A memorable and inspiring evening in the Library with June Sarpong in conversation with Emma Gannon, discussing the ideas and arguments in her new book, Diversify.

On the evening of 18th October, we welcomed broadcaster, philanthropist, Prince's Trust ambassador and campaigner, June Sarpong MBE, to the YCN Library, where she was in conversation with fellow broadcaster and multi-hyphenator Emma Gannon, exploring ideas from June's recently published book, Diversify

June has enjoyed a 20-year media career – from hosting 2005’s major Make Poverty History event in Trafalgar Square and Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday celebrations in London’s Hyde Park, through to regular appearances on Sky News and Loose Women. She's also campaigned for The One and Product Red, worked with Prince Charles HRH for the Prince's Trust for over 10 years and co-founded the WIE Network (Women:Inspiration & Enterprise), a conference in support of female excellence at which the likes of Sarah Brown, Melinda Gates, Arianna Huffington and Queen Rania have spoken. 

In Diversify, June makes the case for the social, moral and economic benefits of diversity — and explores the limitations caused by social division. June worked with Nuffield College, Oxford to address the effects of social stereotyping; she draws from personal anecdotes and success stories to encourage readers to confront, challenge and conquer discriminative behaviours.

Here’s what we learned.

Emma and June were already well acquainted, having collaborated in the past on Emma’s CTRL ALT DELETE podcast on which they covered similar themes. Almost a year on from this, Emma had plenty of questions for June about the responses Diversify has received and her experiences while writing and promoting it, first asking where June found the inspiration for the project. 

A lightbulb moment

“I moved to America about 10 years ago, and maybe 5 years years ago I was filming in Las Vegas and a young man appeared on set who was covered head to toe in tattoos.” June described her realisation that she "felt uncomfortable and intimidated”, and “he could sense my discomfort so was going out of his way to seem non-threatening”. In that moment she experienced “the other side” of prejudice: “as a working class black woman I was used to being on the receiving end, as opposed to doing it myself”. This powerful example of perceived difference (“the wall goes up, there’s a disconnect, you don’t know how to push through it”) forced June to confront the issue and “to start conversations around the topics nobody wants to discuss but we have to address.”

Highlighting the facts

Emma pointed out, June uses amazing anecdotes to illustrate the messages in Diversify, but the book is full of incredible research. “I wanted to make sure what I was saying was backed up by robust data”, June agrees. “Anecdotes are nice, and storytelling is great, but the thing you cannot argue with is numbers.” She partnered with Oxford University to write a book that paints “a clear picture of not just where we are, but where we could be”.

Diversity is crucial for creativity

It’s no coincidence that the capital is a hub for creative industries. “In London we’re so lucky, people come from everywhere, we’re [relatively] advanced in how we integrate and how we mix,” says June. However, class remains a huge issue, and the Grenfell tragedy is “a powerful example of how integration has failed in our society”. June pointed out that the divisions within communities in which the richest and poorest fail to communicate only entrench the linear outlook so many of us are guilty of. “Creativity comes from so many different corners of society, if you’re only interacting with people like yourself [...] you’re missing out on so much inspiration that you could be getting from pockets of society that you didn’t even know existed. We can do better.”

What has the response been?

June has travelled wide and far promoting Diversify, and her experience is that “people are much more open to having these conversations than, perhaps, 5, 10 years ago”. “We live in divided times” as people are asking increasingly, “what can I do?”. Emma wonders if it’s “the internet making activists more visible” or if “there are just more activists”, pointing out the difference between teenagers today compared to her own adolescence (“I was drinking vodka in a park”, she joked). The next generation “are much more switched on”, agreed June. “They’ll be suing their parents for putting their baby pictures on YouTube”, joked Emma – “and they’ll be crowdfunding their lawsuits”, added June.

Addressing unconscious bias

An important part of the book – and the larger issue – is “addressing our failings” and acknowledging and accepting our unconscious bias. “The book makes you look at yourself and make peace with the fact that you’re not perfect”, says Emma. June maintains that “if you can be as open-minded as possible, that authenticity shines through. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but having compassion allows us to create a safe space where we can be honest”. June also touched upon a very real issue among women. “In our society women are valued on youth and beauty”; when women judge other women by these standards and allow ourselves to feel insecure or superior we are “our own worst enemy”.

