DCS celebrates Black Heroes across UK Social Housing [1991 – 2021]
“Time never stands still and it’s doesn’t roll back, we can’t afford to either”
_ Abisogun OBE
Some of the fondest memories that have stayed with me despite my turbulent 30year journey as a Black professional, are those rather naïve and innocent elements, that I experienced whilst embarking upon my undergraduate degree [at the tender age of twenty]. I’d successfully completed my formative school years with flying colours and conveniently bumped into the BTEC OND in Construction, while I was carrying the hod during my Summer break. By the way and just for the record, I was one of the most efficient ‘hod carriers’ in East London during the late 80’s. Notwithstanding, and thankfully for me during the latter part of 1990, despite the Hackney / Tottenham rivalry, my Mother [Alhaja Sidikatu Abisogun] had bigger ideas and obviously no fear in dragging my whole self – complete with my Kingsmead bounce – over to Tottenham Technical College, based on the High Road in the London Borough of Haringey. That is where I met Mr Bielski who at the request of my Mother put me through a quick fire test, and concluded within an hour, that “he is just the kind of student we are looking for”. That was the beginning of my journey into my career in Surveying via the likes of Mr Janjua, with whom I started the OND and completed it with Distinction a year later. Enroute to University, with an array of ‘incomplete’ truths, I was told that my career prospects would be unlimited and my future career secured; with comments like:
“If you finish and graduate with a good degree; the world is your oyster” [outside of the UK]
“You need to be twice as good to compete” [multiply that by at least 5 and all the rest]
“Of course you’ll do well, we live in a democracy” [at least that may be the case, in y/our mind]
“Don’t worry about the others just get yourself a good education, and the doors will open” [most will stay closed and some may well be trapdoors]
“You’re good enough to make Partner” [but only if you start your own firm / business]
Credit: No Irish No Blacks No Dogs
And the list of sentiments went on and on ……… but even back then, I felt empowered to not only make a difference, but to be the change that I so badly deserved to see in my life time. As a gifted and talented, straight A-student, I wasn’t prepared to be sold a lie; even if many had only been economic with the truth, to protect me from the inevitable career setbacks.
But, who would believe that by adding the red text [above] – applicable back then ‘as a matter of fact’ in 1990/91 – that you could literally ‘time travel forward’ by thirty years and STILL have the same conversation ……………. and with the same well documented outcomes. Yet, many [in the UK, including Dr Tony Sewell et al]; allege that we’ve moved on and things are better today than they were back then. Ok, well it’s not as bad as it was, but according to Jess Mc Cabe at Inside Housing, it ain’t great today either!!
Credit; BME London
The new-post George Floyd reality
Inspired in part, by a recent dinner conversation, held earlier this week [on 28.10.21] at the EG Awards 2021, with G15 Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing, Geeta Nanda OBE – who won the Outstanding Individual Award, I’ve been desirous to reach out to and check in with my Black peers across the housing sector. Although I was intrigued by the ‘depth and breadth’ of what Geeta had to say, I felt the urge [at least spiritually] to revisit my initial stomping ground, which is where it all started for me, back in the early 70’s _ yes, social housing is in my blood.
Credit; BME London
I’m proudly born and raised from the East End of London, colloquially referred to as ‘The Mead’ in Hackney. In fact it was labelled the ‘most deprived ward’ in Europe at the time. Conveniently divested as a ‘sink estate’ by Hackney Council and now owned and managed by Sanctuary Housing, everything about the entrenched stigma of living in Social Housing, has meant that I have always had to ‘prove a point’. That “I am enough, that I am worthy, that I am equipped and that I am more than capable”; yet it is still not enough to succeed on merit alone, not today and definitely not back then either. But, aside from the ‘content of one’s character’ what – if anything – has changed in three (3) decades?
