Education is a privilege

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Anti-racist educator Aisha Thomas MBE, LLB(Hons) Law (2006), founder of Representation Matters, talks to us about her journey, her inspiration, her successes and what’s next.

Tell us about the start of your journey, studying law and your early legal career.

My journey initially was very much about law, justice, social justice and making sure that people in life really got a fair deal. If the world was oppressing you, I wanted to do something to change that.

After my degree, I worked with the Prince’s Trust National Offender Management Scheme, working with young people, particularly young boys in prison and helping them back into community.

My time there made me realise that education was a privilege. And I realised that if they could’ve been served the opportunity to experience education in a different way, perhaps they wouldn’t have chosen the pathways they did. I decided to give up my legal career and transition into education.

How did you get started in education?

I spent 10 years working in a secondary school in the inner city of Bristol, helping young people to really think about what the world could offer and provide for them. I built up training courses, beginning to challenge students and expand their minds. But I realised that their racialised experiences – that them being black and brown – was really impacting how they would navigate through the world.

And that’s when I thought about becoming a specialist leader in education for community, equality and diversity. I did a lot of anti-racist practice work within the education system, which then led me to say, ‘I need to do more’!

And that was the birth of Representation Matters, an organisation specialising in anti-racist practice, supporting young people, teachers, and corporate organisations.

What three things most inspire you in your work?

  1. A young man I met in prison

In the prison environment I met a particular black boy. We were talking about why he was where he was. He said, “perhaps if you were my teacher, I wouldn’t be in prison today.”

He wasn’t talking specifically about me, but what I represented. All of his representation, all the people in society who were significant, were racialised as white and gendered as male.

I started thinking about under and over representation. He had seen an over representation of himself (as a black male) in crime, in media, and in sports. But he didn’t see himself in those pathways. So crime is where he took his chances and unfortunately, he ended up in prison.

Thinking about the under representation. Children could look up to doctors, engineers, teachers, biochemists and have aspiration. But often they’re not seeing people racialised like them in those job roles, so they think ‘those roles are not for me’.

2. My mum

She’s a primary school teacher. I didn’t realise back then the significance of the seeds she was sewing, by being a black representative in education.  I look at my mum as inspiration, because she shows me that even when she didn’t see representation, she became what others needed.

3. My sons

As black boys, I already know how society can deem them. Representation Matters is about providing opportunities of black joy, so that they don’t only see themselves from a negative perspective, a place of pain and deficit, but they see themselves as young boys who can experience joy in all places.

What does success look for you?

It’s about having an organisation that is impactful, not just regionally or even nationally but internationally. And actually, changing the lives of the young people in the next generation.

It’s when I talk to teachers and leaders, and they say to me, “the training you’ve delivered has transformed my way of thinking and my way of being and the way I now teach”.

Success is when a child says to me, “my teacher now sees me, they now recognise my existence.” They now know that the child’s racialised experience, gendered experience, or sexuality are just as important as any other aspects of their identity, and that they see that as an important part of their curriculum.

Tell us about your relationship with UWE Bristol.

For me UWE Bristol has been a springboard.

I started to do some guest lectures with the education department, sharing my journey of what it meant to be a senior leader within practice.

That work grew, and I’ve worked with the department to develop an accredited course about inclusion for teachers in training.  The programme is about ensuring that students understand anti-racist teaching practice, LGBTQ+ gender and intersectionality pedagogy. It’s not only innovative but also pioneering. We’re allowing teachers to be perhaps more equipped than the those they will be working with when they get into practice.

The course is now in its second year and will create a legacy beyond me, beyond Representation Matters. A legacy that will continue in education up and down the country. Now that is powerful.


Find out more about Aisha on LinkedIn and more about her work on the Representation Matters website. Her book Representation Matters – Becoming an anti-racist educator contains the voices of 30 different people who speak about their journeys in education.

Aisha is one of our 30 to watch, a list of inspirational alumni, staff and students. Each of these individuals have talent, persistence and passion. They’re all making important changes, not just in our community but in industry and society.

