Tuesday 22-11-2016 - 11:40
With Black Leaders Conference 2016 coming up in less than two weeks, we caught up with De Montfort SU's Colina Wright, who will be speaking at the event, about improving representation of Black women in the student movement.
Tell us about your journey towards your current leadership role.
My involvement with university, let alone students’ unions, was by accident; I used to use my union (Sheffield Hallam) as a short cut from the train station into town and had no idea what took place either side of the corridor, let alone upstairs!
After getting involved in my students’ union due to the passion of the Women’s Officer and the fantastic project she was involved in, I realised what a difference it could make to people’s lives, not considering the impact it could have on mine. Over a number of years I’ve worked as a sabbatical officer, a staff officer within an FE environment, a co-ordinator within a HE environment and then I moved to De Montfort SU where I worked my way from a co-ordinator to a manager (although probably in name only) to an actual manager of people. I briefly undertook the role of Membership Services Manager as it was then called as maternity cover and was determined to become a Senior Manager permanently with the intention of becoming a CEO.
The difficulty within such organisations is that we are limited for choice and it may mean moving around the country to get the chance to develop yourself, which for a women can be harder than her male counterpart. Alternatively we wait for the re-shuffle within students’ unions to happen where our boss finds another role and we get the chance to continue our own journey.
I have been fortunate to be supported by the Senior Management Team in pursuing my objectives before I became one myself.
Black women are clearly underrepresented in senior management positions at the 600 students’ unions across the UK. What needs to happen to address this imbalance?
I think the easy answer is that there needs to be more black staff within unions to start with, however the solution isn’t that simple.
More black officers may be a good starting point but there’s nothing to suggest these individuals would go on to become staff members and progressing through the organisation.
Subject to location, there can be a discrepancy with the number of black students in the first instance, especially those completing their degrees and who is to say these individuals have any engagement within their unions to have an understanding about the opportunities available, as officers or entering directly as staff.
We are fortunate at DSU to have a wide variety of student groups participating in Union activities but even this can be viewed along racial lines. We have thriving societies such as the ACS, ISoc (Islamic Society) and Steppers groups; there are active sports people in fields such as cricket and basketball, even when looking at the concentration of sport there is a disproportionate number of black staff within finance.
I think there is a need for positive role models and mentors (who themselves do not need to be black) – for females wishing to get ahead within students’ unions and to reflect that black females can be in positions of leadership. I would personally be happy to offer my support to (black) females that may benefit from this.
More efforts need to be made in terms of recruitment and the understanding of what roles exist within students’ union. Unfortunately there needs to be less reliance of NUS Connect as this tends to attract talent from already marginalized pool.
What work does De Montfort SU do around Black representation among staff and officers?
As a university we are fortunate to have Baroness Doreen Lawrence as our Chancellor and I’m sure this will have a positive impact on DMU’s objectives however as a students’ union we are probably not doing as much as we’d like.
We monitor levels of engagement across all services. We completely support the development of Black leaders and host sessions outlining the importance of Black students standing in the elections. We have a designated role for part time BME Students’ Representative and staff to support them identifying and achieving their objectives.
We sit on various University Committees in relation to their commitment to re-dressing the imbalance, such as the National Student Survey project group and the Black Staff Group. We are heavily involved in Black History Season and Interfaith Week.
We work closely with the University on Academic Offence panels and have entered into lengthy discussions about the over-representation of Black men within these meetings; this has led to some interesting developments within our peer mentoring service – not just for Black students but other under-represented groups.
Our current Officer team are particularly keen to work with the university on the attainment gap and employability of BME students.
I think Black representation amongst staff is a more perplexing issue at DSU, staff are encouraged to attend various meetings but whether they choose to do so is a different matter and “black staff representation” can be tokenistic although that is not our intention.
It’s often said that Black women have to work ‘twice as hard’ as their counterparts to make the breakthrough to senior management in most industries. Do you agree?
I think this is an interesting question and my personal response would be no. My reasons for this are that I don’t see myself in terms of colour and therefore hope that others don’t see me that way - but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen.
Having said that I recently went for an interview where I was the only Black AND female candidate out of a selection of five and it made me realise that I am always likely to be outnumbered. So perhaps there is a “double glazing” effect for women of colour but only if you perceive it as such.
Women, Black or otherwise, need to believe in themselves and not only have the confidence to try but the resilience to stand back up again if knocked down.
What advice would you give to aspiring Black women leaders?
Never stop trying, never stop believing in yourself. You are your own limitation and should not allow anyone else to tell you you’re not good enough. That’s not to say you are the right choice… but go for the opportunities because one day you will be.
Stop thinking about the 20 per cent of a job you can’t do and rephrase it “if I could already do everything within this role, it wouldn’t challenge me”… go for it anyway and use it as an opportunity to identify developmental areas so that you can work to address these in preparation for the next challenge.
From an early age we are told to “do your best”, we can’t do more than that; if I’m told my best isn’t good enough I hold my head high and say I tried. And it’s their loss for not seeing my potential.
We’re hosting our second ever Black Leaders Conference in December - why are you attending and what do you hope attendees will take away from it?
Being completely honest I wasn’t going to attend, I didn’t want to be seen as a token Black person within a senior role that could be put on show. But in relation to a previous answer I recall being part of the students’ union – as a student and a staff member - because I wanted to give something back. If my journey encourages one more person to continue to push that bit harder, and to succeed, then it’s been worthwhile.
I want to encourage others to have the confidence to stand out and sometimes take themselves out of their comfort zones. I want delegates to believe that it is possible to progress within a students’ union even if everyone there is not the same as you because somewhere there is someone that is, be that De Montfort, ULSU, the University of Westminster. Black staff within these institutions are prepared to help you, it’s likely someone helped us.
How would you sum up your career in the student movement and/or as a Black leader in three words?
Hard but worthwhile.
Black Leaders Conference is open to Black staff, sabbatical officers and society reps and will take place in London on Monday 5 December. Registration closes on Tuesday 29 November.