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Dear Vice Chancellor: I have a Dream

06 Jul 2020 | Malik Thomas In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Law student Malik Thomas discusses his dream to get Black Intellectual Capital embedded in the curriculum in order to remove structural inequality across higher education

In 1963, Dr Martin Luther King Jr shared his ‘dream’ of a democracy that would respect and utilise the talents of all people, regardless of race. Akin to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, I too would like to share my dream with you. I shall attempt to elucidate this dream through a socio-legal lens, with the hope that we can work together to convert this dream into reality. 

I dream of an equitable society where Black Intellectual Capital is embedded within the curriculum as a pedagogy of hope and an instrument promoting attainment for aspiring legal professionals from a plethora of backgrounds.

I believe this is necessary, particularly within my discipline, Law, because the structural inequalities within universities operate in parallel to those within wider society. This may serve to compromise attainment for many aspiring legal professionals like me.

In 2019 the Judicial diversity figures were published. The statistics were alarming yet unsurprising, illustrating that as of 1st April 2019 there existed 3210 court judges, 1854 tribunal judges and 3121 non-legal with the cohort consisting of 7% of court judges, 11% of tribunal judges and 17% of non-legal members of tribunals belonging to the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group. Members belonging to the black community were 1% for court Judges, 2% for Tribunal Judges and 2% for non-legal tribunal members. 21% of all lawyers (Barristers and Solicitors) in the UK identify as BAME; 14% Asian and 3% black (Solicitor’s Regulation Authority, 2018). This is concerning as such underrepresentation can directly narrow judicial perspectives on critical legal issues, specifically, issues which are detrimental to BAME members.

While your widening participation initiatives has been successful in providing access for students from underrepresented groups, (as seen in the ever-increasing numbers of black students enrolled on Law programs in UK universities year on year), unfortunately, this initiative alone is not sufficient. Black students recruited through the widening participation initiative are more likely to drop out of university before completing their undergraduate degree than their contemporaries (Keohane, 2017). Moreover, in the 2016/17 academic year there was a 13% differential in the degrees awarded between BAME and white students and an alarming 24% differential between black and white students (HESA 2019). Thus, in light of the aforementioned, one fundamental question remains in equilibrium. Why? Once you are aware of the causes of these inequalities, only then will you be able to work towards an attainable and sustainable solution. While the factors that promote these inequalities are copious, I want to draw your attention to the ways in which institutional culture, lack of transitional pathways and Double Consciousness promote inequalities for prospective legal professionals like me.

Institutional culture

Every Law School must pride themselves on producing the greatest number of lawyers, judges and legal professionals within the legal system. However, on inspection of a Plate Glass university in Essex, Law School recruitment page, I noticed an alarming quote: “…our mantra is: be realistically ambitious”.

I was not only shocked, but disappointed, as this was indicative of an uninspiring attitude and lack of support for students hungry to achieve optimum success within their career pathways. Why should students be realistically ambitious? Is this because they are constrained by the university’s position in the league tables or their status? Is this because the university is aware that they do not equip the students with the necessary tools for success? Do Oxford or Cambridge also believe their students should be realistically ambitious? How does this then translate to narrowing the degree awarding gap?

The mantra is oxymoronic and uninspiring. Universities should be keen to demonstrate how hard work and holistic institutional support can facilitate success. They must ensure that every student dare to dream and support them to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ that impedes them from achieving success.

Transition to practice

As a marketing tool, law schools customarily illustrate the destination of leavers (in work or further study) six months after graduation. However, the data often fails to elucidate the demographic characteristics of individuals obtaining work specifically within the legal sphere and more importantly, after five years and beyond. Revealing this data would not only highlight the under representation of alumni (especially BAME students) who have successfully entered the legal profession but also serve as a means of quality assurance. This could also serve as the basis of SMART action plans to redress these structural inequalities.

Double Consciousness: The virus and the cure

My previous trepidation in developing a state of double consciousness ruining my dream is fast becoming a reality. The journey as a BAME student within the legal sphere often presents a dichotomy and an ultimate sacrifice of one’s self-identity. Within an inherently white profession, oftentimes one can only gain a breakthrough opportunity by relinquishing their identity. Rather than confide in meritocracy, students are forced to place themselves in uncomfortable situations, and self-preserve by codeswitching to portray themselves as not being ‘too black’, to gain information and opportunities from people dissimilar to themselves, which, often do not apply to themselves.

Practices such as the latter may lead also lead to imposter syndrome even when an opportunity is gained, leaving students with a feeling that despite their achievement, they still do not belong in the firm/field as a black professional.