Not that it was ever a bad thing but, it wasn’t until I’d received the HMQE II’s New Year’s Honour of an OBE in 2018, that a very well to do and influential fellow Chartered Surveyor [by the name of Chris] told me that I had nothing more to prove. His words “you can walk with your head held high Bola, just package yourself and take your offer to the market”. Well, as much as I admire and respect Chris and truly believed in him [and his words], he too, albeit unwillingly had to share yet another incomplete truth. The red text required to be added to his last words of wisdom, could read something like; [but be prepared to be told you are now overqualified and must stick to being and succeeding as an independent]. Harsh, but oh so true, even in 2021.
Credit to RICS; Inequalities piece back in June 2020
The truth about socio-economic inequality
Just like my dear Nigerian Brother, fellow disruptor and Chartered Surveyor, Olu Olanrewaju MRICS, at the written request of the then RICS Global CEO, Sean Tompkins, I also shared my perspective – with the global surveying profession – at that time, regarding my response to George Floyd Jnr’s harrowing murder; may his soul RIEP. I left all of my readers [visiting the RICS website] with a binary decision, from the question posed to them. Given that there were only two answers – no fence to be sat on here – and noting that we are still in the belly of a global pandemic, I hope you [the reader] are willing to answer the same question too. I really should have been running a poll, but hey!
Olu also penned an article during the same month [last year] following the senseless murder of George Floyd Jnr RIEP. His article provided the ideal opportunity to gain real perspective as to whether, or not, the UK social housing sector, after in excess of four  decades of investigation, discussion and research; has the ‘genuine’ drive, commitment and leadership to actively address the challenge of a lack of ethnic diversity at senior level. A Director at Altair Africa and Chair of Leadership 2025, Olu’s article called “Housing and Race: where do we go from here?” was published by Inside Housing in June 2020. For the record, and even after 15 years, I am still pushing the conversation up a slippery slope with my own profession; with varying levels of ‘failurable success’…… you get my drift.
Credit to Inside Housing; [Jess McCabe] – front cover, Oct 2021
For me, it was a ‘body-blow’ being poignantly reminded about the systemic issue of ‘a lack of ethnicity’ – at Senior level – in a sector allied to my core and now, new mission; to drive and add value through ‘business process re-engineering’. The Inside Housing – Diversity Survey 2021, observed by chance yesterday morning [30.10.21] during my WhatsApp conversation with Lara, as I began to catch up on my social media accounts – was literally a ‘wow’ moment for me. The fact that my messages on all fronts had entered three figures became secondary; it was time to update everything and everyone who was worthy of my time. I took note of a Tweet by my dear colleague now the first Black Female [importantly appointed by the CIH Membership and], elected to serve as their next Vice President; her name is Lara Oyedele. Lara is also a senior figure who ‘has done her time’ across the sector, bought the T-Shirt, made the movie, ran the marathon that fast became a sprint and, like me, has lost some ‘very public’ battles, all with scars that have successfully made her so much more resilient [and beautiful too!]. The funny thing was, that Lara’s Tweet which begged the question of ‘how commitments to diversity were being measured [across the sector]’, was simply an extension of a much wider conversation that Olu’s charity had responded to; but yet, was instigated by something more intriguing that Inside Housing’s very own, Jess McCabe had recently published. Collectively, it was their response [as Black professionals] to the Inside Housing Diversity Survey 2021, which yielded a 73% response rate from the 138 targeted participants. Was it a Nigerian thing, or how is it, that we all [three of us] occupied the same head space on the IH / Diversity Survey results?
Credit; Leadership 2025
As Chairman of, Leadership 2025, Olu and his team of appointed Trustees, want to actively address two (2) key elements ‘cultural impact’ and ‘supporting talent’. In short they have a long-term ambition of supporting the creation of a housing sector that is vibrant and diverse at all levels, with better representation of BME [or BAME] individuals at leadership levels. Rather conveniently, this is the same ‘golden thread’ that succinctly aligns to the work of DiverseCity Surveyors ‘DCS’, which although established 15years ago, was solely focused on the UK demographic of the global surveying profession, of which Olu remains a committed member.
Affirmed on their website:
“Leadership 2025 is a charity working across the sector, together with our key stakeholders, to make the housing sector leadership more diverse.
