On Wednesday 8th November, we were joined by one of the most recognisable faces of British television; June Sarpong MBE. Club CEO Sue Walter hosted the evening which explored June’s new book Diversify: Six Degrees of Integration.
Here’s a look back over the evening…
Sue: So, before we get into the book, I would like to share a little bit about June’s background. June is one of the most loved and recognised faces on British television, with over 20 years in broadcasting. During that time, June has interviewed hundreds of people from state leaders, celebrities, politicians to members of the public. In addition to that, June has also been extremely active in various campaign groups and has headed a number of amazing events from Make Poverty History right through to Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday celebrations.
You can currently find June on Sky where she hosts The Pledge, an amazing weekly political debate programme. In addition to Junes television work she has hosted a wealth of extraordinary events, she is also very active in the philanthropic space. Over the years, June has worked very closely with HRH Prince Charles and is an ambassador for his charity The Prince’s Trust. She has also co-founded an organisation called WIE (Women Inspiration & Enterprise), a growing movement which is all about showcasing and celebrating female role models. In 2007, June was awarded an MBE in recognition for her work towards broadcasting and charity and is also extremely active in politics; both domestic policy and in the US. During the lead up to the Brexit referendum, June was an active board member of the Stronger In campaign and is currently a board member of the Pro EU think tank; Open Britain.
Sue: So let’s start with why, why write a book now?
June: A few years ago I moved to America, I was living in LA at the time and filming in Las Vegas. There was a young man who appeared on set who was covered head to toe in tattoos, what I presumed to be gang markings and if I’m honest, I felt uncomfortable around him and quite intimidated by him. He hadn’t behaved aggressively towards me or menacingly in anyway. I had made up these assumptions in my head. It was then that I thought my goodness! That’s what otherising is - when you see somebody you perceive to be different to you and for whatever reason, the wall goes up and your behaviour changes as a result.
I’m proud to say, even though I was ashamed of the way I was behaving, I decided to go and talk to him… And yes he’d had a tough life, yes he had made some maybe not so great choices, however our sound man had taken him on as an apprentice and this kid was so excited about the prospect of a career within television and really wanted to change his life.
I thought wow, there are so many young people like this from communities that have been discarded by society who have so much to offer us, but we’re just throwing them away. How do we have this conversation that is uncomfortable, difficult, but also very necessary and allows us all to move forward and create a society where everybody can contribute to the best of their ability regardless of backgrounds. And so that is why I decided to write the book… this was pre Trump, pre Brexit, and then all of those things happened.
Sue: What was interesting for me reading the book, was that it was almost prophetic actually, you highlight the dangers of ignoring the whole sways of society, which feel disengaged, disenfranchised, and you talk of how if these people are not listened to, if they are not given a voice, then someone will come along and that person who comes along will say what they want to hear and they may not necessarily be the right person.
Tell us a bit more about how the events over the last couple of years have shaped the book.
June: So halfway through the book, Trump happened and Brexit happened, so it really informed the book and much of that is in there. There are lots of parallels between Brexit and Trump and really Brexit was the precursor for Trump. It gave his campaign momentum in that, if that was possible here, then he was possible there.
I grew up in East London, in a predominantly working class white community and those were the people who welcomed my family when my parents first moved to Britain. I have been able to see first-hand how many of the communities that I grew up in changed unrecognisably over a 30year period and how people have felt discarded by their own country which has, as a result bred resentment. I don’t think its xenophobia or racism or all of the other tags that have been placed on this particular community because when you look at our multicultural crown, those are the people who lived there. It was their areas that had to integrate. The middle class people and part of the aristocracy never had to integrate, their schools were never mixed. It was the working class people who made it the multicultural country that it is, and I think we need to give those communities credit where credit is due.
Sue: The book is very personal to you, you’ve written it through the lens of your Ghanaian heritage, as a women, as the daughter of immigrants and also as someone who was born here in the UK and growing up in a very multicultural environment and you can see throughout the book how that’s influenced the book.
I know you are very active in the world of politics and I’m very interested in your views of how you feel this hot issue of immigration has evolved and how attitudes towards immigration have changed.
June: The really sad thing where immigration is concerned is we’ve never really had leaders that have proudly championed immigration as being a good thing. When you look at America, America was founded on immigrants, and that country has had the biggest economy for 150 years, because of its immigration, people from all over the world coming together to the land of opportunity, wanting to make a better life for the next generation. That sort of grit and determination is what made that country what it is and I think it’s so sad that you never see politicians that have articulated that properly.
Sue: The book crosses the Atlantic, you use a lot of research both US and UK related and you’ve worked with some incredible researchers, whilst living and working in both places. So on a personal level and also looking at the research, how do you feel the two countries compare in that space of diversity?
June: I wanted to present hard evidence and data. So I partnered with Oxford University. I’m not an academic, so when they were sending all this data over to me, I said ‘can you simplify it’, so if I can understand it, then that means the majority of people can understand it.
When you see the data side by side, it’s really clear what we do better and what they do better. I think what we do really well in this country, we should be so proud of, we should celebrate it and champion it everywhere we go. We integrate as communities much better than anywhere else I’ve seen in the world. We do the community piece better, though we still have a long way to go.
I think what America does better than us is opportunity. I think part of the reason is because the American dream is something that, even if you’re not living it, you believe in it. Whereas here, we are much more entrenched in the class system.
There’s some really interesting data that shows what your parents do when you’re at the age of 14, more or less dictates who you are going to become… unless you’re exceptional.
Sue: When you say what they do at the age of 14, is that in terms of how they raise you or education or all of those factors?
June: more or less in terms of their status, so for example, if your parents are lawyers and doctors when you’re 14, the chances are you’re going to be in a white collar job. If you’re parents are cleaners when you are 14, the chances are, you’re probably going to be on a low-income job yourself. It’s those aspects that we need to look at how we crack that, how we allow people to move up.
Sue: One of the things you talk a lot about in the book is the importance of role models, and I know when I was growing up, I struggled to find some of those role models. Can you elaborate why they are so important?
June: There’s a wonderful quote by Marian Wright Edelman “you cannot be what you cannot see”. Role models are so important because when you see somebody, who for whatever reason, reminds you of yourself, and you see that they are doing something that maybe you would like to do, it just makes it all the more possible.
Sue: Just to go back to something you mentioned earlier in the introduction, the other and the otherising. Can you just explain what is meant when you say the other?
June: My definition of other in this book is anyone who has been discriminated because of their difference, whether that be socially, economically, because of their difference from the dominant group. I would say that the dominant group are elite, privileged white men. If you look at our successful jobs and the statistics around that, 96% of doctors went to private school in the UK. Only 4% of doctors are from working class backgrounds. You see the same with baristas, solicitors, with judges. This book is not in any way bashing any community, I’m about inclusion and how we can create a framework where anybody can benefit.
Sue: Isn’t it extraordinary that biologically, we are 99.9% the same, however the overwhelming focus is on the 0.1% that is different.
June: Science doesn’t acknowledge race, as far as scientists are concerned, it’s a social construct. It doesn’t actually exist, because everything else is the same. That 0.1% that determines skin colour or eye colour, or hair texture, are the features that we place so much focus on.
The Six Degrees of Integration are six steps in our behaviour patterns that will bring us closer to having a more diverse and integrated social circle;
1. Challenge your ISM*
2. Check your circle
3. Create a new connection
4. Change your mind
5. Celebrate similarity and difference
6. Champion the cause
Together with Oxford University, June has created an ISM calculator. To find out if diversity is in your blood, take the test here.