Diversity Digest

Diversity & Inclusion at King's College London

Author: Sarah Mander (page 1 of 2)

Ain’t I A Woman – Kirsty McLaren on Checking Our Privileges

For the year the 100-year anniversary of partial suffrage in UK, we are running a series of blog posts inspired by Sojourner Truth and her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman? “delivered in 1851 was a powerful rebuke to many anti-feminist arguments of the day. It became, and continues to serve, as a classic expression of women’s rights and we would like to take this opportunity to encourage all members of the King’s community to think critically about the media representation of women and the additional struggles faced by those who do not always share the same spotlight – BME, LGBT+, migrant, refugee and disabled women.

We are grateful to Kirsty McLaren, from King’s Widening Participation for contributing to our Women’s History Month blog series. 

Women are beautiful. The most beautiful thing about women is that no two are the same; I have friends that are nurses, lawyers, police officers, psychologists, teachers, mothers, students, professional services staff and work in engineering. Some do jobs that society deem as masculine, and often catch people by surprise when they say what they do for a living because most of them are fiercely feminine. And whether they know it or not, they all step out of the door in the morning and go and kick the patriarchy’s you-know-what.
I’m a lesbian. Despite my appreciation of no two women being the same, up until last year I thought I shared an experience with every other woman who likes kissing girls, but wow I was wrong. I attended Stonewall’s Young Leaders Programme in December, and I’ve never been around such an inspiring group of people whose stories and identities are all vastly different to mine. I heard from women who shared their stories of being black and LGBT+. A bisexual woman will face discrimination for being bisexual and a woman. A black woman will face discrimination for being black and a woman. A black, bisexual woman will face discrimination for all three, and that’s where we need to be better allies – we need to recognise that no two women are the same.
I was also shocked by the discrete form of discrimination and prejudice that is faced by bisexual women. Some said they’d been asked “if they’re a “proper lesbian” of if they’re “going back to boys”, completely disregarding the idea of bisexuality.  Now, I am familiar and comfortable with people who are prejudice toward me because I am a lesbian. They have an idea in their head of what I am and for me, I can live with that… I’ll take my Ellen DeGeneres t-shirt and L-Word box set and go be gay and great elsewhere. But it would start a fire inside of me if someone were to completely disregard my identity as false, or temporary. I’ll be the first one to hold my hands up and say this is the sort of thing I’ve been guilty of in the past; I’ve been insecure about having a bisexual girlfriend, in the fear that they may ‘run off with a man.’

It’s lazy to say “I have bisexual friends so it’s fine”. For International Women’s Day, here’s my pledge:

  1. I promise to be an active ally to my bisexual sisters, and call out discrimination even ‘in jest’.
  2. I promise to take a more intersectional approach in supporting LGBT+ groups, for women of colour, religious women, trans women, disabled women and all that identify with more than one group.
  3. I promise to check my privilege, and to stand up for every beautiful woman across the world who battles through barriers one way or another.

Ain’t I A Woman – Sarah Guerra on IWD and Intersectionality

For the year the 100-year anniversary of partial suffrage in UK, we are running a series of blog posts inspired by Sojourner Truth and her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman? “delivered in 1851 was a powerful rebuke to many anti-feminist arguments of the day. It became, and continues to serve, as a classic expression of women’s rights and we would like to take this opportunity to encourage all members of the King’s community to think critically about the media representation of women and the additional struggles faced by those who do not always share the same spotlight – BME, LGBT+, migrant, refugee and disabled women.

Our first Women’s History Month post for International Women’s Day is from Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Sarah Guerra.

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? ‘Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man–when I could get it–and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

I’ve found it interesting how many people have asked me what intersectionality is since I arrived at King’s.  Kimberley Crenshaw an academic from Cornell University who coined the phrase explains it better than I ever could and this articulation was one of the turning points in my thinking.

