Black History Month 2020: A Tale of Two Identities – Hogan Lovells International LLP (London office)

To say that the year 2020 has been unlike any other would be a great understatement.  Amidst the well-publicised stories of police brutality and discrimination against black and other minority communities (perhaps most notably in the viral footage of George Floyd’s killing), the COVID-19 pandemic and various tiers of lockdown, it was always going to be a challenge to create a memorable and impactful set of events to mark Black History Month (BHM).  After all, the energy and excitement you could command in a room or in person is easily lost in the distanced nature of Zoom, Skype or other similar virtual experience.  Nevertheless, through determination, perseverance and teamwork, we’ve had one of our best celebrations of BHM to date.  Our theme for this year’s BHM was “A Tale of Two Identities” and we explored this through a series of fun and inspiring virtual events for everyone.

Background on Black History Month

Black History Month was launched in the UK in 1987, following a campaign led by Ghanaian-born activist Akyaabaa Addai Sebbo, to promote knowledge of black history, culture and heritage, and disseminate information on the positive contributions of black people, past and present, to global communities.

Main events

Identity has always been a fascinating topic.  London is a cosmopolitan infusion of various cultures and backgrounds, arguably more than any other city in Europe. There are questions of identity that exist due to first-generation or second-generation immigrants being born in, or migrating to, the UK and perhaps having more of a sense of belonging to being British rather than to, perhaps, where their parents were born. In addition, there are many who experience a sense of dual identity because they constantly live between two or more cultures – the dominant culture of the society in which they live and the culture of their “homeland” or sub-cultures existing within the ethnic group to which they belong.  As a means of exploring these topics, we hosted the following events and activities:

  1. Fireside Chat with Sayce Holmes-Lewis: On 15 October 2020, we hosted our first live Zoom discussion with Sayce, the founder & CEO of Mentivity, an inspirational mentoring organisation that provides aspirational support for young people, schools, parents and carers in the UK and Africa.  This was an excellent discussion that focussed on a specific aspect of identity and perception – being a young black man born in the UK. We discussed how Sayce sees himself versus how others, for example the police, perceive him. Despite being an integral part of his community and an active proponent of positive relationships between young black youth and the police, he has been wrongly stopped as a suspect on numerous occasions. Indeed, he recounts examples on his social media of being stopped and accused of selling drugs without any evidence, with the sole important factor being that he is a black man driving a ‘nice car’ – an occurrence that many innocent black men attested to experiencing in their own lives when we hosted another REAHL event exploring similar topics earlier this year. Sayce recognised that such experiences have served to further fuel tensions and mistrust between the black community, many of whom feel unprotected by those entrusted to protect them, and the police, who often (amongst other issues) act on incorrect assumptions that black youths are more likely to be involved in criminal activity than their white or Asian counterparts. With respect to identity, Sayce does not allow how others see him to determine how he sees himself.  He is confident in his identity as a successful black man and understands that he has a voice that he can use to impact change.  On one occasion in May 2020, after being stopped by the police, Sayce decided to not focus on the negativity of the experience but rather consider what he could do to change the status quo for others.  He was determined to “teach the police how to do things the right way” and, within a number of months, is now a consultant with the Metropolitan Police Force, imparting wisdom on how police officers can approach and de-escalate situations with youth to ensure the police are serving rather than oppressing those communities.  To find out more about Sayce’s work, please visit: https://www.mentivity.com/.
  2. An audience with Ebony-Jewel Rainford-Brent: On 21 October 2020, we hosted a fantastic talk with Ebony, the World Cup winning cricketer, broadcaster, motivational speaker, and performance coach, on 21 October 2020.  We dived into questions of identity, as Ebony has an African, Caribbean and British heritage, and the benefits of having a dual identity, including the fact that Caribbean women are prominent leads in their home and in society, which informed Ebony’s view of the world.  Interestingly, her double-barrelled names are a reflection of her mother’s unrelenting desire to have a baby girl. Ebony told us that all the names her mother had earmarked over the years before she was born included names of grandmothers and favourite flowers. Why is this important? Because she embodies and embraces every one of her names as part of her identity.  Ebony discussed her remarkable career and why her success may resonate more with others when reflecting on the odds she faced in, among other things, becoming a cricket World Cup winner and captain of the Surrey Women’s cricket team.  It was captivating to hear the story of her journey into the media and the inherent challenges associated with this, including being aware that her success or failure could potentially pave or block the way respectively for others with a similar background, despite how unfair this was.  She remarked on her injury struggles and the influence of her family, especially one of her brothers, on persevering with cricket despite advice to the contrary from doctors.  Identity can sometimes affect aspiration and Ebony is determined to ensure that many African and Caribbean children from lower socio-economic backgrounds have the opportunity to pursue a career in cricket.  She is the chair of Surrey’s African Caribbean Engagement Programme (ACE), a charity which aims to increase opportunities for young black cricketers, correct decades of decline in involvement in English cricket from the black community and offer scholarships to young players.  Despite being in its early stages, this programme has already identified talented children that have been accepted into cricket teams across the country with, hopefully, successful careers ahead of them.  To find out more about Ebony’s work, please visit: http://ebonyjewelrainfordbrent.com/.
  3. Sip and Paint: On 29 October 2020, in collaboration with HL Hangouts, we arranged a live art session with Carole Johnson, an experienced teacher of Art in a West London high school.  This was dissimilar to any event we had organised before, virtually or otherwise, as it required attendees to put their drawing skills to the test, creating self-portraits whilst incorporating a poem or music that was special to them, within a relaxed setting. Before the drawing (and sipping) started, Carole was able to explain how a portrait evokes questions of identity and what is important to a person – in effect, a self-portrait is in some ways a look at the man or woman in the mirror.  Some of the music and poems used for inspiration were Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and “Still I Rise” by Mary Angelou, which impacted the style of the artwork created by those that used these pieces.  The artwork was judged by all the event participants and the winner for the best self-portrait was Sophie Marson (Associate, Investment Funds team) who won Amazon vouchers.  You can see a photo of the artwork below:

