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Celebrating our individual differences – why equality, diversity and inclusion matters to me

Project Consultant Anna Willson, who has been working with ellenor to deliver an EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion) project since September 2021, has a history with the Northfleet-based charity which goes much further back. When she was just 11, Anna said goodbye to her Great Nan at ellenor’s in-patient ward and has seen the hospice support several other members of her family since.

And it wasn’t too long before Anna’s personal ties to ellenor became professional, too. During her 12 years working in the NHS as a Commissioner, Anna was responsible for delivering a range of projects relating to the provision of palliative care services in the local community. This, unsurprisingly, involved working closely with ellenor to collaborate on a range of innovative solutions. These included development of the much anticipated ellenor Care Home Support Team, which started as a one year pilot initially, but very quickly highlighted just how essential this service is in supporting complex residents to remain in their homes at end of life. As well as this, Anna worked with ellenor to develop the Ambulance pathway directly into the Inpatient Ward, another innovate project which alongside the Care Home Support Team, received both national and regional recognition.

Since leaving her NHS position in 2019 to have her first child and grow her consultancy business, Anna’s enthusiasm for ellenor hasn’t waned. So when the chance came to join the hospice’s team in earnest – this time with the remit of building the hospice’s EDI strategy – she jumped at it.

“I’m passionate about the work of making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to die in the right way, and to live as well as they can, for as long as they can. With Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, we’re looking at our staff, and asking whether we’re as diverse as we can be. If we’re not, why not? And, on the flipside of that, why do we only tend to attract the same sort of patients into ellenor?”.

Anna’s approach involves targeting “key areas” of Gravesend’s culturally diverse population. These include the LGBTQ+ communities, Traveller, Gypsy & Roma communities, BAME communities including faiths such as Sikhism and Islam, those with physical and learning disabilities and our local homeless community. Anna also plans to reach out to Eastern European communities and any other demographic she feels she could learn from as part of this project.

“We want to find out a bit more about their culture, and what death and dying means to them, so that we can educate our staff and volunteers on what’s important to each community,” says Anna. “We’ve got such a diverse mix of people living in our local area – why are they not accessing our support?”

To understand this, ellenor has been engaging with a number of local and national advisory groups. Among these are the Martha Trust – a charity representing people with physical and learning disabilities – and the Traveller Movement which advocates for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Anna has also forged strong relationships with the local Gurdwara in Gravesend, members of Kent Police’s Diversity and Inclusion Academy and our local Homeless shelter.

“Engagement with our local communities is the biggest thing we’ve focussed on so far. We have to talk to the people in our area; to let them know who we are and what we can offer them. We’ve held our hands up as an organisation and said we’re not as diverse as we could be, but we’d love to find out why. We are looking to ‘challenge the norm’ and ask the difficult questions we need to move ourselves forward. These communities can help to educate us and that’s really important”

ellenor’s push towards greater EDI is part of a wider national drive by Hospice UK, with funding from the Masonic Foundation. However, Anna believes, it’s an initiative echoed in far wider trends.

“There’s a massive shift happening globally at the moment in how people see the world around them. Perception is changing – people are understanding that this thing called ‘unconscious bias’ might actually be there and perhaps we need to consider the impact of that a bit more. This is about us at ellenor taking ownership of that trend and getting into the flow that’s already happening on a huge scale. It’s our chance to show how willing we are to learn and to challenge the way we think and behave. Just because we’ve always done it a certain way doesn’t mean it’s right”

But despite the increased gravitas that companies have placed on EDI practices in recent years, Anna never wants to see it become a ‘tick box’ exercise.

“We don’t just want EDI at ellenor to be another policy or a piece of paper. This is about not only showcasing what we’re already doing well, but getting the whole organisation - and the population - behind us to make this project a success going forward. This is long-term strategy; I don’t just want to skim the surface. I want to make lasting change, and that won’t happen overnight. This is a work in progress, but we have to start somewhere right?”

“Just because you’ve translated your website into 50 different languages, doesn’t mean you’re being inclusive! EDI is about doing the work underneath that, day to day – creating diverse and inclusive communities that support each other inside and outside of the hospice. It’s about really starting to see people as individuals, regardless of labels. That ‘tick box mentality’ and ‘population data’ will only tell you so much – I feel a lot of this is about looking at the person underneath all that, and find out what their needs, desires, goals and aspirations are and why they are important to them.”

Of course, working within a diverse environment comes with inevitable challenges. One is understanding the various religious and cultural beliefs around death and dying, and the customs and practices involved across different faiths and creeds.

“We have to understand [cultural and religious beliefs around death] in order to be able to have the right conversations with people when that point comes. This is why we need to educate ourselves. Just because you’re Christian, we can’t assume you have Christian beliefs. We have to ask questions; to make it about the individual, rather than a preconception of what Christianity might mean to you personally. I’m Christian, but I’d prefer not to have any religious support at the end of my life. When it comes to death and dying, you can never assume anything.”

“The second challenge is the stigma attached to end of life care. Whatever work you’re doing – EDI or not – you’ve got to break down that stigma. I can engage with as many groups as you like, but if they don’t want to talk about death/dying – if there’s a taboo attached to what they think a hospice is – it’s going to make no difference what outreach work we do.” 

“We have to show people that a hospice isn’t what they think a hospice is. It’s not somewhere that’s dark and dismal, where you come to spend your last days of life on your own in a bed. It’s not that at all – we do so much amazing work at ellenor. There’s so many things we do that people don’t associate with hospices, so lets shout more about it.”

Just as Anna has both professional and personal ties to ellenor, so too does her relationship with Equality, Diversity & Inclusion go beyond the workplace.

“I am part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, so EDI is a very personal thing for me. I’m even more passionate about this area since having my children [A Son aged 3 and a Daughter aged 8 months], because it’s opened my eyes to the world in a completely different way. When my kids grow up, my Wife and I don’t want there to be a stigma or any unconscious bias attached to them having two Mums.”

“The driving force behind a lot of the EDI work we do is opening people’s eyes to seeing the individual – that we’re all human beings. Whatever race, colour, creed, sexual orientation – we’re all the same at the heart of it.”

But what also keeps Anna going is that her work with ellenor has the potential to go far beyond the walls of the hospice, and make a difference on a large scale.

“By doing this work, and talking to people – training and educating them about their thoughts, behaviours, and the unconscious bias they may or may not have – it’s going to help them in other areas of their life too. It’s going to open their minds to seeing things a bit differently, to challenge the conditioning they’ve been carrying their whole life’s. This work could have a ripple effect far wider than just the Hospice as they’ll take that learning home to their families, and that’s an amazing thought.”