Written by:
Donna Kinnair

Shining a light

Read time:
5 minutes

Shining a light

A former chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing who has held a wide range of senior roles in the NHS, Donna Kinnair takes over from Clive Jones as chair of the Runnymede Trust in April. She discusses her varied career, health inequalities and – as we mark International Women’s Day – the challenges facing women of colour, as well as her hopes for the future. 

You’ve had an incredibly rich and varied career in health care – can you tell us a bit about it?

I have worked for 40-plus years in health care in a variety of roles – I think I can truly say I have worked across the medium of health care, that is primary care, community and acute care, and mental health services. 

I have had the best of times providing care and services to patients and their families. Working as a health visitor ensured that I knew how to work with communities and engage with them to meet their needs. 

Supporting nursing staff by practically working alongside them providing care during Covid-19 reminded me of how tough the role of a nurse can be, particularly in dangerous times. It enabled me to advocate for both patients and staff – particularly those from marginalised communities – and ensure that we supported those looking after our peoples’ health by ensuring they had personal protective equipment, mental health support and appropriate training. 

Perhaps my favourite role was working in Southwark with communities, local authority councillors and influential MPs and balancing the varying demands. Obviously, patient care and patient safety and ensuring I looked after my staff were vitally important to me.

As head of the Royal College of Nursing, you spoke out powerfully about how the NHS is failing people of colour – particularly women of colour – as well as your own experiences of racism within the service: can you give us a sense of the scale of the problem?

I spoke out because many of the services that I have worked in weren’t created or constructed to meet the needs of the ethnically diverse populations we now serve. Despite the health service being delivered by people of colour since its inception, many young nurses and healthcare workers have been and continue to be blocked by racism from advancing in their careers. 

Racism remains alive and well, as we can see from much of the data. Women of colour face particular attacks with respect to both gender and race discrimination. Organisations can perpetrate double standards, unequal treatment, harassment and, at times, very conscious bias and aggressions against people of colour. 

Discourse about this is rare as it is often dealt with on an individual basis. Much of it is perpetrated by attitudes and behaviours which cause barriers for, and prevent access to, equal rights and opportunities for minority groups. 

As a public health nurse, I have always believed that raising awareness and shining a light on these inequities is the first step to improving the health of the population as a whole.

‘I believe that the majority of people in this country want to promote racial justice’

As we mark International Women’s Day, what do you see as the biggest issues facing women of colour in the UK?

There remains a culture of hostility and a refusal on the part of some employers to understand the deep structural barriers to equity for Black women in the workplace and a failure to implement systemic and meaningful change. Perhaps worse is the behaviours of those who witness these acts and choose to remain silent leaving those being persecuted more isolated.  

What appealed to you about the role of Runnymede Trust chair and what are you most looking forward to doing when you take up the position in April?

It is a real pleasure to work with an organisation that is prepared to work hard at providing the evidence to dismantle structural racism and promote racial justice. I am optimistic for the future as I believe that the majority of people in this country want to promote racial justice, with just a minority wanting to uphold those archaic hierarchies based on colour and gender. 

We have seen recently the explosion of opposition to racial injustice through the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd. At Runnymede we still have so much to do against a climate where some choose to promote division among people.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo © Royal College of Nursing

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