I have lived my entire life in the intersections. The obvious ones – I’m a black woman. I am also the daughter of immigrants – so a Londoner and a foreigner depending on you point of view. A parent – so a mother and a person. These factors were my reality from the time I was born and they influenced my life and decisions and perceptions. They also impacted how others treated me long before I was a conscious feminist or equality activist.

As I’ve developed my career new intersections have formed – from working class to middle class income. These intersectionalities was something I had to study and understand in terms of my own identity what drives me, why I think certain things, why I react certain ways.

It is still the cause of much debate in some equality circles. And the 100-year anniversary of women in the UK getting the vote underlines it all perfectly – who actually got the vote? Women over the age of 30 who either owned land themselves or were married to men with property were given the right to vote. So, whilst it is important to celebrate this milestone that so many fought for – we should also pause on Sojourner’s statement – ‘Ain’t I a woman?’  Weren’t women below 30 just as entitled or those who were married to poor men? Or not married at all?

I love to celebrate all the equality months/days – but they also bring out a degree of challenge from me.

Years ago, when I worked for a trade union one of my colleagues said to me – why do you always have to say you’re a black woman – its not important – I beg to differ until we have a fair and equal world where all of us get the chance to succeed on our merits it is important for those of us with a platform to point out our difference so that it is consciously noticed.

Last night I had the privilege of attending the launch of a new book – Racism at Work – The Danger of Indifference by Binna Kandola – the world renowned business psychologist. The book will, I’m sure warrant a blog in its own right when I have read it but for now – safe to say it through academic research and case study demonstrates racism is very much a 21st century workplace issue and that it has a gendered aspect.

So happy International Women’s Day. I encourage everyone to give some thought to what it means to you and, just as importantly, what it means to others who are different to you.

LGBT History Month – Nicole

For LGBT History Month the Diversity & Inclusion team is sharing some of their reflections. The following piece comes from Nicole Robinson, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant. 

I have now lost count of the number of times I have come out. The idea that you tell one group of people, and that is it, for the rest of your life doesn’t really work. Being a bisexual woman married to a man means coming out over, and over again. It means invisibility, and it means deciding with every person you meet what to tell them.

It means having no space in London Pride marches, and very few queer spaces in general – and that’s before discussing the general lack of accessibility or the fact that (shock) clubbing and drinking alcohol might not be every queer person’s idea of a great time.  My general experience is nicely summarised in this Buzzfeed post that shares experiences of other women like myself.

For me, that is the heart of what LGBT+ History Month is about. It is an opportunity to bring visibility to the people and the stories that I do not normally get to see and hear. It is an opportunity to reconnect, to recover, to celebrate, to ask for more of the people I am surrounded by.  Most importantly, it is an opportunity to remember the incredible activists who have allowed us this path, and to the people who continue to fight today.

LGBT History Month – Helena

For LGBT History Month the Diversity & Inclusion team is sharing some of their reflections. The following piece comes from Helena Mattingley, Head of Diversity & Inclusion. 

Last week, I went to Berlin. It’s was a week after Holocaust Memorial day and each memorial I went to had a gathering of flowers and tributes to the victims of the Holocaust. As it is LGBT history month, it was particularly important to me to see the memorial to homosexuals persecuted under Nazism.

As an intersectional aside, section 175 of German law only prohibited male homosexuality. Just like English and Welsh law, female sexual orientation was not considered. Female sexual orientation was not seen to exist or be relevant– there is some intersectional work at play here, something for another blog post.

The memorial is a concrete cube, which mirrors the holocaust memorial on the opposite side of the road with one difference. A small, narrow view point is cut into the concrete to show a looped video of two men kissing. The cube is a physical embodiment of the repressive, intolerant, narrow minded prejudice, with the film showing love concealed from many viewing angles. It’s directly opposite the holocaust memorial (also known as Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) which is a disorienting sequence of symbolic concrete sarcophagi.

The homosexual memorial exists because under German National Socialism, gay and bisexual men were labelled with pink triangles, deported to concentration camps through the ‘extermination through work’ policy, or if ‘lucky’ criminalised or forced to hide their sexuality. Individuals were tortured and murdered. LGB communities were destroyed.

