Making real change

EDI Associate Provosts on the power of Black History Month

Lesley Cohen and Wayne Mitchell on the South Kensington campus

In September this year, Dr Wayne Mitchell and Professor Lesley Cohen stepped into the roles of Associate Provosts for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Their appointment recognises the significant contributions they have already made to EDI at Imperial, and also their shared vision for embedding these values even deeper into the foundations of the institution. 

Black History Month comes early in Lesley and Wayne’s two-year tenure, but they were excited to share their thoughts on the importance of this celebration of Black heritage, identity and culture, and to describe what can be done to ensure Imperial is a place where our Black community can thrive.

What is Imperial doing well to make the institution a welcoming place for students/staff of Black heritage?

Wayne: I think greater exposure to the reality that things need to be done is a good start. Then there are initiatives like the Provost’s Visiting Professors Programme and the President’s scholarships for students of Black heritage which show that the institution is interested in creating opportunities that address barriers. 

It’s great to put initiatives like these in place, but alongside that, we need to build a sense of belonging. For example, how many people who have entered this space feel like they belong within it? And are they staying? Are they seeing themselves here for ten years, fifteen years, because they feel embedded and part of this institution? And importantly, an institution that isn’t asking them to assimilate, but celebrating their culture and cherishing who they actually are. That’s the difference. 

Lesley: Absolutely. I have to say, I’ve been at Imperial for over thirty years, and I’ve seen amazing changes. For starters there has been much greater visibility of minorities, such as on the website and at events. It’s clear Imperial is making a major effort to appear to be welcoming. And I think the institution signing the Race Equality Charter – thanks to the work of our predecessor and the work of the entire Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre – means there are action plan items that Imperial is committed to delivering. 

Embedding EDI throughout the College is one of our main priorities. For example, this means embedding EDI recruitment principles throughout the institution that will allow the statistics to change."
Professor Lesley Cohen

What could Imperial do better for its Black communities? 

Lesley: A lot of this is to do with retention and support. We’re clearly hampered by a lack of role models of significant numbers to make a difference. And this comes to one of our key areas of focus in our roles as Associate Provosts for EDI: recruitment at all levels. This is the largest barrier to making real change – to make sure there is proper representation for all staff and student groups.  

Wayne: Yes, this links back to the challenge of what happens once people get here. There was a report about five years ago which highlighted the awarding gap for students of underrepresented backgrounds in UK higher education. It showed a gap in what a White student and Black student could expect to attain in the final year of their programmes – even though they’ve all entered with the same A-Level grades. The suggestion was that this was something to do with the structure of higher education institutions itself.  

So we’re left to ask – what are the steps we can put in place to remedy this? It’s early in our tenure as Associate Provosts, but one of the things that will be key to our time in post is that we are here to listen to the voices. Yes, we want to gain statistics and data, but we also need to hear the lived experiences of what it’s like to work and study at Imperial. If we don’t have that insight, we will only be developing solutions that we think will work – not solutions that are developed in collaboration with our community. 

As you say, you’ve only recently stepped into your roles as Associate Provosts of EDI, but could you share any of your other key priorities going forward? 

Lesley: I would say embedding EDI throughout the College is one of our main priorities. ‘Mainstreaming’ is the current trendy word for it. For example, this means embedding EDI recruitment principles throughout the institution that will allow the statistics to change. 

Wayne: I would add to that ‘don’t deny it until you’ve tried it’. Some people might see such activities as being for someone else to do. But we need people to be willing to try something slightly different. Business cases show time and again that, when we work together in more diverse teams, we’re more productive. Having people with different viewpoints to you can make the overall objective much better than when you simply think ‘my idea is the best idea’. 

Wayne Mitchell
Lesley Cohen

Black History Month is a great opportunity for us all to listen to the voice of lived experience. What would you say is the best way to share our community’s stories and experiences? 

Wayne: Firstly, I think it’s about having a critical mass of people speaking, rather than relying on a small number of people who feel that they are continually having to share their experiences. It’s also about bringing people together who can share and identify with each other. And then there’s also an education piece too, where we all need to find things out for ourselves, rather than asking people with lived experience to do it for us. And when they do share with us, we need to be careful not to impose our own viewpoints and values on them. We need to truly sit back and listen, and try to understand things from their cultural contexts. 

Finally, we need to be careful about asking people to share their stories in a way that could retraumatise them. So it has to be done sensitively and inclusively. We have to allow people to speak and engage with the truth in ways that, and at times when, they feel most able to do so. 

Wayne in a lab
My Mum is the most inspirational Black woman I know. She’s the foundation, where I get my drive, my moral compass and passion."
Dr Wayne Mitchell

You have both led EDI initiatives over the years. What are you most proud of so far? 

Lesley: Back in the early 2000s, I had a Royal Society university research fellowship which created the flexibility for me to work on issues that were important but outside of my direct research interests. I initiated a survey of women in science which resulted in Dame Julia Higgins at Imperial and at the Royal Society starting the Athena Swan framework. A lot of the good work that has been done in that framework started out by hearing some quite disturbing stories from women in science at that time. And I think there has been a huge cultural shift since. So that’s been a real marker for my career. 

Wayne: It’s funny, the question presumes I followed some kind of strategy. But really, I just like to work hard. If I see an injustice, I think it’s incumbent on me to speak out. I’ve found that at Imperial, if you have an idea, and if you can articulate it, they will listen to you and encourage you to develop that idea. That’s helped me get where I am today. I’d say this is where I like to sit: in driving people to help other people. 

I’ve worked with the institution over the years in this manner – with people such as our predecessor Stephen Curry, and the VP of Education Emma McCoy, and the Imperial As One network – on such things as the signing of the Race Equality Charter. This work has demonstrated the power of people coming together to make things happen.  

Lesley winning the Julia Higgins Medal

Lesley winning the Julia Higgins Medal

Lesley winning the Julia Higgins Medal

The theme of Black History Month 2023 is ‘Celebrating our Sisters’ – which women have inspired you in your life so far? 

Lesley: I would say Nina Simone is an incredibly inspirational person for me. The way she put her activism into songs and lyrics. She did it so bravely. She was beautiful and so strong. I really admire her, and her contributions, to this day. 

Wayne: I would say my Mum. She’s the most inspirational Black woman I know. She’s the foundation, where I get my drive, my moral compass and passion. It all started with her. She wasn’t given the opportunities that I’ve been given, but she excelled at the opportunities she was. 

Between her and my grandmother, I would say I definitely grew up with strong Black women role models. I grew up understanding the struggles they went through, and through them I learned to see challenges as opportunities.

Wayne and Lesley on a sunny day on the South Kensington campus