Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King's College London

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Celebrating Gold

King’s College London’s continued commitment to shaping an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ people at work was  recently recognised  with a Stonewall Workplace Equality Index Gold Award. King’s achieved 14th place in the Stonewall Top 100 Employer list which is compiled from the Workplace Equality Index, a benchmarking tool for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace. KCL ranked 2nd overall in the higher education sector. You can read the full story here.

To make this momentous occasion King’s College London’s LGBTQ+ staff network’ Proudly King’s & the university’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion team held a celebration event to recognise & thank all those who contributed to our Workplace Equality Index submission. 

In This blog we will be sharing some of the speeches and pictures from the evening, including reflections from Sarah Guerra & Kirsty McLaren.

 


Content warning: transphobia, queer phobia, racism, sexism, assault, sexual assault and suicide. 

 

Stonewall gold celebration

Kirsty McLaren, Sarah Guerra & Paul Webb.

Welcoming thoughts – Kirsty McLaren – on behalf of Proudly King’s

Kirsty McLaren.

Words drawn from Kirsty’s welcoming speech delivered at the celebration event. 

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining us to celebrate the Stonewall Gold Award. The last time we handed in our Workplace Equality Index submission, we were handed back a position of 250-something out of 400 employers. There wasn’t any disappointment or pushback, just a real sense of opportunity, because King’s is full of changemakers.

They’re our student-facing staff who work to allow students to have their identities recognised on our systems and the IT staff who implement it. They’re our procurement team who scrutinise the LGBT inclusion of countries and companies in their tender process. They’re our HR staff who make recruitment and onboarding processes inclusive. They are the 500 staff members who’ve worn a rainbow lanyard and pledged their allyship to Proudly King’s. They are every member of staff who’s attended diversity training. They are the EDI officers who led on the Stonewall submission. They are us – Proudly King’s – who welcome everyone bring people together and campaign for change. And every member of King’s who’s made these walls a safe space for people when there wasn’t one at home.

The important thing about us is that we are relentless, and we are never complacent. Even if we hit top marks on every charter mark or index out there, all of us will still be working to make this place even better, and even safer. While this is a celebration of everything we’ve achieved together it should also be a frank reality check for what people are still experiencing. Trans people at King’s and across the world have been cast as the subject of debates without invitation

I remember coming back from a trip in Cornwall and stopping in a service station. On the back of the toilet stall I saw a poster in the back of the toilet saying, “men can dress up as women to assault you, is that what you want?” It was a protesting the gender recognition act. It didn’t make me angry at the people who put it there, just sorry for them and the system we live in that keeps people in boxes and thrives off the vulnerable members of society hating each other. Within King’s, other universities and everywhere imaginable, people have debated trans issues. Universities have pulled out of Stonewall over the debate. Britain’s human rights watchdog has pulled out of Stonewall over the debate. This is debate over where trans people should and should not have space.

But the debate isn’t about space, is it?

It’s about women feeling so afraid to be anywhere in public without sharing their location with loved ones or sending them a quick “I’m home!” message. It’s about being told when you’re little that you can always trust a police officer, and respect what they ask of you, only to find out he’s used his position to harm you. It’s about the 1 in 5 women, the 1 in 6 children, the 1 in 20 men and the 1 in 2 trans people who are sexually assaulted. You don’t have an issue with trans people. You have an issue with the perpetrators. If you haven’t guessed by the statistics, are not trans people. A cisgender man who pretends to be a woman to attack people is not a trans person. Trans people have become the scapegoat for an issue that nobody in power is willing to address. Just this month we saw 80 charities and organisations boycott the UK Government’s first LGBT conference after it changed its mind on banning conversion therapy meaning that trans conversion therapy will not be outlawed. We can’t accept that lesbian, bi and gay folks are more deserving to be safeguarded from self-hate and suicide but trans people are not.

Ever since the start of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, we’ve had conflict within ourselves which only benefits those who have more privilege. The Stonewall Riots which launched the modern movement were started by black trans women who were sick and tired of police brutality. A few years later, they stood on stage at the pride parade to be booed off stage by white, gay, cisgender men and women who ousted them from the very revolution that they had started.

Fast forward four decades to our second ever Pride Parade with Proudly King’s and we are stopped in the blistering sun for two hours because white lesbian groups protested against trans people being included within the LGBT movement. Meanwhile, those who started the movement, black trans women, today have a life expectancy of 35 and it is simply not good enough. We no longer march in Pride in London because they do not protect or empower the most vulnerable members of our community.

Two weeks ago, my fiancé and I went on an impromptu pub crawl around our area. While we were there, we met Luke who is a trans man. Luke was organising a meet-up for a new LGBTQ+ association in our local area. He was sitting on a table by the bar scrawling notes about how to get the word out to people without publicising the date or time. I asked him why he wouldn’t just put up the signs because surely the queers would flock. He told me that this the pub was the only place he had ever managed to get a job, because everywhere else in the area rejected him when they learned he was trans. He said that the last time he had advertised something publicly, the pub was attacked, and he was abused. But he also said that he was questioned about what was in his pants by another member of the LGBTQ+ community at the previous meetup. The pub was the only place he could be safe because he wasn’t safe at home. And even in his safe space, he was targeted as a trans man by the general public and by his own community.

The ultimate goal of those in power in the world is to pull us apart. We are fed ideas by media, politicians and those who profit from keeping us separate and in conflict with one another. Because while we’re doing that, they can continue to thrive in a world that favours cisgendered people, that favours men, that favours able-bodied people and that favours white people. Working intersectionally and empowering every part of a person’s identity is the only way we move forward. Because those in power are terrified of what that would do to the status quo.

We can all do better by Luke regardless of how golden our awards are. This evening I invite you all to celebrate all our achievements and to continue being changemakers.

In this room we have Josh Pullen, who campaigned against the Honorary Degree of the Sultan of Brunei when the death penalty was re-introduced for gay people. Proudly King’s won that battle because he amplified the voices of queer people in King’s and beyond, and – importantly – the university listened.

We also have Professor Evelyn Welch and Sarah Guerra. I’m not sure whether the UK manufactures the size of boot that these women have left for someone to fill. Evelyn has worked at the most senior level to develop a focus on culture, inclusion and diversity among her many other roles. But she has somehow made time to be the Senior Sponsor for:

  • Elevate – our gender equality network
  • NEST – our parents & carers network
  • And our Race Equality network

As well as volunteering and championing our work in Proudly King’s.