Thinking about the symmetry between the holocaust memorial and the memorial to homosexuals persecuted under Nazism shows me two things – all victims of the holocaust share a commonality, and yet, there are differences too.

This for me is the most important part of inclusion. We all share a commonality of humanity, and we are all different.

The second most important part of inclusion is to learn from history.

LGBT History Month – Alex

For LGBT History Month the Diversity & Inclusion team is sharing some of their reflections. The following piece comes from Alex Prestage, a Diversity & Inclusion Consultant. 

February is LGBT+ History Month; throughout the course of the month, the Diversity & Inclusion Team have been prompted to consider, and share, just what LGBT+ History Month means to us as diversity practitioners. My perspective as a practitioner is informed by my queer identity and my experiences as a member of the LGBT+ community. Over the last five years I’ve coordinated and led organisations’ celebrations of LGBT+ History Month – as a result, this is a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect.

For me, LGBT+ History Month is both an intensely personal and public affair underpinned by my celebration of the impacts that LGBT+ people have made. LGBT+ history is as complex and variable as the people and idenities that make up that umbrella. Very little of this history is formally codified and often the language(s) we use to define and describe queer experiences vary greatly. Jess Bradley, NUS Trans Officer, skillfully discusses the impact the latter has had on trans history here. It’s important to note that LGBT+ History is a history that is often obscured or erased; LGBT+ History Month utterly rejects this erasure and emphatically celebrates the contributions of LGBT+ people and communities. As a diversity practitioner, and an LGBT+ person, I find power in that.

Throughout the month of February, I’ll be seeking out and sharing LGBT+ (hi)stories; I’ll be celebrating and supporting the many queer spaces London has to offer; and, I’ll be generating my very own LGBT+ History.


Love is Love.

Sarah Guerra – Director, Diversity & Inclusion

Have you heard the one about the  Diversity and Inclusion Director who fell flat on her back when she made an automatic, heteronormative assumption about the gender of a friend’s new flame?

February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) History month in the UK.  Its aim is to promote equality and diversity by increasing the visibility of LGBT people, their history, lives and their experiences in the curriculum and culture of educational and other institutions, and the wider community. The whole month is geared towards raising awareness and advancing education on matters affecting the LGBT community, working to make educational and other institutions safe spaces for all LGBT communities, promoting the welfare of LGBT people by ensuring that the education system recognises and enables LGBT people to achieve their full potential, and so they are able to contribute fully to society and lead fulfilled lives.

LGBT history month a good time to remind myself of my own fallibility and my journey in training myself out of heteronormativity, that is ‘denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.’ Basically, assuming that people are straight (as the norm) until proven otherwise.

Heteronormativity is what tripped me up that day talking to my friend. He had previously had a girlfriend and on that day he was telling me he was seeing someone new. My assumptions were that any subsequent relationships would also be heterosexual.

Would I have considered myself bi or homophobic? No! Of course not – I devote my life to equality, I have gay friends and family members…. But that lazy – ‘I know people’ therefore I have no prejudices or bias’s type of thinking is the issue.

What happened in this moment were my default settings kicking in.  assuming everyone – he  was like me, – he would fit what my deep brain told me was the social norm around relationship patterns.

All my relationships have been heterosexual. Does it make me a bad person? Not on the face of it, but to be truly inclusive, I need to question my privilege and learn from it, question what is normal and check myself. To pretend that being heterosexual doesn’t come with a set of social privileges would see me guilty of ignorance.  Reflecting at the time and since I had to think about what it was like for him – knowing that he was going to be telling me something unexpected and that rather than just being able to say he was seeing someone new he had to manage my reactions and surprise to it being a same sex partnership. How that is not something I as a heterosexual person ever have to consider in a heteronormative world.

LGBT History Month is an excellent time to remind everyone, not least myself that quite simply, heterosexual or not, love is love. Relationships come in all shapes, sizes and structures.

