As Black History Month 2020 draws to a close, the Health Foundation’s Head of Improvement Programmes, Daphne Amevenu, reflects on the importance of taking time to celebrate black people’s essential contribution to health and care in the UK.

The Health Foundation exists to bring about better health and health care for everyone in the UK. To do that, we seek to understand all aspects of what affects a person’s health and the impact of every part of our health care system. I’ve been pleased to see the Foundation invest energy and time over the past 3-and-a-half years in projects seeking to tackle health inequalities. This work has been particularly important during the current pandemic and the Foundation has published some much needed analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on black and minority ethnic communities.

Since 2019, I’ve been leading work across the Foundation to embed the values of diversity and inclusion within our organisation, reflecting our commitment to protect and promote these values internally, too. Earlier this year we established our own Black Diversity Network, founded as a peer-support network for black Health Foundation colleagues in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the United States. Thanks to our dedicated members, and with the backing of our peers across the organisation, the Black Diversity Network marked Black History Month 2020 with a series of activities that shone a spotlight on our community. We’ve held a number of events exploring black history, the health experiences of black communities and the contributions of black people to health care in the UK.

It has been great, personally and professionally, to have the opportunity to celebrate other black people working in health and learn more about their essential contribution. And despite a number of black health care professionals being recognised recently in the HSJ top BAME leaders list and the Queen’s birthday honours list, it still feels very important that organisations like the Health Foundation take the time to allow their colleagues the space to really understand and appreciate the history and present day contributions of black health and care professionals. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about the life of Dzagbele Matilda Asante. Dzagbele was born in 1927 in Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast) and came to the UK in 1947 to train and work as a nurse. In this article, she shares her memories of the arrival of nurses from the Caribbean and the interactions between African and Caribbean nurses in those early years of the NHS. Learning about this impressive pioneer (who was working in the UK prior to the foundation of the NHS) was particularly touching for me as a Ghanaian Brit working in health care. Connecting personally with impressive people from history is sometimes taken for granted. But when comparatively few historical black figures are celebrated, the opportunity to relate their story to your own can be few and far between.

Another case in point is Mary Seacole. While it’s true that no celebration of black people’s contribution to improving health in the UK would be complete without mentioning Seacole, it’s similarly and dishearteningly true that her 2016 statue was the first in Britain to honour a black woman. Seacole is remembered for self-funding her travels to the front line in 1854 to care for the soldiers injured in the Crimean War. Her reputation for caring for wounded soldiers, including visiting the battlefield under fire, led to a successful campaign to establish a statue of her in front of St Thomas’ Hospital. Hopefully, Seacole’s statue will be the first of many black women whose contribution to the nation’s health is celebrated through public works of art.

As well as celebrating black history, the Health Foundation is also supporting and working with some leading black professionals right now. The Foundation is co-hosting a series of events with the Shuri network about workforce diversity in digital health. At the first of these events, I had the privilege of speaking alongside distinguished panellists including Evelyn Asante-Mensah. Evelyn is the Chair of Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust and received an OBE in 2006 for her work supporting ethnic minority communities in health. Our recently established inquiry into COVID-19 and health inequalities also benefits from the insight of Lord Victor Adebowale and Yvonne Coghill. Lord Victor Adebowale is Chair of the NHS Confederation and Yvonne Coghill has had a long career in nursing, being recognised as one of the top 70 inspirational nurses as part of the NHS’s 70th anniversary celebrations.

Only by properly recognising the contribution of generations of black people to health care in the UK – and by collaborating with black people working in health today – can we truly hope to build a system that works for everyone.

Daphne Amevenu (@d_amevenu) is Head of Improvement Programmes at the Health Foundation.

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