, and a value held dear growing up from a family I cherished so much. I wanted them to be a part of my success story and was determined to find a way to make it happen.
At first, I was a little naïve about how I went about making changes, but progress was eventually made with the trade union support and a white counterpart who believed in equality and inclusion.
What did you do?
Black people were a minority in the trade union, but the white majority would embrace you when they saw talent. The opposite was happening in the workplace, and I was alienated for being too ambitious. Questions were asked about why I was going ‘crazy’ about wanting to progress my career or upset about not being promoted.
At 30 years old, my drive quickly became to put myself in a position to make changes to drive equality and diversity. As my parents told me, you can only make a change if you are in it.
I threw myself into further education, resulting in most recently in my Master’s in Education and Public Health. After several promotions, I became a ward manager and, along the way, was asked to lead a leadership programme. This saw me develop a tailored curriculum to address the disproportionately low number of nurses and midwives from Black and ethnic minorities in a senior NHS management position, despite evidence indicating they were well qualified for the role.
Was that the ‘Leading Better Care, Leading Across Difference’ programme?
I first started working on the Leading Better Care (LBC) Programme in 2014. In collaboration with my colleagues and with the full support of the trade union, I worked to open it up to all managers and mentors to support those who wanted to attended the programme.
Armed with the evidence, we renamed the programme to ‘Leading Better Care, Leading Across Difference,’ and with Big Lottery funding drove equality and diversity through an enhanced programme focused on: developing an understanding of cross-cultural issues and how these can affect relationships at work; embracing difference to enhance patient care; development needs; improved communication; discrimination; coaching and mentoring as well as other workshops based on drivers of inclusion.
As a result, in 2019, 55% of those who attended the one-year leadership programme were promoted to a senior management position; all were from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background.
Due to its success, the tool has now been adopted by several hospitals in England and Scotland, including third sectors. It has also been endorsed by well-known psychologists Michael West and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Scotland’s first Black professor of African Caribbean descent.
That work led me to my current role as the Equality and Diversity Adviser, NHS Lothian, Public Health Department, where I advise the organisation on embedding equality and diversity into the fabric of everything we do.
Is that the equality and diversity initiative you are most proud of?
I have had a fantastic nursing and midwifery career, managing complicated pregnancies, delivering babies, including premature babies, being kind to patients.
But what makes me most proud is when people who look like me are able to prove the system wrong and go on to do even bigger and better.
It has been extremely rewarding to see nurses and midwives progress in their earnings to ultimately change their lives, and in the process, help the service users from BAME backgrounds. I am not fighting the fight alone. I have a support network behind me, and it is something I tell others all the time. Don’t try and do this work by yourself; otherwise, you will burn and crash.
How easy was it to make the changes and develop this programme?
It was not easy. Every conceivable system possible were in place to block people. Luckily, they had to include diverse candidates in the recruitment process for the leadership role. People on the panel were committed to making their decisions based on merit, so I secured the position after doing my homework and being thoroughly prepared.
Once in the role, I made sure I also engaged the support of white colleagues to ensure I had diversity of thought and knowledge across the programme to get the desired result.
I am fed up with people saying, “let’s train the Black people”; we are not short of training and qualifications. We are short of being listened to, appreciated, and others understand the system’s impact on us.
We have achieved so much, including the set-up of a robust staff network. One of the downsides is that people may choose to become enemies of progress when they realise you have become too powerful and ready to bring change. But I have chosen not to fight but bring the majority on board, which is why the other programme was successful.
Is that why you won the Nelson Mandela Award?
I was told it was for my deep understanding of the scientific evidence and importance of one human race, diversity and inclusion and the establishment of a strong platform for our UNISON Black members to be heard loud and clear within our unions throughout Scotland and the UK. It was also for my contribution to our community and my core values around care and compassion, which are to treat people the way they will like to be treated with dignity and respect.
In the last year, my efforts to increase the visibility of Black members has seen six new Health and Safety Offices recruited and trained; more Black members become active, and the impact of COVID-19 on Black workers report published and shared with the Scottish Government.
What are you working on now?
I continue to put equality, diversity and inclusion on the day to day agenda. We are not there yet, and there is more work to do.
We need to prioritise this across all jobs, the public, private and third sectors. Wherever human beings exist, we need to step up in Advancing Equality. COVID have forced us all to think differently, so we can’t afford to miss this opportunity.
Is career progression the biggest driver of your equality and diversity work?
Absolutely if we don’t progress, how can people that look like me be inspired? How can this nation afford to miss the opportunity to tap into the diverse skills and knowledge we bring?
When you surround yourself with the same people and the same ideology, you get the same result.
Improving career progression for people from BAME and minority backgrounds is firmly on my agenda because all recognised evidence continues to point toward the benefits it brings. We need to eliminate workplace racism and discrimination of all kinds.
What do you say to those who claim to have diversity and inclusion fatigue?
I would tell them not to give up because if they do, what legacy are they leaving behind for their children and future generations?
It is okay to be fatigued but not okay to give up. Even if you only make a 1% difference, you will have still benefited the lives of others.