This month, we recognize and celebrate the multiplicity and fluidity of sexual orientations.  So, happy LGBT history month – we have lots going on here at King’s so do join in.

Learning and Listening: Lessons in Trans Inclusion

Sarah Guerra – Director, Diversity & Inclusion 

Being a parent is an emotional roller coaster presenting joy and challenge in pretty equal measure.  As the parent of four children (2 step and 2 I birthed), I am constantly in awe of their openness and adaptability to learning new things, and just how quickly they can surpass me in their knowledge and understanding.  I was fascinated, and a little taken aback, when my 13 year old daughter, Kaela, explained the concepts of gender as she understood them including the panoply of letters that could make up what I have traditionally referred to as ‘LGBT’:

LGBTQQIP2SA – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, two Q’s queer and questioning, I for Intersex, people, P for Pansexual, 2S for Two-Spirit, A for Asexual with any orientation.

My initial reaction was to poo poo her! Those aren’t things!  This was quickly followed by a degree of panic – how on earth do I do my job if there are so many more letters?

What I now recognize is that this was an opportunity for me to realise that my understanding of the world and people must continuously change and develop. As a diversity and inclusion professional I can’t and shouldn’t ever feel that there isn’t more for me to learn and understand about individuals and their experience of the world, work and study.

For those who are looking to expand on their own learning, I found this Stonewall resource on Trans Inclusion really helpful, and of course we have our own excellent Trans Matters guidance which is specific to King’s.

Of these resources, the following passage resonated particularly for me:

There is no universal experience of being trans. The Trans community is sometimes characterised as being individuals who wish to transition from one gender to another. In reality, the wide spectrum of gender identity is complicated. Increasingly, people feel comfortable openly expressing themselves in other ways than simply male and female.

Making myself listen and really hear my daughter and others (I would highly recommend Trans Like Me by CN Lester) has been transformative in my learning and understanding. Following this conversation, I asked Kaela how she identified, to which she responded that she didn’t need to – ‘people don’t need labels these days’. I realised that my expectation of defined boundaries and need for labels is the way I have been taught to understand myself and interact in the world. The world has changed since I first learned about these things and there is a wider range of gender expression that I am yet to fully understand.

Equally I don’t have to tie myself up in knots – the law and King’s has made it simple for all of us.

The Equality Act 2010 says that we cannot discriminate against transsexuals– that is people whose gender identity differs from the gender assigned to them at birth. Kings Vision 2029 states we care about our learners on an individual basis and that we will design mainstream interventions that remove all forms of inequality in learner engagement, retention and success.

To be the inclusive, world class organisation such as King’s must work to understand the complexities of gender expression and fluidity, and the implications of this on personal, practical and organisational interactions and how we can ensure that everyone, regardless of their gender identity, feels equally valued and able to succeed.

To do this, we simply need to harness two key research and teaching skills that we already use every day at King’s, listening and thinking.


India Jordan – Communities and Networks Coordinator 

It Stops Here Fortnight runs from the 29th January to the 9th February. This bridges with LGBT+ History Month which takes place over February. In this light, it is important to discuss how sexual violence, harassment and bullying affects the LGBT+ Community.

The #metoo movement has been at the forefront of discussion around sexual assault and violence. The Me Too phrase first used by Senior Director at Girls for Gender Equality, Tarana Burke in
2006, to raise awareness of the of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society. Despite the #metoo movement and focus on sexual harassment dominating the headlines in recent
months, there has been a lack of representation and discussion of this within the LGBT+ community, particularly in the media. The fact there hasn’t been a focus on this is surprising, considering the assault rate for LGBT folk is comparable, or in some cases even higher than the sexual assault rate for heterosexual individuals. As with most hate-based violence, a shocking 64% of trans folk have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime.

