As Black History Month (BHM) draws to a close, Adrienne Hopkins, Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Oxford Brookes, talks to Anup Mysoor, a member of the Oxford Brookes Board of Governors and Interim Chair of People Committee, about the importance of BHM and his passion for championing Black women’s careers.
Adrienne Hopkins (AH): Anup, many thanks for taking the time to speak to me. Could you start by telling me a bit about your background and how you became involved with Brookes?
Anup Mysoor (AM): My own higher education background is that I went to university in India and then I came to the UK, to Stirling, for my first master’s degree in investment analysis. After I started working, my employer sponsored me to do an executive MBA part-time at Manchester. I worked in finance and banking for over 30 years, and towards the end of my executive career I was keen to do more with education.
I’d started my own scholarship to support underprivileged students from India to study overseas, the Pink Rainbow Scholarship, however, I wanted to get more involved, not just with the ‘lucky few’, but on a much broader level. When the opportunity came to join the Board of Governors at Brookes, I was very keen to be involved with the community and with Oxford’s more modern university. That was during lockdown, so two years ago.
AH: And you have recently become Interim Chair of People Committee.
AM: Yes, a few months after I joined Brookes, I was asked if I would like to serve on the newly formed People Committee. I spoke with the then Chair and asked ‘why me?’. I’d spent my life in investment banking, a sector that isn’t known for caring human resources strategies. She said that she’d approached me because in my Brookes biography I describe myself as a feminist. I was happy to know that I wasn’t solely being invited because I ticked the BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] box.
I’m very analytical and so I immediately tried to educate myself in things which would be important for People Committee because when I joined Brookes, I was a very insecure governor. I wasn’t sure where I could add value because when I looked at my fellow governors, I saw a huge talent pool.
AH: Thank you for talking about being an insecure governor. I think a lot of us experience imposter syndrome at some point in our life but we never think that others do too! It reminds me of a talk that I went to a few years ago by Graça Machel [former Mozambique Minister of Education and Culture and First Lady of Mozambique and South Africa] and at the beginning she said that she’d turned down numerous invitations to visit Oxford over the years because she wasn’t a very confident public speaker. Somehow it gave me permission to not be a confident speaker, hearing someone with Graça’s status say that. So thank you for sharing that.
AM: In finance and banking you never admit that you’re not feeling confident or you’re feeling insecure. This honesty is new to me!
AH: But you’ve done it anyway!
AM: And I feel good being honest about it. Like you said, it allows other people to share their own insecurities.
AH: October is Black History Month. It’s a moment in the year to stop and reflect on Black history and the achievements of Black people. What is the role of having a dedicated point in the year for reflection?
AM: We need to think about that one at different levels. On one level it’s a celebration. But on another level, it’s an absolute travesty. Do we have to have a month to remind us that we don’t know enough about Black history? I look forward to the day when we don’t have Black History Month because people know about the difficult past which Black people have endured across the world, whether it’s colonisation or slavery or discrimination.
As to how we make change happen, from my own experience, social justice is hard because you’re trying to change things when many people are very happy to just continue with the way things are. We need to remember that history is fraught with uncomfortable truths, and we must create an environment where we can accept the difficult parts of that history but celebrate the culture which goes with it.
There are people throughout history who’ve done extraordinary things and there are people who do ordinary things and all of it is important. Black History Month is a time to hear some of those stories, it’s a way of communicating with each other and creating a sense of belonging for our Black students and staff.
AH: The theme of this year’s Black History Month is celebrating our sisters. What does that mean to you?
AM: We tend to allow men to dominate an agenda and they seem very happy to do so. Sometimes we are in danger of telling one set of stories and developing the myth around a single story. We find a story of a man who’s done some superhuman kind of task and before we know it that becomes the leading story.
What we don’t tell are stories of ordinary people who coped well with their circumstances but made incremental changes. And we don’t tell the stories of the many, many women who had to endure difficult histories. Somehow women become lost in the stories, they become a single homogenised group. But each one of them was an individual, each one of them had a unique personality.
We need to allow ourselves to hear those stories because otherwise we will have incomplete history. There’s a wonderful speech on YouTube by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi on the danger of the single story, I would recommend it.
AH: Do you have any particular female role models?
AM: There are so many role models, so instead I would like to highlight women through history who I have admired, whether it was politically right to do so or not. And I like the fact that they are all imperfect characters.
We have an ability to write out the imperfections of male characters. We say, oh, he did so many good things, let’s brush the negatives under the carpet or find an excuse for their imperfections. But I don’t think we’re as generous to women. We’re very quick to judge and take very, very strong positions and that surprises me.
If I tell people that I admire women political leaders, whether it’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka or Indira Gandhi in India, and many others across the globe, I get such strong negative reactions from people. And I think these women got to where they got to by fighting a patriarchal system in addition to doing a super tough job. I want all of us, men and women, to be more forgiving of imperfections.
AH: I’ve taken up a lot of your time already so to end with, what is your ambition or aspiration for Brookes?
AM: My favourite acronym is BWCM: Black Women’s Careers Matter. I would like to visualise a point in the not too distant future where we can say that we’re doing well, not just in relation to the current time – because we’re not yet doing well on that metric – but I would really like us to be sector-leading.
I would like Brookes to be in a situation where Black women doing well is just the norm. We’re some distance away from that but I don’t think that we’re asking for anything which wouldn’t be achievable. We already have over 50% women professors – far in excess of the national average – but the majority are White, so we should be able to extend the same success to Black women. In my experience, a very positive thing about Brookes is that when both the Board and Executive are committed, they will make change happen.