On Diversity: A Conversation with June Sarpong, MBE

Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.”
Mahatma Gandhi

The genetic difference between you, and me, and the rest of the 7.6 billion humans on our planet is- at most- 0.1%.   That tiny fraction of a percent difference accounts for the beautiful diversity our species displays, yet instead of admitting that we are- indeed- one race (the human race) we separate ourselves into pseudo-homogeneity by crude, and often arbitrary measures; our colour, our gender, our income, our faith.  We don’t just use these groupings to find comfort in the familiar, but rather- as a citadel from which we hide from the other.

Our species is successful because of our diversity; we are adaptable, creative, innovative and resilient- and our ability to combine the experiences and knowledge of each other forms the foundations on which our greatest ideas emerge.

June Sarpong, MBE has spent over 20-years at the forefront of broadcasting in the UK and USA.  She has also become a fierce advocate for diversity and equality, working extensively with HRH Price Charles as an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, and as Co-Founder of WIE Network (Women: Inspiration & Enterprise) which has drawn partners and speakers including Melinda Gates, Arianna Huffington, Queen Rania and Nancy Pelosi.  Her recent book and campaign, Diversify ” …examines the research behind diversity and discrimination while grounding them in personal narratives, highlighting our common humanity.” (Kofi Annan) and I caught up with June to learn more about why we must all fight for a more diverse world.

Q: Why have you chosen to champion diversity?

[June Sarpong] A few years ago, like most British talent, ‘…after the holy grail of trying to crack America’ I was living in the USA.  I was filming in Las Vegas and a young man appeared on set; he was covered head to toe in tattoos and (what I assumed- without reason- to be) gang markings… It was the weirdest thing, I felt so uncomfortable around him, and nervous.  If I’m honest, I felt quite intimidated and frightened.  That was a lightbulb moment, and made me think, ‘oh wow, that’s what it is’, because I’ve always looked at this issue [discrimination] as being on the receiving end as opposed to doing it myself.  In that moment, I realised what it means to think of someone as the ‘other.’

When you meet somebody who seems unfamiliar, who appears to be different, and for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable with that, a wall goes up, and you behave differently towards them; it impacts your actions.

I’m pleased to say I pushed through my discomfort and spoke to him.  Yes, he’d had a tough life, and made some interesting choices in that life, but fortunately our sound-man had taken him on under his wing and was mentoring him.  I mean this kid was really excited about the prospect of a career in sound, working in television.

I remember reflecting on how difficult it was going to be for him to make it even if someone like me felt uncomfortable around him; and that’s what made me want to start the conversation.

At the time, I didn’t know what vehicle I would use or what the platform would be, but I knew I wanted to start discussing this issue.  And then Caroline Michel got in touch with me and said, ‘you know what?’ (this is when Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In had just come out) ‘you should write the multicultural Lean In’, and I said, ‘you know what, it’s so funny Caroline, this incident happened to me in Vegas and I’d love to talk about it somehow and I wasn’t sure what’.  She said, ‘well I think you should do a book’, and that’s how it all came about.  Pre-Trump, Pre-Brexit… and then Brexit happened, and Trump happened and it all just made even more sense that we needed to talk about this issue.

Q: Why do we need to have the conversation now about diversity?

[June Sarpong] We’ve never really talked about diversity, not honestly- and that’s why we’ve got these problems, we’ve always skirted around the issue, sort of tap danced around it and walked on egg shells when discussing it; because of this, we’ve never really addressed it.

We need to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences, their beliefs and their fears, and really in a non-judgemental way.

I use the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) program as an example.  I’m teetotal and always have been, but most of my friends are AA!  (I always say I wonder what Jung would make of that.  Or Freud!)  When I lived in America I would hang out at AA meetings with my buddies.  It was fun and fascinating; the wonderful thing about AA is that it’s probably one of the only long-term successful change programs, and there’s three key reasons for this.  Firstly, it’s a judgement free environment – Secondly, you’re held to account by an individual sponsor – Thirdly, you have the community there who support you.