Sarah Guerra has spent the last 5 years at King’s leading a team who’ve decreased the gender pay gap, increased the number of female staff at senior level, gained an Athena Swan silver award, a Race Equality Charter Bronze award and a small thing called the Stonewall Gold Award where we ranked 14th in the UK and 2nd among universities.

I want to thank everyone in this room for being here and being a part of making King’s a better place. You’re the reason I’ve never been afraid to bring my whole self to work.

 


Reflections from Sarah Guerra, Director of Equality Diversity & Inclusion 

Sarah Guerra celebrated with pride and trans inclusive nails.

Words drawn from Sarah’s speech delivered at the celebration event. 

It is such an enormous pleasure and privilege to be asked to speak here tonight. I am, as we all know, nearing the end of my time at King’s. I can say these 5 years have genuinely been some of the best working and life experiences I’ve had.

This Stonewall success has meant so much to me. It is the result of strong partnerships and collaboration as well as determination and commitment by so many. Kirsty outlined many of the ways we have worked together collectively to achieve this success. Many across the King’s community have contributed to this success and importantly to the safety and inclusion of our LGBTQ+ colleagues. Everyone here should feel their chests puff with pride.

I want to particularly thank Nicole Robinson, Tyler John, Jordan, Alex Prestage, Evelyn Welch, Paul Webb, Ryan Benjamin, Kirsty McLaren, Chenee Psaros, Josh Pullen, Vanessa Farrier who all have played a role in really driving King’s LGBTQ+ inclusion journey – not forgetting the IOPPN leadership who started King’s relationship with Stonewall before I arrived. They all need special mention for the roles they have played in leading King’s to this success.

While celebrating we must remind ourselves why it is important that we ensure a focus on LGBTQ+ equality. March 31 was #TransDayOfVisibility, and that gives us an opportunity to celebrate trans and non-binary people, and to raise awareness of the discrimination faced by the community worldwide. It also provides an opportunity for trans and non-binary people to feel seen through positive and realistic representation – and for allies to learn more about how they can stand in solidarity.

As I reflected on what to say today, I felt I couldn’t say it better than Lady Phyll that is Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah. Someone I’ve had the privilege to know for maybe 20 years. She is a LinkedIn ChangeMaker, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, CoFounder of UK Black Pride, A Human Rights Activist, a Community Builder and Organiser and an LGBTQ+ icon.

Lady Phyll said;

“We all have a role to play. Along with sharing trans peoples’ stories far and wide, make sure to support campaigns and mutual aid networks, so that in future trans people can be more than simply visible – they can thrive.”

All over the world we are celebrating the beauty and courage of our trans siblings. While today is a day of celebration and revelation, I want to start the day by highlighting the still very real rise in oppression that trans people are facing that seems to run parallel to their visibility.

With more representation than ever before, the general population are able to learn about the nuanced complexities of the queer community from their phones, televisions and newspapers in new and more informed ways. This being said, it has also armed an extremely vocal minority within our society with the necessary tools to identify and target some of the most vulnerable in our community. Anti-trans sentiments and violence continue to rise all over the world, and the recent ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in the United States serves as a reminder that this in turn breeds a redaction of our rights as human beings.

Trans day of visibility is a day of celebration, a day to reach out to and appreciate the trans people in our lives in admiration and respect.

She ends with words that I fully subscribe to –

“I genuinely do believe in the power that positivity and light can have on our community, however I also think that it is vital that the cisgender members of the LGBTQ community take stock of the very real threats that trans people face on a daily basis.”

I wasn’t at the march in London this weekend – but Lady Phyll and all those who came out remind us it is time for our allyship to manifest itself in action.

In looking through another lens as to why LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace is life changing and can be life saving I was fortunate enough that my brother-in-law brought our family a set of books at Christmas. One of these was called A Dutiful Boy – a memoir of secrets, lies and family love. By Mohsin Zaidi. The Guardian, GQ and New Statesman named it best book of the year. Mohsin grew up in a devout Muslim household and was confronted with the biggest decision he would ever make – to live the life that was expected of him or to live his truth?

Let me tell you in his own words…

(Sarah read a passage of book pages 274-276).

And the final lens – my own – those that know me will know I myself have come to know, accept and share my queerness as a bi Cis woman whilst here at King’s. It is still something I feel a bit weird talking about as I have been happily partnered with someone of the opposite sex for a long while now. I found myself often asking am I queer imposter? Particularly when I, say, see the twitter content that questions people who are in ‘straight’ relationships saying they are queer. Am I appropriating space? Am I jumping on a bandwagon?

No! I have learned more about romantic and physical attraction and their relationship to my sexual orientation -I get to decide for me who I am attracted to or why – not societal norms. As I started to share this news about myself I was interested in the range of reactions I got. From my brother-in-law saying ‘congratulations and welcome’ to a previous work colleague – someone who I felt was very open, saying ‘am I reading correctly that you have made some self-discoveries?’ Yes, I’ve realised I’m bi/queer but no real change in the day to day. ‘Hope your discoveries are not making life too complicated’ – to which I answered, ‘Why would they? I’m the same person’.

This is why I am so grateful for the relationships, conversations and support here at King’s underpinned by our Stonewall membership and our brilliant Proudly network that have helped me come to terms with and understand my own confusion and repressed feelings and experiences. Helped me understand who I am and be happy with that.

Tonight, isn’t about me but my experiences are a big part of why Stonewall membership and support is so vital it provides space, advocacy and education to reduce fear and confusion for individuals and to help organisations understand how to be LGBTQ+ inclusive. Getting this Gold award tells us we are on the right track and to repeat Mohsin’s words – ‘I am unwilling to give up on the idea that things can change’..

I so look forward to seeing King’s leading the conversation after my departure.

Thank you.

 

If you would like to watch some amateur footage of the speeches delivered on the night please contact the team via email (diversity@kcl.ac.uk). 


Gaining a Stonewall Workplace Equality Index Gold Award is not a destination. but a small step in our journey to creating a more inclusive world. To get involved with our work and to find out more explore the links below; 

International Women’s Day – Get Involved

Sarah Guerra, Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King’s College London shares ways of getting involved in IWD 2022 and reflects on the underrepresentation of men in the EDI field. 


Once again it is International Women’s Day on the 8th March. I will miss this year’s festivities as I will be enjoying a much needed and long-awaited break in the US of A!

Portrait of Sarah Guerra

Sarah Guerra, Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King’s College London.

Their website tell us International Women’s Day is powered by the collective efforts of all. Collective action and shared ownership for driving gender parity is what makes International Women’s Day impactful.

They quote Gloria Steinem:

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” – Gloria Steinem.

This year we are asked to imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.

