Picture shows Kendi Guantai smiling with the words 'My Career, My Way'

Nodding Lizards, Flowing Streams, and My Journey Back to Self

100bwpn career career progression Mar 27, 2024

Before I joined the first cohort of the 100 Black Women Professors Now Programme (BWPN) in 2021, I was on my way out of the academy. My career, like those of many other Black women in Higher education, had stalled. I had become disillusioned with this path that I had chosen for myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching and my modules were doing exceptionally well. But despite my best efforts, I remained in my position as Senior Teaching Fellow from 2012 to 2021, struggling to progress to the next level. During that time, I came to know what activist Tamika D. Mallory meant in saying ‘when you operate in your gift, you don’t have to be at the head of the table, for, wherever you sit or stand, the table will shift’. So, not content with this stagnation, I chose to operate in my gift, going where I was needed, where I could make a difference.

I stepped out of the academy, finding kindred spirits along the way, as I unlocked the joy of collaborative working, reciprocal learning, healing justice and collective liberation. Together with a group of friends, we formed the Leeds African Communities Trust (LACT), a multi-award-winning charity for which I was the inaugural Chair. Through LACT, we started the first multi-ethnic food hub in Leeds during the pandemic and were instrumental in coordinating the food distribution efforts and COVID-19 public information services offered by the Leeds City Council. I went on to volunteer for various Boards in both the private and 3rd sectors. In the latter, I chaired Leeds ACTS (Academic Collaboration with the Third Sector), which was a collaborative steering group, bringing together the three universities in Leeds, together with the City Council and 3rd sector organisations to identify local societal challenges and address them through research, policy and practice.

I also chaired the Board of Action Aid, an international charity that works with women and girls to uphold their rights, conduct research and influence policy, whilst centering women and girls in their emergency, disaster and humanitarian response. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and remain a strong advocate for the charity. Soon, awards and recognitions started to come my way, but the distressing thing was that as I thrived in these roles, I was barely surviving in my academic role. The lure of going back to industry was getting stronger, particularly as I reconnected with practitioners through my role as the EMENA[i] Chair of the International Association for Business Communicators (IABC).

Then BWPN came my way, and awakened me to the institutional racism in the sector, and the many ways in which women like myself were held back from progressing in their careers, through no fault of their own. I met many women who echoed my lived experience in academia, and for the first time, I heard the words ‘Black women don’t need fixing. The system does!’

So, a few weeks ago, I found myself walking through the departure lounge of Murtala Muhammed airport in Lagos Nigeria, when the beautiful inscriptions of three West African proverbs, painted on the walls of the walkway caught my attention. You see, I like proverbs, particularly African proverbs. I often draw guidance and inspiration from them, tapping into the wisdom of old, which remains remarkably relevant to contemporary living.

They read:

“However far a stream flows, it doesn’t forget its origin.”

“Just because the lizard nods his head, doesn’t mean he’s in agreement.”

“In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, and the foolish build dams.”

Whilst I am still unravelling and living the truth of the 2nd and 3rd proverbs, it is the first one that sent me on a journey down memory lane, as I pondered my life and career journey in the UK.

I am a first-generation migrant, having moved to Leeds as a postgraduate student in 2005. At the time, I had no sense of how living in the UK would shape my identity as a Black woman of African descent. When I landed on these shores, I had no idea that I would have to embark on an odyssey, firstly by confronting my ascribed identity as Black, and then reclaiming and embracing it as my own.

At first, I lived in denial of the daily racial micro-stressors and micro-aggressions, those “subtle, innocuous, preconscious or unconscious degradations and putdowns” (Pierce, 1995). I was also almost completely blind to structural racism and was even less conscious of how this would inform my career trajectory. In fact, I sought to assimilate in every way that I could, and at one time, I even considered taking elocution classes to ‘polish’ my accent!

This might sound strange, but growing up in a former British colony, I had received a very neo-colonial education, in which Britishness was positioned as the highest standard of human civilisation and the more Mzungu[ii] you were, the higher the regard in which you were held. To be Mzungu was synonymous to being the best sort of human, possessing grace, decorum, and the highest levels of intellect. To be African, was to be less than – to be other. It was a condition to be escaped from.

Thankfully, my parents took it upon themselves to complement my formal ‘western’ education with indigenous knowledge upon which my brother and myself developed our sense of self. Long nights were spent sitting around the fire with our grandmother and many cousins, indulging our curiosity as she shared stories about our cultural heritage. I am eternally grateful for this foundation, because in the end, it led me back to who I am.

This remembering has served me well, and working with BWPN gave me the tools to guide me through the clutter of institutional racism, everyday micro stressors, and chronic contextual stress. I worked with an amazing career coach, mentors and institutional sponsors, all of whom helped me to open doors that were previously shut to me. Thankfully, they also had the good sense to step aside, allowing me to take up space authentically, so much so that the African philosophy of Ubuntu[iii] has become the panacea for my work.

In the end, I realise that social and knowledge equity are two of the areas where people like me have a deficit. Through BWPN, I was able to change that, and eventually got my promotion and stepped into my current role as the university Dean for Equity Diversity and Inclusion. In this role, I am challenged every day, to honour the multiplicity and intersectionality of personhood that is our shared humanity. I have found others who, like me, embrace and live the African philosophy of Ubuntu.

I wait to see the surprises and happy coincidences that will continue to colour my career. In this, I leave you with one last African proverb: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven't spent a night with a mosquito!”


[i] Europe, Middle East and North Africa

[ii] Swahili for White person or European

[iii] Ubuntu is a way of being with each other that honours the interconnectedness of all beings, informing the relational nature of what it means to be human.

About the author:

Dr Kendi Guantai is the University of Leeds Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and an Associate Professor of Corporate Communications. She is responsible for delivering on key aspects of the University of Leeds EDI strategy as well as spearheading research on Decoloniality. This is in addition to developing and embedding decolonial praxis as part of the student Access and Success strategy. She is a prestigious Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) Fellow, researching authentic self-expression and ‘Sense of Belonging’ in relation to students classed and racialised lived experiences, and also a sought-after international key-note speaker, often running workshops on EDI, Decoloniality and Anti-Racism in Higher Education and Beyond. You can connect with Kendi via LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/in/kendiguantai/