We need our own version of AA for diversity, where we allow people to talk about their concerns, voice their fears, voice their pains and their hurt, but in a non-judgemental way which allows people to connect with each other as people. Until we start having those very difficult conversations (which always rear their ugly head at some point, the minute the economy falters, the minute something goes wrong in society) straight away we look for somebody to blame, and it’s usually the other…It’s usually immigrants, it’s usually people who are different.

We need to change our hearts and minds, not just our behaviours.

Forget even the moral argument, discriminating is such a waste.  It is from our diverse cultures and communities that we could find the cure for cancer, where we could find all of the solutions for some of our most pressing problems.

Q: How are groups being disenfranchised in our society?

[June Sarpong] When I started looking at who was disenfranchised in society- I noticed number key groupings: gender, sexuality, body, age, ‘class,’ and political belief.

Class is one which people don’t often think of in these terms.  For centuries, there was something akin to an unwritten agreement between the elite and the working classes in terms of what sorts of jobs were available to them in the economy, and what sort of social mobility they (and their children) could expect.  Globalisation ended this agreement. Once we started to export traditionally working-class jobs to emerging markets, we didn’t replace those jobs- and successive governments have ignored this, leading to a rise in populism- and eventually, Brexit.   A large chunk of our population had been forgotten, and they can no longer be ignored.  Whilst unemployment figures suggest people are in work it doesn’t suggest they are in meaningful work.  It doesn’t suggest they’re in jobs that they’re proud of.  That sense of pride in your work is important, alongside a sense of direction from it.

And so, this is now what we now must look at, how we upskill and train jobs for the future.

The real surprise was the level of disenfranchisement in the disabled community, and how much we completely ignore, discriminate against, and waste people from disabled communities.

When you look at the stats, we would never accept that in any other group.  Of the 1.4 million people in this country who have learning difficulties, only 6% are in work.  That’s insane!  There are over a million people with disabilities looking for work, who can’t find work because they’re discriminated against.  When you look at those sort of stats, there’s no way we’d accept them anywhere else but we’re comfortable with expecting less from people with disabilities, and that’s unacceptable.

We’re also confident in viewing them as some sort of strain on our economy and public services as opposed to being able to contribute and add something else to society, and that’s unacceptable too.  Moral arguments aside, If the disabled workforce was utilised to its full potential, that’s an extra £40 billion that could be added to the economy.

Q: How can we make meaningful progress to help those who are disenfranchised in our communities?

[June Sarpong] Change falls into three domains, the 3 Ps – Personal, Private and Public.

Where the private sector is concerned, a lot needs to change.  A lot of people don’t like this, but I am in favour of quotas and targets. I think affirmative action works, and we’ve had affirmative action in the opposite direction for centuries.  So sometimes we have to shock the system.  We have to do it to normalise things, to get to a tipping point and then let the system just takes care of itself.

I always use the Labour Party’s all female shortlist as an example.  Had they not done that, we would not have the level of women we have in Parliament today.  No way.  And they had tried so many other things, but an all women shortlist is what worked.

A lot of people say, ‘they’ll only be there because of affirmative action, because of their race, because of their class, because of their disability’ – that’s what will happen for the first group.  Maybe the first group will be accused of not getting there on merit… but the second, and the third may hear less of these voices – and after a while it’s normalised.

Q: How can we tackle the cultural factors that lead to disenfranchisement and discrimination?

[June Sarpong] Disenfranchisement and discrimination come with cultural nuances.  Within the African community for example, there’s all sorts of infighting from one group to the next and so on.  But, at the end of the day, there is a point at which we all connect as human beings.  We all want the best for our families.  We all want our children to do better than we did.  There are certain things that are just human being related, and not because of your race, your gender, your politics.

