BLACK DRUG WORKERS’ REALITY:
Specialist Workers Without Specialist Management
by Geraldine Nolan
As far back as 1989 it became clear to many black workers in the drugs and related fields that little was known in the way of research and specialist information about drug use within the black communities, and little, if any effort was being made to improve and provide equal access to prevention, care and treatment services. A special seminar organised by SCODA in 1989 on equality of opportunity and monitoring resulted in the formation of the Black Drug Workers Support Group.
The support group made it very clear from the outset that it did not see its role as a substitute for the employment responsibilities of mainstream agencies. What was on offer was the opportunity for black professionals to discuss issues of concern and possible solutions with black colleagues doing similar work and experiencing similar problems. Support in career development was also offered, with advice on the completion of application forms and going for job interviews. Within a year the group was in a position to provide a specialist resource both to black professionals and mainstream agencies wishing to challenge the issues around black drug use and equality in employment. It was agreed to change the name of the group to the Black Drug Workers Forum (BDWF), to reflect the new proactive stance adopted by the group. Over the past few years the BDWF has also enabled black drug users to discuss issues and concerns within a confidential setting. In addition it has provided regular support and advice to black drug workers and more importantly it has provided an advocacy service for individual black workers experiencing a variety of problems within their workplace. Although there have been requests for representation from a number of black workers in London the majority of requests have been from workers in agencies and organisations outside London.
Ten years ago ‘ethnic minorities’ were the flavour of the decade in the drug and alcohol field. Seemingly overnight black drugs workers became spokespeople for, and representatives of, the entire black community. They were expected to explain why black people took drugs, if and why they needed services, and what these services should be. When it came to employing black workers, more often out of liberal guilt than social awareness, the most popular job title was that of development worker .This post was often an impossible one with totally unrealistic expectations, Once in post the black worker would be expected amongst other things to develop internal and external policies; research black drug use; identify service needs; outreach to target groups; produce targeted information; represent the client groups and organisation; monitor evaluate, and in most cases also provide a direct service.
Once employed many of these workers discovered a glaring lack of understanding, not only about the needs of the Black communities the agency was claiming to serve, but also the needs of the black worker/s it was employing. Little or no time was spent examining current practice, in particular employment policy, and the general reluctance by organisations to acknowledge and respond to racist attitudes within the workforce, meant that at no time was any thought given to the kind of supervision, support and management that the worker might need.
It was assumed that although employed as so-called ‘specialist workers’ when it came to the reality, these workers were denied specialist management, supervision, training and support and were often left to cater single-handedly for an entire black community with little or no support from the organisation as a whole and individual workers in particular. In some cases their work with the black communities was actively discouraged. In a recent interview for the BDWF News, one worker said: "I was specifically put in post, a black woman’s post, to work with that client group, but I have never been given any encouragement or support to do that. It has always been challenged." Now if the reality for the worker is that not only is there a reluctance, but in some cases opposition to working specifically with the black communities, how can these workers be given appropriate guidance and support for what is ‘acknowledged’ as a new and innovative area of work? It seems that the specialism of black drugs work lasts only as long as it takes for the ink to dry on the funding proposal. Once in post these workers are only regarded as special in that they are seen as a special problem.
Management within the voluntary sector is generally poor. The structures that many organisations adopt in no way necessitates effective management and support and this is seen in sharp relief when developing areas of work within the black communities. Managers who have little understanding, commitment or clear structures for black service development are unlikely to be in the position to be able to provide the level of supervision and support that this area of work requires, even though they are aware that when they employ a black worker with a specific brief they are in effect attempting to develop an entirely new area of work.
There are many white managers who simply do not have the skills td develop appropriate management and supervision structures for black workers, especially those who are employed to work with black people. Although without the skills themselves, these managers are threatened by the mere suggestion of black workers approaching appropriate black professionals to provide them with non-managerial supervision. They fail to see the benefit that this would have not only to the worker, but to the agency and the client group that he/she is attempting to work with.
There was and still is no real commitment to developing services for black drug users which is why agencies continue to employ these workers in single numbers, on short-term contracts, with little or no power to be effective. As well as being responsible for the needs of the black communities the workers often have responsibility for the internal development of their own and other organisations attempting to provide services to the local black communities.