The extensive use of Black intellectual capital may be operationalised as a fundamental strategy to mitigate against the development of feelings of double consciousness.

Personally, to overcome this obstacle, I researched, identified and sought guidance from black legal professionals. The first of these professionals was Dr Leslie Thomas QC. My introduction to Dr Thomas was at a Law Firm open day. I shared my dreams with Dr Thomas and expressed my doubts and fears in relation to the prospect of a legal career. However, in conversing and listening to Dr Thomas’ keynote on the day, I concluded that his secondary school and partial undergraduate academic journey was akin to mine.

Not only did this provide inspiration for a Black student like myself, this also helped me understand that the challenges I faced were not unique and that I was not alone on the legal journey. Black legal professionals have walked the same path and have achieved excellence globally. Subsequently, I connected with Dr Thomas via LinkedIn, enquired about the possibility of becoming his mentee and am now benefiting from his guidance and support through a mentoring relationship.

The opportunity to observe the inner workings of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) of the West Midlands Region, under the guidance of the Chief Crown Prosecutor is not an everyday event. As the first woman of African Caribbean descent to be appointed to the position in the history of the CPS, Dr Grace Ononiwu CBE provided me with the opportunity to gain valuable work experience. Dr Ononiwu recounted the story of failing all her O-level exams on the first attempt, but through her refusal to be “realistically ambitious” retook the exams and was successful, then took her A-levels, subsequently gained a place in university, then went on to study Law.

Dr Ononiwu’s narrative of tenacity and ambition inspired me to dare to dream. This was not a one off, as Dr Ononiwu has since provided a similar opportunity to a number of undergraduate Law students in an attempt to break the chain of double consciousness.

In 2019, I applied for the Diversity Leadership Scholarship, which was provided by the Dr Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Foundation. I was invited to attend the foundation’s Annual Diversity Leadership Lecture, and informed that I was the recipient of the Hogan-Lovells sponsored law scholarship. In addition to work experience and a cash prize, this scholarship provided me with a career specific mentor in Dr Miranda Brawn, who is currently assisting my legal journey. Already, this relationship is yielding visible results as Dr Brawn is imparting her expert knowledge and helping me to develop networks within the legal sector.

Attaining these role models arose through my determination to utilise black intellectual capital as a pedagogy of hope; a rare occurrence among university students.

Within the Animal Kingdom, the effective use of teamwork and pedagogy can yield feats of greatness. This is exemplified in closer examination of the common wolf pack. Lessons and skills are passed down from the older members (Alphas) to the younger ones (cubs) which allows the younger generation to make a smoother transition into the harsh world. I use this example to demonstrate how a similar method may be implemented within the university.

Through an awareness of the need for tangible black role models, effective utilisation of black intellectual capital and an observance of my institutions neglect of the former, I was inspired to research and ultimately establish the mentoring scheme known as ALPHA.

The scheme is designed to support current BAME students within the institution with ambitions of becoming future pioneers, top-class professionals and role models who will inevitably give back to generations to come. ALPHA utilises affirmative action (s158, s159 Equality Act 2010) to pair BAME second, and, third year students (Alphas) with BAME first year mentees (Betas) with the goal of creating a platform to develop skills, networks and share valuable knowledge and lived experiences acquired within and outside of the institution, while working to enhance future success.

Whilst this is an ongoing project from a minority group within the institution, I would propose that the university utilise its abundance of financial and human recourses to develop and invest in a scheme congruent to ALPHA. Not only would this be a fantastic opportunity for the university to demonstrate and distinguish their dedication to closing the degree awarding gap, this scheme would create a ‘domino effect’ with relationships built through this scheme leading to increased opportunities and success for current students.

The road to success and change is no doubt a long endeavour. Whilst the above are not guaranteed remedies, the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, and this must be one in which your university is truly ready to take. In spite of all this, I still dare to dream by building on Dave Thomas' 2019 concept of Black Intellectual Capital as a pedagogy of hope.

 

Advance HE is committed to improving Equality, Diversity and Inclusion across the sector. For more information on our work on EDI and the services we can offer your institution, click here.

 

Malik Thomas is an undergraduate Law student at the University of Essex.

References

[i] (Solicitor’s Regulation Authority, 2018).

[ii] (Keohane 2017).

[iii] Position themselves closer to another demographic group, in order to gain information and opportunities from people dissimilar to themselves.

[iv] https://archive.voice-online.co.uk/article/success-good-grace

[v] https://www.mbdiversityleadershipfoundation.com

[vi] https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1566&context=icwdm_usdanwrc

[vii] s158, s159 Equality Act 2010.

[viii] https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/Black-Intellectual-Capital-Towards-a-pedagogy-of-hope

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