Saluting Our Sisters: Voices from across the College of Social Sciences

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Colourful graphic design image of black woman with the text Black History Month, 1-31 October, and the University of Birmingham crest

October is an important opportunity to share and celebrate black history. This year’s theme is ‘Saluting Our Sisters’, highlighting the crucial role that black women play in shaping history, inspiring change, and building communities. As a College we have much to contribute and celebrate, be that the groundbreaking research of academics, student success stories, or inspiring alumni achievements. This piece amplifies the voices and honours the achievements of black women across the College.

Glanis Changachirere, activist and scholar on gender and politics in Africa, School of Government

Solidarity as an act of humanity and essence of Ubuntu

“Solidarity is a profound act of humanity that I value. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is the essence of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an African concept that summarises the idea of compassion and empathy. In 2009 I founded the Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD), an organisation which promotes the participation of women in decision making and politics in Zimbabwe through training and mentorship. In national elections, 24 women trainees to date have successfully got elected into Parliament and local councils. The work is instrumental for gender equality and democracy in Africa. It is rooted in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Despite its policy rootedness, as women activists and politicians, we continue to face intersecting forms of violence, both in our personal lives and in the public sphere. Based on my work experience, I receive and offer solidarity to a lot of activists who are victimised for fighting for social justice. The resilience women demonstrate informed my doctoral research, investigating how women exercise their agency and power to influence political outcomes in constrained spaces, focusing on Uganda and Zimbabwe.”

Anne Kairu, Newton International Fellow, International Development Department, School of Government

My Education Journey

“Education is power, they say. My education journey started in a small rural village in Kenya to pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship. Growing up in a community with limited resources and cultural barriers, my parents played a crucial role in instilling the importance of education. Despite facing challenges, such as inadequate facilities and societal expectations, determination and hard work accorded me education excellence through basic education levels through to University education. Hard work, determination and resilience opened doors to further education opportunities, eventually leading to a PhD award. As the wise man said, comfort is the enemy of progress. I refused the comfort of the title ‘Dr.’ and again burnt the midnight oil until I was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Birmingham. My journey highlights the transformative power of hard work and determination in education, and hope to inspire women to overcome barriers and pursue their dreams.”

Ingrid Abrahams, PhD Education, School of Education

“Literally speaking, my first teacher was my mother. At the age of five I found myself sitting at a desk in a classroom being taught by my strict but beautiful mother who had arrived from the Caribbean only 7 years previous. My doctoral thesis is a personal story, but it is also an attempt to research a complex topic: the underrepresentation of black senior leaders focusing on gender and ethnicity. From the inspirational school leadership of Beryl Gilroy and Yvonne Connolly in the 1960s, I seek to explore the experiences of second generation black senior leaders in schools in England today. Over the last twenty years there has been a demise in the number of senior leaders from the Afro-Caribbean community. Through semi-structured interviews, the study will focus on how black leaders experience their daily work and career progression against social, political and cultural constraints. I salute those early pioneers!”

Diane Phipps, Senior Learning & Development Business Partner in the NHS, enrolled on the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson programme, School of Social Policy

“At university, I was the only black woman on my course and I found myself being treated, spoken to, and graded differently to others. I got to the point where I decided to leave my degree. Despite this experience, I went on to qualify as a teacher and enjoyed teaching in the NHS. I am now Senior Training Manager in the NHS. I continue to invest in myself and am currently completing the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson leadership programme led by the University of Birmingham. My advice to others is this: if you are not a person of colour, be curious about why someone of colour hasn’t progressed or is treated differently. If you are a person of colour, continue to believe in yourself. Whatever is thrown your way, be professional and be proud. Inequality and unfairness are still rife, even if the way that it is expressed has changed. Giving ourselves and our allies a voice is the key to maintaining our dignity. We are always stronger together.”

Grace Chibogwu, Community Engagement Worker at Barnardos, School of Education Alumni

“I’ve always been passionate about social aspects especially around racism and inequality. Most of my research has been about the experiences of Black girls and women in academia. This stems from my experiences in education when my college tutor said he was not sure I would finish my A Levels and attend university. Although that was almost 7 years ago, it is something I vividly remember and have had black friends and colleagues share similar experiences, that is why I did my MA dissertation titled: “How does racism affect Black female HE (Higher Education) students”. And despite what my teacher said, not only did I complete my undergraduate degree, I also achieved a Merit in my MA studies. That’s why this year’s Black History Month being around ‘Celebrating our sisters’ is a great way to share black women’s work, experiences, and great accomplishments.”

Debbie Innes-Turnill, Lecturer (MSc Advanced Child Protection Studies), Department of Social Work and Social Care, School of Social Policy

“I joined the University of Birmingham in 2020 after a long career as a teacher and have just started my PhD. Whenever I am asked to share something interesting or unusual about me, I share the fact that for 26 years I was a rugby referee. I was one of the first female rugby referees in the country and definitely the first in Gloucester, my home town. I was also the first black female referee in the country – which is something I feel is important to acknowledge. At the time, women’s rugby was a developing sport, so I refereed a mixture of mainly men’s and some women’s rugby, eventually being the first woman on the National Panel of Referees (as an assistant referee) and officiating at three Women’s Rugby World Cups. I was a trailblazer – making a way for those who have followed, something that I am proud to share.”

Ntandokazi Kheswa, MBA (online) student, Birmingham Business School

“I am a black African woman who grew up in Umlazi, South Africa, where my father’s entrepreneurial ventures instilled in me a strong sense of business spirit. In 2010, I took a bold step into the male-dominated oil and gas industry by acquiring an Engen Petroleum franchise, the largest company of its kind in South Africa. As one of the few female owners of a Petrol Service Station in 2011, I broke barriers. My business is a 100% black female-owned franchise, where my staff have acquired diverse skills and are trained to excel in various aspects of the business. My passion lies in job creation to combat poverty and empower women, especially in helping aspiring female entrepreneurs enter the oil and gas industry, where representation is vital. I’ve been an advocate within the KwaZulu Natal Province Oil industry, sharing insights and experiences through speeches at numerous events to inspire upcoming entrepreneurs. To enhance my ability to mentor upcoming entrepreneurs, I enrolled at the University of Birmingham, believing that my journey can inspire the youth.”

Mercelynne Okelo, MSc Financial Technology student, Birmingham Business School

Saluting our sisters beyond October

“Black History Month for me represents a time for us to look back with pride at the sacrifices made by women in previous generations to pave the way for us to enjoy the opportunities we do enjoy now. Their strong will and sheer determination to have their voices heard in a society that had very little faith in them beautifies their legacy even more. Not to say that the present is free from difficulties, but the challenges they had to contend with are in no way comparable to what we have to deal with currently. As we devotedly follow their example to excel against all odds, the future can only be better. As we salute our sisters this October, and every month going forward, I am reminded that black females are bold, capable, qualified, competent and can compete in whichever front they choose to. This month is also a cue for me, my sisters, and brothers to gracefully embrace everything that makes us unique as a people.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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