Black History Month interview with Carolann Edwards

30 Oct 2020

Following George Floyd’s death, Black History Month has never been as needed or relevant. The fight for racial justice must always have an appreciation of culture and history at its heart. RESULTS’s mission – to overcome poverty by helping people exercise their own personal power for change – means believing in diversity and therefore understanding more about black history, heritage and culture. It’s key to understanding racism, oppression and standing in solidarity against it.

As part of Black History Month, RESULTS UK has held activities and events and conducted interviews. I interviewed Carolann Edwards, who is the Managing Director of Workplace Psychology, to celebrate black voices and amplify black success to motivate and educate people on black lives.

Carolann Edwards
Carolann Edwards

Congratulations on your OBE. Did this award from the Queen come as a surprise to you?

Carolann:  Yes, it is not something one expects to receive. I’m delighted and feel very privileged and proud to have had my work recognised in this way. 

Please can you tell us about yourself, your work and why you chose to mentor young people?

Carolann: I started my career in banking. I left because I did not enjoy it. I then became a lecturer in economics and business studies. Working in colleges brought me into contact with a very diverse student population. Many of the young people I worked with were from humble backgrounds, had a passion for learning and wanted to progress into good jobs or the professions. However, they were often the first in their families to go to college. They wanted role models, help with understanding how the system works and reassurance that because of racism and/or class prejudice their efforts would not be in vain. This is where my interest and commitment to mentoring was sparked because it became clear to me that I could provide young people with that type of support. Over the years I have seen how the mentoring I have provided has helped people of all ages and races achieve their goals and this has inspired me to do more of it.  

When you hear Black History Month, what comes to your mind?

Carolann: In the UK we have a politician called Linda Bellos to thank for Black History Month. She launched it more than 30 years ago. It created for the first time a platform through which the contribution that black people have made to British life is celebrated annually. I’m a fan of Black History Month. However, the programme needs a bit of attention to ensure that a more balanced representation of the black population is presented. In particular, it would be great to hear the stories of black people who are unsung heroes in the community. I’m talking about the people that no one ever hears about because they are not in the higher echelons of business, the professions, sports, the arts and so on.

Do you think there is enough being done to recognise black voices?

Carolann: No, although there is more than in the past and even more following the death of George Floyd - just look at TV in London at the moment. I’ve never seen so many advertisements featuring black people or so many programmes about black people. Now, companies, household brands who in the past didn’t seem to know that black people exist are acknowledging racism and making commitments to make their organisations more diverse. So, it does seem, at least at the moment that black voices are being recognised. Hurray for that. However, let’s not get over-excited. Hearing what people have to say is only part of the solution. The real test is whether people continue to perceive diversity and inclusion as a zero-sum game such that they fail to do the right things around race because they fear that creating opportunities for black people will mean that they and their children, friends and others just like them will lose out. We need to move on quickly from virtue signalling to systemic and deep-rooted change. It’s long overdue.

How have events in the US changed how race is looked at?

Carolann: For some people it has but for others it hasn’t and never will.  Long ago I came to accept that there will always be a portion of people who are comfortable with their racism and long for the old certainties of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the like. I believe they are a minority, although a vociferous one at that. Nevertheless, the tragic death of George Floyd has had quite a dramatic effect. I tried watching the video but found it unbearable and I know that many people of all races globally felt the same. However, it delivered the message about racism and showed the high cost many black people have paid, for example with their lives, in a manner that really struck a chord with people. One result of this has in my experience been more and better conversations about race and people searching for books, film and other resources which they can use to educated themselves and their families. Nonetheless, that will only take us so far. It won’t of itself eradicate racism or its ruinous effects on black people’s lives.

What kind of professionals do you mentor?

Carolann: I have mentored people from all backgrounds working in sectors such as law, banking, oil and gas, education and charities.

Recently, Alex Wilson, a young black barrister, was mistaken as a defendant three times in one day. Why do you think this is so? Does this surprise you?