At King’s we have a variety of activity happening. Elevate, in collaboration with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team are hosting an online event on Tuesday 8th March 12:00-13:00 focusing on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – #BreakTheBias.

Add your visions of a more equal world to our International Women’s Day Padlet. Ideas from the King’s community will form the inspiration for a poem which will be recited at the event by recent King’s graduate and poet, Karen Ng.

We will also hear from Aleida Borges, Research Associate at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, about the institute’s work, as well as her research on women’s grassroots leadership.

You can also unleash your creative side at an International Women’s Day themed Poetry Lunch & Do Session on Wednesday 2nd March, 14.00 – 15.30. Find out more information and register for attendance in person or online.

I have really enjoyed reading the Padlet and look forward to the poem. I also find my thoughts turn to address something that has been on my mind for many years. Something that President & Principal, Professor Shitij Kapur noticed when he arrived at King’s. In short

Where are the men?

On his arrival we organised several listening exercises for him to hear and learn about equality diversity and inclusion efforts and issues across the University.

One with the EDI team. A team that is diverse compared to many at King’s in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation, race and religion – but is also predominantly cis women.

One for those who hold EDI champion positions across the university i.e., chairs of EDI committees, Vice Deans etc. Again, a reasonably diverse set of people but again the vast majority women.

Finally, one with our staff network chairs – a slightly more gender balanced group but still predominantly female.

Why is this?

It is something I notice in so many EDI arenas.

I am a member of the REF equality, diversity and inclusion advisory panel – vast majority women. Similarly, our internal REF EDAP was all female. This is in stark contrast to the wider REF governance bodies internally.

In truth pretty much every EDI event I ever go to is vastly majority female and has a much greater representation of black, asian, minority ethnic, queer and disabled people than in my regular everyday workplace.

How do we change this?  If (and I paraphrase Gloria here) the story of the struggle for equality belongs to no single equality activist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights. If we want to get to that gender equal world, a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.  How do we make the ’together’ part so we can forge women’s equality that includes all people – and particularly the group that is often missing and yet still holds most the world’s power – men?

I am not going to do a long spiel.  My International Women’s Day call/plea to action is to ask all who read this to give me some ideas and thoughts as to how to get men into the room when we talk EDI.

Embedding wellbeing in uncertain times

Joy Whyte is Strategic Director, Education & Students, and the professional services lead for student mental health and wellbeing. To coincide with University Mental Health Day (3rd March 2022) Joy explores how we can embed wellbeing in uncertain times.


At the start of this academic year, the Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Steering Group met in its newly configured form for the first time. I co-chair this group with Professor Juliet Foster, the academic lead for student mental health and wellbeing, with Wilna Gracias as the remarkably dynamic and knowledgeable Head of Student Mental Health & Wellbeing Strategy.  

Joy Whyte leans against a stone rail, set alongside the exterior of a stone building. She is a white woman with auburn hair tied in a low plait and wears a teal top and jacket.

Joy Whyte, Strategic Director, Education & Students.

We started the meeting of the newly constituted group with a round of introductions, asking participants to share a time they were well supported and to describe the impact of that support. Rounds such as this – common in community organising practice, as a means of connecting group members – normally take 10 minutes at most. Ours took 50 minutes. In at an atmosphere of trust and confidence in one another, and a willingness to be collectively and individually vulnerable, we all shared stories of times when we had been challenged, and described the ways in which we had each been supported.  

Except for my own, those experiences are not mine to share, but anyone who has lived through two years of a global pandemic will have plenty of stories of their own: of isolation, of bereavement, of the difficulty of balancing work and family life (writ large as schools closed across the country), of caring responsibilities – both immediately and distantly, of health concerns and illness, of financial worries, instability around housing, difficulty in getting out to buy essentials, to name but a few. And sometimes a great many of these factors, in combination, exhaustingly set within a context of the intense ambient anxiety caused by a global health crisis.  

We also know that these factors have been felt differently – that black people and people of the global majority have been at greater risk from Covid, that women have carried a disproportionate childcare burden (affecting time for research, work, and rest), and that living arrangements have impacted in varyingly problematic ways for those who live alone, in shared accommodation, with a violent partner, or as a single parent.  

“More people have experienced a mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic than ever previously recorded”. – Mind, 2020.

The Prime Minister may think that we’re in post-pandemic times. But, even if you think the global health risk has subsided (and I believe only vaccine equity will assure that), the reverberations of living through such destabilising and precarious times seems set to be with us for some time. In November 2020, Mind revealed that “more people have experienced a mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic than ever previously recorded”. Mind warned of the risk of a second, mental health pandemic, and called for urgent action to mitigate the impacts of this, including investing in mental health services in the community. 

In February, the Office for National Statistics reported that 16-29 year olds feel significantly more anxious than the general population. 42% reported high levels of anxiety in the first half of February compared with 34% on average. Many King’s staff will be in this age group, and many more are directly supporting students who are experiencing these feelings of anxiety. The Student Minds Planning for a Sustainable Future report observed that “the human relationship between staff and students is still the key factor in the student experience and in supporting student mental health and wellbeing. How staff are supported becomes an important consideration.” 

In the 2018-2020 Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Report and Strategic Plan, we set out a pyramid support model. There are undoubtedly students – and staff – who need support at the uppermost levels (university specialist support services, and external specialist support services). Indeed, Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor UWE and President of Universities UK (UUK) noted in a One King’s leadership session on 24 February that “the increasing demands being made on Mental Health and Wellbeing both within university, NHS and 3rd sector agencies is significant. Universities are being expected to support high risk mental illness as the pressures on the NHS increase. This is being worked on by UUK working across Government Departments to encourage a joined-up solution”.  

Yet the base levels of the pyramid are equally important, and as King’s moves into the next phase of our strategic plan, the steering group’s focus is on illuminating further the Education Strategy’s ambition to “support positive wellbeing as a fundamental ethos of the university” and to “support and enhance the mental and physical wellbeing of students and staff through all aspects of the university experience”.  

Going back to our October meeting, individual stories about challenges sat within the context of the support we had each received – a meeting with a colleague or line manager in which we felt heard; a note left on a desk or in a locker by a co-worker; someone asking ‘how are you?’ months after a difficult event, and meaning it; cups of tea made; diaries cleared for a conversation; understanding and compassion. These were often seemingly small actions – of kindness, concern, and support – and they were profoundly meaningful.  

“Local factors play a significant role in staff wellbeing. Having a supportive team and a good direct line manager has been shown to be important for good wellbeing…” – University Mental Health Charter.

