Justina Asafu-Adjaye is an educator who has been working with children and families for over 25 years. She has worked within Early Years, Special Educational Needs and Inclusion as a Senior Manager and worked as a Borough Lead delivering training and development around inclusion, as well as being an independent consultant. She transferred to secondary education as a home educator running a parents co-op, and then joined Transforming Lives for Good (TLG) as a Headteacher. Now she uses her wealth of experience to fly the flag for teenagers needing specialist SEND support and advocacy in their education.
Christian, black, mature, woman, leader… those are the labels I carry in my day to day working life in education. Those are the definitions I am measured by and those are the weights that I carry. Labels are multifaceted, they can be what free you or what hold you captive. For me they have always felt a burden. An inexplicable way to be controlled and defined; to be measured and categorised; leading to affirmation and progress or control and ultimately rejection.
As a teacher and leader, I have found the challenge and battle for my wellbeing defined by my labels and the interpretation of my need by others, rather than my voice. The definition of ‘strong black woman’ and its assumptions have long been a detriment to myself and many women of colour. The term often assumed to be a rallying cry of female liberation actually just masks the continued subjugation, oppression and marginalisation of the black woman. Being a strong black woman means I work harder, I can ‘handle’ more but I am not quite bright enough and skilled enough to manage more senior roles or responsibilities. It is the legitimising of the lack of care given for our wellbeing, particularly our mental health. We are viewed strong in that we can manage all things and do all things. When times of challenge, conflict or dissention arise it is so easy to overlook or not even consider our need for protection, support, understanding, empathy and resourcing.
Moving into a Christian work environment the expectations I naively held was one of finding a more levelled playing field. Given that we are one, bought by the blood of Jesus (Galatians 3:13) and given we are all image bearers of our creator (Genesis 1:26), adopted sons and daughters of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 8:15), the idea of being treated differently due to my colour, ethnicity, class or gender seemed so alien. However, as much as the organisation is Christian in its intent, purpose and delivery, it is filled with humans: like me, sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. Those humans carry their own biases and ism’s. As much as we are taught to not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2), invariably we are shaped by the world systems. Those world systems have been formulated in inequality, discrimination and oppression defined by race, gender, class, sexuality etc, and our modern Christian history is no different.
What did this look like for me on my journey? It was being mistaken for another person consistently in my interactions even after years of employment. It was managing the tears of my white female colleagues when I disagreed with them and having to manage the feelings of confusion and guilt I felt as a result. It was my passion being seen as aggression and my outspokenness as confrontational and lacking in grace. It was the assumption of lack which meant any attempt for independent thinking being met with what seemed like panic and fear rather than celebrated for innovation….until it was confirmed as a good thing by a white peer. It was the inability to be myself, always being on edge and having to manage my behaviour, emotions, thoughts and interactions so as not to be seen as that aggressive, angry black woman who needed to be ‘managed’. It was the jokes I didn’t find funny, the cultural norms that wasn’t my own lived experience. The emotional exhaustion following a day in an environment where I never felt safe.
Thankfully there were leaders who were willing to listen to some of the challenges I was facing and started exploring how to address some of the organisational challenges around diversity and inclusion. However, even sharing that came with such huge risks; leaders can be very defensive and it could have resulted in further discrimination and challenges. Praise God this wasn’t my experience.
One morning at work I broke down emotionally and had to be sent home. I had sacrificed my mental health and wellbeing on the altar of the 'strong black woman'. I was battle scarred and exhausted from the constant micro-aggressions and bias I was facing and managing. It took this breakdown for me to realise and accept I needed external support and help. I got access to counselling, an external mentor who gave me professional supervision and eventually accessed some coaching. I dived into my bible and begun the reconciliation journey of race and faith. The complicity of my faith in my oppression and that of my ancestors. The ingrained hierarchy of practice that had my behavioural, cultural and social norms as unbecoming and even unprofessional behaviour and those of the white dominant class as the expected and professional standard. I am still healing. I am still learning. I am beginning to forgive. I am starting to value myself, my experiences and my contributions.
If you find yourself experiencing some of these challenges and pressures, I would highly recommend accessing one of the support mechanisms above. Speak to your GP. Understand that self-care is not weakness or overrated. In order for you to be an effective educator and or leader you need to be operating at your best. The weight of navigating life as a mature black woman who is a Christian and a leader is a heavy but rewarding one if combined with the right support. Your identity, wellbeing and mental health matters and should not be sacrificed under any circumstances. Sometimes this means having to walk away.
As educators we often fail to fully assess the need for our learning to relate to emotional and cultural awareness development. It essential that leadership embark on a learning journey of self-awareness so that they can be better conduits of emotional intelligence. Leaders with one dimensional life experience and awareness will find it very challenging to fully appreciate the diversity of experience their staff team bring as well as the varying life experiences of a diverse team. All leaders should therefore access regular training and education around emotional and cultural awareness, diversity and inclusive practice.
As leaders of educational provisions, we work hard to ensure that the curriculum and pastoral support for students are responsive and fit for purpose, however we do not put the same emphasis on the support for staff. Staff who have experienced emotional trauma as a result of racism, sexism, homophobia, faith-based discrimination, abuse or ageism may present behaviours that require sensitivity and a commitment to inclusivity in response. Staff who may have experienced adverse childhood experiences will need a trauma informed support culture to enable them to navigate their roles and operate in safety. This will require specific and targeted training for HR as well as senior leaders to inform policy and practice.
Leaders require support as much as their team members. Therefore, setting up a program of peer support and peer supervision can go some way to providing safe professional platforms for reviewing practice. Also, identifying external professionals who can offer independent support as some colleagues may rightly be cautious of being too open with colleagues or leaders for fear of adverse repercussions.
James' Editor's note: as I read and reflected on Justina's piece above, there was one thing I just couldn't shake. Many of you won't know that Justina and I are colleagues: we started the same organisation at the exact same time, had the exact same induction training, and have the exact same job title, and it struck me that our experiences should have been so similar, but in many ways they have been so different. There are so many issues that Justina has grappled with on a daily basis that I, as a white male, have not even had to think about once. If you are white, and/or male, please take some time to reflect again on the privilege you have, to check your own prejudices, and to think how you can provide effective support for colleagues who are different to you.
James is the Headteacher at one of TLG's Education Centres. He is married with 2 young children aged 1 and 2. He began his teaching career as a primary school teacher in Stoke-on-Trent and has been at TLG since 2016