The start to 2021 has definitely been one of the most eventful I can remember. Not least because it’s the first time in my life where ‘back to school’ meant staying at home. During the prolonged period of lockdown, even this non-event has become an event. But does the continuing sense of unease that accompanies these moments mean our New Year’s resolutions will give way to another year that tests our resolve?

During these abnormal, contradictory times, the simple answer is yes but no.

‘Let’s not return to normal’ is the rallying call for the UK’s first Race Equality Week taking place between 1st to 7th February. Earlier this month we co-hosted a session with the organisers, Race Equality Matters. Edelman’s Chuka Umunna and guests Anton Ferdinand, Helena Morrisey, and Raj Tulsiani discussed the road ahead for race equality at work.

The conversation was far-reaching, examining what is needed to drive sustainable action that will overcome a range of systemic issues. Problems that have, amongst other things, led to low ethnic representation in the boardroom, an unequal playing field for British graduates of African Heritage, and high levels of racism and discrimination experienced in the workplace.

A lot of this makes for difficult hearing. Although you’ll also hear lots more scope for practical and lasting change. As Anton Ferdinand noted, a culture where the decisions of leadership can better reflect the needs of all the players on the pitch. This is a challenge surfaced in a powerful documentary of the former Premiership footballer’s experience and struggle against racial inequality.

Nevertheless, as historian, activist, author and educator, Stella Dadzie highlighted in a separate talk with us this month (hosted by Edelman’s Fatima Qureshi), the struggle for racial equality in Britain has a deep history. Her work has long demonstrated why this is also rooted in gender equality. We might be aware of the stories of men who helped bring about the end to slavery and beginning of civil rights. Yet little is discussed about the women who were just as instrumental if not more so.     

Importantly, this past year has undoubtedly re-activated a global conscience around social equality. As Stella Dadzie would say, lest we not forget that this movement stands on the shoulders of millions of hidden heroes. Let’s also make no mistake: the struggle remains an uphill battle. That said, Helena Morrisey’s 30% Club (established to increase global representation of women on boards and in the C-suite), has shown it is possible to turn awareness into concrete outcomes.

Indeed, awareness and outcomes were the focus of a session I attended just last week with Edelman’s network of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) champions. Hosted by our Global Chief DEI officer, Trisch Smith and Global Chief Learning Officer, Matt Black we looked at out how to challenge the age-old challenge of unconscious bias in the workplace. Something that has deep impact on employee wellbeing and productivity.

This is not an easy journey. Especially if our expectation is that bias can be overcome through a one-off training session. Becoming consciously unbiased demands constant practice. As individuals affected by bias and allies who will support them, we have to be prepared to call out wrongdoing. And for those of us who have unconsciously perpetrated that bias, we must develop a consciousness that is ready to listen and adapt.

When we are agitating for change, we have to be agitated by what’s normal. Especially if the goal is to build a more diverse, equal and inclusive workplace. In order to reach out we have to reach in. When a colleague we have inadvertently overlooked or demoralised has the courage to tell us so, we need to show gratitude that they have.

For 2021 to be any different from 2020, it’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.