Our vision is to dismantle structural inequality within the housing sector. Our mission is for the leadership of the housing sector to be ethnically diverse. Our three-year Business Plan can be found here.”
Credit to Inside Housing; [Jess McCabe] – Diversity Survey 2021
Given the common denominators, that continue to co-exist and on the back of my recent and historic [August 2020], global agreement, secured with the RICS SMT, which fortuitously for DCS, still commands the attention of the current day, Interim CEO Richard Collins, it has never been more apparent to me [as Founder and Chairman of DCS]; that it really is time to ‘actively collaborate’ with Leadership 2025. In fact, the findings of the Diversity Survey 2021 survey carried out by Inside Housing, pretty much reflected the reality of the second Race Survey undertaken by industry ally, vocal heavyweight and good friend, Samantha McClary of EG. Whilst my own work and contribution has largely been completed within and across the construction sector and surveying profession, it is still very disappointing, to hear a similar cry [with equally compelling evidence] within and across the housing sector. In fact, for a sector that was established on a moral foundation of serving others in need; one would have thought that the day-to-day treatment of its core and most valuable asset – its people – would be a top priority. However, what we cannot afford to happen – even at this juncture – is that we ‘as veterans’ become so overwhelmed by the ‘static reality of our lived-experience’ that we actually end up casually supporting subliminal regression, rather than ‘active’ progression!
Individual Credits; Collage of Black Leaders a ‘Who’s Who’ in UK Social Housing
The ‘historic game-changers’ that influenced me
I am first generation Surveying, so there was never any hand-holding, no mentorship, no sponsorship or anything of that genre; I literally had to figure it out – year in and year out – as I went along. Unsurprisingly, some of my car-crash decisions got me into some very, very hot water and at others times, some life threatening situations. But to me, it was the Hackney way and the only way; you fail fast and learn quickly. However, having lost my way professionally in my career progression [along with my confidence] during the late nineties, I promised myself that, as soon as I qualified I would leave the ‘corporate world’ as it had been defined for me, by others. Working on the Millennium Dome for client body NMEC, was a golden ticket to my successful APC submission and a second attempt in December 1999. As soon I became MRICS, I jumped ship with a huge smile – AND with zero privilege, zero clients, no business plan and absolutely no idea of the ramifications of what I had just done – I stepped onto a plane and flew to the USA. I was young and innocent, so forgive me – but [God willing] I figured it out and still am ……. as that is what you are trained to do when you hail from ‘the Mead’…….!
Back then [in 1999] there was no DiverseCity Surveyors, no Leadership 2025, and you can talk less of any ‘safe-space(s)’ to have a proper, culturally competent whinge. In fact, I was so desperate I had to seek solace by flying into Atlanta Georgia [USA] two or three times a year, seeking one-to-ones from legends like Herman J Russell RIEP. However, upon my safe return to London in August 2000, I made a commitment to myself that I would start to network and seek out my fellow colleagues of Black origin and build an equally successful business, delivering public sector contracts. My vision was that any contract secured would be representative of AND delivered by people that looked just like me; but where on earth were they in 2000?
Dedicated to a fallen hero & trailblazer; Eme Kalu MRICS of Eme Kalu Associates
A key influence in my decision to become 'my own boss'
I have always been an avid reader. It drives my Mum and my wife absolutely NUTS, but I read everything about my profession and my sector – ALL that is of interest to me and fully supports my why. That was how I came across a Black Surveyor by the name of Eme Kalu MRICS [may his soul rest in eternal peace]. Affirmed by another great Brethren and qualified Architect, by the name of Audley English – way ahead of his time, even back then on the MMC piece – I was sadly advised, just recently and earlier this month, of Eme’s passing on one of my posts on LinkedIn
Credit: Building Magazine; BT JV with MDA & Eme Kalu Associates
For those that don’t know and never knew Eme Kalu Associates; Eme was the first ‘household name’ that I came across in Surveying who was actually delivering as a PQS for Black led, social housing providers [now BME London]. With a focus on most of the BME led organisations, undertaking mostly low risk remedial / cyclical repairs works and other minor works projects, I witnessed him receive the Best Consultant Award from the FBHO back in the early 2000’s. Founded in 1984 the manager of a Reading hostel for young black people, Louis Julienne, co-founded the Federation of Black Housing Organisations (FBHO), an umbrella body for BME housing associations that represented the sector and lobbied government on its behalf. In 1986 the FBHO set in motion the first black housing strategy and over the next few years about 40 BME housing associations were founded. It is not for want of trying, and such that others have since been consumed by the G15 et al; how many of the original 40 continue to exist today, as successful trading independent entities?