These experiences reflect the findings of Student Minds, whose University Mental Health Charter (which King’s is  working towards) states “Local factors play a significant role in staff wellbeing. Having a supportive team and a good direct line manager has been shown to be important for good wellbeing, in both the literature and feedback from staff participants in the Charter consultation.”  

Importantly, though, Students Minds note: “However, this can be precarious if not supported by the general culture of the university. This suggests a need for a combination of a general healthy culture and specific structures and practice, which ensure managers can and do support good wellbeing within their teams and respond appropriately to staff experiencing poor mental health.” 

For my own part, I think that whilst our individual experiences can catalyse change, by illustrating what support can work well (and conversely where an absence of support has heightened difficulties), the Education Strategy’s ambitions can be genuinely transformative. In the words of the King’s Community Charter we partly demonstrate our collective commitments to making the world a better place by “creating a culture that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing, and supports a proactive and holistic approach, whilst recognising the needs of the individual”. As a steering group, we look forward to sharing with you more details of what this means in practice, as we prepare the King’s application to the University Mental Health Charter.  


For guidance on mental wellbeing, and details of a range of sources of support, including Togetherall, see staff mental wellbeing 

Organisational Development are currently conducting a review of the support available to staff, with the outcome of the review to be shared in early May. If you’d like to share your views on King’s support for staff wellbeing, Organisational Development invite you to send your thoughts to OD@kcl.ac.ukusing the subject line ‘Wellbeing Review’. 

LGBT History Month Reflections from Professor Bronwyn Parry

Introducing Professor Bronwyn Parry, Vice President and Vice Principal (Service), King’s College London’s new Senior Sponsor for all things LGBTQI+.


Having been at Kings ten years this year (where did the time go!) I am delighted to say that this anniversary will also coincide with my elevation as KCL’s Senior Sponsor for all things LGBTQi+. The past decade has seen some very significant advances in thinking about such matters and there is much to celebrate in this year’s LGBTQi History Month.

Professor Bronwyn Parry

Professor Bronwyn Parry.

One of the most significant of these has been the inclusive ways in which we have worked to support members of the wider King’s community who are trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming. I remember very well how difficult it felt, in years gone by, to secure acceptance from colleagues and the wider community for anything that deviated, even marginally, from what was at the time, a seemingly all consuming hetero-normativity. And yet, here we are, not so many years hence, when I find that I can say that wonderful phrase ‘my wife’ without producing even a marginally raised eyebrow.

All of human life and behaviour undergoes continuous change and evolution. Ideas that some thought were completely unacceptable in the past (opening universities to people who came from working class backgrounds, for example) have now, thankfully, been fully revisited and our conceptions of what is fixed and fluid productively re-worked, as a consequence. By extending allyship to those in the trans community we create a safe space in which we can all reflect on the fluidity of what for many have been seemingly fixed categories. Transitions of all kinds, whether in gender or thought can be personally challenging, but also, consequently, highly generative of new understandings and approaches to matters that we thought, perhaps, long settled.

To help us with these ruminations, Proudly King’s has created a wonderful set of interactive events that that will open many new perspectives for all of us. I hope that everyone will take up opportunities that these afford to create fresh conversations and partnerships across and between our varied, staff, student and professional services communities in ways that help us improve understanding and knowledge of the experiences of all those whose lives do not directly mirror our own. This is, in essence, the promise of inclusivity that lies at the heart of all our EDI ambitions, one that I have, and will, work to deliver in my new role.

I wish everyone a very happy and productive LGBTQI History Month, one in which we come together to celebrate the strengths that diversity, in all its colours, can bring to the enhancement of life!


Challenging Fatphobia

As the festive period begins, Jennifer Hastings, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Projects & Partnerships Manager at King’s College London, explores our relationship with food and fatphobia. 


At this time of year my social media feeds tend to be full of advice on how to handle food and diet culture during the holiday season. In a way this is progress; growing up I was more likely to come across magazine articles listing low fat Christmas pudding options than carefully worded support for those with a difficult relationship with food. On the other hand, it does beg the question of how diet culture has managed to permeate every aspect of our lives, even the parts dedicated to rest and relaxation.

I am obsessed with food. When people were searching for Black Friday deals, I was checking if my favourite bakery was doing any discounts. Whilst I like to revel in this source of joy (there isn’t a quicker dopamine boost than a freshly baked brownie) it, unfortunately, exists against a backdrop of capitalism and fatphobia.

We receive conflicting messages around food. Food is the centre of many scenarios and indulging is often encouraged. We show someone we care by cooking for them and we have second helpings to demonstrate our gratitude. We indulge in treats that reflect the change in season and theme celebrations around communal feasts. However, when a body begins to evidence an enjoyment of food, it is suddenly seen as flawed or a disappointment (both by the person inhabiting it and onlookers). In the book ‘Gone Girl’ there’s an infamous monologue where the main character laments the existence of the ‘cool girl’ and her requirement to display a carefree attitude to food whilst maintaining a thin physique. I’m sure this quandary isn’t limited to fiction.

A person’s weight may not be a protected characteristic but being fat (by society’s standards) certainly results in differential treatment, from spaces that only accommodate smaller bodies to life threatening medical discrimination. People can be horribly cruel to those they deem too heavy, often attempting to disguise their judgment as concern for their health. Interestingly the same people conveniently ignore the fact that fat shaming is more likely to result in weight gain than weight loss.

We also know that fatphobia intersects with other forms of oppression, such as racism and misogyny. BMI (body mass index) figures are relied on in many medical settings despite being a tool developed with only white, cis men in mind.

Access to an abundance of food is certainly its own form of privilege. However, even in the UK, the type and quality of food people can access varies greatly. If you’re juggling work and childcare on a minimal budget, a cheap takeaway may well be your best option. Jack Monroe has written extensively about the realities of food poverty (content warning for suicide), highlighting the factors that contribute to someone’s dietary choices.

It would be amiss not to reflect on the diet industry itself, which has the sole purpose of making a profit. Whatever euphemism we use (I believe ‘wellness’ and ‘lifestyle change’ are both currently in vogue), companies selling you weight loss products are not invested in their long-term outcomes. Not least because they want return customers.

My friend and I often say that it’s too late for us to dismantle our body image issues as we have already absorbed a series of patriarchal messages about how we should look. On an intellectual level we reject fatphobia however we have also (inadvertently) internalised it, using it as a lens through which to view our own bodies. This is why I am a fan of the body neutrality movement. There’s no quick fix to loving a body that diet companies and media outlets are intent on criticising, however we can shift our focus onto other things.

