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The charity making life better by water

Making everyone feel welcome

Canals should be warm, welcoming and safe places for everyone to enjoy. At the Trust, we are committed to supporting diversity and creating an inclusive environment for those who look after and use them.

Father holds son waving flags by the canal

There are all sorts of people afloat on our waters, from seasoned liveaboard boaters to holidaymakers in luxury cruisers. From people trying paddleboards for the first time, to Paralympians training for their next medal attempt.

There are dog-walkers on the towpath, walkers, cyclists and anglers and people celebrating their faith. We’re here to make our canals open, accessible safe places where everyone feels safe and welcome.

Inclusion and diversity don’t always happen naturally. We have to continue to overcome barriers, and ensure voices are heard. That’s why the work of Cath Tomlin MBE, our diversity and inclusion manager is so important.

By setting a culture of kindness, listening, respect and dignity, it’s Cath’s job, working with others, to make sure that canals attract users, supporters, volunteers, staff and partners of all ages, backgrounds, orientations, abilities and identities.

“Our charity is already diverse in the many things we do,” says Cath. “We’ve got canal engineers, construction operatives, boating teams, and experts in everything from hydrology to heritage, ecology to education, volunteering to fundraising, and finance. But we need to make sure that the people doing those jobs feel included and welcome in our organisation. And we need to better reflect the diverse communities we serve.

Colleagues in life jackets walking by the canal

“For instance, although there’s a good gender balance in our executive team and pay equality, the closer you get to the canal bank, the fewer women you see in our teams. With a gender split of 70/30 there’s some way to go to get a better balance.

“We know people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, or people with a disability are under-represented in our workforce right now, and we need to learn more about how socially mobile, multi-faith or representative of gender and sexual identity we are.” And as Cath points out this is very much a head, as well as heart aspiration.

“All the research points out that more diverse organisations are more successful,” she says. “Experts like McKinsey have found that more diverse organisations make better decisions, are more innovative, and even generate more revenue. And we know from our own experience that when we have people on the ground who are part of and reflect the communities we serve, like Carol Burrell in Nottingham or Aaron Atwal in the West Midlands, we have stronger relationships and better outcomes.”

It’s this bottom-up approach that Cath is promoting, with support from the very top. And that’s one of the reasons that ‘Inclusion circles’ are beginning to pop up across our charity, so that staff and volunteers can come together to support each other.

Group of young children explore the towpath

11 circles have now emerged within our teams, helping people with particular concerns to support each other and feel a sense of belonging. The idea is to make those issues visible and better understood, so no-one feels isolated or excluded due to their backgrounds or needs.

There are groups to help people manage their mental health or neurodiversity. Others support working parents and those caring for people with dementia. In addition, a group for staff from the armed forces sits side by side with those colleagues who live on boats, and a proud LGBTQ+ forum. There’s a women's network, and one that helps with managing the menopause plus a multi-faith and ethnicity circles.

What all of these wide and varied groups share is a desire to help each other out and improve job satisfaction and wellbeing at work. But they also work to gain greater recognition and acceptance of the issues they face, and an ambition to support not just staff, but volunteers, customers and supporters too.

For instance, we’d love to continue our support for vulnerable boaters, make canals more dementia friendly and continue the good work we do to make towpaths more accessible to disabled people and parents with young children. Our inclusion circles are a wonderful way to drive our values through everything we do. Together, we are stronger when everyone feels welcome by water.

Lady stands on rainbow bridge with umbrella

Last Edited: 28 February 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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