As the world watched the shocking footage of the killing of George Floyd – reigniting global attention on the Black Lives Matter movement – Imperial’s President, Professor Alice Gast, knew that the university had a duty to respond quickly, and
“I felt a deep anger and despair at such a senseless death,” she says. “It brought to the surface my shock and disappointment that racism, and the violence that it breeds, continue in the United States. I am also saddened by persistent racial inequality and injustice here in Britain and around the world.
“Racism and violence have no place in society. Our spirit of common purpose must prevail, and we must pull together and collaborate as a community to support those who are afraid and mourning. We are a university committed to equality, diversity and inclusion. I am determined to not just talk about solidarity, but to listen to all members of our community, so that we are better placed to enact change.
“We all have the responsibility and opportunity to contribute our excellence toward addressing racial inequality and injustice. We can all do more – and we will.”
It’s important that our voices are being heard and we’re part of the solution
Sean Bazanye-Lutu (Design Engineering, Fourth Year) is the former President of the African Caribbean Society, and is committed to spreading the message that Imperial is inclusive, that students will find people they can relate to and that it is a positive option for students from diverse backgrounds.
Immediate steps taken by Imperial included: working with the College’s BAME staff network, Imperial as One, to develop a concrete action plan to make a tangible difference in the College's community and wider society; rolling out new advice and support to equip staff and students to be better allies; driving forward a new outreach programme targeting Black students in London with the aim of doubling the number coming to Imperial by 2024–25; establishing a new scholarship fund to support Black students; ending the use of the historic Latin motto in any new materials, in order to better reflect the College’s culture, values and commitment to diversity; and commissioning a working group to examine the College’s history and legacy.
But the work had already started, says Professor Stephen Curry, Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, pointing out that #BlackLivesMatter has enabled it to reach a much wider audience – and, hopefully, encourage more people to take part.
But there is a lot of work to do, he acknowledges, and no single solution or one-size-fits-all policy: tackling diversity means properly reaching into every aspect of Imperial’s operation, from admissions and research to student and staff wellbeing.
He hopes that Imperial’s 2018 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy will provide the information and inspiration to improve.
“For example, the data shows that we admit as many British-Asian students to medicine at Imperial as we do white students,” he says.
“But our numbers of African and Black-Caribbean medical students are very low, so we need to seriously do something about that. We are committed to doubling the number of Black students we admit within the next five years.”
We aim to provide an environment that allows us to thrive and be retained as young academics
De-Shaine Murray (PhD Neurotechnology, Third Year), is the co-founder of Imperial's Black Doctoral Network, which has been established to discuss experiences, support and strengthen its members – and to provide an outward focus that can serve the wider community.
Faculty-led, top-down programmes – such as Athena SWAN, a charter that recognises gender-equality work in higher education, and its equivalent, the Race Equality Charter – are, of course, just one part of the plan, and Curry is eager to bring in those at Imperial who have recognised the importance of this work. Dr Sarah Essilfie-Quaye, Project Manager in Research Strategy, Faculty of Medicine, is co-chair of Imperial As One and a member of the Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team. Essilfie-Quaye first started working at Imperial in 2002.
“I always knew making it to the top in academia was
difficult for anyone,” she says.
“I watched as people around me progressed, and observed who was supported and retained – the majority were male and white. One day, I looked up the number of Black female professors at Imperial. It was zero.
“Since then I have found out that the number I was looking at wasn’t even professors – it was academics. No lecturers, no readers. But it’s not just Imperial that's at fault because, right now, there are only 35 Black female professors in the whole of the UK.
“There is a lot of work still to be done but there are positives coming out,” she says.
“We recently hosted the 4th BME Early Career Researcher conference, an entire day tailored to helping Black and minority-ethnic researchers stay in academia. Imperial is working on tackling some of the barriers underrepresented people can face, looking at our recruitment processes, and making scholarships available.
“People are starting to listen, and one of the biggest things you can do is listen when people tell you about their experiences of racism. When you dismiss them, or try to debate, you are not debating something in a bubble, you’re debating people’s existence and their lived experiences, and that takes up a lot of energy.
“A series of candid interviews called ‘Belonging’, started at the beginning of lockdown, is growing in popularity, with students, academics and professionals sharing their experiences and insights in finding their sense of belonging.”