Stonewall recently published a report which showed that one in five LGBT+ people have experienced a hate crime or incident because their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the last 12 months. Again, trans folk experience far more hate-crime than their cis counterparts, with two in five trans people experiencing hate crime because of their gender identity in the last 12 months. The report concluded that hate crime against LGBT people in Britain has increased by 78% since 2013.

These figures can seem overwhelming, and show that despite changes in legislation and slow movements towards a society where LGBT+ people are more visible and accepted, homophobia,
transphobia and biphobia is still rife. A part of how we can combat this is through knowing channels of support, understanding how you can intervene and be an active bystander. Do not underestimate the power of an ally, and remember that if you’re wearing a rainbow lanyard around Kings, you are visibly and openly stating your role as an ally.

If you are an LGBT+ person and have experienced sexual assault, bullying or harassment here are some of the ways you can get support:

It Stops Here – Disclosures, support and information
Get involved in Kings’ LGBT+ Staff Network
GALOP – London’s anti-LGBT+ hate-crime and domestic violence charity.
London Friend – LGBT+ Health and Wellbeing Charity
ELOP – North East London LGBT+ Community center and counselling

If you are an LGBT+ Ally, here is how you can help:

Active Bystander Training
Read up on what it means to be an Ally
Sign up to Diversity Matters training

Yes, #metoo

Sarah Guerra – Director, Diversity & Inclusion 

I chair the It Stops Here Taskforce.

I proposed this idea to the Principal quite soon after my arrival at King’s last year. Before I go any further I should note that It Stops Here wasn’t my brainchild. Hana Riazuddin and Alison Stenton have played a key role in leading King’s activity and set us on our path to realise our zero-tolerance ambition in relation to harassment, bullying and discrimination. Their determination and commitment created the strong foundations  on which we are building.  As Director of Diversity & Inclusion, it didn’t take me long to identify harassment as one of my top  priorities.

Firstly, inclusion is about the environment and culture we are in and comes from how we feel on an everyday basis. Any behaviour, attitude or system that imposes limits and makes us feel uncomfortable or apprehensive means ‘inclusion’ for all is hampered. Both deliberate and unwitting forms of harassment, bullying and discrimination occur every single day and many are not challenged effectively, or at all, something that needs to be explored and dealt with.  That would probably be reason enough on its own however reviewing the UUK Change the Culture report and various pieces of evidence  from the higher education sector triggered memories of one of my own personal experiences, way back when I was an undergraduate.

I don’t tell this story to overshare or to garner sympathy and I would like to forewarn readers that the following contains thematic elements that some may find upsetting. I do so to expose how simple, naïve decisions can lead to something completely unexpected that has a long-term impact.

After failing to make the grades for a place at Sheffield or Liverpool, I ended up going to university in London. The vagaries of the English A level examining bodies that year meant that my exam contained a question that was pretty maverick (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) so I got a D rather than the C or B I needed leading me into  clearing!  Being offered a place at the University of North London and being determined to have get the full “campus experience”, I moved into Halls even though I could have commuted from home (I can talk in another blog about being the child of immigrants and having no idea or support in navigating the path to higher education!).

Those first few weeks were such great fun. All that I had imagined – new people, lots of socialising, drinking, hanging out together in the common areas, kitchens and people’s rooms. I had a boyfriend a year or two ahead of me who was studying at Imperial and we agreed on a period of distance so I could make the most of my new home and be free to meet new friends. The halls I stayed in were in blocks of 12 rooms, housing around 150 people.

I quickly fell into a small friendship group made up of 4 or 5 lads who had known each other before and some girls from different places. One of the boys, let’s call him Ben, lived in a house miles away and had mates who lived in the residence. He was around a lot and, I think, generally slept on his friend’s floors. For some reason, that I really can’t remember, one night he found himself stranded and I offered him my floor to spend the night, which led to a sporadic pattern of him borrowing my floor as a bed.  There was obviously talk and assumptions – but from my perspective and as far as I could tell his, it was platonic and convenient -we were mates. I couldn’t tell you how many nights he stayed in my room – on the floor! I mentioned it to my boyfriend and everything.

