In this social enterprise story find out about how social enterprise, the Ubele Initiative, sought to address the racial inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19, holding the government to account and fighting to make sure communities got the support they need. 

Back in the Spring, a murder in America catalysed a movement and started waves of demonstrations which resonated across the world.

The killing of George Floyd by US police officers was the latest in a long line of deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement but the events in Minneapolis on 25 May prompted demonstrations on a scale as yet unseen, resulting in the largest protest movement in American history.

Protests soon spread to other countries, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK shone a spotlight on racial injustice in this country. It felt like we were finally starting to have a conversation about systemic racism, its consequences and how we eliminate it.

Our colonial past was challenged, statues were toppled and many organisations were caught on the back foot stating their commitment to end racism whilst figuring out how to do that. The UK is a deeply unequal country with inequalities permeating all aspects of life including health, wealth and gender. Even before the pandemic hit 14 million people were living in poverty in what is one of the richest countries in the world.

What BLM helped do was raise awareness of the extent of the racial inequalities which are woven into the structures of British life, themselves tied to our histories of Empire, slavery and racism.

A comprehensive report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2016 showed the extent of racial inequalities in Britain across all aspects of society from housing and health to employment and education.

Black people who leave schools with A-levels are paid 14.3% less than their white peers, unemployment rates for Black people (pre-COVID) stood at 12.3% compared to 6.3% of whites and ethnic minority groups are more likely to live in poverty and in over-crowded accommodation.

Injustices within the criminal justice system are also well documented. Findings this year showed that if you’re black you are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police and 18 times more likely to be stopped and search under Section 60 (where officers need have no reasonable suspicion). The Lammy Review published in 2017 revealed the startling statistic that whilst Black people make up just 3% of the general population, they account for 12% of adult prisoners. There is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people in prisons here than in the USA. 

One social enterprise based in London is dedicated to taking on these systemic injustices, dismantle racial inequalities and bring communities together.

The Ubele Initiative is an Africa Diaspora led intergenerational social enterprise set up with the purpose of helping build more sustainable communities.

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Yvonne Field

It was founded by Yvonne Field in 2014 to both raise the profile of issues affecting minority communities and tackle them head-on. It is a grassroots catalyst social enterprise supporting Black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BAME) groups regionally and nationally offering leadership training, supporting the creation of community spaces and the development of social enterprises to take on issues in their own communities.

It works out of the Wolves Lane Centre, a community hub for which it is one of three ‘stewards’ and which is being developed into a centre for education, social enterprise and community engagement

When the COVID pandemic hit, the communities Ubele supports and works with, were disproportionately impacted.

From the first deaths, it became apparent that this is a virus which does discriminate. Research from the ONS in May showed that Black people in England and Wales were four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. 

more detailed breakdown published in October showed death rates of males of a Black African ethnic background were 2.7 times higher than white men. Death rates are also higher for other ethnic groups, notably amongst the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community. A recent Dispatches episode on Channel 4 asked the question – “Is COVID racist?”

It is easy for many to look at this data and immediately turn to unfounded links to genetics but what the ONS found, echoed by other research is that risks of catching COVID “are most strongly associated with demographic and socio-economic factors, such as place of residence and occupational exposures, and cannot be explained by pre-existing health conditions using hospital data or self-reported health status.” The same systemic injustices, of health, wealth, employment opportunities, education and housing raised by the BLM protests – are resulting in a disproportionate number of Black, and other minority deaths.

Yvonne and the team at Ubele decided that something had to be done to get the Government to act and urgently tackle the racial inequalities resulting in more BAME deaths.

Ubele, along with other community groups, created the #WeNeedAnswers campaign to call for an independent public inquiry looking into disproportionate BAME deaths.

#WeNeedAnswers looks in-depth at the social and economic impact of COVID and how it affects the specific needs of people within the BAME community. This would include equality impact assessments of responses to the pandemic and wider policy looking at issues faced by young people (such as housing and police powers over lockdown); particular challenges faced by migrants such as the no access to public funds rule; specific issues faced by black, disabled and working-class woman; health inequalities and the impact on BAME led businesses and other organisations.

The aim is to use the inquiry as a way for organisations such as Ubele to work in partnership with government to put in place effective, appropriate actions to address and dismantle these inequalities.

The campaign is still open for signatures and you can add your voice here.

Commenting on the campaign, Yvonne said:

“I and four other members of my family have had the Coronavirus and although it became clear early on that Black and minoritized communities were being disproportionately dying, their voices were not being heard. I started a petition in April which called for an independent public enquiry into the disproportionate number of deaths. It attracted almost 34,000 signatures and was transformed into the #WeNeedAnswers campaign. This action is needed because the government has not listened to us and it needs to be held to account. We will continue to press them and align our campaign with others who have experienced racial injustice and who are also demanding answers.”

As well as campaigning for change, Ubele also carried out research looking into what the pandemic would mean for BAME led business, gaining national attention back in April, publishing a report which suggested that without urgent action 9 out of 10 BAME micro and small organisations risked shutting down.

Following on from this report Ubele was instrumental in pushing for better resources and support for these organisations, working with other infrastructure and campaigning bodies to raise the profile of the impact of COVID on BAME led organisations.

This work helped spur national funding bodies to create targeted emergency funds for BAME social enterprises. This included the Phoenix Fund which provided emergency grants to BAME grassroots groups across England using a participatory grantmaking process which Ubele convened.

They also were a strategic partner in the design and delivery of the £9.5 million COVID-19 Community Led Organisations Recovery Scheme (CCLORS) which has now distributed funds to 302 community-led organisations, 90% of which are BAME-led or BAME-supporting organisations. Earlier this month a follow-up report made the case for the need for the establishment of a Black, Asian and minority ethnic-national infrastructure support body to better support and develop BAME businesses. 

“This period has shone light on the chronic under investment in Black and minority ethnic businesses and communities and the need for a range of supportive interventions for them to survive and ultimately thrive. Creative responses are needed by both mainstream and specialist infrastructure organisations which are not just bolted on but integral to their strategic plans.” – Yvonne Field 

There is sadly also an increased demand for BAME led bereavement services.

The lack of adequate dedicated services reflects the wider structural inequalities in mental health services, and this can have a compounding impact on the mental wellbeing of BAME people.

This is another reason why Ubele and Patrick Vernon OBE launched the Majonzi COVID-19 Bereavement Fund in collaboration with BAMEStream to support members of the BAME community who have lost loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Majonzi Fund, named for the Swahili word for grief or sorrow will provide small grants to help families, colleagues, community and faith groups to organise memorial events and tributes to celebrate and commemorate the lives of loved ones who lost their lives during the pandemic. It also raises money so individuals can access culturally relevant bereavement and grief support in over 20 languages which reflects the religious, ethnic and cultural diversity of the community.

You can donate to the Majonzi Fund here.

The Ubele Initiative’s work is showing how a social enterprise can be at the heart of efforts to break down racial inequalities in Britain.

It has been supporting communities throughout the pandemic with resources, sharing knowledge, bringing people together to talk about the issues affecting them, campaigning to ensure the voices of minority communities are heard and fighting for equity in emergency funding decisions across England.

All of us in the social enterprise community has a part to play in dismantling systemic racism.

The BLM movement has helped highlight the reality of lived experiences of racism and the structures which exacerbate and create racial injustice. COVID-19 has made clear that these same systemic injustices, rooted in Britain’s past, are continuing to have real consequences for Black and other minority ethnic lives in the here and now.

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