When Joseph Rowntree endowed the three independent trusts which bear his name in 1904, it was with the intention of tackling the underlying causes of inequality and injustice. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (then the Social Service Trust) was set up specifically as a company, not a charity, able to work for changes to the law and to operate in the political sphere. The Reform Trust’s work today builds on this heritage, with political equality, the fundamental principle at the heart of democracy, central to our work.
The Black Lives Matter protests and the inequalities laid bare by the pandemic have challenged us to reflect further on our history and the source of our endowment. It is known that the Rowntree Company actively participated in colonial era trade, but this has rarely featured prominently in narratives about the company’s history. Instead these have tended to focus on the firm’s domestic business practices and our benefactor’s commitment to tackling the root causes of inequality and injustice in the UK. Work by the Rowntree Society to summarise what is known about the company’s operations, sets out connections to systems of enslavement and forced labour. These include the purchase of raw materials produced by enslaved people and benefiting from the system of colonial indenture.
We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowments have roots in practices that have caused deep suffering and enduring impact. These practices are abhorrent to us all.
We recognise the importance of learning from all parts of our history and enabling the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery to take their central place in the Rowntree story. JRRT is contributing to the funding of work by the Rowntree Society to sponsor a research fellowship to explore aspects of the Rowntree history in more detail. In retrospect we should have started this process earlier.
Moving forward, we are committing to change and to building a positive new legacy. We recognise the systemic nature of racism in the UK and how inequalities of power faced by black and minority ethnic people reinforces racial inequality. Correcting this is integral to our mission to address the underlying causes of political inequality. The Reform Trust is deeply committed to building a democracy in which everyone can participate, rectifying the shocking levels of underrepresentation of ethnic minority people as voters and in positions of power.
This journey will require us to make stretching plans to embed race equality within our work to improve the diversity of our Board, staff and networks and to audit, publish and increase funding for grant making and programmes that tackle racial injustice and political inequality. We are also reviewing our investment policy and will examine what contribution our investments can make as part of this review. We will start by aiming to increase funding in this space. We are in the early stages of this work, aware that we need to listen to the voices of black and minority ethnic people and that we need to be open to challenge, transparent and accountable for the progress we make.