Anyway, one night, who knows what was different, he just got into bed with me. I was like – what?!  He claimed – it’s just to sleep – just a bit more comfortable. It wasn’t ok but I wasn’t particularly frightened more puzzled and surprised. My recollection is that we were in, what I felt to be, this awkward position for about 10 minutes. I was trying to decide what I thought and what to do. I think, it felt like it might be a poor joke and then one of my best friends knocked on the door.  I remember thinking – oh good this will resolve now without any confrontation.

I went to call out to come in, but before I could, Ben climbed on top of me and put his hand over my mouth. That’s when I realised things were in a completely different place. I froze. I stopped trying to talk. My friend, after hanging about for a short while, went away. This was in an age before mobile phones – so if someone didn’t answer the door that was that.

There we were, Ben on top of me with hand over my mouth, me frozen. When I think back now, the memory is so clear but at the same time, hazy. I can say, while it didn’t get any worse, in that he didn’t further assault or rape me, it was still a horrible experience. He didn’t ‘free’ me. We lay there like that for hours. He talked to me and I stayed quiet. I calculated how long it might be before someone thought more about me not being somewhere and might come and look for me again. I wondered if I could bite him or if I should scream. I wondered if I should pretend that I liked it. I thought about what everyone else thought and how they had all assumed we were sleeping together anyway. I felt such an idiot. How had a misread this so badly?  What had I done?

At some point I must have fallen asleep. That, I know seems unbelievable and might seem like I wasn’t as scared as I was. I can’t explain that – but it’s what happened!  When I woke up he was back on the floor. I lay for a few minutes wondering what would happen if I tried to leave. In the end I did without any issues. I didn’t tell anyone straight away. I just went to a friend’s room and found some reason for them to come back with me. He was gone.

Looking back, I realise it never occurred to me to report what happened. It never occurred to me that I could get any support. I was upset and scared. I was feeling stupid and slutty and was scared that people wouldn’t believe me. I was nervous something worse might happen. I wondered if everyone knew anyway? I thought it was my own fault – that’s what you get if you invite someone to share your room.

What did I want to happen?  I don’t know if I would have known. What would I want now? Certainly for it not to happen again. For him not to do it to anyone else and probably to be told I didn’t do anything wrong. To be assured that inviting someone to do something like sleep on your floor is just that. That it doesn’t reduce your agency or ability to decide what happens in your personal space, to your body.

I never shared this experience at the time in any serious way – I mentioned it to a couple of friends but laughed it off.  The days, weeks and months that followed were characterised with a significant awkwardness and discomfort.  I spent a lot of time thinking and rethinking whether to do particular things, whether to go to particular events and feeling nervous and not knowing what to do when finding myself  in proximity to him. Wondering what he was thinking and what everyone else knew and was thinking.

This story is nowhere near as horrific or traumatic as it could have been. It was an experience that was about someone not understanding or caring about consent or personal space. It was a story about naiveté and a lack of confidence or belief that there could or would be any support. I think myself fortunate that whilst it was unpleasant I had no significant long term effects from it. He gradually faded from my life and I rarely think about the specifics of the incident. Though I have thought a lot about how all these things are things that I don’t want anyone at King’s to feel unclear about, on either side of the picture, or have to suffer alone or in silence.

My experience encapsulates so much of the grey area that surrounds harassment and consent to this day. I hope it will help readers understand why it is so important to be committed to ensuring we as a King’s community must ensure we act concertedly to ensure It Stops Here and a zero-tolerance approach to harassment are more than catchy straplines. They need to be the standard of behaviour expected of us as part of the King’s community. We need to be clear about our responsibility to challenge impropriety and we need to be sure that support is available and accessed by anyone who needs it. They need to statements that everyone believes are rock solid if we are to have a truly inclusive community.

Waking up to my Black History

Sarah Guerra – Director, Diversity & Inclusion 

As Director of Diversity and Inclusion at King’s College London here for my first Black History Month – the 30th anniversary of Black History Month in the UK, no less  – I thought it would be timely and pertinent to provide some personal and professional reflections on my own ‘black’ history as part of this month’s blog post.

