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Bridging Barriers - improving career opportunities for young people from ethnically diverse backgrounds

Copy of Untitled Design (3)
Copy of Untitled Design (3)

Author: Kevin Osei, founder, Bridging Barriers

Kevin Osei is founder of Bridging Barriers and a member of the Sounddelivery Media spokesperson network. Here Kevin reflects on the importance of the recent Tap into London's Black Talent campaign from Action for Race Equality (ARE) and what employers can do to recruit more young people from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

There are around 80,000 young black men in London, yet we have the highest unemployment rate of all young people, regardless of our qualification levels. Growing up in London as an ethnic minority is already a barrier to accessing opportunities, let alone as a young black man.

That's why I set up Bridging Barriers, a charity championing social mobility with a focus on supporting young people from ethnically diverse backgrounds through mentoring to access employment. Having a mentor changed my life, and changes the lives of hundreds of young people annually through our program. I'm sure it will do the same for others if given the opportunity.

When I saw the Tap into London's Black Talent campaign from ARE, aimed at reducing the deep-seated unemployment disparities impacting young Black men in London, it resonated strongly with my work and values. Statistics show that Black men are up to three times more likely to be unemployed than our white male counterparts, irrespective of our qualifications (Channel 4, 2021). The campaign targets senior business leaders and HR teams to do more to support the hiring, retention and progression of young Black men, with the support of helpful tools like the Mayor of London’s expert Inclusive Employers Toolkit, developed in partnership with ARE's employment initiative Moving on Up.

But why is this campaign needed? From experience, one thing I've realised is that being a young black man automatically puts you at a disadvantage and it’s up to you to prove others wrong. There are immediate barriers we're faced with that limit our chances of success and force us to work ten times harder than our counterparts. One of them being stereotypes.

Damaging stereotypes

This starts off in school, where many of us are described as “rowdy” and “aggressive”. Because of this, we're barely given a chance as teachers don’t believe in us. Many mentees at Bridging Barriers say “...my teacher said I would never make it” - this is the honest truth that many of us young Black men face. These thoughts are an attempt to limit us and keep us in a box that we must find a way to break through. This unwarranted stigmatisation not only affects our individual job prospects but also perpetuates a harmful narrative about our capabilities, further perpetuating our marginalisation. This shouldn’t be something that keeps us in the ongoing cycle of “struggle culture” but should be what motivates us to break these limitations and be good examples for the next generation, proving that where you start doesn’t need to be where you end.

As a society, it’s important that we address the meritocratic myth and recognise that there are clear systemic barriers to equality. There's a significant lack of representation for minority groups in senior roles. Our general lack of visibility in corporate environments makes some of us feel like we have to overcompensate.

... while we may have to work harder than our peers, it’s important that we don’t have to be a prodigy to be worthy of a seat at the table.

This is damaging and can often lead to burnout. While we may have to work harder than our peers, it’s important that we don’t have to be a prodigy to be worthy of a seat at the table. While hard work ensures a level of success, educational and employment inequality is not an issue of the individual’s work ethic. There needs to be an active form of support for these groups to flourish, rather than the current ‘hard work’ narrative displayed in many British institutions.

From a deeper perspective, there are day-to-day challenges we face that have a detrimental effect on life chances. One to name is the ongoing issue of gun and knife crime, which is more prevalent in young Black men than in any other community. As a young Black man, and I'm sure others can relate - many of us grew up in communities where we had friends who were heavily involved in this lifestyle. One of the main reasons behind this is a lack of support systems and father figures. A lot of young Black men face pressure to join gangs as a means of gaining acceptance, a sense of belonging or even just basic safety. Many gangs actively recruit vulnerable youth, promising a sense of identity that tends to be lacking in other aspects of their lives.

Networking and mentor support

The absence of positive influences can leave young Black men susceptible to negative peer influences. The majority of the time, it’s because many of us lack guidance and have limited exposure to support us along the right path. Not only this, but we also lack professional networks too. Networking is a crucial aspect of finding employment in today’s world, however, young Black men often lack access to the professional networks that can facilitate job opportunities. The majority of senior positions are occupied by white individuals, leading to a lack of representation and mentorship for young Black men. The absence of guidance and support can hinder career advancement and perpetuate the cycle of unemployment.

This is what we are actively working to change at Bridging Barriers. There needs to be more of an effort to promote diversity in leadership. A key factor of high unemployment among young Black people is a lack of role models. We've created a mentoring program that connects young Black men with positive role models who can help them make informed choices, enhance their career prospects and stay grounded. For many of us, it’s difficult to dream big when you can’t see anyone around you in positions that you aspire to be in.

For me, having a mentor helped me to land an internship at one of the Big 4 financial services firms. Without a mentor, I'm confident I wouldn’t have landed this role.

Mentoring programmes that encourage self-development and networking are incredibly important for both self-esteem and professional opportunities. Our mentoring program looks at various personal and professional development topics such as goal-setting, confidence building and job application support. For me, having a mentor helped me to land an internship at one of the Big 4 financial services firms. Without a mentor, I'm confident I wouldn’t have landed this role.

Help for employers from grassroots charity

So how do we address this issue? Employers must not see this as a tick-box exercise, but instead invest in supporting the next generation of young Black men. One way is to engage in more initiatives with grassroots organisations. Many employers target the most well-known organisations for support, but there's a lot of value in grassroots organisations. These organisations are already embedded in the communities they serve, and with the advantage of knowing the people and culture, are in a good position to support employers with their diversity & inclusion objectives, helping young people access the opportunities they deserve. Employers need to take action by making a commitment and sticking with it.

At Bridging Barriers, we're looking for employers to partner with us to support young Black men by giving them access to a role model they may not otherwise have. You could contribute to changing the trajectory of their life.

About the author

Kevin Osei is an award-winning social entrepreneur and social mobility champion. Kevin is the Founder of Bridging Barriers, a charity focused on helping young people to achieve career success through mentoring.

Bridging Barriers' objective is to build confidence and resilience in candidates by giving them access to role models who are able to equip them with the resources, tools and mindset to succeed in their field of interest.

Through 1-1 personalised mentoring, Bridging Barriers empowers candidates with the soft and hard skills needed to thrive, while building employment networks to strengthen access to opportunity. In the past two years they've supported over 400 young people through one-to-one mentoring, pairing them with role models who work in their field of interest.

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Website https://www.bridgingbarriers.co.uk/