The cost of being a visible role model

“It is time to stop being humble and to start telling your story”

–     Melanie Eusebe, Chair and Co-Founder, Black British Business Awards

I recently re-read Melanie Eusebe’s inspiring article, ‘The disconnect : it’s time to stop being humble’ having not read it since it was initially published in 2014.

When I first read the article just over 2 years ago, I was very much of the view that (and pardon the pun) the solution to solving the issue of a lack of visible role models within the African and Afro-Caribbean community was as simple as ‘black and white’. At the time, I couldn’t understand why those within our community who are clearly aspirational would deliberately choose to remain invisible and inaccessible. I (and several others that I know within the diversity space who had been quietly and invisibly campaigning for years) became much more vocal in sharing our stories as a result of Melanie’s impactful article. This has, undoubtedly, led to more impact and has pushed the diversity agenda forward somewhat but I would say that all of us without exception have experienced what I call ‘the cost of being a visible role model’. There is a very real and tangible cost to being visible and prominent within the diversity space.

Being visible means you are considered by some to be fair game for criticism, scepticism and other forms of attack. The use of social media is an essential part of raising awareness about issues including the level of discrimination that still exists within the workplace today as well as in wider society. Yet we are all too familiar with the issue of cyber-bullying, something that I myself have been a victim of in recent times. I would also add that too many people assume that it is impossible to be humble and visible at the same time when that is simply not the case. Specifically, working as a volunteer within the diversity space, I have seen time and again that the recognitions that I and others receive for the sacrifices that we make in furthering the diversity agenda in our personal time have been tainted by the perception from a minority that our main (or even only) motivation is self-glorification and self-promotion. This to me shows a complete lack of understanding of the sheer amount of sacrifice and the demands placed on our personal time because we, as volunteer diversity campaigners, chose to follow our calling to make a difference in society.

To put some context around this, for me, this means me regularly making an almost 2 hour journey into London in the evening to speak at an event or to attend a campaign meeting after a demanding day in the office, giving up precious time with my son and a relaxing evening at home when my usual journey home after work is just 15 minutes. I buy additional annual leave so that I can use it to participate in events that take place during the working day which do not qualify as being part of my continuing professional development. In addition, several weekday evenings a week are spent providing free mentoring, coaching and guidance to others – and yes, I do work full time for my employer. Frankly, there are many times when it would be far easier to not bother with any of my voluntary work at all! Yet I am prepared and willing to make these sacrifices to further a cause that I strongly believe in, a cause which is founded on my personal values and a genuine desire to level the playing field to improve the lot of others. And I know several others who are prepared to do the same, making similar sacrifices on their personal time.

Having now experienced first-hand the backlash that comes with being so visible, I now realise that the underlying reasons why role models within our community may actively chose not to be visible are not as simple as not wanting to help further the diversity agenda or not wanting to help others by ‘letting down ladders’ or ‘sending the escalator back down’. Although this might apply to some, a huge consideration must be the level of exposure and vulnerability that goes hand in hand with sharing your personal story and, through that, becoming a prominent and visible speaker and campaigner. I have had several of my peers and friends within this space raising this very concern with me over the last few years with some truly shocking examples of how they have been attacked for their efforts to improve the lot of others. One lady recently mentioned how even her attempt to prominently profile others as a genuine means of recognising their efforts and impact had led to her being criticised with some saying that this was, in itself, my friend self-promoting and attention-seeking! It is ironic and deeply saddening that this is the case.

So having now re-read Ms Eusebe’s excellent article several years later what would I advise around this whole issue of visibility? I would exercise a word of caution: yes, it is true that we must share our stories to inspire and support others but not without realising and fully embracing what goes hand in hand with becoming a visible role model. It takes real courage to be visible.

Written by Funke Abimbola