We spoke to some of the current co-chairs of the ABLE network, Imperial 600 and Imperial As One about their experiences, and why someone might want to volunteer to be a co-chair.

The answers below feature the voices of:

  • ABLE: Lisa Phillips and Dez Mendoza
  • Imperial 600: Aneesha Bhumber and Simon Levey 
  • Imperial As One: Wayne Mitchell and Desmond Samuel

Co-chair Q&A accordion

Why did you want to become a co-chair?

Aneesha: I joined Imperial in November 2020 during the pandemic. So when Imperial 600 had their first summer event, it was the first time after several months that I felt belonging and part of a community. It was wonderful. Every event since then that I’ve attended I’ve had the best time, meeting new colleagues who are now also my dear friends.

I loved to help organise events in any way I could, so when Simon asked if anyone in the organising group wanted to join him as co-chair, I went for it! Simon was super supportive from the jump, and I’ve been getting stuck in to the role ever since.

Desmond: I wanted IAO to become a positive force for change at Imperial. I have a background in engaging with others to develop safe spaces to meet, discuss issues and connect. I wanted to feel part of the community at Imperial.

What's the best thing about being a co-chair? 

Dez: Supporting and encouraging our ABLE members to build a disability community in the College. When we share our lived experiences, we realise that we're not alone: this enables our members to grow in confidence and advocate for themselves and others.

Aneesha: Getting to organise exciting, one-of-a-kind events and being a part of creating a more inclusive space for us all. Each person I have met through this role, has offered me a new outlook, perspective and thinking.

Desmond: I love the interactions with the members and the collaborative interactive partnership between the co-chairs and the committee. I have gained a deeper understanding of how complex organisations work and I have had the opportunity to meet some incredible and inspiring individuals.

What are you most proud of?

Lisa: I am proud of the roadshow presentations held with faculties and departments, which seem to have grown by word of mouth, and the College leadership Questions and Answers session on disabilities matters was very well received and attended by over 100 staff.

We also host weekly coffee morning each Friday dedicated to giving members a safe space where they can openly share their concerns, fears, and experiences related to disability and provide each other with moral support and practical advice. The network encourages members to share information, and best practice, with teams and colleagues, as effective disability allies. We want to remove any barriers, which hinder disabled colleagues from being their full selves in the workplace and dismantle any stigma around disabilities.

Simon: In 2022, we decided that Imperial 600 would attend UK Black Pride and Trans Pride Festival with our colleagues. Despite each being marginalised groups, racism is as common in the LGBTQ+ community as it is in wider society, and queer-phobia, particularly transphobia, is on the rise in all parts of the UK. It was so great to come together under the Imperial banner to show that we stand together against hatred and discrimination, while celebrating our differences and similarities. Pride is also a time to just be with our people for a day - meeting up with old friends, making new acquaintances, and forgetting our worries for a short while.

Wayne: Being able to create a space where people can feel they are seen and that their voices can be heard. Providing opportunities for people to have a chance to enhance and showcase their skills and receive the recognition they deserve.

What support did you get from your line manager? 

Dez: My line manager is supportive and encouraging, which has enabled me to develop beyond the role I am currently employed in.

Aneesha: My teaching facilities manager was super positive about me taking on the role and knew that it would be a relatively large undertaking. In the past few months, through her support I’ve felt I could always take the time needed for my organisational duties.

Desmond: My line manager deserves a lot of credit for what I’ve achieved. She has been a supporter from the start. She listened to my concerns and suggested ways to integrate the experience of running a network into my career growth and development.

If you had the chance to do it again, would you do anything differently?

Aneesha: So far, so good! The only thing personally I’d like to do is make sure I always speak up, continue to advocate and offer my perspective on issues that concern our LGBTQIA+ community at the College.

Desmond: No, learning from mistakes and successes is an important part of the journey. A new co-chair will benefit from what we have learned and use it to start an incredible new journey for Imperial As One.

Have you seen any institutional change?

