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01/03/2021

Strength in diversity: An interview with Helen Fadipe

Words: Simon Wicks

Black Lives Matter and the Covid-19 pandemic have raised awareness of the damage that inequality does to society. Planning must take note, Helen Fadipe tells Simon Wicks

It’s not unfair to say that planning does not have the best track record of employing and developing planners from Britain’s BAME communities. Whereas the proportion of non-white British residents of the UK is around 15 per cent, the proportion of non-white RTPI members is around 5 to 7 per cent. The difference may be statistical, but it is not impersonal.

“This young lady sent a text and said ‘Can I call you?’,” recalls Helen Fadipe, planning consultant and founder of the BAME Planners Network. “She was close to tears, saying she didn’t know any other black planners, she didn’t think planning was for her and she was considering leaving the profession.”

This is not an isolated example. “I have a friend who’s from Asia and she’s of the opinion she’s the only planner from her ethnic group in the United Kingdom.”

Contacts often tell Fadipe about “issues” in the workplace and she goes on to tell me about the young black planner who, on starting a new job, found herself practically ignored by her colleagues. When a white planner subsequently joined the team, that person was immediately invited for lunch. Then there is the BAME graduate planner turned down for a job because he had no driving licence who discovered later that the position had gone to a white graduate. With no driving licence.

“There is strength in diversity. It’s not being afraid to bring someone in who is different from you”

Nigerian-born Fadipe, who began her planning career in the UK 30 years ago, recalls being talked over her at meetings where she was often the only woman and only non-white person. She recalls the time a group of white men shouted racist comments and threw something at her when she was on a site visit (“Then you have to go back to your office, shaken up, and you’re expected to do your work.”).

Prejudice is rarely so obvious, however. Fadipe relates how she once got down the last two for a senior position. She didn’t get the job but came away with a nagging feeling that it may well have been to do with ‘cultural fit’. How well would she mingle with elected members? Would they understand her accent? It’s subtle.

“It might be valid, but then it might be clouded by our own biases.” There is a repeating pattern that emerges that is all too evident. “BAME candidates might be looked at through a particular lens,” she remarks, “and that is the lens of structural racism. ‘How will this person be perceived by elected members and the rest of the staff?’.”

In Fadipe’s case, having grown up in Nigeria, she arrived in Britain with no experience of racism. This, she observes, means that she perhaps doesn’t see discrimination as clearly as someone who has grown up with it; and, being less shaped by prejudice, she perhaps has a little more resilience too.

“Once I know something is happening, I can sense where it’s going. If I need to put it down, I put it down.” Even so, there are times when “you just have to swallow it”.

Fadipe is quick to credit those of her colleagues who have taken her under their wing and made her feel part of the team. But she is very clear that “the higher up you go”, the more discrimination plays a role in progress. There is a distinct “glass ceiling”, an absence of BAME planners in senior, more visible positions.

Things have improved somewhat in the past 30 years for planners with BAME backgrounds, she concedes. But there is still that glass ceiling, still planners reporting feelings of separateness. In March 2020, Fadipe’s “sense of duty” overtook her and she took the first steps towards creating a network for planners from BAME backgrounds.

Coming together

“It had been something I wanted to start for over a year. I would say the trigger was hearing people telling me about their loneliness. I just felt I needed to create a network,” Fadipe explains.

But a second trigger increased the sense of urgency: the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the explosion of outrage in its wake. Fadipe posted her own thoughts on LinkedIn and the response was so strong that she realised she needed to get the network up and running without delay.

Its inaugural meeting in July was attended by 40 people. By October BAME Planners Network had more than 100 members and a steering group of nine. In the midst of Black Lives Matter and a pandemic ruthlessly exposing the inequities in our built environment, interest from other organisations was immediate: how can planning as a profession and a practice address cultural and racial inequality?

Steering group members have met with the Planning Officers Society, the Greater London Authority, the RTPI and the chief planner. The network has responded to the Planning for the Future white paper and Fadipe herself was invited to give evidence to Parliament on its potential effects on BAME communities. Recruitment agency Gatenby Sanderson has given leadership coaching to network members.

“There’s been massive support from all sectors. I couldn’t have expected this when I was thinking it, planning it. No way,” she exclaims. But how do you convert such interest into change? Fadipe outlines the network’s five aims:  

  • To raise the profile and visibility of BAME planners.  
  • To encourage people from BAME communities to enter the planning profession at all levels.  
  • To support BAME planners in achieving their career goals.  
  • To enable and support BAME communities to influence planning.  
  • To collaborate with individuals and organisations as partners in achieving the network’s goals.

“Being in a network where there are BAME people who are directors, regulators, professors, in senior management – it gives those who have never seen anyone at that level the feeling that they can now aspire.

“The very first aim is raising the profile of BAME planners – letting people know that there are people like them within the profession.”


