Twice a week, I pick artichokes with my daughter Alice. Moving down the towering rows, I hear snippets of her Novara Media podcasts about George Floyd’s murder – and as we offload our full bags, she questions my and Riverford’s response to Black Lives Matter.
I am out of my depth; growing up in a 99 per cent white area, however liberal your beliefs, it is hard not to absorb worn-out racial clichés. I struggle not to become defensive when pulled up on using the wrong language, or when I am plain wrong; without the liberalism I was raised on, defensiveness could so easily morph into the ugly resentment and alienation displayed by far-right groups.
Unbeknownst to me, our co-owner council discussed the issue last week. Reading the notes, I was struck by the depth, nuance and humility: “The injustice of racism is an affront to our shared values of equality and diversity.” Broadly it was agreed that “we should support BLM while actively campaigning for issues we have more specific knowledge of. We have lots to learn ourselves. In line with our values, we should look for actions as well as words, particularly in an area where we have things to learn and improvements to make. We are an overwhelmingly white business. We can do better.” I don’t think I can improve on that conclusion.
As foundational first steps, we have enabled co-owners to attend protests (in line with government social distancing guidelines), and shared resources to help educate us all on systemic racism and white privilege. Senior management are planning sessions to discuss how we can improve diversity across our business.
Two years into employee ownership, the division of power between three bodies (an elected staff council, a board and our trustees) has proven a vast improvement on the unchallenged authority of an unelected, unrepresentative board. Far from drowning in consultation as some feared, we are strengthened by inclusivity and diversity, and the mutual challenging they encourage.
We still have a long way to go, but as a council member once said: “We are making a microcosm of the world I’ve always wanted to live in.” Kindness and equality are big parts of that; perhaps that is the best we can hope for.