Network conversation: Understanding racism and multiple disadvantage

October 28, 2021

As Black History Month draws to a close we reflect on two recent network conversations on racism and multiple disadvantage. These form part of an ongoing commitment to exploring the issue of racism and multiple disadvantage, considering what it means for how we organise and lead our coalition and deliver on our ambition to improve services and systems for people experiencing multiple disadvantage.

In May and July we held two events with the MEAM Approach and Fulfilling Lives networks. The aim was to explore the issue of systemic racism, how it impacts people’s experience of multiple disadvantage and what services and local partnerships can do to tackle systemic racism. These conversations were open to service providers, commissioners, policy makers and people with lived experience. In particular, we invited attendees to reflect with us on:

  1. what race means to people as individuals and their understanding of and experience of racism;
  2. the impact of race, racism and white privilege within our coalition and the local areas we work with; and
  3. what could be different about day-to-day support for people experiencing multiple disadvantage if functioning from a position of race equity?

The conversations highlighted the need to consider and understand varying interpretations and definitions of race and experiences of racism. Attendees recognised the significance of the systemic disadvantaging of Black and racially minoritised people, the role of white privilege and the structures, policies and practices that contribute to racial inequality.

Those present noted that racism is a systemic feature of our society, including within the systems and services that support people experiencing multiple disadvantage. Tackling it is therefore difficult and requires a concerted effort to think about things differently and to challenge accepted norms and ways of being.  Our conversations highlighted a number of topic areas where this work might begin, but we are using deeper conversations with individual areas to further focus our thinking. The topics covered below are not an exhaustive list, but reflect the issues identified at the two events we have convened so far.

Staffing and leadership

Attendees highlighted that many existing services are made up of staff who, particularly at a senior level, do not represent the communities they serve. In addition, we heard that Black and racially minoritised leaders attending predominantly white meetings often feel drowned out from decision-making. This was acknowledged as a consequence of existing in a world where there is systemic inequality in power and status based on race in favour of white rather than Black people. Attempts to change this currently rely on a small number of individuals within the system pushing for conversations about race, power and the need to disrupt the status quo. If we are to change this for good, we need to ensure senior leaders understand that systemic racism exists and that they recognise the impact it has on people experiencing multiple disadvantage as well as on those advocating in decision-making spaces.


Commissioners and strategic leads acknowledged that data often does not accurately reflect or include the needs of people from racially minoritised communities; impacting our understanding of local communities and more importantly, the unmet need in current service delivery. We heard that this was for a combination of reasons, including provision linked to a focus on rough sleeping, a largely white visible rough sleeping community (with many Black people remaining hidden homeless), or issues of stigma acting as barriers to people accessing services and therefore not appearing in service use data. The result is a perception of need that does not include Black and racially minoritised people, and an environment where commissioners do not have the information needed to design informed and inclusive services.


Commissioning processes can create systemic bias, because funding often carries with it responsibilities for reporting, evidencing and assessment. Procurement processes can favour larger organisations that have more resource and experience in drafting bids and responding to tenders, and have greater infrastructure and staffing to complete ongoing reporting and evaluation responsibilities. This can result in the same services being re-commissioned, pushing out smaller organisations, including Black and racial minority-led organisations, in the process. This can further entrench and reproduce systemic inequity, maintaining the status quo and upholding systemic racism.


Many of the groups led by and for Black and racially minoritised people felt they were merely consulted, with their views bolted on to pre-designed structures. There was an acknowledgement that engagement with Black and racially minoritised groups must be authentic, not tokenistic and the results seen within subsequent changes to policy, strategy, and procedures. Further to this, engagement with specialist community-led organisations need to be adequately resourced, rather than a mere expectation that these groups should be involved when many are working with very limited resources already.

Next Steps

The events we held this summer are part of an ongoing conversation for our coalition and our network. To help progress our work on racism and multiple disadvantage we will shortly be commissioning a programme of action research to work with us and a group of MEAM Approach areas to explore how systemic racism manifests in day-to-day work and the actions needed to counter it. This will be a practically focused piece of work with the aim of identifying learning and reflection which can help other local areas and wider stakeholders create change. In addition, MEAM Approach areas that are interested in exploring these issues within their own local setting should contact their MEAM Partnerships Manager to discuss support for this.

For further information on our work around racism and multiple disadvantage, including a note on language, please see our previous blog.