Seriously good prizes for a great cause

Play our 30th anniversary prize draw for your chance to win one of 30 fantastic prizes, kindly donated from alumni and the wider UWE Bristol community.

100% of funds raised from ticket sales will go to the UWE Bristol Fund to support Student Hardship Grants.

Buy a ticket and find out more about other ways we’re celebrating 30 years of being a University.

30 years of UWE Bristol, win in our prize draw
Win in our prize draw

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Prospectuses and print through the years

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Communicating who we are and what we offer as a university has always been crucially important. Exactly how we do that has developed over the years.

Take a look back with us at our old prospectus covers. We’ve come a long way as a university.

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Communicating our identity

People need to hear all that’s great about us loud and clear.

Over the years, the emphasis has shifted and our brand positioning has gone through a bold re-imagining. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, we aim to improve public awareness of UWE Bristol and our reputation.

A brand is much more than a logo and a colour palette. Every successful brand has a powerful brand message behind it. It’s what sets out an organisation’s ambition, motivates its people and attracts everyone else.

Our brand identity encapsulates what’s great about UWE Bristol – providing clarity as to why we’re different from other universities and why people should want to be part of our ambitious and progressive institution. We have incredible stories to tell.

How the design process has changed

Back in the 1980s, graphic design was entirely analogue and involved a set of physical skills. Designers sketched layouts, and used rulers, scalpels, and set squares. Huge advances in technology have transformed the processes over the years. 

In the early 1990s, Photoshop arrived on the scene, allowing designers to experiment with new techniques. The internet became publicly available which changed things forever – graphic design was no longer just for print, but web too.

During the 2000s design tools became even more powerful and designers created for portable devices, such as smartphones. At UWE Bristol we now primarily produce digital prospectuses, rather than printed, which can be accessed across all device types. 

Fill in the gaps?

We’ve looked high and low for old prospectuses and print, and brought them together to share with you. We don’t have every year covered, so please email if you can help us complete the set.

Seriously good prizes for a great cause

Play our 30th anniversary prize draw for your chance to win one of 30 fantastic prizes, kindly donated from alumni and the wider UWE Bristol community.

100% of funds raised from ticket sales will go to the UWE Bristol Fund to support Student Hardship Grants.

Buy a ticket and find out more about other ways we’re celebrating 30 years of being a University.

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And still we lack the resolve our problems demand

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Illegally logged hard wood in Nigeria © Hard Rain Project / Mark Edwards

Mark Edwards is one of the most widely published photographers in the world. His pictures are collected and exhibited by museums and art galleries in Europe, the US and by private collectors. He’s recognised as the first photographer to focus on the environment and sustainable development issues.

Assignments for magazines, non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies have taken him to over 100 countries during his 30 year career.

In 2006, he produced the Hard Rain exhibition, a collaboration with Bob Dylan. Hard Rain is one of the most successful environmental exhibitions ever created, attracting an audience of some 15 million people around the world.

Environmental refugees from rural Haiti going to school © Hard Rain Project

In 2017 Mark was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Arts (Hon DArt) by UWE Bristol in recognition of his commitment to communicating sustainability challenges through the medium of photography and via the Hard Rain and Whole Earth exhibitions.

Earlier this year he was awarded an OBE for services to Photography and to the Environment. Here he shares his response.

Swings and roundabouts, by Mark Edwards OBE

My phone rang just as I was starting to paint the banisters. It was my GP, sounding worried. My prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, a marker for prostate cancer, showed an elevated reading. She promised an urgent call from a specialist. “Right,” I thought, “get on with the banisters”. 

As I got to the newel post in the hall, a heavy letter dropped on the floor behind me. I saw with alarm that it was on Her Majesty’s Service. Even more worrying, it had ‘Cabinet Office’ printed above my address. I’d been critical of Boris Johnson, but surely he couldn’t write to everyone who’s been on his case; the Post Office couldn’t handle the volume. I tore open the letter and saw to my amazement that the (then) Prime Minister had recommended me to “Her Majesty The Queen for the honour of the Officer of the Order of the British Empire”. 

