On Saturday 24 November, the first Black Leadership Conference took place at the University of Liverpool, organised by Guild Vice-President Esther Bukoye who delivered the keynote speech. The day was made up of workshops led by Dr Tony Sewell CBE, Irene Afful MSc, Jason Pitter QC, Dr Christienna Fryar and DR Johnson Ajayi, and culminated in a panel discussion titled Black in Industry. The panel was hosted by Alex Anush of the Liverpool Debating Union who also moderated the Black History Month Debate.
This was the first Black Leadership Conference held by the Guild of Students, and panellist Dr Ajayi, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, says he hopes it won’t be the last. The conference’s organiser, Esther Bukoye, felt the need to do stuff beyond Black History Month, which she also took lead of for the Guild, seeing an appetite for more open discussion of topics like diversity.
For Esther, leadership doesn’t mean having a title, rather it means affecting change and making a difference. Reflecting on entering the role of Vice-President, she notes how she hadn’t run on a manifesto of diversity, but says, “when you walk in and something is so clear and apparent to you, that it almost seems a sin not to do something about it, then you should do something.” Hence the conference.
The Black Leadership Conference was welcomed warmly by students in attendance who found the experience valuable. Ramadane, a Law student from the Benin Republic, says he met a lot of people and received good advice that will help him on his path.
“Today is the first time throughout all of my education that I’ve been somewhere where it has been people I can relate to and identify with in the positions that I want to see myself in and having not seen that before, it’s not disheartening because obviously you can still identify with someone who is successful and hardworking, but to see someone who came from a really similar background to you and has the same culture and same beliefs is really encouraging.”
Dr Sewell is the founder and CEO of Generating Genius, which encourages 14-18 year old females, Black African and Caribbean males, and mixed-race young people to pursue STEM subjects as they are are underrepresented in STEM in particular, and in higher education more generally.
Nakeira, the only Black student in her Maths cohort, found Sewell’s talk inspiring and says she was lucky to have a good teacher in school as a bad teacher can turn people off Maths for life. Events like the Black Leadership Conference are important, she says, “especially considering you don’t see a lot of Black lecturers.”
“People always like doing things that they can relate to. If you see someone doing something that might have some kind of similarity to you, it immediately makes it seem more accessible.”
Dr Christienna Fryar, a lecturer in the history of slavery and unfree labour, and the first Black academic in the History Department, highlighted during the panel discussion the lack of Black historians in the UK. The first Black female history professor in the country, Olivette Otele, was appointed by Bath Spa University in October 2018. Fryar says it is both a privilege and a burden to be one of the only Black academics people will encounter in their life.
The conference’s organiser, Esther Bukoye, echoes this view, saying it is a privilege to be one of the few people of colour in the workplace in the sense that “it’s a privilege for them to see you in your element, for them to get to experience more BAME and diverse staff, but it’s also disheartening in one sense because it shouldn’t be the case where there are so few people of a particular ethnicity or colour working in an institution.”
Although this is not something that crosses Esther’s mind, it can also make people afraid to slip up or to get passionate in case they are stereotyped as the angry Black woman. “There are many Black students and Black people that consciously feel like they have to check themselves because they are the one person in their institution,” because many people view them as “the total vision of a race.”
Sinmi says the lack of Black academics “makes academia seem like a phase as opposed to something that you can keep on doing.” A number of attendees say a positive message is sent to students when they walk into a lecture or tutorial and see a Black lecturer, inspiring a sense of belonging.
In 2017, the University of Liverpool appointed its first Black African professor. The proportion of professors with mixed White/Black African heritage remained around 0.28% while the share of lecturers in both categories combined was just over 1%.
Ramadane says that, prior to coming to the UK, he used to think there were a lot of restrictions on Black people here, but seeing people at the Black Leadership Conference has made him realise that, despite the challenges, there are chances out there. It has inspired him to push and work harder.
Both panellists and students touched on the idea of not being held back by concerns over racial discrimination. Irene Afful, who was the first Black female inspector in Merseyside Police, says there are external barriers to entering certain industries, such as the bad relationship police have had with Black communities. There are also barriers from within the self, she says.
Dr Fryar says it is too early in their lives for students to worry about external barriers and about being ‘the first’. They should instead focus on internal factors, on being the best they can be, and on surrounding themselves with people who see them the way they see themselves. Esther reiterates this, saying the biggest advice to take away from the conference was to focus on what you can control.
During Black History Month, Dr Christienna Fryar was scheduled to deliver a talk on Windrush, but this had to be postponed. However, demand for this event was significant, and Esther hopes to invite speakers like Christienna to talk about such issues as part of a planned series of guest lectures called Guild Talks. These will cover issues such as identity, Black history and liberation, allowing students to explore topics not often discussed on their University curriculum.
Black History Month also saw the launch of the first Hear My Voice event, an outdoor concert involving spoken word artists, singers and performers based on the theme of race. This is another thing Esther hopes to continue, not just on the theme of race but also with other issues, so people can have an outlet to discuss them in the open on their University campus.
Featured image: Jason Pitter QC (Credit: Danny Rigg)