Lisa: The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre has done some tremendous work to encourage flexibility in working practices for staff with a disability. However, we’ve still got a lot of work to do with the need to create a culture of inclusion and understanding throughout the College.

The common misunderstanding is that to be fair we must treat all people in the same way. In fact, for those who are disabled, being treated in the same way as others may lead to significant disadvantage. This needs to be more widely recognised as there is a lot of College support available, which in some cases has not been applied for the needs of the individual.

Simon: Imperial 600 introduced rainbow lanyards a few years ago for members of the LGBTQ+ community and our allies to signal to others that the College is a supportive and inclusive place for us to work and study. There are now so many rainbow variations from the Union, different departments, conferences and events that it feels like we have support everywhere. You can’t come to one of our campuses and fail to see a flash of rainbow brightness. 

Institutionally, we have made changes to HR policies, pensions, the language in our communications, and inclusiveness of our information technology systems, that aim to make it clear that queer lives can be Imperial lives. But I know, from meetings I attend, that there’s still a way go in areas such as the recognition of gender diversity among all the College’s systems and processes. And often I hear stories of our colleagues who can’t (or won’t) use someone’s correct pronouns, or whose comments and questions are intrusive and inappropriate. Leadership from all levels of management are essential to take this progress forward. From wearing a supportive lanyard, to being an Active Bystander, or knowing how to recognise and report bullying or harassment when you see it. I hope we all stand up for what’s right when the time comes. 

Desmond: Yes, Imperial As One has had a positive effect on the College. There is an increased awareness and willingness to recognise and tackle racism. The College has begun to realise the need to create a sense of belonging and a shared purpose for all members of the community. The staff networks play an important role within the College and the support from the leadership and managers is a practical demonstration of that commitment to change.

What have you learned or gained from the experience of being a co-chair?

Dez: Prior to the pandemic my job role meant that my network was limited to the small team in which I am employed. Since joining ABLE and becoming a network chair, my network has expanded to being college-wide, enabling me to work collaboratively across college departments and become involved in projects which would not be accessible to me within the scope of my contracted role alone. I now work with multiple stakeholders across all levels, whether as part of a committee or project group, or delivering training presentations to promote the work of ABLE and raise awareness of disability.

Simon: The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Centre is looking to organise training in the coming year for network leads to learn transferable skills, from influencing senior staff, to budgeting and marketing. I have picked up some of these through training programmes over my career, but to be able to learn them in alongside other leads, will bring a new perspective. I hope this will help me become a better network leader as well as a better manager, and advocate for good practice in my department.

Desmond: Improved self-confidence and recognition of my skills and abilities. An expanded awareness of college operations management at many levels, and my network of contacts within the college has broadened. I am better able to use different styles of leadership, and I have been able to create opportunities for others to take on leadership roles. Also practical skills like using Lean and Agile, managing projects within a small self-contained unit, influencing policy and bidding for funding.

What do you think makes for a good co-chair? 

Lisa: To be a good co-chair is an active role that builds leadership and collaboration skills. The chair needs to listen and be non-judgemental and ensure that the voices and experiences of all members are heard.

Simon: Energy, good humour, flexibility.

Aneesha: Understanding, being organised and friendly.

Wayne: Be approachable, be yourself. Know what you want to bring to the role and be open to hear the views of those you’re working with. The role isn’t about me, it’s about us and what we can do together.

What would you say to someone thinking of applying to be a co-chair?

Simon: Being a co-chair is a potentially endless task, as there are so many opportunities to make changes, create and follow through ideas to improve the work life of our college communities. Firstly, check to see if your manager really understands the time commitment it takes to do this role, and maybe ask if they are willing to delegate some of your tasks to another colleague. Secondly, when you become co-chair, you will have to be realistic about the to-do list and make some tough decisions what to do and what not to do.

Desmond: Consider what you want to achieve and talk to your line manager about the skills and competencies you hope to develop. Get in touch if you would like to know more about the role.

Wayne: What are you waiting for!!


Interested in becoming a co-chair after reading this? Find out about the staff network election process and how to nominate yourself!