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Melody Stephens

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

If the foundations are crooked, how will anything we build upon them last?

This is Melody Stephen’s biggest question when it comes to work around diversity and inclusion. It is an area she has worked in for a while, specifically within higher education. While studying at the University of Manchester, she was the diversity officer for the Manchester Law Society for a year and post her studies, she is working as the General Secretary and Executive Director for the University’s Student Union, and holds a Chair Of The Board Of Trustees. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion, and breaking down the molds of academic spaces in order to do that. However, she points out that lasting change is unlikely to be made if we do not attend to the shaky foundations that we are building on - both in terms of how we structure EDI schemes and the language that is used.

Throughout her academic career, Melody has been confronted with a lack of diversity - throughout primary school, secondary school and grammar school. In her secondary school, there were only seven black students - two of which were her and her sister. The lack of attainment of diverse students at these levels is what further exacerbates problems when University rolls around. Added to this are continuous barriers that Melody felt that she had to deal with as she went through the education system that her white counterparts did not. For example, being told not to apply to Universities in London because she would not make it is, despite perhaps having the grades for it. “Most of the time, it’s not even about inclusivity, it is just about survival.” She felt that the University of Manchester might be different, as it has a reputation as a global university, with an image of being diverse - but this proved to be a disappointment. “Because the university is so large, I didn’t see that diversity reflected once I was there.” These experiences in education lead her to the work she is doing today in the Student Union.

One of Melody’s biggest concerns is around the foundations of most EDI work. “The systems that we use, the language that we use - it’s all outdated.” There are a few things that she points out as becoming increasingly problematic within this kind of work, from just expecting young people to unearth traumatic experiences for the sake of EDI schemes, to the marketisation of diversifying for companies, and having to try and incentivise diversity as something that is good for the bottom line. She refers back to BLM and the huge wave of activism that it prompted - only for it to die back down in a matter of weeks. “Has anything happened? When something traumatic like that happens, it dies down, and then people are no longer reactive.” Working in higher education, she sees this trend of performance but lack of action quite often. “Those working in tertiary education often believe they are vanguards of the academic integrity of an institution.” When issues like decolonising the curriculum come up, this stance leads to a refusal to change anything, because they feel as if something is being lost rather than something being gained.

Language is also one of the key foundations that need to be examined. One of the first things she wants to tackle is the use of acronyms such as BAME. Melody points out that acronyms that lump the experiences of such a large group of people together are counterproductive to what they are trying to do;

“When looking at the experiences of students and trying to cater to their needs - the statistics and data of say Chinese students are incredibly different from say those of a Bangladeshi student yet they’re all put together under one umbrella. And that is just looking at the massively different range of people that are classified under the ‘A’ part of BAME”

Language like this prevents us from defining the issue properly, and if we cannot define it properly, how do we know what changes need to be made? If we don’t start by changing this framework, are we even heading in the right direction?

She further elaborates on the impact of language when she recalls being at the event for Powerful Media’s 150 Future Leaders, and a speaker brought up the disparity between how Black rights were once fought for, versus how they are fought for now. “We have gone from saying ‘Black power’ to saying that ‘Black lives matter.’ When did we go from exerting our power to just asking for people to recognise that we matter?” Melody says this comment shook her, and made her start to rethink the role that language plays in creating change. “All the writers that shaped the way we view things are passing on,” she says, specifically referencing writers like Bell Hooks. Who in our generation is refiguring the foundations of the way we talk about diversity and inclusion? If those things are not being reshaped, the change that we build around it is not going to last.

When we are desperate to move forward, we will often rush and tend to become careless as a result. Melody suggests that it is more important to check that our laces are tied before we attempt to run, that we need to check and restructure the EDI systems we have before we can hope to build effective new ones.

Want to keep up to date with Melody and her work with University of Manchester Student Union? Click the links below!

University of Manchester Student Union:

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