Back then we [well, the FBHO] used to hold an annual ‘celebration’ event for the Black Business community – it was more of a Black Tie event that every Black person in housing used to attend, or would at least try to. It was a pan-London calling that attracted many from the Midlands and North West too; yes, those were the days when housing professionals ‘used to rave too’, really good times that have since passed and wouldn’t really be the same in a post-COVID environ either. Regrettably, on account of funding complications during the late 2000’s the FBHO was dissolved and has since been replaced by BME National.
Credit; FBHO / BME National
Those FBHO events were a ‘who’s who’ in housing and instilled a sense of real pride, which was gained along with full visibility of who you needed to connect with and go and talk about winning work, as a qualified and competent Black professional. I was relatively young and still rather star struck, but Eme saw my hunger and invited me – on two separate occasions – to his offices in Streatham. We talked and he gave me a few ideas, we never actually got to work together but he did inspire me from afar, particularly with a ‘Supplier Diversity’ initiative similar to that, as discussed with Herman in Atlanta, years later. In fact, it involved my old Employer [MDA back in 1998] and spoke of mainstream firms, buddying up with and allowing Black owned micro-businesses to shadow ‘the Big Boys’. It was developed as a way of Tier1 Suppliers seeking to demonstrate their commitment to social value [and specifically Section 106, contract obligations]. Obviously, as a procurement specialist, I’d heard about this in the construction sector – in fact Urbanis was born on the back of s106 deliverables – but I’d never before seen this in the consultancy arena. Eme was now attempting to break out of and move beyond social housing and into ‘mainstream’ surveying, servicing blue-chip clients like BT who genuinely wanted to improve their own Supplier Diversity. It worked in some ways for Eme but I could see it was unsustainable for reasons that I will refrain from sharing here. But, just as with many great ideas, the ‘people-piece’ kicked in, morals went out of the window and it all went pear-shaped and collapsed.
Just from that single, bold, commercially enlightened, strategic move, I learnt so much from Eme. Through “inclusive sustainable procurement” [a foreign concept to this day, in the UK!] I only wished that we had found a way to genuinely work together and support / build each other; as a team – not as two individual businesses. But hey – we tried, and I accredit much of what I have done (and achieved) to the positive influence that Eme and many others in the collage above, successfully instilled within me, during my ‘colourful and turbulent’ 30year career.
Rest in Peace QS Kalu – I will forever be in debt to you my Egbon; gone but never forgotten….. 🙏🏾
Credit; BME London
Addressing the ‘leadership challenge’ beyond Black History Month in 2021
Do we really need to rely on the establishment?
Is there anything else [or more] that we can do for ourselves [as Black professionals] to redress the stark, well researched evidence and rather damning statistics?
If need be, what more can we ask of the big ‘mainstream’ organisations [i.e. G15 and Government], all of whom affirm their commitment to one thing, pledge or the other?
Oh yes, there is something that we do need – and it’s simply called, ‘an open and honest conversation’.