Within an organisation, particularly an un-committed one, the employment of a black development worker ensures that the image of the agency remains intact and the responsibility for work with black drug users rests solely on the shoulders of the black worker. It is amazing to see how many organisations and agencies employ these workers, but who in reality do not want or cannot cope with any form of development that would increase client numbers, in particular black clients. As one white worker said: "We do not want to be flooded out with black drug users". This kind of attitude would be considered unacceptable if a black worker made the same comments about white drug users. Must we assume that black workers are immune to these attitudes that inevitably result in internal problems and victimisation. If a drugs worker has these kind of attitudes, and there are too many that do, then it is no wonder that black workers suffer from internal racism and prejudice from the very organisation that employed them. The same organisation that would have made a successful social argument for the very need for development within the black communities to purchasers and funders.
Over the past nine months there has been an increase in the number of black workers contacting the BDWF for advocacy and support with internal disputes and problems. In many cases these difficulties are of a very serious nature and can result in not only the worker being disciplined and totally undermined, but also in some cases destroying what had been a good professional reputation. It is also an ideal opportunity for the agency to refuse to work with the black communities under the pretext of having 'done that before and it didn't; work'. So we are back to square one in helping black drug users to receive the service and treatment they have a right to.
It has been interesting to see how many of the requests for advocacy have come from outside of London. Maybe one can assume that the old adage of safety in numbers is true and the fact that these workers are often the only worker in a given area if not region, allows levels of unacceptable bad practice (in some cases malpractice) to occur. Take the example of a black worker employed and committed to working with the black communities who has 'difficulties' with a white female colleague who actively resents the developments. Under any other circumstance these 'difficulties' would be addressed in staff meetings and supervision, but as this is a black worker involved and suddenly the whole issue becomes a disciplinary one. Racist remarks made to that worker are ignored and when they respond and deal with this they are the ones who are told of "unacceptable behaviour" and disciplined. In many cases the organisations are not only operating under a blatant bias, but blatant racism.
We have all learnt the new language of 'PC speak' and the days of overt verbal racism has virtually disappeared from the voluntary sector. What we now have is a subtle collusion between agencies and white workers which is in many cases more damaging and far more subversive. In these cases, when the worker contacts the BDWF they are frustrated, hurt and isolated. They still have a commitment to their communities and this is often one of the reasons why they are even staying with the agency and fighting the injustice. The BDWF can give support, representation and advice and in some cases refer to appropriate legal departments. It is however interesting to see how many of these organisations and agencies suddenly drop all disciplinary action when they become aware that the worker has support and a forum which will advocate on their behalf.
Most of us in London assume that black workers are supported and employed in equal numbers throughout Britain, but this is simply not the case. It is unbelievable but in Liverpool there are only three black drugs workers. One of these workers has been in a dispute not only about the attitudes of white colleagues but also the totally disproportionate client caseload that they have. Their work in the black community is not valued or even recognised and when they suggested their post be re-graded to reflect their caseload they were told that this was something that may be looked at in the future.
The appointment of black workers is essential to enable the development of appropriate responses to the needs of black drug users but it is not an opportunity to relieve white workers of the responsibility of doing what is basically their job. The development of black drug services is no easy task and can only be effective when the necessary management and supervision structures are in place. Black workers cannot be expected to succeed without support and a clear communication of expectation. Managers need to be accountable for their responsibilities as employers, directors and supervisors of workers. Black workers, who by definition are working in an area as yet ‘un-explored’ by the agency, have a right to effective management and direction.
The BDWF is in a position to be aware of these issues and problems, simply because it has a membership of black workers. For many individuals there is not only a reluctance to accept that these problems exist, but an assumption that as black people we are more intent on destructive comment rather than constructive criticism. If the needs of black drug users were not paramount it is possible that we would be prepared to accept bad management practices, to do ‘enough’ to get paid and keep quiet when challenged. Those days must surely be over. We move towards the end of 1990’s with little if any real change in attitudes and commitment towards helping all those with drug problems - black and white. If the last ten years have taught us anything, then it is that we must break the silence and simply state what we have always known to be true.
Until white managers accept that their lack of knowledge, experience and skills about the needs of the black community as a whole and black drug users in particular is unacceptable, they have no right to claim that they are providing a service for the community. They are in effect operating a selective service for a selected client group and more importantly employing black workers and setting them up to fail.
Geraldine Nolan is a founder member of the Black Drug Workers Support Group, and is currenVy chair of the BDWE The BDWF can be contacted at 30-31 Great Sutton Street, London ECIV ODX; telephone 0171-490 4338.