From Benin to Bucks

Fadipe was born the youngest of seven children in Benin City, Nigeria. Her father was an MP in the First Republic but her parents separated and Fadipe and three siblings were raised by her mother in Lagos, although she later attended a girls’ school in Benin City.

Fadipe’s first career ambition was to be a lawyer, but she had a stutter, which she felt too limiting for someone whose job would be to argue cases (“Little did I know that the profession I would end up in, I would probably do more of that than if I was a lawyer.”).

She considered architecture but was steered in the direction of planning by a teacher and took an HND at the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos. It was while holidaying in the UK (she has relatives in England and Ireland) that she decided to make a go of life in England at a time when Nigeria was in recession.

Despite a diversion into fashion design when she first came to England, she has remained in the profession. Sixteen years in the public sector in London – initially with Islington Council, which supported her through a planning degree at South Bank University – culminated in a role as head of planning policy for Haringey, followed by private practice. It was going well, but Fadipe’s was one of many small businesses that suffered in the wake of the 2008 global crash.

"When I look back at the end of my career, I want to be able to reflect on the projects I was involved in, the people I met on the way, the good I achieved and the value I added doing what I was privileged to do"

 

She found herself drawn back to Nigeria, where she worked on the Alimosho Model City Plan, among other projects. In 2015 her husband became seriously ill, necessitating a move back to England. She has since been working as a consultant in both the private and public sectors, notably for Harrow and, currently, Buckinghamshire Council.

She has a strong sense of calling. “My Christian faith was a decisive factor in becoming a planner. Understanding God’s nature as a master planner at that critical stage of my teenage years motivated me to study a course where I can use my creativity and talents to make a beautiful and better environment for everyone. I am not stating that planners are gods; however we are creative in making and shaping places. With political will and endorsement, planners can plan the world we need.”

Fadipe has also been giving back to the profession as best she can. She sits on Women in Planning’s advisory board and is a member of the RTPI’s General Assembly. “I’d never felt motivated to go for the GA. But there was a big call out in 2018 that more diversity was needed and at that point I decided to be the change I want to see,” she says.

“When I look back at the end of my career, I want to be able to reflect on the projects I was involved in, the people I met on the way, the good I achieved and the value I added doing what I was privileged to do. But most importantly are the young people I’ve been able to mentor Young planners that I have been able to help influence. I want to be able to look back and say ‘Yes, I was able to encourage and motivate that individual and help them on their journey to greatness’.”


Planning for difference

A profession that is socially and culturally homogenous can “fall into a bias trap”, says Fadipe. “Because if you do not understand my needs, how can you plan for me?”

She continues: “It’s important that planning acknowledges that society is diverse – that the UK is a multicultural society, and in each culture there are different needs and wants.. The culture, the belief systems are different so the ability to access places that have been planned for will also be limited, not only by socio-economic factors but also by physical attributes. You can’t assume it is a homogenous society.

“One of the strengths of the network is that we don’t see BAME as being one homogenous group.”

The language that planners use can also form a barrier.

“We speak technical jargon and we expect everyone to understand and get involved in planning. Race and culture affect the ability to engage with the planning system. This is compounded not only by language but by socio-economic factors; many people from BAME communities tend to work in low-paid jobs, have more than one job and work late shifts. Invariably, that affects their ability to engage.

“There’s been massive support from all sectors. I couldn’t have expected this when I was planning it”

“The profession has to reflect the society it serves and engage meaningfully with different sectors of the community. We live in a multicultural and multidimensional society. Particular groups can become socially excluded. Understanding the needs of the community is very important. That has to be reflected in our plan policies, as well as placemaking practices. It’s also important to reflect that in our recruitment and retention practices.”

We come full circle. What can the profession actually do? “I think it’s about how we sell it. It’s understanding what motivates a young black man. What motivates a young Asian female? Why would they want to come into planning?

At a time of intense debate about inequalities, many of which are experienced disproportionately by BAME communities, planning has nothing to lose and everything to gain by broadening its outlook and its intake.

“There is strength in diversity. It’s not being afraid to bring someone in who is different from you. The starting point is not being afraid, it’s being able to welcome and embrace change.”    


Time to begin

“My decision to launch the network was indirectly a result of George Floyd’s death. Because of my post about his death on my LinkedIn profile, people called me to talk about their issues. I felt ‘You know what? Planners need to know others who look like them so we can help each other’. That was the trigger for the timing and why I feel now is a good moment to start the network  

“Society at large is now more aware about racial issues and taking action. In the past, people might just say ‘Well, it doesn’t really affect me’. Now there is awareness that to be silent is to be complicit.

“It started from a place of help. It broke my heart, somebody telling me they’ve spent all these years studying but they want to leave the profession. They had no one else that they could relate to, to share what they were feeling or going through. So let’s start now, being there for one another. I think that the whole issue around George Floyd’s death and race relations in the UK and all over the world just makes it more pertinent.”


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Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Photography | Peter Searle

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