I wanted to create something that changed misconceptions
Kitan Oyeleke (Chemical Engineering,, Third Year) is Vice-President of the African Caribbean Society and the driving force behind the Black People of Imperial project, inspired by the earlier 56 Black Men campaign, designed to address stereotypes.
Last year, Kitan Oyeleke (Chemical Engineering, Third Year), Vice-President of the African Caribbean Society (ACS), was awarded Equality and Diversity seed funding for the ACS Outreach Programme. She has also had personal experience of Imperial’s reputation as overwhelmingly white and male.
“When I was applying, my maths tutor asked me about my first-choice university. I told her it was Imperial, and she said: ‘Yikes! There are no Black people, there are no women!’ So, I expected to feel othered,” she says.
“But when I got here, I realised that it wasn’t that bad! Although there is a diversity problem, the Black community is very close-knit. I wanted to create something that changed misconceptions about the Black community within Imperial. I felt that the ACS could be doing a lot more, and that we have a huge responsibility to the wider community regarding how Imperial is seen.”
The resulting ACS Outreach Programme is designed to provide pastoral and welfare support, mentorship and advice to high-achieving Year 12s and 13s from minority-ethnic backgrounds. Applying for the funding was easy, says Oyeleke.
“All we had to do was prepare a plan of what we hoped to achieve, and our KPIs.”
Initially, it will run at the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, as members of the committee attended the school and have a relationship with it already.
However, Oyeleke hopes to open it up to wider application in the future. She’s also responsible for the Black People of Imperial Instagram project. Based on the much-shared 56 Black Men social media initiative, which shares personal stories and images to highlight and challenge stereotypes, the project seeks to capture experiences of Black people at Imperial across the board, from students to support staff to academic staff.
“We want to show all those people without whom Imperial would not run,” says Oyeleke.
We can all be allies if we take action. Your actions have a lot more weight than what you say you believe
Debbie Adegoke (Molecular Bioengineering, Second Year), is a member of the Race Equality Charter Self Assessment Team and behind the We Imperial initiative, a series of discussion events aiming to generate ideas to improve the multicultural environment at Imperial.
Debbie Adegoke (Molecular Bioengineering, Second Year) is BME Officer at the Student Union. Coming from a predominantly white area of the UK, in north west England, she thought Imperial would be far more multicultural and reflective of its London base.
“I was shocked to see that it wasn’t as diverse as I expected,” she says. “I decided that I wanted to try to do something to make a difference.”
The role doesn’t have defined responsibilities, and Adegoke says part of the challenge is working out exactly what needs to be done, and the best way to do it. To that end, she spends a lot of time talking to different student communities and communicating their needs and expectations back to the Union council.
She is also a member of the Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team, and has worked with outreach organisation the Blueprint Project on Bridging the Gap 2020, the UK’s first graduate-led conference for Black and mixed-race A-level and International Baccalaureate students.
Just because we are a science university, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be diverse
Amr AlWishah (MSc Sustainable Energy Futures 2020) is now an energy consultant. During his Master's course, Amr helped establish a steering group to identify barriers to applying to Imperial and what could be done to address them.
“Outreach is crucial if we're going to understand and address the barriers,” adds Amr AlWishah, (MSc Sustainable Energy Futures 2020), who has worked with Adegoke on a steering group of students, staff and experts, established to address key issues.
“We’re making progress; once you get a more inclusive curriculum, featuring the wider world of science and becoming much more diverse and inclusive, students from minority backgrounds start to see themselves represented.
“By creating that culture, those students will appreciate they are welcome, and that will hopefully drive up motivation and help close the attainment gap. This is a great opportunity for us to make a difference.”
Taking action to drive equality, diversity and inclusion forward is something everyone can do, says Adegoke. We can all be allies, regardless of race or gender, if we’re prepared to self-reflect, dismantle our own biases and prejudices, and, most importantly, take action, she says.
“Start with your own community, but don’t stop there. Being an ally isn’t just about believing in your heart that racism is wrong. Your actions have a lot more weight than what you say you believe.”
Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.
This story was published originally in Imperial 49/Winter 2020–21.