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Inside the Sheffield Race Equality Commission

Kevin Hylton, Chair of the Sheffield Race Equality Commission, tells us about what the commission is doing and why – and how people in Sheffield can get involved.

Sheffield town hall autumn
Raygar He (Unsplash)

The outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 seems to have left no corner of the world untouched, but at this stage it’s right that we ask the question: what comes next?

As a society we can’t keep looking at racism only at the level of the individual, and with that acknowledgement has to come a clear plan of action for how we transform our systems and institutions for the better.

Sheffield's Race Equality Commission, which was established by but is independent of Sheffield City Council, is a "strategic assessment of the nature, extent, causes and impacts of racism and race inequality within the city.” The commission is chaired by Kevin Hylton, Emeritus Professor of Equality and Diversity in Sport and Education at Leeds Beckett University.

Professor Hylton attributes the setting up of the commission to “a perfect storm of issues” emerging in Sheffield and across the world, including the Black Lives Matter movement, shocking health inequalities highlighted by coronavirus, and debates about decolonising culture and the curriculum.

“There's a mix of the historical, the local, the national and international context that have come together to force this kind of public awareness, this kind of public consciousness around these issues to do with race, and a need to bottom them out in terms of transformation, equalities and so on.”

Kevin hylton race equality commission

Professor Kevin Hylton, Chair of Sheffield Race Equality Commission.

The commission is focussing on six key areas: business and employment, civic life and communities, crime and justice, education, health, and sport and culture. Following an initial online session in December, the 24 commissioners are taking oral evidence at public events in May, June and July, with a final report due before the end of 2021. Written and audio-recorded evidence can also be submitted online at any time.

Clearly there are challenges. Keeping the issue at the top of the political agenda locally and nationally seems critical, with coronavirus, Brexit and everything else 2021 has yet to throw at us. But it’s also a question of following words through to real impact, actions and change at the level of systems and institutions.

Is there a risk that the commission could end up missing that bigger systemic picture?

Professor Hylton thinks that, while the commissioners “are clearly alive to” this issue, by taking evidence from and being in dialogue with some of the city’s biggest organisations, the group can “triangulate the explanations for why things are happening in a systemic fashion.”

“We don't need this commission to be able to talk about systemic racism, right? By having this commission, we're not suddenly going to discover systemic racism.

“Now, depending on the individual, community group [or] the organisation [giving evidence], they'll be taking different approaches to tackle these issues – or not. And so that will provide us with some sort of narrative to explain how these racial dynamics work within each organisation and within each sector.”

For Professor Hylton, sharing and celebrating good practice around policy and new approaches to delivery is also key to the commission’s work.

“Good practice comes from transparency [...] recognising that what gets measured gets done. And that should clearly emerge from action plans and from policy directions.

“If we can get organisations to develop policy, plan and act – without those activities being ‘bolted on’ to the other things that they're doing – then we're more likely to see longer-term sustainable change and transparency.”

As well as individual submissions, the commission has already taken written evidence from a number of the city’s bigger organisations and institutions, which have to different extents acknowledged that there are many areas for improvement in their structures and working practices.

“The fact of the commission [itself] has meant that many organisations are now looking hard at what they have done and what they need to do.”

He also notes that commissioners and the Council are looking carefully at what can be done once the report is published, both to make sure organisational commitments are monitored and to reach the wider public with the key findings.

These plans include a scrutiny group, which will check in with organisations and institutions, and the possibility of a series of ‘roadshow’ community events across the city.

In the end, however, the best scrutiny group the commission could have is the Sheffield public, which is why it’s so important that anyone who thinks this is a key issue gives evidence to inform the report and its recommendations.

At a time when, as Professor Hylton points out, “there are many more cities who are looking the other way,” we’ve got a window of opportunity in Sheffield to challenge unjust systems, working practices and cultures – and ultimately improve the lives, and life chances, of people of colour.

Learn more

Written and audio-recorded evidence can be submitted to the commission online at any time. Oral evidence hearings will take place in May, June and July 2021.

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