Small changes that make a big difference

June’s advice for anyone at the beginning of their ‘diversify’ journey is to look at their friendship group(s). “Your friends shouldn’t all look like you!” Advice to those failing to “connect with ‘the other’, whatever that might be” is, firstly, “challenge your -ism”. As part of the Diversify website, the Oxford University team have developed an “ism calculator” to highlight unconscious bias. Secondly, “check your group”: “being comfortable with difference is about opening your eyes”. Thirdly, “change your mind”. This is about “actively changing whatever beliefs prevent you from seeing your fellow human being as an equal”. Finally, something we should all be doing: “celebrate difference”. “It’s something we are uncomfortable with in this country”, says June. Blindness is not any more productive than prejudice.

Break the echo-chamber

Emma and June agreed on the importance of “following people we don’t agree with”, to increase our awareness and understanding of views different to our own. “If I had been doing that, Brexit wouldn’t have been such a shock”, added June. It’s also important to embrace healthy debate; “the problem with the new liberal movement is that we police what people say… trying to shout down alternative views pushes them underground where they become vulnerable to radicalism and fundamentalism”. Of social media, June comments that “we’re linked but we’re not connected”. Connection is “understanding someone’s truth even if we don’t agree with it, and getting to know them more deeply”.

Make the conversation inclusive

The irony of many of our most progressive social movements today is that they can feel exclusive, and it’s important that we move from “accusation to conversation”. The #metoo and diversify movements of this world shouldn’t be “about demonising privileged white men”, when in fact, we need to “get them on board”. June summed up: “this unequal, unfair society was designed by a small group of men and we’re all products of it. We have to work with them to build a new normal. We have to take them with us, otherwise it’s not sustainable”. As she put it, it’s not about “moving from a patriarchy to a matriarchy” or continuing a history of resentment – it’s about using existing privilege to challenge the status quo, “using your network and your agency”, “sponsoring and nurturing the careers of underprivileged young people” and “passing on opportunities”. 

Diversifying the workplace

June’s advice for big companies is that while it’s important to implement “big strategy” and cross-organisation values, “it starts with the individual. Give the individual a purpose” so that “everybody is invested in their piece of change”. Large organisations have a responsibility to be inclusive, but “saying you’re inclusive is about preparing for that inclusion”, like asking yourself if your office is equipped for an employee with a disability, or if it has a prayer room for those who should require one (as June has discovered this year, while promoting Diversify at corporate events). 

Q&A

Emma asked June a burning question before opening up the discussion to the room. “You’re a hard grafter, you’ve had a long and successful career. How do you not burn out?” “Sleep.” June said. “I could sleep anywhere.” She also stressed the importance of “learning to enjoy the moment and knowing that careers have highs and lows”, and that a “time of slight stagnation” is actually an opportunity to “regroup and figure out your next act”. 

Tangible takeaways

The audience asked June for her best ‘diversifying’ methods. “Break the habit”, advises June. “Talk to the outsider at work. Compassion is key to open minds and hearts.” She also spoke about the way in which we call out injustices, warning against exclusion (“there’s nothing productive about sweeping statements”, “it’s a mistake to rule out a whole group of people”) and “preaching to the converted”: “what I’m really working on is how we work together”. 

How do we prepare for a more diverse future?

An audience member asked June about the importance of education as a tool for diversifying. Teaching our children about diversity, rather than waiting for habits and prejudices to form and entrench themselves, seems like a no-brainer, but June pointed out that, a) we need to work on ourselves to make sure we are parenting and teaching these lessons effectively, and b) we actually have a lot to learn from the open-mindedness of children, as you can see in a video featuring kids’ views on the topic, produced for the Diversify website. The concluding message was one that we can all take on board: the only way forward in these issues is together, and it’s more important than ever that we are all part of the conversation. June: “The minute we stop talking is when we start pretending it’s not happening”. 

All photography Sam Bush.

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