Team Interview: Director, Kunle Olulode MBE

Kunle Olulode, the director of Voice4Change England, has recently been appointed with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to the BAME sector. He has a multitude of experience gained from running policy teams in the voluntary sector and local government, most notably as a co-opted member of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, where he will attend meetings relevant to his work on the Windrush Commission. Voice4Change England Comms Intern Lois Hill caught up with Kunle to congratulate him on this huge achievement, reflect over his career and hear about the next steps for Voice4Change England.

Firstly, congratulations on receiving your MBE how did it feel to be recognised for your work and what difference will it make?

Thank you. I felt mixed feelings, really. I’ve always been reluctant to engage with awards and one time I was invited to Downing Street and asked my opinion about them in a room full of people, I suggested that they be scrapped, and a new form of awards be created and then the room went silent. Like a lot of people, I feel that the label of ‘The Empire’ is something that is awkward, but I’m pleased that I listened to people, who felt that it was deserved. I felt that it was important for the organisation not just in terms of recognising me but the work of the staff of Voice4Change England, so I decided to accept it. I was also heartened by the idea that bringing in new awards is now under serious consideration by the government so I thought that this might be a good time to receive it.

What inspired you to become the director of Voice4Change England?

I have worked in the voluntary sector for quite a while, and have been part of running Black organisations, going back to when I was a teenager so it just seemed like a logical thing to do. In a way, years of organising student groups and then going into a workplace and organising people, I have been involved in making sure that civil society issues were addressed wherever I have been. Probably, I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but from organising student groups right through to organising professional organisations, employees, representing people in disciplinary cases, and grievance disputes was something that educated me in terms of understanding not just racism, but the different ways in which discrimination operates at different levels.

What are your key aims for the charity going forward into the next year?

We’re an infrastructure charity, an umbrella for supporting community groups and other BAME charities, and so our task is really to modernise what infrastructure actually is in the 21st century. I think we also need to look at a changed landscape in terms of equalities and be able to pick what’s real and substantial from what is temporary and superficial. Essentially, it’s making quantitative and real change, which is where we want to go next.

What positive differences have you seen in the BAME/ disadvantaged communities as a result of the work Voice4Change England so far?

We’re better connected now than we were, in many ways by accident more than by design, and we’re actually working closely with the front line in a number of our major cities. I think that particularly the accidental by-products of Covid-19 and people switching to digital on a daily basis means that we’ve had more regular contact with our organisations and affiliates in the regions. The opportunity through newly growing institutions like CORE, coalition of race equality organisations, will enable us to support groups and bring them into new relationships with other organisations that will enable us to play that role, particularly with central government, as a voice organisation, to be able to play that role more effectively.

What opportunities are there for members of the public to get involved with the organisation currently?

One of the things we have to do is certainly look at our membership offer and make that more substantial. In terms of volunteering, we’ve had some great volunteers over the years, and we need to refine our structures in terms of training and development and how we grow our volunteers. This will enable us to be able to offer better development to people who come in as volunteers and also interns like yourself.

What are you doing to work on the evident discrimination within the charity sector, specifically like what was outlined in the Home Truths report?

Home truths has obviously provoked a lot of interest. We’re pleased to see that over 30 organisations in our sector have signed up to implement the recommendations. There are also large numbers of other charities and organisations who said that they cannot sign up to all of the recommendations, but they’ve looked at the ones that they can use to strengthen their own work around anti-discrimination policy. It’s been a really great strategic document that we’re also now turning into practical development within organisations, as far as our capacity allows us, and that’s everything from health organisations to civil society organisations that are now more fully engaged in the work. Just last week we did a session with the Cabinet Office staff on their away day so the report has definitely landed in the places that we wanted it to. However, I think that there’s more obviously work to be done in terms of management, particularly senior management within our sector.

Why have you decided to modernise and restructure Voice4Change England this year?

Our plans to do that were on the cards, long before this year. I was really pleased, for example, to see the work that the late John Daniels did on our branding and the website is now coming to fruition. However, that work was initiated way back in 2015 so it’s not like we weren’t thinking about these things until the Covid-19 situation. They were a part of a strategic plan of changes that we wanted to make that, if anything, had been slightly delayed. Of course, you also have to have the resources in place to make those changes. The issue of infrastructure, and how infrastructure support to organisations is designed, is really important so that we do not begin to not get stuck in old ways but always question what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

There are new ways of providing infrastructure support that we’ll be articulating and demonstrating over the next few months that will enable us to face what is a fairly uncertain situation with regards to Covid-19 and the economy with at least some degree of knowledge that we are a voice for change in the direction that we want to take and how we want to shape that direction. Even without Covid-19 we would have done this but I think for everybody now the landscape has changed and so it’s not just an issue for Voice4Change England but for the whole of the sector. We need to reflect and look at ourselves and make the changes that we feel will enhance the situation of our members and enable us to actually meet their needs better and more efficiently.