Additional weekly events

  1. Cook and Show: The Hogan Lovells London catering team, Kulan Kitchen, unfortunately could not exhibit their usual spread of African and Caribbean food in the canteen.  Nevertheless, in collaboration with the BHM Committee, Kulan Kitchen shared detailed and easy to follow recipes of tasty African and Caribbean delicacies for all to try – these included jerk pork belly, rice and peas, jollof rice, suya, okra, sweet potato salad and dumplings.  The keen cooks in the firm were able to try something new with a chance to have a picture of their culinary creativity featured in the Hogan Lovells UK Weekly Bulletin and win a prize.  One of our prize winners, selected by Faraz Naqvi, head of the Multicultural Network, was Amol Chalisgaonkar (Associate, Pensions team), with a jollof rice and suya dish. You can see a photo of the dish below:
  2. Gym: We hosted virtual Afrobeat gym sessions twice a week with external professional instructor, Jermaine Phoenix. The classes were fun and exciting, shaking up the daily routines from the comfort of our homes.
  3. Weekly Vibes: This was a weekly list prepared by the REAHL and Multicultural Network steering committees that was circulated to the London office via the UK Weekly Bulletin, with the aim of helping those who wanted to learn more about black British culture and history.  With a focus on black British content/talent, we showcased the best in-class podcasts, films, TV shows and literature. These included belly-aching comedies, gripping dramas and shows for the kids – examples are ‘Desmond’s’, ‘Famalam’, ‘I May Destroy You’ and ‘Bulletproof’. A full list of all recommendations made through the Weekly Vibes contributions will be made available on the REAHL intranet page for future consumption.
  4. Buy Black: Starting on social media as a peaceful response to systemic inequalities which disproportionately affected black communities worldwide (economically and otherwise), ‘Buy Black’ is an initiative that provides a solution-based approach to support the growth of and opportunities presented for black-owned businesses. For those who wanted to spend some money on buying great products whilst also supporting black businesses, we had a weekly list of such businesses in our UK Weekly Bulletin. In addition, those who had friends, family or just knew of some great products or services with black owners could send their details to REAHL Network, to be added to the list. Examples of businesses included Mr Plantain Crisps (https://mrplantaincrisp.com/), Dapaah Chocolates (https://www.dapaahchocolates.co.uk/) and Mane Divas.

The team

Special thanks to Jessica Roseblade (Internal Communication Advisor) for assisting with communications, Elzje Kolver (Events Team Coordinator) and Anna Crescenzo (In-House Events Organiser) for working on the events and ensuring the virtual sessions went smoothly, and Gareth Ruck (Senior Head Chef) and Michiel Hageman (General Catering Manager) who arranged the weekly recipes.

Summary

It was a fantastic month with over 200 attendees across the various series of events.  The feedback from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive and many had thought-provoking takeaways from the events they were part of!

We’re looking forward to doing it all again next year – hopefully, in person this time!

Black History Month Committee, Hogan Lovells

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