Leeds Launch BME Conference

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Following the BME Leadership Conference last Wednesday, The Gryphon Features explores the lack of Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities in leadership and academia roles at the University of Leeds, the Union and further afield.

According to LUU, only sixteen percent of home and EU students at Leeds are of a BME background. The ‘Inspire, Lead, Learn Conference’, set up by Equality and Diversity Officer Natasha Mutch-Vidal, was held in the Union for one hundred BME students in order to empower and encourage minority students to pursue postgraduate courses, provide information on entering student politics, and even offer advice on setting up their own businesses.

Speaking about the inspiration behind her idea for the conference, Tash was clear on why the event was so important in terms of getting more BME students into leadership roles on campus. “When I wrote my manifesto one of the things that I wanted to put across was the fact that the university and the careers centre really need to tailor their approach in terms of the services that they’re offering to students.” At the University of Leeds, the Careers Centre offers tailored advice for prospective graduates looking for work, but they fail to acknowledge that many of their students are stepping into fields where they are severely underrepresented. Although the percentage of BME students with degrees is on the increase, this rise has not been mirrored in the labour market; Britain’s elite is still 97% white.  Events like the BME Leadership Conference are set to change that statistic.

Academia, network and communication were the three key themes Tash was intent on centring her BME Leadership Conference around in the infancy of the project. This time a year ago, creating a conference to inspire leadership in students of colour was at the heart of her campaign. Having won the election, Tash put into motion plans for an event which by February 2018 would feature speakers such as London-based gal-dem.com editor Liv Little, founder of UK Black Pride Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, and Leeds Labour councillor Alison Lowe.

“I thought it would be good to do something that is particularly tailored to the experiences of people of colour at our university.” For Tash, this event was about leadership. But leadership “doesn’t necessarily mean you are at the centre and forefront of something. Just by being part of that space you are essentially a leader for anyone else that might be looking to that space.”  With various workshops taking place throughout the day from ‘Being part of the 18%’ of BME PHD students to ‘Building Something From Nothing: Being an Entrepreneur’, the agenda was clear: inspiring students of colour to enter institutions in which they are chronically underrepresented.

Business, journalism and politics were some of the main pathways presented. However, the conference also looked at roles closer to  home. As a member of the LUU exec, Tash championed the necessity for diversity at a student level. Last year, 38% of students who put their names forward in the leadership race were from a BME background; the year before that it was 33%. Tash “wanted to build upon its successes and get another growth, 40% or higher – hence why I ran that session.”

With one student tweeting that she was inspired to do a pHD after the conference, the immediate impact of this event is clear. Looking forward to the future, however, the pressure is now on the university to maintain the precedent Tash has set. The presence at the conference of Deputy Vice-Chancellor Tom Ward and Head of the Equality Policy Unit Sabiha Patel means those at the top can bear witness to what Tash described as “a testament to who [BME students] are and what you’re offering to the university”, a necessary tool to orchestrating real change.

The main messages from the event for BME students to take away were: to be unafraid to have a professional presence in predominantly ‘white’ fields; to be unapologetic in calling out inappropriate behaviours in the workplace or elsewhere; to have the courage to take up leadership positions at university and at business-minded or academic workplaces in the future. Therefore, the continuation of events such as the Inspire, Lead Learn Conference is paramount if the University of Leeds is to become a place that BME students believe belongs to them. Because currently this simply isn’t the case; too many BME students feel “outside of their comfort zone” in an institution where the presence of “people that look like you and have similar experiences” is extremely limited.

Building on the momentum in BME activism within Leeds, headed in particular by former Education Officer Melz Owusu who orchestrated the ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ movement, Tash Vidal is creating opportunities catered in particular for students from ethnic minority backgrounds: a clear reminder that higher education is for all.

A university spokesperson said:

“At Leeds we believe passionately in delivering an inclusive experience for staff and students. Equality of opportunity, fairness and inclusion are the foundation of our global community at our University, and a vital enabler that will help us realise our University strategy.

“The University Careers Service is committed to addressing the challenges faced by some students in some areas  of employment, and works in partnership with LUU to address such issues, for example through the Student Employability Inclusivity Group of which the LUU Equality and Diversity Officer is a member.   The Inspire Lead Learn Conference, which the Careers Service provided funding for, was an example of this partnership working, and the Service has committed to legacy work from the conference so that momentum is maintained.”

Stephanie Uwalaka & Jodie Yates


Image: Prote.in