Ellisha Soanes, the AoC's EDI guru

Walking the talk on equality, diversity and inclusion

It's about creating those pause moments where people say, 'I never realised that'

The AoC’s consultant on equality, diversity and inclusion believes many colleges still need to put their words into action when it comes to really championing diversity.

Ellisha Soanes, the Association of College’s consultant on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), believes that many colleges are “just paying lip service” to the issue with their policies, and now need to “walk the talk” as she has done. 

Diversity is Soanes’s life passion. As a lecturer and later EDI lead at West Suffolk College, Soanes brought her students up close and personal with ethnic minority political pioneers, a military hero and a footballing legend to inspire them to aim high. 

She also made a name for herself by teaching of black history not just during black history month, but across the year.

Ellisha Soanes with an exhibit from her Power of Stories exhibition

Joining the dance

Soanes has sat on various parliamentary roundtable talks on diversifying curriculums and has spoken to Keir Starmer “a few times”, most recently last year at a memorial marking 30 years since the racially motivated murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence.

She calls her brand of activism “joining the dance”.

Whereas she used to feel alone on the dancefloor of FE when she first started championing diversity in colleges in 2020, she now feels that with “more and more people joining in, that cultural ripple effect is happening…I feel like I’m making a difference.”

However, there is a long way to go.

While students have become more diverse, college leadership has become even less representative. In the decade to 2021, the share of ethnic minority students in FE went from one in five to one in four, while the percentage of ethnic minority college leaders dropped from 13 per cent in 2017 to 5-6 per cent in 2020, and is believed to have fallen since then.

Ellisha Soanes Grandparents John and Christolyn

Colleges are being strongly encouraged to sign up to a new EDI charter being launched at next month’s AoC EDI conference, being touted as a ‘call to action’ for the sector. 

And Soanes has just started hosting six-weekly regional Equity Xchange forums for EDI leads through the AoC, to provide them with support. 

She knows that “EDI can be a lonely world”.

The AoC’s director for diversity and governance, Jeff Greenidge, recently wrote how the phone calls and emails he has received have made it “clear that advocating for change in a resistant environment takes an emotional toll [on EDI leads] and can lead to fatigue and feelings of burnout”.

Soanes sees the forums she is hosting as providing a “safe space” for EDI leads to talk to each other, “especially around diversifying the curriculum”. 

“They’re really important conversations. When I started my own journey, I was fortunate to have a network of amazing people supporting me. But I realise that not a lot of people have that opportunity.”

The power of stories

Soanes’s personal support network included her Windrush generation grandmother, Christolyn Soanes, who is also the inspiration behind Soanes championing real-life stories from black history. 

She was a nurse in Antigua before being recruited to work in Ipswich in 1961. But as she could not afford to get requalified in the health sector here, she ended up doing menial cleaning work instead.

Soanes discusses this with me while sitting in a garishly retro mock-up of a 1970s living room. It is part of the latest exhibition she has curated in Ipswich, celebrating the town’s diverse heritage through the stories and cultural memorabilia of its residents. “This is what my grandmother’s living room used to look like,” she says.

Christolyn’s cake tin was showcased alongside three original costumes from Marvel Studios’ Black Panther film (2018) and the jewels of a local Nigerian princess, in the first black heritage exhibition Soanes helped curate to inspire her students at West Suffolk College, back in 2021.

While Soanes was growing up in Ipswich, her mother had her own restaurant business and her father was a professional footballer, Douglas Junior Soanes, who played for Norwich City and later Ipswich Town. 

Her godfather is the former Norwich, Newcastle and Spurs player Ruel Fox, who these days sometimes accompanies Soanes for talks in local schools and colleges. Although Soanes is “not sporty at all”, she believes that “having role models around me as a kid was so valuable, and was something that I took for granted”.

Ellisha Soanes as a child

At school in Ipswich, Soanes claims teachers held “biases” about her based on the colour of her skin. She recalls being asked by her teacher during a career talk, “why don’t you just do hairdressing?”, and being “pulled out of lessons” along with “all the students of diverse appearance”, and “asked if we would like some free books”.  

“I was thinking, why aren’t you asking the other students that? That’s not empowering people.”

Soanes’s partner, Darnte Wilson, was a National level triple jumper (“a hop, skippedy jumper” as Soanes calls it) when they met. He trained with Lynford Christie among others, and Soanes at first “lived life around his scheduling”.

She moved to London with him as a student but studied health and social care at the University of Essex, with the unconventional commute away from London each day making her life “complex”. 

After having their daughter 11 years ago, Soanes focused much of her energy on motherhood while Wilson continued his training. 

But his Olympic dreams were shattered when he tore a ligament while jumping live on TV, in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics. He refocused his career instead around coaching and training, while Soanes made up her mind to “really go forwards” in education.