This approach does have limitations. A level of privilege is required, which makes body neutrality a luxury not extended to everyone. In her column Aubrey Gordon makes a distinction between how fat people feel about their bodies versus how they are treated by others. She says: ‘To be sure, self-love and body neutrality are powerful things. But they aren’t so powerful that they can divert or erase others’ harmful actions or make unjust systems more just.’ Sophie Hagen also talks about ‘Fat Liberation’ and the importance of targeting those that weaponize people’s bodies in the first place.

What does this mean for the festive season ahead of us? I am going to echo the advice I alluded to at the start of this blog- look after yourself. Where possible, fill your time with the things that bring you joy and, if you need to talk to someone, Beat (the eating disorder charity) has a daily helpline you can call. And if you feel able, challenge fatphobia when you witness it. In his book ‘The Promises of Giants’, Dr John Amaechi defines culture as ‘the worst behaviour that you tolerate’. Of course, we need a societal shift and systematic change but, in the meantime, we can at least stop tolerating behaviours that are complicit in the marginalisation of people’s bodies.

Diversifying Leadership – StellarHE programme

Dr Margaret Kadiri is a Lecturer in the Geography Department here at King’s College. In Margaret’s blog, she shares some reflections on StellarHE – a programme providing strategic executive development for diverse leaders in higher education.


As an academic, I experience professional struggles and challenges that seem to come with the territory. However, as my career has progressed, I have realised that some of these challenges are particular as I navigate the professional academic space as a professional from an ethnic minority background. I was motivated to participate in the StellarHE leadership programme because it is uniquely designed to equip ethnic minority academics like myself with leadership competences and strategies to navigate the particular career barriers that we face, so that we can develop and effect change.

The StellarHE leadership programme is distinct from other leadership programmes that are designed on a deficit model which suggests that ethnic minority academics need to be fixed as a way of addressing the obstacles hindering leadership progression. There is a lot of publicly available data identifying some of the obstacles that have inevitably resulted in the persistent under-representation of ethnic minority academics, particularly black academics, in leadership roles across the Higher Education sector. Wider data indicates that a leak exists in the academic pipeline for the ascension of black academics in the sector, with their representation declining drastically as grades increase – only 0.67% of the 19,285 professors in the UK are currently black. We cannot grow the pool of ethnic minority academics in senior roles if there is no impervious pipeline of ethnic minority academics in lower and mid-level positions that can grow to fill senior roles.

In my view, the StellarHE programme is innovative in the way it equips ethnic minority academics and professional services staff in Higher Education institutions with the competences to draw on our diversity as a leadership strength and to implement strategies that reflect our unique challenges and experiences in navigating our environments to enable us optimise opportunities and fully realise our leadership potential. To this end, it provides transformational leadership training, networking opportunities and target capacity building.

The programme is one of self-discovery, development and growth. Personally, it has enabled me to become more aware, as an ethnic minority academic, of the additional distinctive qualities that I bring to my profession, and this has empowered me to move forward in my career journey while remaining authentic.

I would like to share two of the many key learning points which I gained from the programme drawn from the danger of a single story and the urgency of intersectionality, two exceptional TED conference talks that are pre-workshop preparatory materials for the programme, and I would encourage everyone to watch them in their spare time. The first point is on the importance of diversity for building our experiential knowledge of people and communities, and the second, is the need to emphasise that under-representation is not a blanket or homogenous phenomenon but exists across different planes.

Each year, the College funds a number of places on the StellarHE programme as part of its commitment to race equality and to provide a valuable opportunity to develop racially diverse talent. Professional services and academic staff can apply, and places are awarded on a competitive basis. More information on the programme, the eligibility criteria and how to apply can be found on the King’s StellarHE intranet page.

The opposite of colonisation

Our latest blog in a series to mark Black History Month is brought to us by Chenée Psaros.

Chenée is a Learning Developer at King’s Academy and Co-chair of Proudly King’s, the LGBTQ+ staff network. She is South African, the daughter of immigrants, the decedent of settlers and an immigrant herself. Her forefathers were white colonisers who benefitted from colonial conquests in South Africa and then, when it became a republic, benefitted again from Apartheid. It is through the lens of a white South African she explores the discourse about decolonisation in higher education in the UK.


As questions of identity, race and inequality are becoming more prevalent and strategies to address social inequities are sought, British universities are endeavouring to ‘decolonise’ their institutions. From the University of Bristol’s Decolonising Education course to our own Voices of Decolonisation KED Talk, you would be hard pressed to find a university in the United Kingdom that has not prioritised decolonisation in the last few years. George Floyd’s death catapulted systemic racism to the forefront of our focus and universities were quick to commit to anti-racist rhetoric and support for marginalised groups. However, much of the discourse around decolonisation and systemic racism are used interchangeably, we should approach the use of these terms with care, because although they are inextricably linked, they are not synonyms.

The opposite of colonisation is not decolonisation, it is repatriation. If universities gained wealth from Britain’s colonial past, we should be asking how repatriation of what was lost should take place. Settler force erased entire indigenous cultures, languages and epistemologies; these are lost forever. The act of the former imperial power trying to ‘decolonise’ for the indigenous populations they oppressed is deeply uncomfortable. ‘Decolonisation is not a metaphor’, and in their seminal text of the same name, Tuck and Yang (2012) argue that decolonisation situated outside of the indigenous context is another form of settler appropriation, used to alleviate white guilt and in doing so undermines the indigenous voices that are key to the discussion.

Much of the debate of decolonisation has focused on statues. Recently, the University of Cambridge made the decision to return a Benin bronze statue to Nigeria (Khomami, 2021). Similar acts have occurred throughout Europe. However, the most concentrated focus on decolonisation and HE is the 2016 fight to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes which looms over Oriel College at the University of Oxford. The pinnacle of the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford movement coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 (Mohdin 2021). Students who led the movement called for the statue to be removed because they wanted to address ‘the toxic inheritance of the past’ (Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, 2018) and bring attention to the underrepresentation of students of colour. To date the statue has not been removed (Badshah 2021).

This was not the first statue of Rhodes students demanded be taken down. The Rhodes Must Fall Movement in Oxford gained momentum after a less well known, but more successful campaign at the University of Cape Town in South Africa (Chaudhuri 2016). In 2015, students protested about the lack of transformation more than twenty years after Apartheid fell – out of two hundred, there were only five black professors, and the university was not actively diversifying their staff (Peterson 2015). Students wanted change, they did not want the statue of the person who was responsible for the loss of their tribal lands and the rape of their ancestors to hold a place of honour. They protested, the fight was ugly, but the students won. A symbol of oppression was removed and the university reviewed their practices.