Do you believe that the BAME communities have received sufficient support during the Covid-19 period or is there still more to be done?

To a degree, there’s certainly been a shift, but it’s nowhere near as much as is needed if you consider that the average community organisation and charity from BAME backgrounds still has an average turnover of less than 10K. We’re not there yet. The consciousness of what needs to be done has been raised and  funders’ and institutions are more aware of what needs to be done and have been perhaps slightly more active in addressing those needs. The onset of a potential economic recession hitting us this autumn and going into next year, it remains to be seen whether that interest is going to be sustained once other pressures come to bear. There are other infrastructure organisations out there and we’re aware of this and the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign. This is quite important and trying to drive infrastructure as a key theme with central government and recognising the importance of infrastructure in supporting that front line. It’s not just a question of doing stuff because we are in a kind of crisis situation, but beyond the crisis, there’s an issue about rebuilding and development. For a lot of BAME organisations, they’re really keen to see what the recovery period holds. And that is, of course, assuming that the period we are going in is one of recovery and hopefully not a second or third wave of Covid-19.

How did you get involved in the charity sector?

I’ve always volunteered pretty much since I was 17 years old, so I didn’t really think about it much until I got into my 30s and then realised I’ve been doing all this volunteer work for years. Even back then, to me, it was just an additional part of your social life, rather than seeing it as some kind of particular vocation. It was probably coming to Voice4Change England when I actually first saw it as something that would operate at a much more professional level, in terms of the volunteer work that I was doing and in understanding also on how the voluntary sector operates.

What kind of work voluntary work did you start off doing when you were younger?

I was organising student groups, campaigns around race attacks and doing escort work with Bangladeshi kids to and from school in the East End of London, who had undergone racial assaults. I organised football teams and sports stuff, concerts and benefits for campaigns and groups in order to fundraise. I also worked with the BBC support services, as one of those people that you ring up at the end of programs. I was quite enthusiastic about a lot of it so didn’t really regard it as voluntary work. It was just something you did.

What advice would you give to a young person who would like to get into the BAME charity sector?

Volunteering was just something that I did without really thinking about. Whereas, I think for the students now, its almost part of their coursework so it’s a different kind of experience. Whichever way you look at it there has, until recently, been a high level of depoliticisation in relation to people getting involved in campaigns and people taking on voluntary work. We have to remember that a lot of the voluntary sector came out of people campaigning around their needs through demonstrations, writing books, reports, lobbying MPS, attending council meetings and sometimes going out on the street and organising demonstrations. Perhaps, that’s not the way that the sector works now so a lot of young people come to it via a different route. However, I thought that the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer were an interesting insight into the fact that the spirit is still probably there beneath the surface and sometimes there will be issues that provoke it and make it show itself.

People are not just now looking at issues of race inequality but raising questions about the environment, disability and gender issues. It’s quite interesting that there’s certainly a vibrant atmosphere around talking about social justice and society in general. We have to, on balance, say that the fact that people are talking again about how you can influence and make change, what’s the role of Parliament? How do we actually build civil society? What is it when we talk about democracy and how do we make democracy work for us? Those are important developments.

What has been your proudest moment at Voice4Change England?

It was when I first came to Voice4Change. I wrote an article about foreign remittances and the fact that there is an image of people of colour being recipients of aid, but yet it was clear that a lot of families in this country send money to families that are based abroad. In fact, the amount of money sent by individuals from this country to family members and loved ones abroad was actually larger than the budget for development and the aid budget. However, nobody had been doing any research to quantify how much money was leaving the UK in remittances, and so I wrote an article for a Philanthropy magazine making these points. It was published and I was really pleased with that so that was one of my proudest moments. Also, I think the alternative perspectives conference at the Bernie Grants centre in 2014, where we brought together around about 200 organisations from across the country to discuss alternatives in terms of how the BAME voluntary sector would work. For me, seeing all those people in the main hall of the centre alongside mainstream infrastructure organisations like NAVCA was very pleasing. The report on funding of the BAME sector, “Bridging The Gap” was also another highlight, alongside the Home Truths report. As for “Bridging The Gap” in particular, people are still referencing that report and it provided the justification for setting up the Funders Alliance, which is still functioning, and is now serviced by the organisation “Equally Ours”.