Phyll Opoku-Gyimah talks to Abi Jackson about what needs to happen, staying hopeful – and how she has learned to look after herself better too.
Diversity and inclusion have been big topics over the past couple of years, with 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement triggering organisations across the board to pledge to do better.
For London-based Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, 46 – a leading voice in UK intersectional equality – this is much more than a moment in time. It’s a lifetime of lived experience as a black woman and member of the LGBTQ+ community and ploughing energy into advocacy and activism.
Her story is “a continual journey” she says, its roots going as far back as her school days, as an “inquisitive child” with an instinct to challenge why all their history lessons were so white-focused. “I challenged it, and always got into trouble for doing so,” she recalls.
It’s a pattern that continued to play out as life went on, ranging from being called “too aggressive” for speaking up at work, to realising that even within the LGBT community black representation wasn’t recognised, and receiving death threats online.
But while the work is never done, Opoku-Gyimah – who eventually co-founded UK Black Pride and became executive director of international LGBTQ+ human rights charity Kaleidoscope Trust – has a lot to celebrate.
Her latest role as a LinkedIn Changemaker is bringing focus to the workplace – encouraging conversations, amplifying lesser heard voices, and seizing the joy of being “unapologetically ourselves”.
Making meaningful changeA recent survey by the careers networking site found nearly half of Brits agree that a company’s social purpose has never been more important (48%), and the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in employment (49%).
There’s a massive difference between tokenistic gestures and meaningful change, however. A statement on social media might make a company ‘look good’, but how are these efforts being reflected back within a company and genuinely benefitting people?
“It starts with a strategy,” says Opoku-Gyimah. “What’s your mission, your vision, and what pillars are you working to? How are you monitoring the demographics of your organisation so you can identify trends? Who are you consulting and engaging with, because consultation and dialogue is the greatest tool any organisation can have in order to really understand its workforce, and for making them feel they are part of shaping the future.”
While specific calendar events, whether it’s Pride or Black History Month for example, can be great opportunities, Opoku-Gyimah emphasises the importance of “meaningful engagement” which is continuous.
“It’s not just: let’s have one event and then you forget about it for 364 days of the year. Let’s continue to utilise this conversation. Let’s have some time for the uncomfortable conversations, and let’s be sure that those who hold positions of influence and power within organisations are putting their feet to the frame and being held accountable, so they have clear objectives about what they do to ensure diversity, equality and equity is part and parcel of their work and not just an add on.”
‘Listening is key for any growth and movement’
And a listening is vital. Really listening, and taking people at their word. After all, our collective failure to listen and accept the truth of other people’s lived experience – rather than seeking to deny, downplay or dismiss it because other countries ‘have it worse’, etc – is perhaps a big part of why we are still battling huge problems like systemic racism in 2021.
“Listening is such a key part to any change that needs to be made, and any growth and movement for any organisation. If you’re not listening to those with lived experience, and telling you about things that harm, hurt or appear to be inequalities, then how do you change anything? If you listen, you are more likely to sustain the work you are doing and look at growth,” Opoku-Gyimah says.
“And active listening. Because I can listen to everything, but actively listening means I’m responsive to doing something about it and to change the tide. Together, that’s how we can really do that in a positive way, as well as amplifying the many different voices we are listening to.”
Take me at my word
We need to be careful with “trauma porn” too. Passing the mic and amplifying voices does not need to mean putting people under pressure to re-live their personal traumas time and time again – although this can seem powerful and capture attention and makes ‘strong headlines’, it can’t be our sole criteria for hearing people and valuing the need for change.
This is something that’s been a learning curve for Opoku-Gyimah, like many people working in the activism and campaigning fields. It can be immensely consuming and so much of it is wrapped up in deeply personal and emotionally draining experiences. Finding a balance with boundaries has been increasingly important, Opoku-Gyimah admits.
“I am not going to lie, I’m not always the best at making sure self-care is put at the forefront. But I’m growing and I’m learning, and I’m extremely good at telling people how to look after their wellbeing in a mental health sense, because this work is exhausting,” she shares. “But what I’ve learned to do is to put down my phone a bit more. And I’ve learnt in interviews or conversations that I am not going to relive certain things that are ever so traumatic.
“I’ve learnt to say, ‘You know, I don’t think I can answer that question right now, so let’s turn it on its head and focus on the positives’. I also have a dog now so I’m walking a bit more – stepping out from those frustrations is helpful!”
Hope is a ‘driving force’
Those positives, ultimately, are so much of what change is all about. One of the reasons she’s glad to be part of the LinkedIn Changemaker campaign is that there is scope “for joy”.
“We know there are major inequalities towards black and brown communities, towards LGBTQ+ people, towards disabled people, towards women – but how can we celebrate ourselves in the midst of what’s going on? Because that can be a driving force.
“It’s about hope,” says Opoku-Gyimah. “When we have hope, that pushes you forwards towards what’s right. I know what it feels like to feel the pain and absolute disappointment and disgust in ways groups or people have treated me, but as I hope, I am going to continue to move forward and celebrate those who are marginalised and who face oppression, those who are often not being seen.”
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is a LGBTQI + equality advocate and part of LinkedIn’s Changemaker programme, which is spotlighting individuals who are promoting positive change in the workplace. Follow Phyll on LinkedIn and get involved using #ConversationsForChange.