It hard to imagine in today’s times who is comparable to Cecil John Rhodes. His wealth and influence in Africa were vast, he had not one, but two countries named after him, a monopoly on Southern African diamond mines, the British Army and his own police force at his disposal. His power was great and far reaching; his forces sequestered native land, pillaged tribal property and raped indigenous women. He might well have been a man of the times but his single-mindedness to expand the British Empire was unparalleled. His legacy lives on. Beyond the statues that honour him, the wealth he gained in Africa allowed him to bequeath vast endowments to Oxford University and establish one of the most famous scholarships of all, the Rhodes Scholarship.

The Rhodes Scholarship was established in 1903 to promote unity between English-speaking nations and when it was set up only white men were eligible to apply. It was slow to diversify, women only qualified in 1977 and black people from South Africa only in 1992. It has since gone on to support people like Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Naomi Wolf. It was in 2018 that the scholarship was opened globally. However, in that same year, of the ninety-five scholarships available fifty-five were awarded to students from the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, only ten were awarded to students who were from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana and Malawi (Rhodes Scholar Database 2021). The demographic data about the students who were selected was not available, but it is doubtful that many indigenous students won the scholarship.

The inequalities that have shaped South Africa from the colonial past (Gebrial, 2018) and apartheid were violently acted out this summer. Riots and looting caused the destruction of businesses in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng. The unrest was catapulted to the forefront as Covid lockdowns had so adversely affected people. South Africans, unlike people living and working in Britain, were not able to participate in furlough schemes or apply for social security payments to help them out in times of need. The access to vaccines that might have allowed people to return to work sooner was limited because the UK and other wealthy nations stockpiled it. When South Africa asked for Oxford Astrazenca patents to be made available to produce vaccines locally, they were denied (Nocera 2021, Stone 2021, Watney 2021). When the South African government purchased vaccine from Pfizer they were subsequently charged more than their European counterparts because they had not invested in the development (Thanbisetty, 2021). Universities were at the heart of developing vaccines, can those who claim they want to decolonise, work with companies who exploit countries with less global capital?

There is much rhetoric about how higher education can decolonise its institutions, its practices and its curricula. How we move forward to being more culturally competent is at the heart of the discussion. While universities have histories intertwined with wealth from slavery and occupation, we need to acknowledge, living in a former imperial power, that individually we do too. We are not blameless. Regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, if we currently reside in the United Kingdom we benefit, to different degrees albeit, from the legacy of the power and positioning modern day Britain inherited from her colonial past. Decolonial work cannot happen in the palace of the colonisers, the Global South needs to have a stake in how decolonial work should take place. If we are committed to decolonisation, we should acknowledge that it cannot take place without indigenous perspectives and contributions of those territories that were once occupied. The Oxford example demonstrates how the appropriation of a movement did not bring about change and how the settler perspective overshadowed the colonial one because of global power constructs. Universities should move beyond decolonisation and explore what repatriation looks like in an HE context. If we really want to make the world a better place, we could do it through scholarships, how we share knowledge and resources, and how we fund research.


References:

Stonewall – staff survey now open!

Nicole Robinson, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant & Jake Orros, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Project Officer at KCL share how to get involved with this year’s Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.


At King’s we are committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment where all members of our community can achieve their potential. This includes our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer colleagues. To support our journey to being a truly inclusive employer we have worked with the charity Stonewall since 2016.

This year we are taking part in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index and we need your help!

As part of our submission to the Workplace Equality Index we want to hear from you. We are calling all staff at King’s College London to take part in Stonewall’s employee survey. The staff survey is your chance to tell us how we’re doing as your employer. It asks about your identities and about your experience working at King’s. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to have your say and honestly share how we are doing as an organization. Together we can create a more inclusive university.

Whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not, we want to hear from you!

You can take part in the survey here.

Stonewall is a charity  that stands for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning and ace (LGBTQ+) rights everywhere. Over the last 30 years, they have helped create transformative change in the lives of LGBTQ+ people in the UK and around the world.  The charity has also been at the forefront of making workplaces inclusive for LGBTQ+ people for more than 15 years through the Stonewall Diversity Champion scheme.

King’s has proudly taken part in the Diversity Champion scheme since 2016; the programme empowers LGBTQ+ people and allies to step up as leaders, role models and activists in the workplace. As truly global institution the Champion scheme echoes King’s vision to develop and empower individuals to lead and make the world a more inclusive place.

Sarah Guerra, Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion:  “This independent Stonewall survey is a good opportunity for all our staff to feedback on our LGBTQ+ inclusion journey and success to date. King’s has come a long way since we became a Stonewall Diversity Champions in 2016. I myself have come out as Bi whilst working at King’s.

Since 2016, we have seen all of the Senior Management Team undertake structural inequality and Trans Matters training, updated our trans inclusion policies,  improved the provision of gender Free toilet facilities and we are currently creating an allyship toolkit to support all members of our community. I would encourage all staff at King’s to get involved and complete this years workplace survey.”

Organizations from across the UK take part in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, each receiving a score as a measure of their actions to build an inclusive workplace. The Index is our chance to celebrate our achievements, understand where we need to make progress and benchmark ourselves nationally as an LGBTQ+ inclusive workplace. This year we’ll be sharing with Stonewall our updated Trans inclusion and Dignity at King’s policies, as well as sharing our work on socially responsible procurement and Trans matters training delivered to senior leaders.

Our submission is divided into 2 parts:

  • Firstly, we are measured across 8 areas of employment policy and practice.
  • Secondly, all staff are invited to take part in the online survey run by Stonewall.

Both parts of our submission are independently reviewed by Stonewall who will announce the latest Workplace Equality Index early next year.

We want to say thank you for supporting our Stonewall journey and for participating in the survey. If you would like to know more or if you have any questions you can get in touch with the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion team via email at diversity@kcl.ac.uk

Take part in the survey here

Frequently asked questions:

  • The survey takes 5–10 minutes to complete.
  • The survey is open to all staff at King’s – not just members of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • The information you provide is anonymous and completely confidential. All of the information gathered by Stonewall is fed back to King’s in an aggregated way, without any personally identifiable information.
  • Survey closes on 5th November 2021.
  • 16th February 2021 top 100 and Gold, Silver & Bronze employer awards are announced.

Useful links & additional information:

Note: If you don’t work at King’s College London, why not reach our to your employer and find out if they are taking part in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index this year. The Survey is open for all organizations taking part until 5th November 2021.

