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Case study: reciprocal mentoring with Black leaders

LJMU executives were paired with black leaders from across the UK

Leaders at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) used reciprocal mentoring with Black leaders across Liverpool to drive understanding, education and inclusion. Millicent Machell finds out how.

The organisation

Liverpool John Moores University is a public research university in the city of Liverpool. The university can trace its origins to the Liverpool Mechanics’ School of Arts, established in 1823.

It is now one of the largest and most established universities in the UK. Its five faculties produce research which influences policies and finds solutions to some of society’s largest problems.


The problem

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, students and academic staff across the country demanded change.

In an open letter to the education secretary at the time, Gavin Williamson, over 300 academics and students criticised universities for their “tokenistic and superficial” support for the Black Lives Matter movement given their poor record on tackling institutional racism.

Read more: New guide for discussing racism published

One example given was the attainment gap of 2:1 degrees given to white students versus BAME students, which stood at 13% among 2017–18 graduates.

Around this time, LJMU hired Tina Purkis as HR director, and a year later, Mark Power was promoted vice chancellor of the university.

This was, Power says, an opportunity for a gear shift around diversity and inclusion.

“We took the opportunity to have a good look at ourselves and realise we had to do things differently. We needed to make decisions with a greater level of understanding of our students and our community and the challenges they face.

“It was about building confidence from the wider community that we were certainly taking this seriously and that we’re prepared to invest both time, effort, and obviously resources into addressing some of those challenges.”

On the Black Lives Matter LJMU web page, the university declares it needs to be “unequivocal about the need to examine ourselves”, signposting the reciprocal mentoring scheme as a key strategy.


The method

The idea for a reciprocal mentoring project came from a previous project which partnered the university’s leaders with students who had experienced barriers in the education system and when joining university.

Power says: “Having gone through that and having some really significant learning, we wanted to take an external view and look at some of the key black leaders across the region.

“We wanted to work with individuals who crashed through barriers and found themselves in very influential positions.”

The project was managed by EDI leader Moni Akinsanya, who Power describes as “one of the most infectiously enthusiastic people you will ever meet”.

Members of the LJMU leadership team were paired up with black founders, politicians, journalists, radio presenters and CEOs.

Participants included Tracey Gore, chair of Liverpool’s Race Equality Task Force, Simone Roche, founder of Northern Power Women, Garth Dallas, chair of the Liverpool Commonwealth Association and Irene Afful, the first black, female inspector in the history of Merseyside Police.

Read more: Becoming an actively anti-racist workplace needs more than just allyship

Power himself was paired up with Kim Johnson, MP for Liverpool and Riverside and Joanne Anderson, former Mayor of Liverpool.

He met up with them every month or six weeks to discuss the challenges they had faced, using their advice to inform his own policy decision-making.

He says: “I was interested to hear how they ended up in those roles and how they use that experience to influence policy.

“It was also a great opportunity to test our institutional policy and hear how they saw some of the challenges in the university.

“We have so many decisions we make as an institution about policy and curriculum that might be appropriate for 18-year-olds with three A-levels, but the demography of our institution is significantly broader than that. This was a great opportunity to test out our thinking.”


The result

Power says the programme has provided LJMU leaders with much greater insight into the barriers its BAME students and staff may come up against.

He says: “I’d always had a sense of the struggle that communities and individuals had, but I’d never seen how raw that was and how constructively those individuals used that experience.

“I learned that my mentors wanted to go into politics to simply make things better. That may sound trite, but it was a genuine driver because of their experiences.

“The depth of their willingness to share was surprising, and I had the opportunity to share my own experiences with them as well. It’s good to know we’ve built these relationships and I can pick up the phone and ask for their perspective.”

There have been some tangible outcomes to Power’s conversations with Kim Johnson. After discussing the lack of black teachers, Johnson’s advice led to changes to LJMU’s recruitment and outreach programmes in teacher training.

Power was also asked by Johnson to provide information on LJMU’s experience with degree apprenticeships, which he says she fed back into policy in her role on the education committee.

Most importantly of all, Power says LJMU is now being held accountable by the black community.

He says: “You can’t do this in a half-hearted way. You have to be 100% committed. This is something that is done with the community, not to them.

“Having asked these people for their time and to hear about their experiences, I know full well that they are watching what we do here. That keeps us very focused, and very accountable.”


This article was first published in the November/December 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.