It must have been the Hard Rain Project (HRP) that caught the eye of the OBE nominator. I stepped into the arena with the Hard Rain exhibition in 2006 to show a vision of a world unravelling.  The exhibition was hard hitting, as it needed to be. Bob Dylan’s poetic masterpiece A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, illustrated with pictures of dead and dying life, could only be justified when there was still time to step back from the precipice.

The HRP outdoor exhibitions reached millions around the world and showed how our environmental problems are linked by cause and effect and need to be tackled together. Hard Rain was a thorn in the flesh of those who offer hope to gloss over the scale and complexity of our problems and the opportunities this crisis offers to people who are prepared to face facts. There is nothing wrong with hope that is contingent on us all working together to deal with the environmental crisis. But hope, offered as timid reassurance, does not cut through the inertia to bring about the depth of response this crisis demands. 

‘Heard the song of the poet who died in the gutter’ © Mark Edwards

In the early years of this century, we had that narrow window of opportunity to scale up solutions to deal with climate change and the interlinked problems now threatening to overwhelm civilization. In just the last few years, real-life news has overtaken the horror of the imagined future offered in Hard Rain. We are sleepwalking through heatwaves, droughts, floods, the destruction of habitats and species extinctions—and still we lack the resolve our problems demand. How stupid is that? Very.

There is a growing acknowledgement that it is too late to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees. In the face of this bleak assessment, a new generation of campaigners, school students, have found their voice. Will their uncompromising call for a radically new world-wide approach jolt political and business leaders and the silent majority into action? Our failure to respond adequately to our environmental problems so far shows that we do not really care about the prospects for children alive now, let alone future generations. We have put at risk the gains so painstakingly developed throughout our history for short-term advantage.

Children, Mexico City © Mark Edwards

I’m aware of being at the receiving end of many of those extraordinary developments. A few days after my GPs call, I was pushed gently into an MRI scanner. It brought to mind a sequence from a Woody Allen movie, and I started to laugh. I’m rolled out of the scanner and told off by a rather severe looking nurse. I quickly explain the joke; Allen’s character gets a headache, fears he has a brain tumour and demands a brain scan. He is rolled into a scanner, his face full of the crumpled despair he does so well. Next, the doctor greets him in the waiting room with the scan results: “There’s nothing wrong with you. Take an aspirin and have a lovely evening.”  You see him running down the hospital steps, but as he reaches the pavement, he freezes. Cut to him with his girlfriend in his apartment, wringing his hands, “And I suddenly realised: I don’t have a tumour now, but I could have one at any moment.” Now we are all laughing at the uncertainty of life. It’s a lovely moment then it’s back in the machine for a very special kind of selfie.

A couple of weeks later I meet the surgeon who gives me the news: “So, Mark you have prostate cancer. But you’re an exceptionally fit 75-year-old man, you cycle to your hospital appointments, you’re gregarious and I have absolute confidence I will be able to operate successfully.”

I cycled home elated. I’ve spent 30 extraordinary years with people at the sharp end of the environmental debate in a hundred countries. If the photographs I, and my fellow photographers, have taken have helped show the need to take healthcare, proper housing and education to all – and deal urgently with global warming so that we can pass on our gains to future generations – that is the only thanks any of us need.

But I am grateful for this unexpected recognition the OBE offers and for the Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of the West of England. It gives me a chance to renew our message and thank Bob Dylan and his team at Special Rider Music and Sony ATV Music Publishing for their generosity and support.

And a further unexpected vote of thanks to everyone at the Urology Clinics at Kings College Hospital and Guy’s Hospital! I’ve never been in hospital so I’m discovering, late in life, the generosity and skill of NHS staff. It prompts a final note to gentleman reading this; may the PSA be with you. And if you don’t know your PSA score, book a blood test. Prostate cancer is really cancer for beginners—provided it’s caught early. I was just in time.

Mark Edwards

Hard Rain Project

Mark receiving his Honorary Degree in 2017

‘I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow’ © Mark Edwards

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