It’s time to give ourselves a break: How to overcome parental guilt during the COVID pandemic

Emma Warnock-Parkes, Clinical Psychologist and exhausted mum of 2, shares 5 strategies for overcoming parental guilt.


Emma and her children smiling and laughing

I’m sitting in a lunchtime zoom meeting of fellow parents working at my university. The topic of discussion is how the pandemic has impacted on us. I’ve never met any of these people before but looking around I know we have one thing in common: we are all knackered. Many of us sit with a child on our lap or one repeatedly appearing in the background requesting more snacks. We simultaneously shovel down some lunch and keep an eye on our emails. As I half listen (a skill many of us have acquired thanks to COVID), I’m struck by the fact that in addition to all being exhausted and desperately needing a haircut, we are plagued with a common problem: guilt.

‘I’m not spending enough time with my kids’; ‘I feel bad they are stuck with me and cannot see their friends’; ‘He should have had a better birthday’; ‘I’ve given them too much chocolate’; ‘they are on screens far too much’, ‘I’ve shouted’, ‘I’ve sworn’, ‘I’m irritable with them’, ‘the house is constantly a mess’, ‘I’m not helping them enough with their school work’; ‘they are falling behind’. The list goes on.

I listen to other mums fighting back their tears as they beat themselves up over what has undoubtedly been the most difficult year of our lives. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with sadness and deep compassion for these amazing women, and for myself. This last year parents have faced unprecedent challenges. We have managed the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, alongside performing an impossible juggling act that no generation of parents has faced before. We have done all this while adapting to remote working, without our usual social supports, while being stuck inside our homes in an unrecognisable world. Many of us have had to worry about job or financial security, had friends and family who are struggling, coped with illness and loss. So why are we all being so hard on ourselves?

Given what a common experience it is, there is surprisingly little research on parental guilt.
Some psychologists argue that women feel more guilt than men, and that maternal guilt has an evolutionary basis motivating us to provide care (Rotkirch & Janhunen, 2009). One would hope this would change as parental roles become more shared. That said, I just asked my husband what he has felt most guilty about during the pandemic: he has eaten too much ice cream and not learnt enough Italian apparently. As this is a sample of one, and I happen to know Dads who have struggled with COVID parenting guilt, I’ll say no more.

As I listened to other parents talking, it struck me that as a psychologist and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) therapist I know quite a bit about helping people overcome guilt. Yet, like many good psychologists, I’m terrible at taking my own advice. I vowed that later that day I would get out the chocolate biscuits, put on yet another episode of Paw Patrol and give my pangs of guilt a self-therapy session. Here is what I found:

5 CBT tips you may find helpful for addressing COVID parenting guilt:

1) Spot your guilty thoughts.

Guilty feelings are driven by guilty thoughts, so spotting what you are feeling guilty about is the first step to overcoming it. Guilt arises from the perception that we have done something wrong or harmful to another: “should” thoughts. “I should be spending more time home schooling my children”, “I shouldn’t have got so angry” etc. These thoughts leads to feelings of guilt, and at times anxiety or low mood. This can understandably impact on what we do. We might dwell on our guilty thoughts or withdraw from others. This can become a vicious cycle, leading to more negative thinking and guilt:cycle, negative thoughts lead to feeling guilty low, anxious. cycling to behaviors and then back to negative thoughts

If you feel parental guilt about many things since COVID began, try to spot the thoughts that
makes you feel most guilty. For me this is not spending enough time with my kids.

2) Are you as responsible as you feel?

Feeling guilty does not mean that we are guilty, it may mean that we are taking on too much responsibility. A helpful CBT technique here is drawing out a responsibility pie chart. It can help you to see that there might be other factors that have some responsibility. This is done in 3 simple steps:

Step 1: Start by writing down how responsible you feel. For me, as Netflix helpfully asks whether my children are still watching Paw Patrol, I write, ‘I feel 100% responsible for not spending enough time with my kids during the pandemic’.

Step 2: Write a list of all the other factors that can take some responsibility. Here I write down: the COVID virus; the government for poor outbreak management leading to childcare closure; people who did not follow guidelines early on; my work; my husband; myself.

Step 3: Allocate percentages of the pie to each thing on your list (make it add up to 100%). Give a percentage to all the other things first, ending with yourself. Then draw out the pie chart. This is what I ended up with:

My Responsibility Pie Chart: 

pie chart of my responsibilities: me 5 percent, my husband 5 percent, governtment 30 percent, covid-19 40 percent, people not following guidance 10 percent, my work 10 percent.

Drawing it out is a powerful reminder that despite feeling 100% responsible, we really cannot blame ourselves for a global pandemic and the impact it has had on our lives.

3) Focus on what you have done, not what you haven’t.

The pie chart helped, but I still feel some guilt. Guilt is often maintained by discounting what we have done, and instead focusing on what we have not. I spend a few moments writing down the things I have done for my children during the pandemic. I find this hard, so ask my husband to help. I also look back through the photos on my phone for the past year. This surprises me. I half expect to see nothing but photos of my children screaming through my zoom meetings as I throw snacks in their general direction. What I see instead is smiling faces in the garden, happy walks in the park, a couple of outdoor meet-ups with friends and family last summer, even a few shots of them eating fruit, instead of chocolate. All of these memories have been totally blocked by my feelings of guilt.

What strikes me is I how much I have done this last year to get us through. If I had time to frame or make a collage of these photos I would. I clearly don’t (cue more guilty thoughts). Instead, as a reminder of what I have done, I save one of us all smiling as my phone screensaver. It is an exercise I thoroughly recommend you try.

you have done much more than you think. Give yourself some credit.

4) This year has been hard enough, so do what’s helpful.

Self-criticism and guilt go hand in hand and may have become a bit of a habit. It can help to explore what impact this is having on you and your family. Ask yourself:

a)Is being hard on myself helping us at all? For me, the answer is no.

b)Are there any disadvantages? For me, it makes me feel rubbish and much more in my own head, which in turn makes it harder to have fun with the kids.

If beating ourselves up is not helping us, or our children, it is probably a good idea to try to notice when dwelling on it, and to let it go. For me this includes dropping my standards. The kids won’t be getting any home-made hummus this year, and that’s ok (to be honest they only did once before COVID and, on account of it tasting like Polyfilla, nobody ate it anyway). I realise comparing myself unfairly on social media has not been helping. An Instagram photo only shows a one second window into the lives of others. You may see little Jessica eating a rainbow food bowl or practicing her phonics, but what you don’t see is the tantrum and screen time that come after. I decide to unfollow all the mummy food accounts on Instagram that tend to make me feel bad about myself. Quite frankly, if any of us manage to throw the occasional bit of broccoli in with the fish fingers this year, we are winning.

