Ellisha Soanes is an equality and diversity inclusion coordinator and lecturer at West Suffolk College. As the College celebrates TransGender Awareness Week for the first time, she shares how she champions equality and diversity at the College and beyond.
I work with an amazing spectrum of people from a variety of different backgrounds at West Suffolk College. And when it comes to equality and diversity, I’ve found the most powerful strategy is to take a student-led approach. It’s as simple as asking my learners what it is that they want to learn.
This is a model that has worked well across our Eastern Colleges Group which includes West Suffolk College and Abbeygate Sixth Form in Bury St Edmunds and One Sixth Form College in Ipswich. Across the Group we reach over 15,000 students, so we have some amazing reach.
I’m very proud that at West Suffolk College we have now recruited 40 EDI student ambassadors – and this model is being rolled out at the other colleges in the group.
All ambassadors that get involved are incredibly passionate about this subject. They champion our mission to teach Black history on the curriculum all year round. More recently, the ambassadors have organised wellbeing events, LGBTQIA+ events and have supported EDI workshops to discuss their roles and get more people involved.
It is so important for young people to work with diverse communities, and we do that at a global and local level at West Suffolk College.
Our CEO, principal and governors have been incredibly supportive of our plan, and thanks to additional support from Place 21, The European Union, and the college as a whole, the support that everyone has provided has enabled me to appoint equality, diversity and inclusion ambassadors at the college, that help with our learners needs.
We also work hard to create opportunities to showcase different backgrounds and use the power of storytelling to inspire others. We recently celebrated the Windrush Generation, with Derrick Bobbington Thomas giving a talk at the College. This inspirational figure was the first ever person from the Windrush Generation to become a Sergeant in the Royal Air Force.
We’ve also hosted a series of talks called ‘Untold Heroes’ from community individuals who had amazing stories to share.
We had authors, businesspeople, DJs, a footballer, a model with her own clothes brand and two people (Alex Wheatle and Leroy Logan) whose stories were made into films as part of the Small Axe series that was created by the Oscar winning film director, Steve McQueen.
We also had an amazing performance from Wooden Roots whose music was featured in the Black Panther movie. And our students were also involved in workshops related to Black Panther as part of an exhibition that was hosted by Ipswich Museum.
We invited students and members of the public from other settings into the college to share these moments and listen to people’s stories.
Through these events, many people were given an understanding of a history that they had never heard of before. The feedback from students has been incredible.
We have continued these projects throughout the year – and recently joined forces with Unison Eastern on a project called ‘Proud to Be’ – teaming up with a Nigerian Princess who had worked with the likes of Beyoncé to create a social media video.
This month (November 2021) we will be celebrating mental well-being and Transgender Awareness Week as it is essential that we show positive representation in all EDI areas.
I’m a strong believer that if you don’t see equality, diversity, and inclusion from other people’s perspectives, you won’t understand what other people are experiencing – and this is the mentality we adopt in everything we do.
External organisations like the Association of Colleges (AoC) have also given us some amazing support. Jeff Greenidge – director of diversity for the Education and Training Foundation and AoC – recently delivered some training to staff which was incredibly well received.
I’ve been asked what my advice to others would be. I’d say your main aim should be to work with community groups and make it your business to understand them and bring their valuable lessons into your lessons.
They can then help shape their equality, diversity and inclusion activities at your college or educational establishment all year round.
A quote that I often share is this:
‘Diversity is like being asked to the party – inclusion is being asked to dance. What you have to do is to get people to join your dance’
I hope that more Colleges follow our lead and create moments to represent how diverse we are as a community.
West Suffolk College will be marking Transgender Awareness Week until the end of this month (November 2021), and has arranged for a number of speakers to discuss trans-awareness. It will also be hosting a series of podcasts that will be released in December for staff and students. Through the help of the equality diversity ambassadors, there are enrichment events in EDI throughout the year.