BLM: A message from the School of Economics

BLM: A Message from the SchoolOn behalf of the School of Economics, Senior Lecturer and EDI Officer, Dr. Babak Somekh writes to students to outline the support the University and School are providing around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

Dear students,

These last few months we have seen a historic rise in social and political movements focusing on fighting for justice, equality, and inclusion. The Black Lives Matter message and movement has spread across the globe and led to what may have been the largest public demonstrations in the history of the United States. Bristol played a visible role in the early days of the movement, when the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was shared across the globe, representing a watershed moment for the BLM movement in the UK and Europe.

As a background to some of the history of slavery and racism, and specifically how it relates to us at Bristol, please read this excellent blog post, Black Lives Matter, by Professor Sarah Smith, head of school for Economics.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and its acceptance in the wider society are very inspiring and encouraging. But we also recognize that the fight for equality and justice is a difficult one, and will require sustained effort and engagement by all of us. As the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) officer for the School of Economics at the University of Bristol, I am writing to you now in order to explain what the University and the School have been doing in terms of EDI, what new initiatives we are planning for next year, and how we can work together to fight discrimination and help all members of our community feel welcome.

What the University is doing

The University is taking the BLM movement and its significance very seriously, and has taken concrete steps both before and after the most recent developments. Hopefully by now you have read the University’s statement.

As an institution, Bristol has financially benefited, indirectly via philanthropic support, from families who made money from businesses involved in the transatlantic slave trade. These families are formally recognised in the names of buildings and in the University’s logo. These are now being reviewed, both at the senior administration level as well as through staff initiatives. Similar movements are taking place across the city of Bristol. Last month, one of the major music venues in our city removed the name of Edward Colston from its building.

Last year, the University appointed Dr. Olivette Otele as Professor of the History of Slavery. She is working with staff, students and communities in the city of Bristol to help the University better understand its past and to shape a wide range of race equality measures.

Earlier this year the University published an Institutional Race Equality Statement. It committed itself to several initiatives including conducting the first ethnicity pay gap report, continuing support for the BAME Staff Network and several measures to improve diversity and BAME representation among staff. Looking forward, the University is establishing an Anti-Racist Steering Group to develop strategies to address individual, cultural, and structural racism and to help transform Bristol into an anti-racist organisation. Parallel but independent from the University’s initiatives, over the last month the staff at the University have organised working groups made up of staff from schools across the university. These working groups are focused on key dimensions of the fight for equality, including looking at decolonising the curriculum, removing symbols of past injustice, creating a welcoming and inclusive environment and improving the diversity of our staff and student populations.

What the School of Economics is doing

Although we have been working to improve the lack of diversity in our student body for several years, as a School we only recently began to understand the scale of the challenge faced by our Black students, and other students from a minority heritage, when they arrive at Bristol. The issue came to the forefront for us two years ago when a Black British economics student wrote an article in a local Bristol newspaper talking about how difficult his first year at Bristol had been because of his background and race.

In response we created an EFM-wide EDI committee and began the discussion about what we could do as staff and faculty. The response from our students towards our first steps have been very positive, though there is a lot more that needs to be done.

In Autumn 2018 we created a student equality committee (SEC) across EFM. This is made up of students of colour and other minority ethnic backgrounds as well as international students. At the same time, the EFM society (the largest student group in EFM) recently added an EDI officer to their governing body. This EDI officer works closely with the staff EDI team as well as with the student equality committee (SEC). In its first steps the SEC suggested a focus on decolonising the curriculum and creating a more welcoming environment for students when they arrive on campus. Some of the ongoing initiatives include:

Decolonising the curriculum: We started looking into this in the Spring of 2019 following recommendation from the SEC. We have been pushing curriculum diversity with our faculty, including organizing a posterboard session during the Faculty Learning and Teaching week last summer. We then left the poster in Priory Road complex and have invited comments and feedback from students throughout the past year. This was recently followed up with a letter from the head of Economics, Professor Sarah Smith, encouraging all unit directors to review their curriculum and providing practical guidance on how this can be done. We are seeing some changes in main economics courses. Additional examples are given and a diversity of countries used. The school of Economics is also now introducing a new first year project that will cover a variety of real-world economic topics, including slavery, racism and inequality.

Experience of students in the city of Bristol and on campus: This was a big issue for the SEC and was one of the main reasons it was formed. We have created a variety of activities that are meant to support Black and minority students when they get to Bristol.

This includes organising diversity activities like the Global Food Festival, where we celebrate the variety of cuisines and cultures within our student population. This past year was the second inaugural Global Food Festival where we bought food from 11 local mostly minority owned and run Bristol restaurants and businesses. We also included cultural performances by student groups representing different ethnic communities, including performances by the Afro-Dance society, Bollywood Dance Society, and a Brazilian Capoeira performance.

We created a minority and international student mentoring program where we connected a group of 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students from the same ethnic background or the same country of origin. The purpose is for students who may face similar issues to provide guidance and advice for incoming students. If you are of a minority ethnic background or you are an international student and you are interested in being a mentor in the 2020/2021 academic year please fill out this form.

Additionally we have looked to incorporate more diversity in our seminars and school activities. This year Flickonomics had screenings of Moonlight as well as Black Panther. We will work with the organisers to make the weekly economic seminar more diverse in terms of speakers and topics covered, both in terms of heritage as well as gender.

Going Forward

There is still a lot to be done – some upcoming initiatives are described below. But we want your ideas and energy. If you are interested in getting involved with the SEC and its initiatives or with outreach and widening participation, please email me at The 2020/2021 EDI officer for the EFM Society is Manshika Arjoon.

Standup – Speakout: We believe that minority groups should not take sole responsibility for addressing  inequalities. Therefore are creating a new staff-student group called “Standup-Speakout”. The role of this committee is to provide support to those from minority groups and to serve as anti-racist representatives within the university and wider community. Alongside staff members, this group will listen to and work with the Student Equality Committee and help deliver an action plan to foster inclusivity. They will also offer support in running our inclusivity initiatives, such as the Global Food Fair, Lunar New Year event and Inspirational Speaker Series.

Please indicate your interest in the Stand Up, Speak Out Committee here.

We need to do more to diversify our student body. Currently, 24 per cent of our undergraduate students are BAME. This is above the university average and in line with the national average for all students, but it is below the national average for economics (38 per cent). The School of Economics currently runs several summer schools specifically for BAME students, historically from London but now nationwide. For the last two years, we have also been involved in an outreach event at a large, diverse London 6th form college. These steps have had some positive effects, both at the university and school level, but we are still far from our goals of having a diverse student and staff population.

This is an issue that has been with us for many centuries and generations. It feels as if we are now in a time where we can make real and serious progress towards healing a great rift within our society. We are very excited to work with you, our students, and with the wider community, to come out of this pandemic as a stronger and more unified community. Enjoy your summer and see you in the new academic year!

Dr. Babak Somekh
Senior Lecturer
School of Economics
University of Bristol