I’ve spoken at several events this month, most of which focussed on the themes of ‘being a BME leader’ or ‘My Personal Journey’ as a BME senior figure. As part of my preparations, I put together this mindmap culminating the trajectory of my thoughts and experiences. I find mindmaps a helpful tool to clarify and visualise my thinking, although in this case its really more of a  a spider’s web because everything is interconnected.

When reflecting on my life story, I’ve tended to be humble and played down certain aspects, however now that I’ve been asked to consider and speak about myself as a BME leader I have reflected on how unusual and frankly remarkable I am. I don’t say that to ‘big myself up’ but more as a sad reflection on the under-representation of people of colour in the senior echelons of British workplaces.

Why do I say I am unusual and remarkable?  I was born in Tottenham. I was state educated. I am ‘Black’. These are the fragments of my identity and how I have come to identify myself. Growing up I struggled to identify or describe myself – I’m not technically black – I am brown. But then I discovered ‘blackness’ as a political concept and it felt right and empowering to adopt that label.

Following my graduation, I joined the Civil Service fast stream in 1995. There were thousands of applicants and I was one of the very few people of colour selected. In my particular cohort at Inland Revenue, out of the 20 people selected to work there, I was the only one who was BME – and now here I am, working in a position of influence at a globally renowned institution.

That’s rare!

Reading the Guardian the other week, it was reported that  out of 535 senior officials within British universities who declared their ethnicity, 510 were white, 15 were Asian and 10 were recorded as “other including mixed”. I probably wasn’t here when that data was collected so let’s say its 11 now. 1 out 11 – notice any patterns? In 2017 we should all be shocked at that data! I shouldn’t be or feel unusual or remarkable simply because of the colour of my skin.

Before I go further it’s important to recognise – because it is easy to lose this – people of colour bring enormous talent and positive contribution to the world (see the talent sector in my mindmap). I have a range of personal strength and professional talents: strategic thinking, understanding how organisations work, enabling change in a way that is  effective and sustainable, listening to people and translating their words into meaningful organisational actions.  I have particular characteristics and qualities – I’m curious, I care, I’m determined and I work hard.  I’ve worked hard on myself through professional development, feedback and therapy.  If I don’t understand something –  I work to or if I think something isn’t working, I work to fix it. These are skills and capabilities – they make me effective. They make me a leader, role model and well worth employing. What these qualities don’t do is  make me that special. Many, many people of all shades have these qualities. However in the past, my particular shade has held me back. How do I know? Of those 20 people who joined Inland Revenue back in 1995, I was pretty much the only one who wasn’t promoted into the Senior Civil Service. And yet, as King’s has proven, it’s clear I have senior leadership ability.

It may be uncomfortable for some to think that in this society, race remains a factor that can hold someone back professionally, however I do think my identity has had a big impact on how successful or not my career has been and how I have ended where I am

So, obviously as with all of us, I am all sorts of things (see the identity section of my mindmap) – but when thinking about ‘who’ I am it condenses into a few clear categories:

A black woman and a working parent from a working-class background.

Whilst I no longer see being black or from a working-class background, or a working parent, as things that hold me back – the fact is they absolutely have the potential to in any given situation. Key to where I am now was the juxtaposition between my own drive to succeed and the high aspirations and expectations set for me by my parents and the contrastingly low expectations held by practically every other institution I encountered – school, sixth form, university and Civil Service.

At the age of 16, I was told at that A Levels weren’t for people like me, despite being top set. At 18 I was told that university wasn’t for me and that I should consider something more practical and vocational. After university I applied for thousands of jobs in the legal profession to no avail… these are just a few of my war wounds.

