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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Black Lives Matter: listening, hearing, planning for change.

By ucyllcr, on 28 June 2020

This post is by Director of Engagement (UCL Culture), Laura Cream.

Like many others across the world, we as the Engagement team have begun to look at ourselves and the university we work in afresh in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement – and we know that our self-scrutiny is well overdue.

I joined UCL in 2012, moving from a tiny voluntary sector organisation focused on challenging discrimination against disabled people in society to join UCL: a vast and complex institution more than 13,000 staff and 42,000 students from 150 countries. Eight years on I now lead the team that has evolved from the one I joined in 2012 and, when asked, I still describe my role as I did then: principally one of culture change around what it means to be an academic and what role a university can and should play in society.  I remember being told by my boss that one of the reasons why I was appointed is because I told the interview panel that I planned to concentrate on opening up the university to voices that just weren’t being heard – within research, teaching and more. So what progress have we really made? And where do I and my team need to do so much more, particularly when it comes to hearing and acting on the voices of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals and communities?

Much of my recent energy has been ploughed into the development of a new UCL strategy for Public and Community Engagement. The current draft includes a commitment to being a university which is responsive and relevant to diverse communities, particularly those whose voices are heard less often. It also explicitly highlights communities and the agencies which support them as one of the partners who will help UCL coproduce its engagement blueprint of the future . It calls for action to expand our practice as a respectful and ethical partner.

This was informed both by my reading of the 2018 Common Cause report and recommendations stemming from two years of looking in depth at the landscape of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community-university partnerships, and my perception of the systemic issues which are perpetuating inequalities across UCL and Higher Education in general. If you haven’t read the Common Cause report yet then you definitely should. As David Lammy, Shadow Justice Secretary, so eloquently put it on 15 June in relation to the Government’s plan for a government commission to examine racial inequalities:

“There have been countless reports and the data exists exposing all the issues. Now is the time for urgent action.”

So the very least I can do is to continue pushing for UCL to prioritise acting on the Common Cause data and to put it even more front and centre within that work.

In 2014 I attended what was, for me, a seminal UCL event entitled Why isn’t my professor black? at which the experiences of black students and staff, from UCL and other universities, were shared and palpable anger expressed at the intractable pace of change. Perhaps understandably the conversation then – and at the more recent 2019 Is Racial Equality Real @UCL” event – focused on systemic racism as it applies to research, teaching and admissions. Which academics’ careers do and don’t progress and what type of activity is rewarded. In teaching: whose lives and whose perspective are studied. Which students gain entry to UCL and what is the nature of their experience when they get here. I think mine was a lone voice that day raising the point of race and racism in relation to the university’s engagement work and its responsibilities to ensure equality of access to Black and Ethnic Minority communities but there are of course many UCL colleagues who are also committed and active in this area.

Beyond the strategic work, however, I’m newly asking myself how we can increase the capacity of our own team, and of the whole institution to hear what is being asked of us; whether in relation to Black Lives Matter and how we take action to combat systemic racism or by BAME communities who have told the Higher Education Sector time and time again that the current system is shutting them out and needs to change.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about listening and hearing and the difference between them. With our friends in the Students’ Union UCL Volunteering Service we have set up the Listen and Respond initiative to increase awareness of the priority needs of London communities impacted by COVID19, particularly those closest to our campuses in Camden and east London, and to mobilise the UCL community activity in response. But recent weeks, and the actions and voices of many other people, are making me realise that I have a hearing problem I need to address.

I’m conscious that my own hearing is becoming more acute thanks to the voices and actions of Black Lives Matters protesters, and of members of my own team (for whose contribution I am very grateful). I’m also aware of the outstanding work of many UCL colleagues whose commitment to race equality and action to highlight and dismantle institutional and systemic racism should inspire us all to do more ourselves. I attended the first UCL Inclusion Awards in February 2020 and was blown away by the work of Nick Anim and Kamna Patel from the Bartlett and of all their fellow award winners. Just this week I have been further sharpening my hearing by delving into the ‘Race and Space’ new curriculum resource produced by Bartlett and Institute of Education academics.

