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Green Light in the City

What's Going on at Nottingham Castle?

18 November 21 words: Ashley Carter
photos: Tracey Whitefoot

A series of high-profile incidents have led to accusations of racism and work-place harassment, suggesting that all is not well behind-the-scenes at Nottingham Castle...

When Nottingham Castle opened back in June, there was much excitement. After being closed for three years the city finally had it’s premier tourist attraction back. Plus the whole place had been reinvigorated with some exciting new exhibits and a seemingly great team behind the scenes. We were so excited we devoted most of the July issue of our magazine to it and genuinely enjoyed working with them to uncover some of the stories from it’s hundreds of years of history. 

However, over the last few months the Nottingham Castle Trust, the organisation behind the iconic Notts’ landmark, has been plagued with criticism, including incidents of racism, harassment and a workplace described as an “environment of fear”. We thought it was time to take a look at what’s been going on there. 

Panya Banjoko and Accusations of Racism

Panya Banjoko, the poet, writer, activist and curator, spoke out about an incident in which she believed her two granddaughters were the victims of a hate crime at the Castle in August. Basford-born Banjoko curated the Don’t Blame the Blacks exhibition, showcased in the recently revamped gallery, and was taking her family to see her work when the incident, in which she alleges another child punched and made racist comments towards her grandchildren, occurred. Banjoko claims that the Castle staff she complained to about the incident initially ignored her, before calling her ‘aggressive.’ In response to the incident, a Castle initially responded saying, “We are always striving to improve the diversity of the exhibitions and of our own team. Since opening just two months ago, the Castle has been successful in portraying many facets of Nottingham’s history, including its diverse communities. We would welcome a meeting with Ms Banjoko to discuss how we can continue to implement positive change.” 

In a subsequent response, which can be read in full here, they added: "The trustees want to make it absolutely clear that they abhor any form of discrimination, hate crime and abuse – and racism will not be tolerated on our premises... we recognise that this reported hate crime caused considerable upset for staff. The castle is not a place where staff or visitors should feel unsafe."

The Firing of CEO Sara Blair-Manning 

One of the lead articles in our aforementioned July issue was an interview with CEO Sara Blair-Manning but, while that issue was still in circulation, Blair-Manning received a letter terminating her employment. Since then, Blair-Manning has pursued an unfair dismissal claim, alleging bullying and harassment by the board of trustees that runs Nottingham Castle. At the hearing, Blair-Manning said she had raised concerns about "inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment by trustees towards her and other members of staff and external consultants", as well as issues about governance in 2020 and 2021. 

Claiming that her concerns fell on deaf ears, she made a further attempt in July of this year, only to find that, after a meeting, she had been relieved of her duties the following month. Employment Judge Rachel Broughton told the hearing a tribunal "is likely to find that this process was unfair,” adding, "She was not told the charges against her, she was not warned that this was a disciplinary hearing, it was over in a few minutes and she was given no right of appeal. Staff were told of her dismissal less than half an hour after the end of the meeting.  

The Open Letter 

Last week, several current and former employees at Nottingham Castle penned an open letter to the trust claiming that there is an “environment of fear” following the alleged hate incident against Panya Banjoko. Signed by “seven current and former employees of colour at Nottingham Castle Trust,” who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, the letter spoke of the ongoing issues at the Castle, and was widely circulated on social media.

The letter says: "We are writing to you, as employees of colour at Nottingham Castle Trust, to express our deep concern, exhaustion and fear, in our current situation at the Castle.

"For us, as staff of colour, coming into work in the wake of this attack has been both emotional and frightening. No one from the Board of Trustees communicated with staff of colour to ask how we felt or reassured us that they are taking this seriously.

"We feel completely unsupported by Trustees, afraid that we will be victims of further racism and that no one will protect us were that to happen.”

The letter also addresses the dismissal of Sara Blair-Manning: "We feel that had Ms Blair-Manning been allowed to remain in post, the handling of the incident of 17 August would have been very different and staff would have felt safe and reassured of the organisation’s seriousness in dealing with the incident, as well as staff wellbeing.

"We have had enough of this now and for that reason, see no choice but to share this letter publicly."

The open letter was addressed to Ted Cantle, the chairman of the Nottingham Castle Trust Board, as well as Susan Hallam, the vice-chairwoman, and continued: "We no longer have confidence in Ted Cantle to effectively chair the Board of Trustees and ask that pressure is applied on him to step down, along with other Trustees, to allow for a Board that is appropriate and more reflective of the diversity of Nottingham to take over.

"Until we see people with community backgrounds and people who look like us in positions of influence at Nottingham Castle Trust, we can not trust that the organisation will understand how to fix its own problems, listen to us, its staff, or fulfil its duty to correctly represent this city."

The Response

Nottingham Castle Trust responded two days ago, saying: "The board continues to be upset and concerned about the recent allegations made public on social media and in the press. We have chosen to act responsibly and to not enter a public discussion. We have tried to observe the proper protocol for matters under investigation and to allow legal processes to take their course, but we feel that these processes are potentially being undermined. We have therefore decided that it [is] best that we provide some response to demonstrate that we take these allegations seriously and are taking action."

That action includes appointing an independent investigator, who will be a "diversity, equality and inclusion specialist," to investigate the response to the Panya Banjoko incident, as well as appointing an "external senior counsel to investigate the various claims made by our former CEO."

The response, which can be read in full here, concludes: "We will not be entering into any further discourse about any of these matters while they are subject to a police investigation, the independent investigations we have commissioned and the ongoing employment tribunal proceedings. We ask the public to allow these investigations and legal process to proceed without further comment or speculation to ensure fairness is afforded to all those concerned."

What Next?

Looking around the Castle post-redevelopment, it’s clear to see that inclusion, diversity and accessibility were at the heart of the redesign. For a building that historically stood as a visceral representation of oppression, dominance and power, care had clearly been taken to celebrate the diversity that lies at the heart of Nottingham’s past and present. But with the perceived lack of response to racial incidents like that suffered by Panya Banjoko, and the ongoing tribunal over the firing of Sara Blair-Manning, it’s evident that there is a deep-rooted discontent between the trust and its employees. Whether that division is beyond repair remains to be seen. 

A petition for Nottingham Castle's Trustees to step down and be replaced by a new Board has also been started, which you can see here

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