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Bringing about positive change through EDI

01 September 2021

By Ellisha Soanes

The death of George Floyd had a ripple effect across the world. As a result of this tragic news, students at West Suffolk College decided to use this as a starting point to bring about positive change. We had discussions in lessons and explored personal and more general conversations based around racism. From the powerful stories that we shared, we created some training videos about black icons and our own experiences to share with other staff and students. The videos were so well received, we decided to look into the possibility of embedding black history into our curriculum throughout the year.

Our principal and governors have been incredibly supportive of our plan, and thanks to additional support from Place 21, the European Union and the college as a whole, we slowly began to create building blocks that would enable us to carry out our mission. Funding has been created to create some new roles for equality, diversity and digital inclusion ambassadors. They are helping to champion what we are trying to do by creating a series of events and workshops with diverse community groups and businesses.

Windrush Generation and ‘untold heroes’ celebrated

We officially launched in June 2021 with a powerful occasion that celebrated the Windrush Generation. We welcomed Derrick Bobbington Thomas for a talk about his journey. He was the first ever person from the Windrush generation to become a Sergeant in the Royal Air Force. After the event, guests and students enjoyed a Caribbean inspired meal in our restaurant called Edmunds. Following on from this, we created a series of sessions with ‘untold heroes’ from the black community. We had authors, business people, DJs, a footballer, a model with her own clothing brand and two people (Alex Wheatle and Leroy Logan) whose stories were made into films as part of the Small Axe series created by the Oscar winning film director, Steve McQueen.

We involved local talent from the black community in Suffolk and their message was “dreams are not un-reachable, they are achievable.‘‘ Alongside this, we had an amazing performance from Wooden Roots whose music was featured in the Black Panther movie. Our students were also involved in workshops inviting diverse community groups, to be part of the Power of Stories Exhibition brought to Suffolk, with the iconic marvel costumes which was hosted by Colchester and Ipswich Museum.

Working together

The ongoing plan is to encourage others to adopt what we are doing in relation to teaching black history all year round. West Suffolk College is part of a family called the Eastern Colleges Group - a collective of post-16 education providers (West Suffolk College, Abbeygate Sixth Form and One Sixth Form), sharing the same strategic aims and committed to providing vocational and academic excellence to over 15,000 students across the region. As a result of the way we collaborate across the Group, one Sixth Form College has been inspired to work with us and they recently set up their own group at the college called Ethnic Youth Empowerment Society (EYES). Students from this group and the Sixth Form came along to many of our events and they are keen to collaborate with us in the future.

Behind all of this is the desire to bring about positive change not just in Suffolk but across the country. We want to create a sustainable model that others can adopt. All our events were filmed, and our own students had the opportunity to be part of this process, gaining work experience through filming the events and interviewing our iconic speakers. This footage could be shared with local schools and the community – as well as more national and potentially global audiences.

Hopefully, others will see what we are doing and be encouraged to do adapt the same approach.

Future plans

Looking ahead, we will be launching a new student equality, diversity and digital inclusion ambassador programme in September 2021, to give students opportunities to extend their employability skills for the future. The fact that ambassadors last year received awards in equality and diversity and were featured in local and national news programmes and articles will hopefully inspire others to get involved. The story of one of the ambassadors from last year is also another source of inspiration. Esther Ruse was on my health and social care course last year. By becoming an advocate for equality and diversity, she gained in confidence and started to pursue a career in music. A secret dream that she had never previously indulged. Amazingly, her work has been recognised and earlier this year she secured a record deal and she is currently in Los Angeles where she is pursuing her musical ambitions.

Personally, I’ve been influenced by so many people in my life, but the great Nelson Mandela is perhaps my ultimate source of inspiration. He famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon to use to change to the world.”

This is what the equality and diversity team and I are trying to achieve at West Suffolk College. We hope others will work with us or on their own to help create an ongoing legacy.

Ellisha Soanes is equality and diversity digital coordinator and a Lecturer at West Suffolk College