Soanes went from supporting young people at risk of school exclusion through a private provider, Nacro Education, to becoming an employability coach and later a health and social care lecturer at West Suffolk College. 

Ellisha Soanes Caribbean heritage books that make up part of her recent exhibition along with her grandmothers cake tin

Weaving EDI into curriculums

Soanes was teaching online during Covid when the murder of George Floyd in America affected race relations on both sides of the pond. She discussed the issue with her students, who decided to make a pictorial tribute to him. 

After researching the subject further, these students came upon “stories of racial injustice from across the world” and decided to do a bigger Black Lives Matter tribute as momentum for the movement grew. 

Soanes recalls looking around the college and thinking “there is so much more we can do here around EDI. It should be woven into everything we do, not just a bolt-on extra.” She started teaching her students about “disparities that have happened” in “black history and mental health”. 

A group of them then asked if they could teach their peers stories from the Windrush generation. 

Soanes recalls one student in particular, whose father was of the Windrush generation, who would normally “sit in the back and let other students take over”. But discussing his family’s experiences allowed him to “open up” and “tell these amazing stories of untold heroes who made the NHS service, who we just don’t normally talk about”. 

As the cause “blew up”, Soanes supported her students while they took the lead in facilitating sessions for other students on black history icons. Meanwhile, Soanes co-founded Aspire Black Suffolk, a community interest company specialising in promoting positive role models. 

In 2022 she gave up lecturing to become the college’s EDI coordinator and used funding from the European Social Fund to appoint student ambassadors and organise workshops on EDI issues across the college. Some were attended by “hundreds of students”.

“They just told their stories. It was about that sense of community and celebration, which they don’t normally get an opportunity to express. You really see the sense of empowerment that happens when voices are heard.”

The ambassadors helped Soanes make West Suffolk the first college in the country to embed black history into the curriculum all year round. 

She has been trying to encourage other schools and colleges to do so since, but has found that “a lot of doors would shut” when she suggested it. “People would say, don’t be silly…That’s other people’s cultures, why should we integrate it?”

Ellisha Soaness pumpkin fritters

In the training she provides schools and colleges around diversity, Soanes asks people whether they were taught black history at school. If they were, Soanes claims that “nine times out of 10 it was civil rights and slavery”. 

She then gets them to “stop and pause” and asks, “were the black community not part of the first and second world wars? Were we not inventors? As educators, we’re meant to support everyone in their journey. We’re doing a real injustice there.”

Some might argue that diversifying the curriculum is easier with arts courses than practical ones, but Soanes claims that any subject leader can invite “local heroes on their doorstep” in to share their stories.

And subjects can often have a multicultural element to them. She claims there is “so much African history and culture” involved in bricklaying, with some common gate motif styles coming from Ghana. 

“It’s about creating those pause moments where people go, ‘I never realized that’.”

Soanes co-authored an interactive book, Elimu (a Swahili term for knowledge) showcasing black Suffolk heroes, designed to be integrated into school and college curriculums. Some 10,000 copies were produced, funded by Suffolk Council.

With the motif “if you don’t ask you don’t get”, Soanes reached out to a number of high profile black political activists to ask if her students could interview them. 

Those who agreed include Leroy Logan, who had founded the Black Police Association, and Alex Wheatle, a British novelist jailed after the 1981 Brixton riot in London. Both their stories had been made into films as part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe BBC series, with Logan played by John Boyega.

Her students also interviewed Stuart Lawrence, the younger brother of the teenager murdered in a racially motivated attack, Stephen Lawrence. Soanes says these interviews helped students “understand how to create opportunity” and to become “gamechangers”.

When West Suffolk College became part of the Eastern Colleges Group in 2022, Soanes was made head of EDI for the group, overseeing 17 EDI leads.

A comic from the Power of Stpries exhibition

Presentation matters

Soanes believes that “presentation matters”, and the fact that staff and students in FE “don’t see a lot of leaders who look like me is a big problem”. 

While there is “representation at a lecturer or pastoral support level”, Soanes always sees a “stopping point when it gets to the next level”.

She asks, “are we really supporting people in the coaching and mentoring world to help reshape them? How many colleges are really honing into their diversity demographic, and saying, ‘what are we going to do about this?’ There’s much more we can do.”

Soanes believes there should be “more access and support in colleges linking into communities and charities” to help EDI leads achieve their aims.

She believes that “a lot of” EDI leads “get those doors closed”, as she did when she embarked on building black history into curriculums. 

Soanes is worried about the impact on education leaders of certain politicians pushing the ‘Wokerati’ jibe at those who campaign for more diversity in the sector.

But she also believes that “more and more people are joining the dance”. 

“I want everyone to feel empowered by telling those powerful stories.”

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