The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is an independent social change organisation working to solve UK poverty. It is linked through a group structure with the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT), a registered housing association and care provider.
In 1904 Joseph Rowntree endowed our organisations with large shareholdings in his family’s confectionery company. It is well known that the Rowntree Company benefited from 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.
However, a summary review of the firm’s overseas operations carried out by the Rowntree Society last year resurfaced evidence of deeply disturbing practices. This includes the purchase of raw materials produced by enslaved people, evidence that the firm benefited from the system of colonial indenture, and allegations of racial discrimination and anti-union tactics at the firm’s South African subsidiary.
We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.
The JRF Trustees and JRHT Board are committed to recognising and learning from every part of our history. It is especially important to us that the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery should occupy a more prominent place in the Rowntree story. We should have done this much earlier.
Therefore, alongside the other independently endowed Rowntree trusts we will fund the Rowntree Society to investigate this part of our history more fully. We know that the harms caused by these practices are still creating injustice and suffering today. Many of the injustices faced by black and minority ethnic people in the UK are fuelled by attitudes similar to those used during imperialism to justify the worst forms of exploitation.
Inspired by the long history of social movements - including Black Lives Matter - that have rightly challenged the world to do more to tackle racism and its effects, we know we must work harder to achieve lasting change. We cannot truly be an anti-poverty organisation unless we are also an anti-racist organisation.
We also undertake this knowing that, as the financial beneficiaries of our forbears’ past actions, we have a particular obligation to contribute to repairing their harmful impacts.
Our intention is to be ambitious in how we approach the work, but we must embark on it in a spirit of humility, aware that the voices and expertise of black and minority ethnic people must shape how we do it. Although still at an early stage in our thinking we anticipate that we will adopt different areas of focus for JRF and JRHT alongside action to increase our own internal diversity across the group.
Within JRF we want to work with others to make stretching plans to embed race equality within our work developing solutions to poverty and building public and political will for more action. This will include interrogating how we can better use our financial resources and our voice and influence as an investor, funder, and partner. For JRHT, we will explore how we can work with other housing associations and care providers as part of a coalition for positive change in the sector and in the communities we serve.