What Black History Month means to me

Tanaye Reid Project Support Officer asked Cheryl King-McDowall, Deputy Director Professional Standards, what Black History Month means to her and to share her insights on being a black woman in a senior position.

Tanaye: What does Black History Month mean to you?

Cheryl: Ideally, we wouldn’t need a month but it is a time to reflect and celebrate black African and Caribbean history, culture and achievements.

It’s brilliant that every year I learn something new. But, it’s not just about history, it’s about the future we are creating now. Migration is a theme this year. It’s important that younger people especially hear the stories of how and why our parents and grandparents came to build their lives in the UK.

Tanaye: You said you take things from every BHM, so what have you learnt this year?

Cheryl: Loads! The recent ‘Get up Stand Up now’ exhibition at Somerset House got me interested in ‘Afrofuturism’ (think Funkadelic or Wakanda!), the Association of Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (@AFBE_UK) regularly post about black engineers for example; in 1966, Marie Van Brittan Brown created a device that was the precursor to home surveillance and CCTV.

Tanaye: Who do you feel has made an outstanding contribution to the black British community past or present?

Cheryl: There are so many to thank. Off the top of my head… moving through history… Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, Darkus Howe, Baroness Floella Benjamin, Trevor Phillips, Linda Bellos, Benjamin Zephaniah, Baroness Amos, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Raheem Sterling, Sir Simon Woolley, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Akala, Stormzy…

Tanaye: Who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? How did this person impact your life?

Cheryl: So many people have shaped who I am as a leader; personally, my parents my sisters and my friends, professionally, there have been 5 or 6 leaders who have believed in me, challenged me, given me tough feedback in a supportive way and trusted me to step up to the next level.

Tanaye: As a leader which is most important to you—strategy, values or vision and why?

Cheryl: Values. You need a clear vision and great strategy but if you operate without integrity, respect, authenticity or professionalism you won’t achieve sustainable improvement.   It’s often said that good leaders are judged not just by what they do but how they make you feel.

Tanaye: In the context of BHM what is the most inspirational book you have read and what did you take away from it?

Cheryl: Three that come to mind are; The Autobiography of Malcolm X for determination & belief, personal growth and speaking truth to power. Acts of Faith by Iyanla Vansant for inspirational quotes 365 days a year. The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla for an excellent collection of essays about the experiences and reflections of migrants and children of migrants to the UK.

Tanaye: Being a black woman in a leadership position, what challenges have you overcome on your journey and how?

Cheryl: There are challenges I’ve faced because I am a black woman e.g. overt blatant racism (many years ago). There are some that many women experience but intersectionality between race and gender plays a part e.g. stereotypical assumptions, being underestimated or patronised. Then there are some that are common to women in leadership positions in general e.g. being a working mother. How have I overcome them? Optimism, determination, resilience, support networks, music, camping and red wine.

Tanaye: What did you want to be when you were a child and did it come true?

Cheryl: I wanted to be on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. If that didn’t work out then a surgeonBoth worked out in some way, I like to fix and make things better and I like to ‘boldly go’ and ‘explore strange new worlds’ which is why I joined the civil service last year…

Tanaye: If you could share a meal with one individual, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

Cheryl: Any woman ancestor before 1900. I’d like to understand her interests, hopes, dreams and fears, I’d like to learn an old recipe and hear about her parents and grandparents. I’d like to tell her about life now and what her sacrifices and hard work created. I’d hope to get advice and learn more about myself.

Tanaye: What is one of your proudest accomplishments?

Cheryl: Being offered a job by somebody I’d given their first job to 17 years earlier.

Tanaye: What kind of professional legacy would you like to leave?

Cheryl: Evidence of sustained improvement in organisations and benefit to their customers. Seeing the success of colleagues I’ve recruited or worked with and being known as a positive role model and leader. Someone who made a difference and consistently delivered great work with integrity and humour.