From adversity to diversity, one member’s battle with racism

When Jacqui Burnett (FMAAT) was repeatedly shunned by a colleague, she placed a vase of flowers between them and got on with making a difference.

You can never tell where a finance qualification will take you. Back in the eighties, Jacqui Burnett (FMAAT) found it hard to even get a job.

Now she is an Executive/Cabinet member at Luton Borough Council and Portfolio Holder for Safer and Stronger Communities, having built a colourful career that has included being a member of the Arts Council, a school governor and a Windrush ambassador for the Home Office.

“It was really hard to get a job in finance during the 1980s,” remembers Burnett.

“I experienced racism and I struggled to progress in my finance career once I got my foot on the ladder. It wasn’t like ‘I hate you because you’re black’, it was more subtle than that.”

Hiring managers would tell Burnett she was either overqualified or underqualified; they didn’t think she’d stay long in the role, or they didn’t think she was a good fit. “I lost count of the number of finance jobs I applied for where they used those excuses,” she says.

Eventually she secured her first finance role as an admin finance assistant at London Buses before moving to London Underground where she worked in several roles from Information Assistant to Operating Management Accountant. She may have ended the working day reeking of cigarette smoke, but Burnett has fond memories of her tenure at LU.

“We worked hard and we all pulled together. It was a lovely family feel. We laughed lots.”

It was quite different when Burnett moved to Bedfordshire in 1987. Systemic racism, it seemed, was rife in the home counties. The loaded questions asking where she was born, the raised eyebrows when colleagues discovered her children who attended one of the top state schools in the country had gone skiing ‘even though they were Black’, or Burnett herself being constantly overlooked for promotion in favour of white peers.

“In the 1990s, there were a lot of Australians and South Africans who had moved to the UK for a gap year, got a university degree and land themselves a job in finance. I’d train them and then they’d get promoted above me. Time and time again I saw white staff with less experience land Financial Director or Finance Manager roles, yet Black people like me, who were born in this country, never got those kind of opportunities.”

And then there was the lady who Burnett sat opposite at work every day for years, who never spoke to her, not even to say ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’.  “She never said one word to me, only to my boss. In the end, I just placed a vase of flowers on the desk between us, so I had something lovely to look at instead.”

Burnett says she had to prove and justify herself and her qualifications time and time again, something she explains, is a common experience for many Black employees. “Every time you have to remind someone of how qualified you are, it’s traumatic: justifying yourself as a Black person again and again and again. Other people don’t have to do that.”

On one occasion, during an appraisal, after Burnett had spent months improving the finance function resulting in a positive internal report audit at her public sector role in Luton, her manager told her she did not think her ‘personality’ suited ‘parochial’ Bedfordshire. Burnett took the opportunity to complain using the right channels, but shortly after, she was told they had decided to ‘reorganise’ the team and her post was being dissolved. After union intervention, Burnett was offered an alternative post, but Burnett was ready to move on and take her skills elsewhere.

Burnett focused her attentions on her local community, moving into diversity and inclusion (D&I). However, she never forgot her accountancy training. And she continues to use accountancy skills in her day-to-day roles.

“My accountancy background has stood me in good stead,” she explains. “Especially from my time at London Underground – I was offered every type of support and training needed. I couldn’t want for more. Since moving careers, I still work with budgets and I’m the one who likes to delve in and look at the numbers, where a lot of my colleagues are more ‘blue sky thinking’. My accountant skills also helped ensure we created a permanent financial scrutiny committee and not many local authorities have that.”

As Burnett explains, she’s used the skills, knowledge and experience gleaned from achieving FMAAT status in every role she’s had since qualifying with AAT, including being a member of the LGPS Bedfordshire Pensions Board and setting up Connect2Luton, a joint venture with Kent Commercial Services during the pandemic.  Connect2Luton employed Luton residents at the town’s Covid-19 testing centres, ensuring it had a positive impact on the local economy.

And there’s another hugely significant element, inherent in accountancy which Burnett brings to her role: ethics. “I’m a politician but when you’re trained as an accountant, ethics are massive. I always have ethics with me, on my conscience. I’m always mindful of my professional conduct, which possibly a lot of other politicians aren’t. My professional conduct is with me all the time, in everything I do.”

Since retraining, Burnett has worked across human rights, fire services, housing developments and now, in her current role as Executive Cabinet member and Portfolio Holder for Safer and Stronger Communities, she looks at ways to improve community safety and engagement alongside health and safety initiatives and compliance.

She has also helped close the attainment gap for African heritage children from 23 per cent with five GCSEs including Maths and English in 2004 to 78 per cent with five GCSES in 2015 and spearheaded several community projects including the Luton-based youth jazz orchestra for young people from a diverse backgrounds to play with professionals. And she’s a member of the Windrush national organisation: her own parents were of the Windrush generation. “It’s about righting the wrongs,” she explains.

So what’s the thread which links all this community work, both professional and voluntary together?

“Levelling up,” says Burnett. “Without question, it’s about levelling up from an equity, not equality point of view.” She uses the analogy of watching a basketball game behind a wall. Treating everyone equally would mean that everyone is treated the same, but those who are lower down or smaller would be unable to see the game. “We don’t all start from the same place in life,” Burnett explains. “Some of us will need bigger boxes to help us watch the game. Then we can all enjoy it.”

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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