I am living proof that through conversation(s), you can win those hearts and minds. Granted, it’s a slow burn and something of a scatter-gun approach, but it is possible to hit the target. The same conversations [that I’ve recently had with the Bridge Group] that at times clearly and unashamedly exhibit the selfish vested interests of ‘what’s in it for me’ – are ok and permissible too. Let us – through these conversations - remind all of the established business leaders, that the Business Case for greater [not lesser] meaningful diversity has sold itself many, many times over. The inevitable market share and correlating financial gain(s) on the back of successful implementation should be more than enough ‘compensation for doing the right thing’. However, if the numbers aren’t cutting the mustard then said individual(s) / leaders, in those same lofty positions should [perhaps] simply step aside and make way for more inclusive leadership that recognises and supports a completely different narrative, and tangible perspective, of inclusive success. Feel free to get in touch with my team at DCS, we offer competitively priced products to consult with any C-Suite across the country, be that in person or virtually via Teams or Zoom; you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the value proposition [and insight] that we can bring to your organisation. Yes, that was a shameless plug too [smiley!]
Credit to Inside Housing; [Jess McCabe] – Diversity Survey 2021
That the societal playground that social housing occupies is largely full of end-users, fellow human beings that warrant less attention [according to some leaders; Grenfell Tower being a case in point]; is probably the most telling aspect of the same sector, that warrants urgent redress.
In parity, given that the Social Housing Green Paper spoke of five key themes; all of which are non-negotiable; and
At the very least, the net-zero challenge along with the Building Safety Bill requirement – must if nothing else, demonstrate that life is priceless and that just like the pandemic has shown, you can only live in one house, drive one car, and sleep in one bed, at any given moment in time.
Credit; The Guardian
Yes indeed, when you boil it down, [lockdown permitting of course] we all need the same things; opportunity to succeed, permission to fail, fair recognition, equal acceptance and mutual respect [in the work place too!]. Decent, affordable food including fresh vegetables [more at/in the home], a great internet connection / bandwidth [to facilitate working from home], a few quid in the bank to cover emergencies [and then some] and of course, a safe, warm, suitably accessible place to call home. That’s all and if we get that right, across the entirety of social housing, we might just reduce the constantly growing bill for the NHS and wider society [particularly mental health services].
Now, [rant over, but] is that all really too much to give EVERY fellow human being in Social Housing, including the people that service their growing complex matrix of need(s)? There are some things that no level of AI and/or Machine Learning will ever be able to replace; the ‘human touch’ is unique to the human being. Understandably, I’m a tech geek and I can tell you that any augmented comparable ‘of the human touch’ is still a way off and quite possibly a perpetual challenge to achieve. However, as we approach a ‘Digital Twin’ future, the ‘people-piece’ and role of the individual has never been more important. I genuinely look forward to supporting my Brother Olu et al as we look to ‘positively disrupt’ social housing using [an eco-system of connected Digital Twins as part of a] scalable, sustainable, inclusive and culturally-competent suite of solution(s), that ultimately deliver better societal outcomes. Representative leadership will go some way towards ensuring that the adopted solutions are sustainable and agile enough to reflect and shape the evolving needs, in a digitally enabled future.
Credit; Leadership 2025
On the back of some very clear demands from the next generation of young, agile tech-natives, I’m actually 'coming back home', to help move the dial forward; why(?), because there is strength in numbers. As I begin to position myself [and DCS] alongside other sector wide trailblazers like Leadership 2025, I’m offering up a huge and healthy, special thanks [to Jess McCabe and] to the many positive, Black influences within and across the UK social housing sector, all of whom have helped shape ‘my why’ AND ‘my own journey & career’ to date:
Samuel Aligbe MRICS
Ola Akinfe MCIOB
Gina Amoh CIH
Barrington Billings FCIH
Sheron Carter CIH
Steve Douglas CBE
Audley English RIBA
Eme Kalu MRICS [RIEP]
Leslie Laniyan MBE
Ben Laryea CIH
David Mark MBE FRICS FCIOB
Dele Ogun LLM
Dr Teri Okoro RIBA FRSA
Olu Olanrewaju MRICS [FRICS in view]
John Oke [RIEP]
Elsie Owusu OBE RIBA
Lara Oyedele CIH
Richard Renwick MBE CIH
Ricky Scipio CIH
Sandra Skeete CIH