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?
- 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.
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