Black History Month – Josephine’s Story

My Home Life England is marking Black History Month in October 2020 and celebrating Black people’s vital contribution to social care in care homes across the country. Care homes, and social care more broadly, would undoubtedly not exist in their current form without the valued contributions from their Black workforce. We also continue to recognise the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 continues to have on the Black community and that people have selflessly risked their own health during the pandemic by continuing to care for some of society’s most vulnerable citizens living in care homes.

We are also sharing the personal stories and achievements of Black individuals that have a connection to My Home Life.

This is Josephine’s story, as told to My Home Life facilitator Danuta Lipinska:

Josephine came to England via Austria, from her home in Nigeria where she qualified in educational management. She began training as a teacher in London but found that she did not belong and was neither welcomed nor encouraged as a black woman in teaching practice. She eventually decided to put her skills and natural compassion to better use within the care sector. “Many Black people do not go for the white-collar jobs because they believe that they won’t be accepted, so they don’t bother. Black Africans often make a career in the care sector because there is more tolerance, understanding, and room for improvement and career advancement.”

“Be yourself and continue the way you started today, and the sky will be your limit.” Josephine took those words to heart and they have served her well in her career development from a care worker to manager of a care home of over 50 residents and 100 staff. These words were spoken by a White manager who has since become her mentor and role model. “She gave opportunities to Black staff and accommodated them, giving everyone training and encouraging them to improve. She exposed me to managerial duties and tasks which I successfully completed, but I had no self-confidence and felt that I didn’t belong. She gave me the chance to become who I am today.”

Josephine learned to hold her head up high, believe in herself and to encourage and empower her staff.

Arriving as a newly appointed manager, Josephine did not receive an induction due to unforeseen circumstances. In her first week in her new role, there was a CQC inspection. She kept her cool, reasoning that the home was already ‘Good’ and so it would have to speak for itself. The second inspection under her management resulted in an ‘Outstanding ‘ for ‘Well Led’. It has not been an easy journey, fraught with prejudice and ignorance, discrimination and being rendered invisible. Initially, families didn’t recognise her as the manager and would go instead to the white deputy if they had a problem. On many occasions, she felt as though she was being pushed to leave.

Through kindness, skill and determination, and developing a core attitude and active practice of embracing diversity with a zero tolerance of racism, physical and verbal abuse, bullying and discrimination in all forms, Josephine has won through.  The staff, mainly Black African, are in the majority and they have created a real caring community. The majority of residents, who are White, have stood up for her and her staff on many occasions. “I love my residents – and they love me.”

When we spoke during the early days of the pandemic, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in England and around the world, I asked Josephine how she felt the BAME community was being affected in her care home:

“The slave trade was brutal and at times it feels like the same thing, but in a modified way. Black children are more likely to be handcuffed by police – the experience is pre-ordained. It doesn’t feel free, and that’s part of the same thing. But things are beginning to change. White people need to understand us. If you don’t understand me, it affects our relationship.”

Josephine said that staff were fearful of coming to work because they are in the high-risk category of developing Covid-19. Some made the difficult decision to stay home and shield. The possibility of becoming ill herself felt like a real and terrifying threat. “If I die, there might be a two-minute silence. And then what?”  The need for PPE, support, and acknowledgement from the government and the general public that staff from BAME communities in care homes were putting their lives, and their families’ lives at risk in order to care for our mainly White relatives, were concerns of the highest order. Reassurances and responses seemed a very long time coming, and inequities continue.

In spite of this, Josephine described that the staff have been “hugely inspiring” throughout. “We have had to learn to celebrate, to be courageous, to put in the effort and to recognise ourselves.”

When I asked “Why is it important that Black individuals feel social care is applicable to them and somewhere they feel welcomed (both as a career and as a receiver of social care)” the answer was both humbling and illuminating. I was reminded that the Black experience in the UK must be taken in context. There isn’t an equivalent White British experience.

“Residents who are from a Black African background are very courageous to come and live in the care home”, she explained. I sensed that here may be a deep sense of rejection and separation from their own culture and the norms for how elders are cared for at home, within the bosom of the family. “We inherit the role of caring for our grandparents and we do it willingly.“ There can be shame and distress that they have somehow let themselves down because they could not return to their homeland either. Having lived away for many years, giving their own families great opportunities, an elder returning to Nigeria for example, will have no one there to look after them either, and may be considered a ‘foreigner’. The Black African older person is caught in an unenviable position. Acceptance of their new ‘home’ takes a long time, and every effort is made to provide meals they enjoy and a cultural connection to their identity of origin. The staff understand and appreciate that. “We have to learn how to adapt to life here. Black people’s mentality has to change to accommodate where we live now.”

“How would you describe yourself now as a leader?” I asked. “I am not a quitter. We are not going to quit. I have resigned myself to always do the right thing and I have evidence to back that up. We work together, we stay together, and we win together..” Josephine took the legacy from her mentor and has instilled that in her own staff, always encouraging them to reach for more. Three of her staff have gone to university to become nurses. Three others have become managers in their own right. “I encourage them to ‘go for it’ I don’t keep this knowledge and experience to myself. I tell them, if you can embrace it, you can do it”.

“The My Home Life Leadership Support Programme added more to my confidence. It opened me to connect with like minded people. It took a while to integrate and then we all ended up as friends in a group, working together, taking time, and with the willingness to understand and benefit from one another. Those connections would not have happened otherwise. Several of the other managers are white. We are still friends.”

And I suspect that the sky still continues to be Josephine’s only limitation.

Danuta Lipinska October 2020