Realising the contrasts of the expectations that were placed on me and the impact of this in overcoming barriers and confounding those expectations have personally driven my passion for challenging injustice, working to ensure that others do not have to face the same frustrations. Just as importantly, I’m committed to working to change systems that discriminate or marginalise (intentionally or otherwise) and to helping organisations recognise what they are missing and create solutions. These are a key part of what led me into diversity and inclusion work.  It’s trite but I really do want to make a difference and want the world to be fair!

For me, I don’t like to lose or to be told that I can’t have what my talent deserves. The experience of having to fight  and having nothing come easy has shaped my whole life experience, and I believe, has made me a far more engaged and valuable employee.

I started work at 13. I’ve always had the emotional support of my family but they weren’t always in a position to support me financially. That early life experience of having to ‘get by’ and work in all sorts of places was invaluable to building my empathy and resilience. The Civil Service gave me so much opportunity, the ability to try all sorts of roles  – maybe at least 4 different ‘professions’, learn and develop and test out skills. It was also an amazing grounding in the value and impact of public policy and how ‘systems’ really work. Following the Civil Service, I worked for a Trade Union which unleashed my passion, my campaigning and organising spirit and at the same time developed my technical knowledge around every aspect of employment law. I trot you through that, I guess, to show that you don’t know what experience someone has or what they can do- by simply looking at their wrapper.

Black History Month helps us realise that many, many people’s contributions are unseen, unrecognised and undervalued. That we have been socially conditioned to see the world through certain lenses and we need to be able to see so much more in each other, which is what I see as the heart of diversity and inclusion work.

There’s a section on the mindmap that I’ve labelled ‘random things’. I’ve called them random but really they aren’t, rather they’re well known issues and quite obvious ones for us to address! Especially during Black History Month.

Racism and sexism are prevalent everywhere.

They manifest differently and aren’t always obvious or in your face – but they are there. I could tell countless personal stories, both from long ago and in recent years, all of which have had an impact on the way I face the world as a black woman.

Those of us that have been victims hold the scars and they run deep. A single negative experience casts a long shadow. In addition, it erodes trust and goodwill. It leads people to interpret things that happen differently – through a different less forgiving lens.

Would it shock you to hear that in coming here to King’s I spent as much time thinking about how to ensure I wasn’t cast as the ‘angry black woman’ or the pink and fluffy inconsequential D&I diva? That on a regular basis I consider what I say and how it might be interpreted and what possible unconscious/sub conscious/stereotyping reaction people may have towards me? As I do about what needs doing?

The weight of these various considerations that I have to make on a daily basis is something I think those in the majority and those that have always been accepted find difficult to comprehend or believe. This is really the heart of what institutional racism and sexism are. I see a big part of my role here at King’s and my contribution to ‘history’ being to help the institution understand that as individuals and understand how we mitigate it to create the extraordinary student and staff experience Vision 2029 articulates.

I’d like to reflect on the difference I feel working at King’s College London compared to the previous employers and why I am so hopeful for the future. The very fact that my post has been created and been given such a platform and power is a huge step and demonstration of institutional commitment. It contrasts directly to a similar role I held at the Ministry of Defence where – recruited to similar portfolio, I sat at a more junior level, with no resources to speak of, limited organisational support and crucially ‘people like me’ weren’t supposed to speak to the most senior leaders. Those initial barriers just haven’t existed at King’s.  Autonomy to set the agenda – the positivity with which my expertise is welcomed and the leadership endorsement and support I have been given means I feel so motivated and hopeful for the future. Every day I feel valued and valuable, I see and feel the impact of my work and the difference I am making.

To sum up, my personal journey has led me to recognise my strengths, know who I am and what I stand for, led me to apply myself and take opportunities and I don’t pretend the world is fair. This Black History Month I’d urge everyone at King’s and particularly leaders and managers to do all those things and also examine how you interact with people – who you know, who you listen to, who you favour – you can address the unfairness – you can help it but you have to notice and act.

Happy 30th Black History Month. Maybe one day we will get to the place where all cultures and identities are given equal focus in the way history is recorded and we won’t need the ‘special’ focus.

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