October is Black History Month (BHM), an annual celebration of the contributions of Black people to British society. To celebrate, we asked our members what Black History Month means to them. In this interview, we speak to Senior Specialist Prosecutor, Ruona Iguyovwe.
What is your ethnic background and how do you celebrate it?
I am African. How do I celebrate it? I celebrate it through my way of life, what I eat, sometimes what I wear, with friends and family, and sometimes through dance.
What does Black History Month (BHM) mean to you and why is it important to celebrate BHM?
To me, Black History Month allows everyone to celebrate Black people and their heritage. It is an important time to focus on the sacrifices, contributions and achievements of Black people over the years against the backdrop of racism, inequality and injustice. Whether it is focusing on the personal achievements of sporting heroes like Lewis Hamilton, Formula One driver or Serena Williams who became the world’s number one tennis player or others like Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks who made significant sacrifices and displayed unusual will and determination in the face of great danger and against the odds to win civil rights and freedom for others. I think it is important to celebrate it because it allows Black people to share their experiences and to celebrate the contributions they have made.
This year’s BHM theme is ‘proud to be’. What does ‘proud to be’ mean to you?
I am proud to be me, a person of integrity, strong values, a Black woman, a Christian, a lawyer, a prosecutor, a British citizen. I am proud of what I have been able to achieve in my own life against the odds I have faced and still face.
Why is it important for organisations to participate in BHM celebrations and engage employees?
It is important for organisations to be inclusive and to celebrate everyone for the unique contributions that they bring. It is important for people to feel that they matter, that their contribution is valued and that their voices are heard. Celebrating Black History Month and raising awareness of the experiences of Black people will make Black employees feel that they belong.
Thinking back to the events of 2020, with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter uprising, what is the one thing you learned during this time?
The one thing I have learnt is that the struggle for racial equality and a fair society is a process. Nothing will happen overnight because of one single event as tragic as that event was. Listening to the evidence during the trial of Derek Chauvin, I was also very heartened to hear that at the time, many people of different ages, races and background who witnessed the murder challenged the police that day and it was a member of the public who was concerned about what was going on that decided to record the events that day. That recording became vital evidence in court. Don’t be a bystander. Take a stand for what is right and just even if it costs you something.
What do you hope colleagues will take away from this year’s BHM celebrations?
I hope that colleagues will take time to reflect on the experiences of Black People, the racism, the inequality, the unfair treatment whether it is tragic events like the killing of George Floyd or the way some Black footballers were targeted after the Euro finals or micro aggressions that Black people face and to determine to continue to be advocates of change whether through their words or by their actions. I hope that colleagues will also take time to recognise and to focus on the contributions and achievements of Black people and to celebrate those achievements and Black heritage. It is important that the history of Black people and their contributions to society and achievements are part of the national curriculum.
Being a Black leader in the civil service, what challenges have you faced on your career journey, and how have you overcome these?
As a Black leader in the civil service, I have experienced several challenges in my career but I am pleased to say I have also enjoyed many successes in my career which would be the envy of many. Many times I have experienced challenges gaining a foot in the door in the first place. I have tried to overcome by constant hard work and trying to go over and above the minimum requirements.
The CPS is an equal opportunity employer and a brilliant place to work. As a senior specialist prosecutor in the International Justice and Organised Crime Division, I have been able to gain many excellent opportunities working in the CPS of which I am extremely proud. Apart from many successful cases, I enjoyed my role as Chair of the National Black Crown Prosecution Association and the opportunity it afforded me of working closely with community partners and victim support groups.
In 2017, I was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Honours List for services to law and order and my role in helping to promote equality and diversity in the CPS in my role as NBCPA Chair. That was a career highlight that I could never have dreamt of. I was recently successful in getting on to the Civil Service Future Leaders’ Scheme. I am looking forward to the opportunity of networking with other senior leaders across the whole of the Civil Service and maximising the learning opportunities that the scheme will provide for me in my leadership journey.
When I applied for certain roles, there have been times when I felt a sense of not belonging when I have been overlooked for roles that I felt I was qualified for but I am pleased to say that I have also enjoyed a lot of support from BME and non-BME mentors, senior leaders within the CPS who have actively championed me. The other challenge I face is making sure I am not misunderstood when communicating with others. I have overcome this challenge or I should say I am overcoming this challenge by always trying to foster good relationships with colleagues wherever I can, having greater self-awareness and by being very reflective, learning lessons from my experiences.
Which Black person from history or today inspires you?
One person who has inspired me a whole lot is Michelle Obama, American Attorney and author of the book ‘Becoming’. Michelle Obama was the First lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017 who was married to Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. She was educated in Harvard Law School (1985 – 1988). In her book Becoming, Michelle says: “I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey. In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why.”
She says her mother, Mrs Robinson was a tough woman who had very high expectations for her children. She expected them to figure some things out on their own and learn from their missteps and the process of making choices, just like my own mother. Her mother gave her children agency at a very young age and it is clear how that helped to shape Mrs Obama. I can say the same for my mother and I am grateful for strong mothers who allow their children to have a voice. There was discipline but there was also trust. I am inspired by Michelle Obama’s devotion to her whole family and also the work that she is doing to empower adolescent girls through education.
In her book Becoming, she spoke candidly about her roots, her extended family and humble beginnings and how she found her voice, as well as her time in the White House, her public health campaign and her role as a wife and mother. It was plain to see how her upbringing as a child helped to shape her into the person that she is and how everything her parents and grandparents did left lasting imprints on her life as she grew older. I am grateful for my upbringing and how it has helped to shape the person I have become.
I am proud of Michelle’s influence. I am proud of the dignity with which she carries herself. I am proud of her education (educated in Harvard Law School exceeding the expectations of a teacher who tried to put her down and quash her dreams and self-belief). I am proud of her passion for the education and empowerment of young girls and women.
I am proud of Michelle as a mother. I am proud of her as a supportive wife who stood by her husband, Barack through his time as president despite her misgivings about politics. I am very proud of how she built a protective nest around her children and her family throughout. I am proud that “when they went low” she and Barack went higher! Always dignified. I am proud of what she and her husband have achieved and their legacy. She has helped to create a space for other stories. She has indeed widened the pathway for who belongs and why. A true role model!