It is 8 o’clock in the morning. The cleaner is completing the vacuuming before the conference begins. One by one the delegates come in, but no one says “Good morning”, no one looks at her. The only time words are spoken to her is after the fourth time of asking someone to kindly move their feet so that she can vacuum. He asked her to think about how much she is annoying people.
When she is finished she goes out and gets changed. A quarter of an hour later she steps back into the hall, now as conference leader for the company which has asked her to talk about inclusion and diversity. The company which before the invitation, insisted that it had complete control of inclusion across their business. Not before the two and half hour presentation is over does she reveal herself to be the very same cleaner that no-one spoke to or acknowledged – and then she shows the earlier scenes to them on video.
Angela Peacock is bold as brass, as charming as anything and absolutely in the here and now. Angie, as she calls herself, stands outside her childhood home in Leyton in East London, where she lived until she was 11 years old. The paint is peeling off the walls and the wooden window frames are rotting. If her father could see the house in that state, he would turn in his grave.
When she was a child, all the facades were well kept, so they had a nice frontage. It was important for self respect in the East End. The toilet was out the back and it was dark in the house. And Angie was terrified to go down the stairs in the dark when she had to go to the toilet in the night. Many in the neighbourhood fell foul of the law and ‘blacks’ was a word used disparagingly in the school yard. The first black person she ever spoke to was Jerome, who was in her class. She shows me the school, which has been pulled down and replaced by a yellow brick building. Only the grilled gate, overgrown with ivy bear the memories of her childhood.
If anyone had told her then that a working-class girl, with no education, a good 42 years later would head up her own international company, PDT Global, whose focus is in the field of diversity and inclusion, no one would have believed her. With the exception of herself. She laughs out loud at the thought.
“I have always been good at dreaming and knew that there was something bigger waiting for me outside of Leyton. Also, I was driven on by the fact that my father always said that I should keep a low profile and not look authority in the eye.”
She has since got over that. In fact, it is partly what sparked her towards the job as international conference speaker. She flings open her arms and looks at me with her green-brown whimsical teasing look. Looking like an angel peacock, as indeed her name means.
“When a leader, typically male, sits, with crossed arms and thinks – ‘Oh Goodness, do I really have to sit here for the next two and half hours and listen to the woman with the too-short skirt and red stilettos talking about inclusion and diversity?’ – it is my greatest pleasure to see him put down his arms and know that my words will haunt his dreams for many months ahead.”
Angie’s main theme is about unconscious bias which rules everywhere – and everyone – in today’s society. She starts off her conferences – which in any one week include a global tech company, a leading financial institution, the military and even international government departments like Obama’s diversity group, by asking if there is anyone in the room who is a racist, a homophobe or who hates women…
After people have settled down she will unexpectedly ask them to ‘open the door’ and let all the black people in to make it obvious that there isn’t any real diversity in that room.
“It is striking here in London and, on the whole, other towns around the world that the composition of co-workers is homogeneous. I am not only talking about the lack of women or what people look like, but about all forms of diversity. If a company – or a country – is to develop and grow, it is important to not only call attention to diversity as an objective, but also to work at the actual inclusion of all kinds of people. And yet we still haven’t managed it in London, so there is still a long way to go.”
When Angie came to realise that all her family had voted for Brexit, she felt quite depressed. She had not in her wildest dreams imagined that they would think of doing that. Only her mother could see the consequences when she reeled them off and began to back down when they sat around the dining table.
“For me, it is potential fear that is lurking in the slipstream of Brexit. Fear about immigration from especially European countries like Poland and other Eastern European countries, fear of unemployment and fear of losing control. But people forget that there is a whole generation of young people, who lose their identity as Europeans. Many can’t remember anything else but the EU and it is after all they who will lead the country into the future.”
We have turned down a street which confusingly looks like all the others in the area. Two-storey, shabby, English terraced houses standing in rows like a regiment of soldiers as far as the eye can see. The monthly rent is on the whole the same as the amount her father sold the house for in his time. £1,300 for a little insignificant two-up, two-down. Gentrification has hit Leyton just like so many former white working-class areas in the East End of London. Today the picture of the City is anything but white. There is nothing wrong with diversity but inclusivity is slow to catch up if you are to ask Angie.
“On the surface, it looks fine. In bars, on streets like this one and many other places in London. But if you look at the top organisations in London and Copenhagen for that matter there are few from Asian, and the Muslim countries, employed in the most senior roles – and even fewer blacks. People talk about it but little action seems to be taking effect.She is furthermore concerned that Angela Merkel has said that you can ‘no longer count on England.’ That kind of statement is greeted with a desire to fight.
“For me a fight is anything but inclusion. If we had an intelligent leader, that leader would ask his/herself how that thought could be changed in Angela Merkel’s head so that we could start working together. For me it is inclusion and the future of the country. It’s a question of listening.”
We have returned now to where we started off. The street where she used to live as a child and put elastic around trees so she could play jumping games or where she sat on the wall in front of the house swinging her legs. There is nothing notably nostalgic to see here – only surprise about everything seeming so small.
“When I look at my childhood home, it reminds me of where I have got to today. All my drive lies in the fear of returning to that or something that is worse.”
The Jeep is parked in the next street. She is going to see her mother, who lives 8 miles away before she goes back to the countryside where she lives 6 months of the year – the rest of her time spent working in the USA. Before we part, I ask her if she is thinking about moving her London office to another country.
She starts to smile. The thought hits me that in the end Angela Peacock is driven by a need to overcome opposition and – if it was not because of the many compromises in politics – she would probably have been one of the top leaders in the country. But, fortunately for London, she is trying to work out how you can turn opposition into cooperation. This fight has brought her nomination as Freeman of the City of London as well as the European prize for diversity as an inspirational global role model in 2016.
“It is the entrepreneurs and leaders of the country that will take England securely through Brexit. Not our politicians.”