Students Staff
University of Essex

October 6, 2016

“Moments of challenge also need to be grasped as moments of opportunity”

Our Chancellor, Shami Chakrabarti, sets out why we need initiatives like Black History Month more than ever.

An image of Shami Chakrabarti

Our Chancellor, Shami Chakrabarti

The mid-twentieth century civil liberties movement set something exciting in motion. Britain, and the wider world, fixed itself on a path towards harmony, progress and equality. But that path has been littered with steps backwards as well as forward, and today we face an important  moment in our global history.

When I was a child growing up in Britain I looked admiringly towards the US. It appeared a country of migrants where everyone, from every country, could find a place. They had ethnic minority political and professional role models, and they seemed to cope with the complex identity of being an African American, and Italian American, a Chinese American.

Today the story in the US is very different and its people are facing unprecedented race relations challenges. But let us not be fooled that this is purely an American problem. The ‘othering’ of people that escalated after 9/11 is as prevalent in Britain and Europe. We see it daily in media headlines that de-humanise refugees and we saw it in the toxic debate in the EU referendum campaign.

Suspicion, fear and hatred are seemingly everywhere and these will always be detrimental to race relations. But what if the person who seems so different, seems so alien, seems a threat could actually be a friend, a neighbour, an opportunity?

Yes, this is a frightening time when our progressive values feel under threat but moments of challenge also need to be grasped as moments of opportunity.

I never thought I would see the fall of the Berlin Wall; I never thought I would see the end of apartheid in South Africa; and I certainly never thought I would see relative peace in Northern Ireland.  History can speed up, and changes for good can be achieved but these things don’t happen by themselves. They require optimism, hard work, patience and solidarity.

These are values that this University has in spades. Ours isn’t a community that sits on the fence; it doesn’t pretend to be neutral. These are hard times, but our community has a great opportunity to set an example, and to inspire and empower the changemakers of tomorrow.