Like many people I have sat on my hands, watched the ‘protected characteristics’ campaign and remained silent with my concern. I worry about the angst it could create for those whose personal testimonies drive this campaign if I challenge it. I fear persecution if I oppose a movement driven to end discrimination. I worry about reputational damage. I’m sure many feel the same. However, as a care leaver this will impact me – I owe it to myself to communicate my view.
I don’t think anyone deserves discrimination and I do believe that discrimination exists for care leavers. However, I do not know if I agree that we have enough evidence to warrant making care leavers a protected characteristic. More so, I don’t know if protected characteristic is the right solution.
When I was 16 years old, I had a job at Curry’s (when it was called Dixons), I was living in B&B accommodation receiving £56 a week whilst finishing my GCSE’s. I was balancing a job, school and looking after myself. It was tough and I was isolated. I didn’t tell work about my situation, not because I was scared they would discriminate, but because I was ashamed. I hated my life, I was angry, sad, and I didn’t want to expose this vulnerability to people. In the juggling of life, I let work slip, missed some shifts and ultimately, I was let go.
I needed that money, I had no confidence to hand out CV’s and had no work experience beyond my recent dismissal, no one was going to hire me. I played with the idea about going back to Currys and speaking to my old boss (Sharon), my approach was going to be honesty – to share with her my situation and ask for forgiveness. But I didn’t have the bravery to do it, shame consumed me, and I chose not to.
Life continued, the pressure of the lack of support from services, the limited amount of money I was receiving, and the isolation and loneliness started to take its toll. I was depressed, I had nobody, and I was hurting. A hole opened inside of me and was swallowing me from within.
I had to go back to speak to my old boss, not because I wanted to, because I had no choice. Nothing could make me feel worse, I had nothing to lose but everything to gain. Work provided me with a community, money, and something to get out of bed for.
I walked into Curry’s to my old colleagues’ heavy stares of disapproval, feeling persecuted. I just wanted to see Sharon, nobody else, I wanted to go straight to her and offload my anxious burden. At the desk was another colleague, I don’t exactly remember how the exchange went, but I remember the shame-laden ridicule when I asked to see Sharon, because I wanted to ask for my job back. The only reason I think he went to get her is because he wanted to laugh at my expense if she refused my request to return. I think if he honestly believed that Sharon would give me my job back, he wouldn’t have gone to get her.
Sharon came down from the back of the store, stern faced and stood at the desk in front of me. Accompanied by the same colleague that went to get her. He was arms-crossed, over her shoulder, her hands flat on the desk. This was not how I wanted it to happen, I know there is no way I can say this without floods of tears, broken and stammering words.
‘Well?’, I remember her saying so direct to me. The tone punched me in the gut and the tears opened up. I stood and cried. All I was thinking at that time was to speak, find the words and speak. Control this, move through the shame, breathe, just do something to enable the words to come out.
I don’t remember how I managed to tell her, but I remember her body language change. Arms down for her and her colleague, her face lost all its tension and her colleague looked genuinely sad. She moved around the desk and gave me a cuddle. I fell into her, and her tone turned to compassion as she escorted me off the shop floor to the familiar staff room.
I talked, I cried, and she listened, refusing every apology. I wish I could remember what was said, but I can only remember how I felt – which makes it a challenging thing to write. In front of me was someone who was discriminating, but positive. Someone who I went on to learn was a mercilessly maternal mum and a grandma.
She gave me my job back, she requested I speak to her, keep in the loop with my life. The whole team knew of my story and the support they gave isn’t measurable, or qualifiable, they just cared.
I continued my job there until all the Dixons stores where closed across the UK. They were removing loads of high street stores to make the mega Currys / PC World’s we know now.
Why I am sharing this story is because I wanted to stand side by side with my care experience community in solidarity first. As you are bravely sharing your personal testimonies of discrimination in the workplace, you deserve to hear mine. However, my story is not one of negative discrimination, but one of positive.
I see a vulnerability in this campaign; it has failed to communicate what having a protected characteristic will achieve from an operational perspective. For example, what actions will services and people actually take in response to a change in the law? In education we have a designated teacher; in health we have a designated nurse; local authorities are ring-fencing apprenticeships for care leavers; the Care Leaver Covenant exists and charities like The House Project have been established to support care leavers access housing. All this is already being done to support care leavers, are we not already moving in the right direction and would making care experience a protected characteristic add value?
We all want care experienced people to have the same opportunities as everyone else and there is evidence that they don’t, but are the challenges care experienced people face due to discrimination, or are they the result of something else?
This campaign is trying to combat discrimination, we all agree that this shouldn’t happen, I am not confident we all agree, or have seen evidence that making care experience a protected characteristic is the solution.
I will be writing a series of blogs. The purpose of these is to take a holistic view of the impact of ‘protected characteristic’ as a solution to combating discrimination. Considering the potential benefits and drawbacks, and discuss how it could impact care experienced people in different areas of life.
My call to action is that more people speak out. I know colleagues, friends and other care experienced people are sat in the shadows watching this campaign with doubt. If you doubt and don’t debate, then becoming a protected characteristic will be ‘done to’ care experienced people, with the potential of repeating a harmful cycle. Please do not be passive, participate in the debate.
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