For Aisha Thomas MBE, growing up in inner-city Bristol was a mixed experience, one that surrounded her in love, community, safety and inclusion, but that still didn’t prepare her for racist exclusion once she moved onto secondary school in Gloucestershire.
Fast forward to today and Ms Thomas, who was recently awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Jubilee Birthday Honours, has utilised her experiences to form Representation Matters, raise awareness of change needed in the education system and, most recently, release a book.
Representation Matters: Becoming an anti-racist educator was published by Bloomsbury this month and is described as ’the essential book for teachers looking to promote diversity and inclusion in their school and create positive, lasting change for staff and pupils’.
In the crucial book, former assistant principal, campaigner and TEDxBristol speaker Ms Thomas demonstrates how race shapes the experiences of Black, Asian and racially minoritised teachers and pupils in the UK education system, and why representation is fundamental in every school.
With a particular focus on the experiences of Black educators, parents and pupils, Ms Thomas shares her own lived experience and features over 20 stories from those who have been affected by the racism that is endemic in the education system today.
But, where did it all start? “I guess all of my work and commitments to education didn’t start with an educational career path, although I think it was always in the blood, as my mum was a trained primary school teacher and she would take my brother and me along with her,” starts Ms Thomas.
“But once I finished university, I became a legal assistant in a law firm. I volunteered with the Prince’s Trust for some pro bono work and I was working with a particular young man and we were talking about getting him out of prison and moving back into the world.
“He was the first person to bring representation to me as a concept and he talked about the fact that, had I been his teacher, he wouldn’t be in prison. He wasn’t talking about me specifically but really talking about the fact that he didn’t see representation of himself in positions of authority - instead, he only saw himself in crime, sport and media, which was a limited pathway for him.
“I thought, I don’t want to help children out of prison, I want to stop them going on that pathway in the first place.”
It was here that Ms Thomas transitioned from her legal career into an educational career. She started working at one of the largest inner-city schools in Bristol which is the most multicultural and diverse, too, and she realised that there was such inequality within our education system.
“It shouldn’t be a postcode lottery in accordance to what educational experience you achieve,” she says. “I could see quite easily that where there was a high proportion of black and brown children, there was a deficit model at play.
“Not because the teachers didn’t want the best for the students, but in terms of the experiences that were compounded, the bias and prejudice that existed was emphasised.”
Ms Thomas began to help teachers and students on their anti-racist practice journey, talking about equality, diversity and inclusion and became a specialist leader in education for community and EDI, did a BBC documentary about the lack of ethnic diversity in the teaching workforce and did a TED talk on why representation matters.
Representation Matters became a business alongside Ms Thomas’ role as assistant principal while she was spending a lot of time within the community. Once it became a full-blown training consultancy, Ms Thomas stepped away from teaching in 2020 to launch it as a company.
The company raises awareness of the need for Black educators, celebrates the successes of Black educators, supports minority educators, enriches the curriculum with diversity and colour, empowers Black children and young people to pursue careers and ambitions in unrepresented areas, and challenges industries to review the representation in their organisations.
It’s been quite the whirlwind, and now the book is out and Ms Thomas is excited to create hope and change for future generations. “The most important thing is the children and the hope that they will have an educational experience that is better than what I had,” she says.
“We need to hear the truth, and the whole story, and for people to see the beautiful things about their culture. It’s important that children get the full picture of who they are and not a condensed version.
“I want to give full power to those who are constantly minoritised by society, but also for those children who are racialised as white to break down that superiority that might naturally be in their teaching and understanding.”
As Ms Thomas talks to me about her new book, she tells me about her upbringing in Easton and her experience of school in Bristol. “I transitioned to a secondary school in Gloucestershire and that was the first shock of being racialised as Black,” she says.
“Up until that point, I’d grown up in a very multi-racial community, there were different religions and there were no barriers between us. There was no difference, just a focus on being a community and being people that want the best for each other.
“There were only six people racialised as black or brown in my year when I got to secondary school and that’s where the racism really started for me. Those microaggressions propelled me and prepared me for the world I was about to go into.”
The book, then, is a call to action and a response. It’s about providing tools, skills and frameworks for people to start the work without always having to go to that one black or brown member of staff. Ms Thomas hopes to create courageous and empowering conversations. There are lots of questions, tools and activities that really get you thinking.
What does she hope comes from the release of the book? “I guess my hope is that people will hold the mirror, question themselves, and really think about their honest truth and how they could better the experience and do the most good for everybody,” she says.
“That’s the ultimate goal. I’m hoping the book will allow the inclusive voice of those racialised as black or brown. It’s the opportunity to give people a platform who are never heard, that’s exciting to me - it’s my job to open the door.”
Finally, does Ms Thomas think Bristol has changed and that the education system within the city has progressed for the better over the last few years?
“I definitely think I can see positive change and the students give me hope,” she says. “Even when I compare my two children, I have an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old so only a three-year gap, I can see the difference in the dialogue, examples, and approaches that they have had.”