Carolann: It’s not a surprise, because many people still believe that if you are black you are doing little of worth, dealing in drugs and/or a criminal. If you gathered together in one room a number of black professionals and ask them about their experiences, I’m pretty certain that many will relate similar stories. When professions in the UK were formed and developed, they were built by white men for white men. There was never an expectation that women and black people would one-day demand to be included.  In the UK black people are a minority. We (African and Black African-Caribbean people) represent a mere 3% of the population. The majority white population is used to seeing itself reflected in the professions. When they come across black people, many will attribute to them the roles they see them perform in the news - police dramas on television and so on. In the absence of having black people in their friendship circles and networks, it’s not surprising that they do not know the breadth and depth of our skills, experience and achievements. If you’ve only ever seen a black barrister in a drama on TV, you may believe that it's fiction so it may not occur to you that the person standing in front of you could be one.  That’s why it’s so important for black people to appear on news and documentaries as experts so that people understand that we perform these roles in real life too. Think about it: no one has any problem imaging a black hip-hop singer or a street dancer – that’s because their presence in the media is prolific. It’s time for black people who do other types of work to be just as visible too.

Do you think we should be celebrating culture?

Carolann: It’s a question of balance. One of the problems in the black community at the moment is, that we are trying to tackle all of the problems – a huge number at once. You don’t achieve deep and lasting change by skimming the surface and spreading yourself too thinly. We need to be more strategic in our thinking and actions. Consider for a moment the toppling of the statues of men involved in the slave trade.  Whilst I understand the anger and frustration that galvanises this approach, I believe that it is counter-productive and should not be done. That’s because those statues are part of history that helps us understand how some people thought and behaved. They are a benchmark that helps us make sense of the progress we have made and not made. Statues should be left standing with new labelling attached which provides more balanced information about their subjects' actions including the very real harm that these people did alongside their good deeds. That’s what education is about. The other reason why they should in my view remain standing is because if you pull down other people’s statues (which are part of their history and heritage and are important to them), they’ll pull ours down. It just creates a tit-for-tat that will never end and doesn’t solve anything.

Do you think we should include black history in schools?

Carolann: Absolutely, because people are generally under-educated on history. There are many people in England who still do not know that Asians and black people fought in the war. For example, recently a British actor commented that including a Sikh in the film 1917 was incongruous because of the colour of his skin. It turns out that he didn’t know that Sikhs fought in the war too.  Similarly, many people do not know that the Windrush generation were invited to the UK by British Members of Parliament when labour was needed to help rebuild the country after the war. There were black people particularly from Africa in this country prior to slavery. This is not very well known either. In my view, teaching black history should be part of the school curriculum. If for example you learn about slavery, it will help you to understand that the City of London was built with the vast profits obtained from trading slaves and the goods sold from the work they did for which they were not paid. Moreover, at the end of slavery the so-called slave “owners” were compensated and the black people that endured horrendous abuse (often resulting in death) in their hands as they accumulated their wealth were not. That’s why if someone has the audacity to tell me “go back to where you come from”, or “this country is nothing to do with you”, I shrug it off on the basis of their ignorance. Having some education on black history will perhaps make a few people think twice about saying things that highlight their lack of knowledge. It will also help black people develop an even greater sense of the monumental contribution we have made to this country.

What message do you have for young black men and women?

Carolann: That they are immensely capable. That the experience of racism and having to navigate navigate it is exhausting and dispiriting; however, it often makes you more resilient and determined to succeed. Be proactive, chase down people of whatever race and background who are doing what you want to do and ask for their help. Most will be happy to. When you have achieved your goals, use the knowledge and skills you have acquired to help others.

What really drives you?

Carolann: I have been the beneficiary of the knowledge and skills of others. I have had a great career and the opportunity to work all over the world, with people of every race and background. I want as many people as possible to have similar experiences and I am happy to help where I can to make that happen. Seeing others achieve their dreams makes me extremely happy.

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Caroline Anena

TB Europe Coalition Coordinator

Caroline joined TB Europe Coalitio (TBEC) in 2020, and prior to this she worked for local government, national and international organisations during and after the civil war in Northern Uganda. Whilst with local government in the Department of Probation and Social Welfare, Caroline was involved...

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