This series is a platform for black authors to share personal accounts about their life experiences in research and academia, as well as reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, the current state of affairs and where we go from here.
Here Ornette Clennon, a critical race scholar, shares his true personal story with us. I was lucky enough to record this story with Ornette at the Springer Nature offices in London. In fact, this podcast directly inspired his book, Black Scholarly Activism between the Academy and Grassroots, published with Palgrave, Have a listen to his story below, plus read his thoughts on the power of education and how researchers today must work to bridge the gap between academia and the public.
(Click above to listen).
Young black children of my age were often suspended from school for minor reasons and they often did not have parents who were able to navigate the school system well enough to demand change or to rectify the matter at hand. Also in a wider societal context, many young black people (teenagers, by this time) were regularly stopped and searched by the police, under the then "sus laws". The combination of school disenfranchisement and police harassment often coalesced to drastically reduce the life chances of many of my peers.
This is most keenly felt in the areas of education and employment. In 1997, we were told by New Labour that education was the route out of poverty under their then 3Rs policy and that an expanded Higher Education sector would also be a route to better jobs. What we have seen since those days, is that black families have, indeed prioritised education, through sending their children to supplementary/Saturday schools (because they couldn't afford private tuition) and this has resulted in a rise in educational engagement and attainment for this demographic. Yet, at both school and university, attainment has been squeezed and flattened out for this demographic resulting in lower overall degree classifications than their white counterparts, despite comparable A-Level entry results. Then when young black people graduate, they are 2.5 times more likely to remain unemployed or underemployed and if they do get a job, they earn on average £7K less p.a. than their white counterparts in comparable starting positions. And when you factor in that black graduates are doing worse in the employment market than even their white non-graduate counterparts, showing that they are not enjoying a meaningful education premium despite their studies, this feeling of needing to be better in order to be treated the same, is still as salient as it has always been.
The police harassment of the 80s was always just the visible tip of the iceberg of structural racism, impacting on all other areas of Black Lives. So, as already mentioned there have always been structural challenges around education and employment but we also have to look at similarly significant challenges around housing (remember Grenfell?) and health. Nothing has changed in this respect between the two eras (e.g. racist stabbings still persist as we infamously remember from the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence). All of this today has been laid bare by the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown how the chronic institutional (structural) racism that has been endured by Black People (and BAME) has over time, created material negative health effects, resulting in higher rates of death during the pandemic. So for me, there aren't any parallels between the eras just a continuation of the same structural challenges.
I co-run, as a Deputy Headteacher, a Virtual Supplementary School in Greater Manchester called MEaP (Making Education a Priority) Academy Twilight School. In partnership with Local Authorities, we teach Looked after Children (LAC) and young people for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL) between KS2 and KS4. Many of our young people are newly-arrived EAL children from the African Continent. Our pedagogy relies very heavily on an African Philosophy of Education called Ubuntu. Ubuntu uses both ethno-philosophy (knowledge gained from native cultural artefacts like music, sayings, dance, literature, etc) and critical philosophy (evaluating the use and applicability of heritage-related knowledge and understanding to the modern world) to explore its three forms of social enquiry; moral justice, compassionate justice and restorative justice. As a team, we are finding that Ubuntu is a natural and practical channel through which my critical race scholarship can be explored in a community context. This is important to us because we believe that our children should not have to compromise or deny their cultural identities and heritages in order to succeed in the UK. Ubuntu's focus on justice allows us to educate young people with a critical awareness of the structural system that they are forced to engage with whilst giving them the tools to envisage an alternative future to the trajectory that we are currently on.
For critical race scholarship to have any chance of social impact and in this case, meaning to help improve the lives of communities, (especially Black communities), it needs to be embedded within those communities. The communities I work with form the life-blood of my scholarship. I am fortunate that we are able to create the time and space to discuss real and urgent community issues in our meetings where my scholarship is able to meaningfully contribute to the significant body of community knowledge, that already exists in the grassroots. If some of the theories that inform my practice do not fit with my community practice, this is communicated to me by my community partners, forcing me to re-evaluate my initial scholarship. This creates a healthy and robust feedback loop where my scholarship is able to inform strategic community decisions that need to be taken whilst (most importantly) being shaped by the very communities that it is being shared with.
I have seen a lot of activity on social media and I know many who have protested.
I think researchers need to make a concerted effort to look outside of their institutions (scholarly communities), especially if researching areas around social justice. In relation to this, researchers need to wean themselves off the mindset of the "project". They need to focus on "relationships" and good quality relationships in their local communities that are not time-sensitive. In this way, they will avoid "monetising" their work (via the "research project") with their communities, as they focus on using their research to serve the needs of their communities instead of data mining them. Of course, this will mean an inevitable balancing act between their institutional obligations and their community affiliations. But if they are serious about bridging that often-enormous gap between the academy and (especially) grassroots communities (who bear the brunt of the structural challenges outlined), they will need to think hard about their community activism and how their scholarship can enhance that.
Despite my observation about a lack of an educational premium in the jobs market - education is EVERYTHING. We need to think long and hard about the shape, form and utility of education, in terms of what we are teaching our next generation of critical thinkers. We have to be mindful of the political arena, where education sits at its centre, as it is a foundational instrument of citizenising our young people into our nation's values. However, if our nation's values are not always of the highest moral standards in terms of social justice, it is through education that our next generation of citizens can dare to change those values through the engaged critical thinking skills rooted in the critical race scholarship that I and an army of others explore in our writings and engaged practice.
About Ornette Clennon
Dr. Ornette D. Clennon is a collaborating researcher and Visiting Professor at the Federal University of Amazonas, where he contributes to the theme of decolonial community psychology. Ornette has also been a Visiting Research Fellow in critical race studies at Manchester Metropolitan University (ManMet), where he led its Critical Race and Ethnicity Research Cluster. As a ManMet representative, Ornette was a Public Engagement Ambassador for the National Co-ordinating Center for Public Engagement (NCCPE). Ornette's engaged scholarship that bridges the gap between the academy and the grassroots has been recognized with the 2011 NCCPE New Partnership Award. Ornette is a community activist at local, national and international levels, as he works with Making Education a Priority (MEaP), where he is their Deputy Headteacher of their Virtual Academy Twilight School , The Ubele Initiative, Locality, The Alci Matos Community (Manaus, Brazil), United Nations International Coalition of People of African Descent (ICPAD) in association with OHCHR, MACC (Manchester Community Central), CAHN (Caribbean and African Health Network), GMHSCP (GM Health and Social Care Partnership) and the National Resource Center for Supplementary Education (NRCSE), where he is their Chair of Trustees. Ornette is widely published, among his latest books are Alternative Education and Community Engagement: Making Education a Priority (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014),Urban Dialectics, The Market and Youth Engagement: The Black Face of Eurocentrism? (Nova Science Publishers, 2015), International Perspectives of Multiculturalism: The Ethical Challenges (Nova Science Publishers, 2016), The Polemics of CLR James and Contemporary Black Activism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Black Scholarly Activism between the Academy and Grassroots: A Bridge for Identities and Social Justice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).