When you bring communities together to talk- these central themes, and things we have in common, come to the fore. One of the things that I suggest in my book is to host a Diversify Dinner where you invite the other to dinner, and we have a series of questions that we ask our participants to use to control the conversation, and it enables everybody to contribute.  When you break bread together, and you find common ground, before you know it you stop thinking about your differences, or you appreciate them.  I don’t believe in ignoring difference, but rather – celebrating difference, but also finding common ground.

Q: Do you think we can ever change things?

[June Sarpong] When you look at where we are now compared to where we were when your parents and my parents came here, it’s night and day.  The job that you have probably wasn’t available to your Father, and I know my job certainly wasn’t available to my Mother.  So, it’s clear progress has been made.  And sometimes, when you’re the beneficiary of that progress, you’re not thinking about what the people that went before were going through, you’re just thinking about what you’re going through now. Clearly, society has moved in the right direction.

In terms of the power base and gatekeepers, a few years ago, four decades ago I probably would have said to you ‘I don’t know if it’s possible for things to change at that level’.  I do think it’s possible now, because the world has changed.  Economies and countries that Britain once ruled are now bigger than Britain, and we have competition from all sorts of places… competition from countries that we were able to previously exploit and utilise… Now those economies are actually competing against us, and they have populations that dwarf us.

It’s a really, really exciting time in the world.  Brexit offers an opportunity for us to re-look at how we source talent.  And I think that globalisation offers also an opportunity for the mobilisation talent.

Q: What would a world be like where diversity was no longer an issue?

[June Sarpong] If people embraced diversity, our world would be amazing. That’s the world I want to live in, and for most people I feel that’s the world they want to live in.

Can you imagine the sorts of innovation we would be experiencing?  Can you imagine how far advanced we’d be?

Only a tiny percentage of the population are trying to crack all the problems we have; now imagine if we were allowing everybody to contribute? just imagine how far we’d be culturally, economically, socially and politically.

[bios]June has enjoyed a 20-year career which has already seen her become one of the most recognizable faces of British television, as well as being one of the UK’s most intelligent and dynamic young hosts. June is a media phenomenon and is the only host of her generation that is equally comfortable interviewing politicians, celebrities and members of the public.

June has also taken on the world’s most challenging live audiences, hosting 2005’s major Make Poverty History event in London’s Trafalgar Square and presenting at the UK leg of Live Earth in 2007. In 2008 alongside Will Smith she also hosted Nelson Mandela’s  90th Birthday celebrations in front of 30,000 people in London’s Hyde Park.

June has worked extensively with HRH Prince Charles for ten years as an ambassador for his charity the Prince’s Trust, she also campaigns for One, and Product (RED).

June was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) on the Queens 2007 new years honours list for her services to broadcasting and charity, making her along with Princess Anne’s daughter Zarah Phillips one of the youngest people to receive an MBE.

June is the Co-Founder of the WIE Network (Women:Inspiration & Enterprise). WIE first launched in NYC in 2010 and in UK in 2012. This acclaimed conference has featured leading speakers from a gamut of industries, previous speakers include: Sarah Brown, Melinda Gates, Arianna Huffington, Donna Karan, Queen Rania, Nancy Pelosi, Iman and many more.  WIE supports female excellence and has an alliance of over 200,000 women.

Alongside Mark Florman the CEO of the BVCA (British Venture Capital Association) June is the Co-Founder of the DNA Summit (Decide Now Act). The primary aim of DNA is to bring together some of the most innovative minds in the world to generate ideas and initiatives that will effect lasting social change by working together to tackle some of humanity’s most pressing issues.

This intimate invite only event has attracted some worlds leading, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, scientists and game changers. Participants include: Paul Allen, Patrice Motsepe, Sir Tim Berners Lee, Sir Bob Geldof, Mo Ibrahim, Jochen Zietz, Sir Richard Branson, Will-I-AM, Bianca Jagger, Van Jones, David de Rothschild, Jimmy Wales and many more.[/bios]

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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