UK Black History Month: ‘Co-ops should Rise to the occasion’

Interview with Ash Akhtar, co-chair of the Co-op Group’s Rise network, which supports ethnic minority colleagues

Like many other organisations in the UK, the Co-op Group celebrates Black History Month this October, to recognise and honour Black people’s and communities’ contributions, achievements, and cultural heritage. 

“Creating an inclusive culture starts with every single one of us,” said Co-op Group CEO Shirine Khoury-Haq in a Black History Month message to colleagues. “It’s about role modelling inclusive behaviours and bringing endless inclusion to life. And we can do this by being culturally aware and curious about our colleagues’ differences. It’s about embracing diversity and learning from each other […] Together we can make Co-op an even more inclusive and vibrant community.”

Khoury-Haq is one of the sponsors of the organisation’s Rise network, which aims to increase cultural awareness and amplify the voices of ethnic minority colleagues through education and sharing real-life experiences. 

Launched at the Group’s AGM in 2018, Rise provides “a safe and inclusive space for our members to discuss and address issues that affect them as ethnic minorities at work,” says Rise member and co-chair, Ash Akhtar. “This includes cultural barriers, stereotypes, microaggressions, unconscious bias and discrimination.”

Rise offers guidance and support to colleagues across the business through huddles, events, and a Yammer community, and provides race and ethnicity inclusion resources for the organisation’s leaders. The network has also developed a SharePoint site to share thoughts and reflections around current issues, runs awareness days, and holds listening circles to understand the challenges that colleagues may face regarding their race or ethnicity.

“We also work together to identify areas where Co-op can improve policies and practices to better support ethnic minority colleagues to belong and progress across the business,” says Akhtar. This can come through an inclusive hiring approach, race at work sessions and racial equality commitments, he adds.

Akhtar is a strategic communications business partner in the Co-op Group’s colleague communications team. Born in Canada, his family migrated to the UK when he was five. “I am proud of my South Asian heritage and admire the resilience and hospitality ingrained in my culture, steeped in history and traditions, which influence who I am today,” he says.

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“I identify as a gay man of Pakistani descent. Growing up in England, I value the freedom to be who I am and celebrate my identity openly. I take pride in being part of a multicultural society that encourages tolerance, allowing me to embrace my heritage and live authentically as a gay man with love and acceptance.

“I’m privileged enough to experience various cultural festivals and events, such as celebrating Eid, Diwali, and Christmas, with my family and friends. I’m a huge foodie and love the warmth of family gatherings, especially around Eid celebrations, often filled with traditional dishes like lamb biryani, butter chicken, samosas and pakoras, to name but a few. 

“I love listening to the vibrant rhythms and infectious melodies of Bollywood music and love a boogie to a great Bhangra beat, celebrating the energetic and joyful spirit of Punjabi culture!”

Joining the Co-op Group in 2017, he found an organisation that “believes a fair and inclusive world is one where people respect and celebrate their differences and everyone has the chance to succeed”. 

“After all,” he says, “that’s the kind of world we want to live in. We want everyone working here to feel a true sense of belonging, where new ideas are welcomed and innovation thrives.”

The Group pledges to promote equal opportunities, fair pay, and a commitment to hiring people from diverse backgrounds, and supports underrepresented groups through various outreach and development programmes. “This commitment aligns with our co-operative values, where inclusivity and fairness are at the heart of everything we do,” says Akhtar, adding that supporting Black History Month is one way the Group demonstrates this.

“The Rise Network believes supporting Black History Month is vital because it reinforces our commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion,” adds Akhtar. “By recognising and celebrating the significant contributions of Black people throughout history and the present, we not only honour their achievements but also inspire positive change.

“I’m passionate about ensuring we use moments in time to amplify the voices of marginalised communities. By participating in Black History Month, we help foster an inclusive work environment where all our colleagues feel valued and respected, promoting a culture of equity. Additionally, it enhances our understanding of the challenges faced by Black communities and strengthens our resolve to combat systemic racism.”

This year’s theme is ‘Saluting Our Sisters’, paying  homage to black women who have had contributions ignored, ideas appropriated, and voices silenced. 

Throughout October, the Group plans to raise the profile of black women colleagues at Co-op and Nisa by “sharing stories, encouraging meaningful discussions, and continuing the conversation beyond October”.

The organisation is also planning a celebration on 3 October with Black leaders from within the organisation – Denise Scott-McDonald (Council president), Kenyatte Nelson (chief membership and customer officer) and Kameshia Lewis (head of comms planning and excellence) – alongside special guests; sessions on career progression for Black colleagues and what the Group is doing about structural inequalities; and a Privilege Walk, an experiential exercise designed to help participants recognise the societal advantages and disadvantages encountered individually. 

Celebrating Black History Month is something all co-ops should be doing, Ash Akhtar adds. 

“Co-operatives are founded on the principles of equality and democratic participation. Celebrating Black History Month in October reinforces diversity and inclusion principles in our communities, demonstrating that everyone’s contributions are valued.”

He also thinks Black History Month can inspire co-op members – particularly Black individuals – to take on leadership roles within their co-op and community. And that by actively participating in Black History Month celebrations, “co-ops can enhance their reputation as socially responsible and inclusive organisations,” attracting like-minded individuals and partners.

“Black History Month also provides a platform for a co-op’s customers, members and the wider community to learn about the rich history, culture, and achievements of Black people in our society,” he says “and serves as a reminder of the historical and ongoing struggles against racism and inequality. 

“Co-ops can use this occasion to reaffirm their commitment to addressing systemic inequities and promoting social justice.”