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The Wellcome Trust failed to tackle racism and raised the bar on accountability

The Wellcome Trust has published a report detailing their lack of progress on racism. Lucy Hodges argues that such transparency is vital for real change
This article is more than 1 year old

Lucy Hodges is a research manager at the University of Exeter, working for the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health.

The Wellcome Trust’s honest – and somewhat brutal revelation – about the failure of its anti-racism work in their latest report has left many in the sector – including me! – open-mouthed with surprise.

Two years ago – in response to the mainstreaming of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Wellcome Trust released a commitment to tackling racism within the organisation as part of an updated strategy.

Despite a carefully planned programme of anti-racism work over the last two years, the funding body admitted that they continued to practice institutional and systemic racism. Bold move. Particularly as – unlike other funders – Wellcome is not accountable to much external oversight. So, it would have been easy for them to simply focus on the parts of their work that have been a success and sweep the rest under the rug.

The confession was made after the conclusion of a commissioned evaluation found ‘insufficient progress’ on anti-racism and evidence of microaggressions and other racist behaviours experienced by staff and grant-holders.

However, the report released is not all doom and gloom – whilst some of the formal outcomes of the intended programme have yet to be fully realised, it highlights some positive outcomes. There are openly discussed conversations about anti-racism within organisations, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) issues have become part of formal performance and development reviews, and there has been an uptake in EDI training – although this remains optional for the workforce.

Facing reality

But in owning up to their own shortcomings here, Wellcome is highlighting that this work is not straightforward. It is not easy and there are no quick wins. Not that this reality makes academic and working life any easier for our colleagues of colour who must live under the conditions of racism, and often give their time and labour to combatting it, while we try and try again.

I work for a Wellcome-funded grant, and I sit on the grant’s EDI committee as the Secretary. Implementing the anti-racist agenda is something with which we have struggled. Wellcome has always been supportive of our efforts to decolonise our work, to live up to an anti-racist directive, and it is only after our own long two-year process – including a change of centre leadership and a new institutional strategy – that we made progress in this area. But we are still a long way from achieving our goals.

At my institution, our own in-house initiatives have mimicked Wellcome’s overarching proposals for the future. These include considering positive action in recruitment and strands of funding, and our recent BAME-only stipend for our new Masters programme. But these approaches, to both the workforce and their funding streams, were only initiated through listening to people of colour and then admitting failure both as an employer and as a funder.

Looking forward

As a sector, we cannot continue to push an anti-racist agenda without honestly assessing the impact and outcomes of the work we are doing. We can only improve by first acknowledging what is wrong. Too often we see in the sector vacuous institution claims such as “everybody is welcome here” when the reality is much different. We can not change a deeply racist system by simply chanting that we are not racist. We must admit that we are and then change. It is uncomfortable, but it can be done.

Looking ahead to the future, and further progress in this area, we will continue to honour these principles and support work on decolonising and anti-racism work. Acknowledging the benefits of positive action in awarding funding, and making a strong commitment to supporting the careers of people of colour with targeted funding are both great moves that speak to Wellcome’s ongoing commitment to becoming an anti-racist funder and employer

Wellcome may have admitted to shortcomings in this area, but the response by Jeremy Farrar demonstrates their commitment to continuing this work. This is a sombre example of how to handle a disappointing lack of progress, and why it is completely necessary for real change.

One response to “The Wellcome Trust failed to tackle racism and raised the bar on accountability

  1. I think we need to remain more sceptical about what is PR activity, and what is accountability. Being pushed into a corner to the point of having to even release this information isn’t the organisation holding a mirror up to themselves, as the image would suggest, but again staff and ex-staff of colour using their time, labour and expertise to keep campaigning against this – it just has a public spin on it whilst many of them have now left the organisation.

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