Article | 5 min read

Beyond barriers: shining a light on Black History Month in the UK

How Zendesk partners are taking meaningful strides to fight racism, raise awareness about ethnic-based discrimination, and building strong communities.

By Subarna Ganguly, Staff Writer

Last updated September 19, 2023

Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr who once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that…,” we are shining a light on Black History Month celebrations which took place recently in the UK.

October marks the celebration of the event each year in the country since 1987. Initiated in London, it quickly spread to other parts of the UK. Black History Month aims to promote and celebrate the contributions of those with African and Caribbean heritage to Britain’s ‘island’ story and foster an understanding of Black history in general.

It is crucial to remember and understand that although inspired by the US Black History Month which is celebrated in February, Black History Month in the UK has its unique identity and purpose. The experiences and history of Black people born and raised in Britain are quite distinct from those in the United States. However, US-centric narrative usually dominates conversations around the Black experience in the African Diaspora, and in the media. But things are starting to change, and Black history and issues particular to the community in the UK—such as the Windrush generation—is finally getting its due attention, in part due to the Black Lives Matter movement that gathered steam all around the world in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy in 2020.

Black History Month Magazine is a national magazine and central point of focus for the nationwide celebration of Black history, arts, and culture throughout the UK. The magazine showcases the stories, voices, history, and struggles of the Black community in the country and their theme for this year’s issue is ‘Time for change: Action not Words.’

Zendesk’ partners such as ENAR and BYP Network are two such organisations that are taking concrete actions and working relentlessly to take down barriers, brick by brick, and empowering the black community, in UK and around Europe, to come together and unshackle the chains that have held them back, and overcome prejudices, microaggressions, and unconscious bias that still lingers in the highest echelons of our society and workplaces.

ENAR: The fearless voice of anti racism in Europe

The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) is on a mission to make a real difference in ethnic and religious minorities lives by ending structural racism and discrimination in Europe.

Set up in 1998 by grassroots activists, it is the only pan-European network that combines racial equality advocacy with forming a strong anti-racist network in the region. With 150 NGOs and member organisations, ENAR advocates for legal changes at an European level and strives to build structures, institutions, and attitudes based on race equality and equal distribution of power, privileges, and rights.

Zendesk is part of ENAR’s corporate network and an Equal Work partner, with a focus since 2020 on equality data and roundtable discussions. ENAR representatives have conducted regular talks and webinars for Zendesk employees, with sessions covering topics such as The Risks to Fundamental Rights Arising from AI (Oct, 2021), and Understanding the Structures of Racism in Europe (Oct, 2022).

The latest session, Understanding the Structures of Racism in Europe, took place during ‘Inclusion Week’ at Zendesk and focused on understanding the concept of power and privileges, and how our different characteristics and identities influence the way we experience the labour market in Europe. It also deep-dived into case studies of lived experiences of racialised groups in the labour market, shedding light on specific issues and key recommendations that corporate organisations should implement.

ENAR’s latest blog article talks about the importance of Black History Month in the UK, which is one of the few states in Europe that specially commemorates Black history. “The reason why Black History Month was initiated, was because of the institutional racism within the schools and within the curriculum, and the fact that either Black people’s histories were omitted, or there was discriminatory racist stereotyping of Black people,” said ENAR Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Network Development Ojeaku Nwabuzo in the article.

ENAR’s work is supported by the Rights, Equality, and Citizenship Programme of the European Union, the Open Society Foundations, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

BYP: Changing the Black narrative

The Black Young Professionals (BYP) Network, was founded by Kike Oniwinde in the UK, with the mission to connect Black professionals and students from all over the world for role model visibility, career opportunities, business support, and ultimately to empower each other to shatter the misconceptions of the Black narrative, and promote equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Kike was fueled by the realisation that although there is incredible Black talent in every field, there wasn’t adequate representation of the community outside of the sports and entertainment arena. The 2016 Black Lives Matter protests strengthened her resolve and belief that the BYP Network could be a true solution for amplifying Black talent, and the BYP network was born. In 2020, BYP held a historic million dollar crowdfund, grew the team by ten-fold and doubled down on their efforts of ‘changing the Black narrative’.

Today, BYP Network is widely regarded as the LinkedIn for Black professionals and has over 150,000 community members and more than 1,000 partners, including Zendesk.

Zendesk’s partnership with BYP Network began in 2020, and includes a mentorship program with BYP members as mentees, and sponsorship of their flagship annual leadership conference. This year’s leadership conference was held in London at the start of the Black History Month, in recognition that ‘Knowledge is Power’, bringing together more than 700 Black professionals and allies, and a further 817 tuning in virtually. The second conference day, which offered a virtual careers fair, attracted hundreds of job seekers looking to interact and network with our 38 sponsors, including Sky, Sainsburys, and Morgan Stanley.

Zendesk’s Mosaic employee community members and allies in Europe who attended the conference in London came away with rich insights, new connections, and a sense of pride and confidence to nurture their personal and professional development. Khadouj Nouwou, Mosaic lead and senior engagement marketing specialist at Zendesk, shared her takeaways from the BYP conference in London.

“As EMEA mosaic lead at Zendesk, I participated in the BYP Network event and it was so inspiring and motivating for all of us. Lord Hastings’s Truth to power session was really powerful and gave me strength and positivity. These words from his keynote address, ‘If I see one thing missing, it’s the lack of endurance. Everybody has fight in them, but they have flight with the fight. You have to ask yourself whether the things you say actually make a difference to what you do. Our motto must continue to be perseverance,’ resonated the most with me.”.

Lina Solem, group engagement manager at Zendesk also shared her experience from the event:
“Being invited to attend the BYP Leadership conference was a privilege and a joy, there were so many inspirational speakers who really brought so much authenticity and value to the conversations. We walked away brimming with ideas about how to be a better role model for ourselves, and those around us. The session, Managing Relationships to Maximise Influence, led by Ize Idemudia (managing director and COO of Morgan Stanley) was a stand-out for me, her energy and confidence just bounced around the room and we all walked away feeling motivated and inspired to keep building our personal brand—it’s all about being the CEO of Me.Inc and selecting your Board of Directors—the mentors and sponsors who will help guide you on your chosen path to success!”

Our resolute mission and values

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is one of our core values at Zendesk and the indomitable spirit of our global culture. Zendesk’s Diversity council establishes policies and practices that are conducive to the recruitment, retention, and development of an inclusive workplace, and to address inequity in the communities we serve, by partnering with organisations such as BYP and ENAR across the world.

And our employee communities (ECs) and empathy circles are the heartbeat of our DEI efforts. ‘Mosaic’ is one of our employee communities, and brings together people of colour and advocates at Zendesk to have tough and open conversations concerning the Black community.

“In our employee communities, it’s not just about recognising people as workers, it’s about the value they bring and how they bring their whole selves to work”, said Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, SVP of Global Digital & Regional Marketing at Zendesk, in a recent interview with BYP Network.

“We’re holding ourselves accountable for driving change too–as part of our DEI commitment, we introduced the Zendesk Inclusion Index with a goal to measure the impact of our global company-wide DEI efforts”, explained Prelini in the interview.

Black History Month may have drawn to a close, but we will continue our work to better understand the history, challenges, and issues facing our Black community members and other minorities, and amplify their voices and support the missions of our partners around the world.

As Malcolm X once said, “I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.”

All pictures by the author