The irony and inequity of the Engagement Team – who are predominantly permanent staff, all of whom are white – being tasked with championing engagement with communities as diverse as those in London – is at the forefront of my mind. I am committed to working with my colleagues to think long and hard about what else we could and should be doing – not least to welcome into our own team people who can continue to help us improve our hearing over the long term.

So, as a team we are taking the next two weeks to collate ideas on what action we can take and then we’ll come together to review what can be done now and what we focus on for the future. I’ll also be keeping a close eye on how I strengthen the draft institutional strategy to embedding equalities work as a core principle within it.

As always, we commit to sharing our thoughts and the actions which will result with you and we will welcome your comment and, more importantly, your challenge. If you have thoughts, opinions or suggestions for actions we could take or further resources we should review please email the team. These will be incorporated into our ongoing reflections, actions and understanding.

2 Responses to “Black Lives Matter: listening, hearing, planning for change.”

  • 1
    Chris wrote on 1 July 2020:

    (1) Weblinks

    (a) Here is a YouTube link to “Why isnt my professor Black?” event for those who have not seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBqgLK9dTk4

    (b) I couldnt find a recording/write up of the “Is Racial Equality Real @UCL” event, though I could find the announcement (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/nov/race-equality-real-ucl). If you happen to have a link to a write up, or better, a recording of the event, then an update to your text would be appreciated.

    (2) The irony of the lack of diversity on the engagement team

    (a) Here is an extract from a UCL engagement job description, where equality is mentioned:

    “The post holder will actively follow UCL policies including Equal Opportunities policies and be expected to give consideration within their role as to how they can actively advance equality of opportunity and good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not share it.”

    I’m glad that statement is there, but where, in the rest of the blurb, is the acknowledgement that under-representation exists in the team/School and the fact that the team/School seeks to address this?

    It stands to reason under-represented candidates would want to join teams that are diverse OR ones that can show -through ALL relevant organisational processes- that they are actively working on diversification. The job spec I used (source: https://bit.ly/3dUZlKo), does not pass this basic “active diversification” test.

    (b)Academic research tells us that diverse teams out-perform non-diverse ones, so the fact that academic institutions can’t work these things out baffles me!

    So: please do look at the wording of job descriptions, destinations of job adverts and the process of collating/sifting applications. Is there anything that holds you, the engagement team, back? Does a central HR function control the wording of your adverts or the sift process? Could your team compare what you do to those from other industries who have had the under-representation problem but have now, seemingly, solved it?

    I were you I wouldn’t restrict exploratory enquiries to the Engagement division, I would talk to those who recruit for the “Culture Division” (in which the Engagement Team sits) and perhaps take a look at what some of the more unique divisions/units/sections in the UCL ecosystem do (if indeed they do anything differently). E.g. does UCL Partners -an outward facing, “innovation” hub, set the example? Does the HR function have CIPD members and what do they say about the guidance they get from their professional institute?

    (3) Follow up?
    Finally, we have all witnessed a lot of “Im shocked, saddened, ashamed, but now committed” blogs and tweets over the last month. It will be interesting to see how much of this global sentiment translates into actions and desirable effects. So: please come back to us (within a year) to tell us what changed and what has been learnt.


  • 2
    Briony Fleming wrote on 1 July 2020:

    Hi Chris, thanks for your thoughtful and thorough response to this blog. Some really helpful pointers to guide our thoughts. We shall take this and feed into the work we’re doing on developing an action plan for our team.

    We’ll certainly feedback on this process and where we get to, recognising that this is a constant, ongoing, and iterative process that we will need to keep checking in on not just within a year, but as we move forward beyond that too.

    I shall see if anyone has more information about the second event mentioned an will post what I find here.

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