“Try not to compare yourself to other parents on social media.”

5) Be kind to yourself – What would you tell any other parent?

Thinking of the compassion I felt upon hearing my colleagues’ struggles, I remember how key it is to tune into kindness for yourself when struggling with guilt.What would we say to any other parent who has gone through/is still going through what we have? I spend a moment thinking of a close friend of mine who has had a hard year juggling work and kids. I first imagine what I would say to her. When I tune into my feelings of compassion, I then start writing a note to myself:

‘Dear Emma, give yourself a break! You have done the best you possibly could in the hardest year of your life. You’ve juggled full-time work and childcare for two children during a global pandemic. All while getting used to working at home, away from family and friends, with little sleep and no break. You deserve a medal rather than being so hard on yourself. Extra TV and snacks is essential COVID survival. You are doing a great job, even if you don’t feel like it. Be kind to yourself.’

Writing a compassionate message to yourself and reading it back may feel like a strange thing to do, but I wholeheartedly recommend trying it. Once you have, try to plan in a regular small act of self-kindness. I make a plan to take a proper lunch break away from the screen each day that week and read a little of my book (and when I managed it, it felt amazing). Our children can only benefit from treating ourselves a little better.

Feeling a little lighter, I close the laptop and turn off Paw Patrol. Once the whinging about the TV going off has stopped and I have mediated another row over Lego, my eldest son digs his elbow into my tummy, “squidgy mummy” he reminds me. He spots the exasperated look on my face and corrects himself: “you are the best mummy” he says.

For once I decide to let myself believe him. And you know what? The rest of the afternoon felt a little better for it.


If you are struggling with excessive feelings of low mood or anxiety, do reach out for help. Many employers, including my own university, offer psychological support through employee assistance programmes. There are helpful resources, including information on accessing talking therapies, on the Every Mind Matters NHS page.

NEST is our dedicated staff network for supporting parents and carers at King’s. they provide support to staff with parental and/or caring responsibilities through a range of events, an online community, and by offering guidance and representation at a strategic and policy level. You can find our more about NEST here.

King’s reflections a year on from George Floyd’s murder – Part 2

In the second installment of our series of curated reflections a year on from George Floyd’s murder, we share the reflections of Ellen Clark-King, The Dean of King’s College London.


Reflection on Genesis 21:8-13

In March 2020 I was in Montgomery Alabama. I was there as part of an annual pilgrimage that addresses the legacy of slavery and enduring racial inequality in the US and beyond. It was a mixed group – racially, religiously, some very middle class, some unhoused. We visited museums, talked about our experiences, sang together and also wept together.

The place we visited that hammered at my heart most was Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is a memorial to every person killed by lynching in the United States – over 4000 people, children as well as adults. It is both a beautiful and a gut-wrenching place, lives remembered and honoured with a beauty that condemns the ugliness of their deaths. And what hit me hardest was reading some of the names – the ones whose surname was the same as mine at birth – Clark. Not because I could claim them as my kin but because these were people who had been owned by those who shared my name. My personal Clark ancestors were white working and servant class, not slave owners, but that does not absolve me from the guilt of being part of a system that said that White lives matter and that Black lives don’t.

Sarah said to Abraham: ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Here we are confronted with the reality of slavery at the heart of our sacred scripture. Here Sarah, herself part of a people who were liberated from slavery, stands on the other side. Here she speaks for slave owners across the centuries who have failed to see that other mother’s children are as valuable as their own. Here Sarah is part of my story – part of the story of privilege that belongs to women as well as men because of their race and economic status.

But I don’t want to focus on Sarah. I want to focus on the other woman in the story – Hagar the Egyptian, the one who was cast out into the wilderness, the one who lifts up her voice and weeps in despair. Hagar was the slave woman purchased by Abraham and Sarah to bear children for Abraham when Sarah was believed to be barren. She was, in other words, trafficked and sold as a sex slave. Her very name shouts out her ‘otherness’ and lack of value – Hagar in Biblical Hebrew means ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’. This is a name given to her by those who own her not by the mother who bore her. The wonderful Biblical scholar Wilda Gafney in her book Womanist Midrash tells us that this is not the only tradition of Hagar’s name. She figures prominently in the Islamic tradition and there her name is given as Hajar. This name has beautiful potential meanings from ‘Splendid’ to ‘Nourishing’. Here is a name that speaks of the worth that belongs to each human creature. Here is a name that says this woman is her own person, a beloved daughter of God, not a possession. This is what I will call her from now on.

I want to take us back a few chapters in Genesis to the place where we first encounter Hajar. At this point Sarah is angry with Hajar because she feels insulted by her attitude – she expects her slave to treat her with respect – and so she beats her viciously causing Hajar to flee to the wilderness. Here Hajar is again at the point of despair and here again God comes to her. God tells her that she and her son are in his care, that she will be the mother of a great nation – the first divine annunciation in the entire Bible. And even more extraordinarily than that – Hajar is the first human being allowed to name God. The first human being in the whole of our scripture who names God is a slave woman – the most powerless of human beings in every hierarchy of the time. And the name that Hajar gives to God is El Ro’i, God of seeing, interpreted by Gafney as meaning ‘Have I seen the one who sees me and lived to tell of it?’. God sees Hajar. God sees her as a human being of meaning and significance, as one who has the right to name the divine as it appears to her, as one strong enough to encounter the living God and to continue living. She is the one who is promised life not only for herself but for her children and her children’s children. And in the second encounter we heard today Hajar’s identity is affirmed as a beloved champion of God’s purposes: no one’s property, no one’s slave. The UK and the US ended slavery generations ago. They officially recognised that no human being should be another person’s property. But white society never took the next step. The step of seeing the children of freed slaves as equal to the children of those who owned them. The step of hearing hard truths and seeking reconciliation through justice. The step of making Black Lives Matter a reality rather than an essential rallying call. The step of racial justice.

And, especially relevant in theology and the academy more generally, the step of listening to the names that Black voices are giving to reality and to God. If all you read in theology or fiction or news articles are the writings of white men then you are not learning the full truth of our world or of God. If you are not hearing womanist voices naming God then you are not hearing a crucial part of how God names Godself. We need to know the God Hajar named – El Ro’i – the one who sees the reality of injustice and oppression; the one who reveals divine reality most clearly to those on the underside of power. We need to know Hajar’s God and we need to work with Hajar’s God to dismantle racial injustice and undo the long, painful legacy of slavery. And we need to do it now.

Reference: Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

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