Alumni profile - Mercy Muroki
In my role as Commissioner, I hope to be able to contribute to moving the dial on how we understand and tackle ethnic disparities. I believe Britain is the best place for people from ethnic minority groups, but I also believe we still have a lot of work to do until we tackle some of the unjustified socioeconomic disparities that still exist in society.
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? I chose to study at Queen Mary because I was impressed with the course and the location of the campus. One of my friends had also gone to Queen Mary the year before and recommended it.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable? What modules did you enjoy learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? I particularly enjoyed the British politics and philosophical elements of my course. I liked the fact that the range of courses on offer during the three years combined theory and practice in politics. I could go from learning about three-hundred-year-old philosophy in the morning, to discussing current UK government legislation in the afternoon.
I found the final year modules to be best, particularly the module in Public Policy, Global Ethics, and Parliamentary Studies. The Public Policy module piqued my interest in the discipline of social policy, which I ended up pursuing at postgraduate level. The Parliamentary studies module also allowed me to conduct my own primary research into a topic of my choice, which was good preparation for my dissertation project.
I also thoroughly enjoyed my dissertation project and received fantastic support throughout from my supervisor. The dissertation was the most challenging aspect of the course, but it was also the most fulfilling.
What did you write your dissertation about? My dissertation was primary research on the ethnic and gender diversity of London's local government. I created a database of the ethnicity and gender of all of London's local councillors and compared this to the population of each borough to establish how representative councillors were of the people they represented. I went on to present this original research at a major conference and later co-authored a paper with Professor Philip Cowley on political representation in London local government.
When did you first become interested in politics? I became interested in politics when I was a young girl because the news was always on the TV at home. As someone who emigrated to England from a much poorer nation as a child, I was fascinated growing up by how the government provided public services and support for people in need. The role of politicians in making people’s lives better (or worse!), and the role of the welfare state in lifting people out of poverty, really interested me. I decided I would pursue a career where I could engage directly with politics. Initially, I was interested in journalism, but I soon came to develop a passion for social policy and decided that I wanted to be in a role where I had direct influence on policymaking.
What was the political climate like whilst you were studying? Did you ever visit Parliament as part of your studies? The period in which I was studying politics, 2015-2018, was probably the most interesting time in recent history to be a politics student. In that three-year period, the country experienced: the first Conservative majority government of the century, the historic vote to leave the European Union, the second female Prime Minister in British history, a general election, as well as a London Mayoral election and local government elections. Studying politics in London with this backdrop was exciting! It was also fun to be able to visit Parliament during my third year Parliamentary Studies module to hear directly from Members of Parliament.
What were your early experiences like after graduating from Queen Mary? Did you find interesting work straight away or was it more of a journey? I got a job in early July, before I graduated, because I had made sure to develop my CV over the course of my studies. For example, I secured an (unpaid) 3-month internship for a charity at the end of my first year – I found this role on Queen Mary’s careers board. During my second year, I worked for the Mile End Institute (a policy centre based at Queen Mary) to host political figures for guest lectures. During my final year, I was also offered an (unpaid) role with the Constitution Unit at University College London and was hired as a (paid) A-Level Tutor for a Secondary School (a job I secured through the University). On top of this, I got involved with extra-curricular activities, such as serving as President of the Politics and International Relations Society and working as an Editor for a student-run academic journal based at the politics Department. I therefore managed to secure a job very quickly working as a Research Assistant for a public health charity. I stayed there for fourteen months before I left to begin my master's degree at the University of Oxford.
Can you describe what you do and what a typical working day looks like for you? My primary role is working as a Senior Researcher for the Centre for Social Justice, a renowned and influential think tank. My typical day involves researching and writing up policy papers, with recommendations for the government. As a Senior Researcher, I have had a lot of autonomy over the research I do – unlike my previous roles as a Research Assistant – and so I enjoy being able to direct my own work. I also have a secondary role as a Commissioner on the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. A typical working day for this role involves (lots of) meetings with a range of business and political figures, government officials, academics, and other professionals. My role, along with the other Commissioners, is to help set the strategic direction of the Commission’s work.
Over the last year or so, I have also been a columnist and political commentator. I was writing columns for The Times RedBox, and have regularly made appearances on various media outlets such as Sky News and BBC Radio.
You were recently appointed to the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Can you talk about what this will involve and what you hope to achieve within this role? The purpose of the Commission is to review race and ethnic inequalities in the UK in a number of policy areas. The Commission will set out to understand why disparities exist and to set a new positive agenda for change. The Commission hopes to submit its findings to the Prime Minister by the end of the year.
In my role as Commissioner, I hope to be able to contribute to moving the dial on how we understand and tackle ethnic disparities. I believe Britain is the best place for people from ethnic minority groups, but I also believe we still have a lot of work to do until we tackle some of the unjustified socioeconomic disparities that still exist in society. It is not an easy task but I hope my work with the Commission will contribute to making the right steps in the right direction.
In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues faced by Black communities and what do you think needs to be done to break the cycle of oppression and discrimination faced by Black people? The data shows that some Black groups, such as Black Caribbean people, can have poorer outcomes in areas such as education and the labour market. However, African students have higher attainment than white pupils at GCSE and are getting into university at higher proportions than white students. This is despite the majority of Africans being first generation immigrants and being more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status. Black people, just like people of any other community, can do exceptionally well in this country - particularly with a strong culture of hard work and strong families. It's up to us to support people who feel marginalised and forgotten in seizing the opportunities this country has to offer.
What does Black History Month mean to you? I believe that Black History Month should not have to exist. The contribution of people of all ethnicities should be acknowledged and appreciated as part of British culture all year round. My hope for the future is for Black achievement to be seen as a normal part of everyday life and that more people learn about Black figures in contexts other than slavery and colonialism.
During your degree, were there any modules that allowed you to explore areas of your heritage? If yes, how important was it to you to learn about areas of your own cultural history? If no, do you think this was a missed opportunity? There were opportunities for students to do political research relating to other countries and cultures. For me, I didn't need the curriculum in order to give me a sense of cultural identity so the inclusion of modules that explored my heritage was not important for my learning experience. However, I understand that some people can feel excluded if parts of their history are absent from the curriculum. One of Queen Mary University's strengths is the cultural diversity of students. I think it's unfair to expect the curriculum to cater to everyone's cultural background. However, I think giving students lots of opportunities to do their own independent research on topics of their choice can support them if they wish to explore their heritage in more detail.
How did you get into journalism? I had always been keen on writing and at one point wanted to be a political journalist. However, I had always been quite shy when it came to letting people read my writing. One day, I decided to write an article about something that was happening in politics that I felt strongly about. I showed it to one of my professors and he thought it was a really good piece. He encouraged me to send it to an editor at a newspaper and they liked it too. They published the piece shortly after. It received such good feedback that I was asked to write regularly for the paper. In turn, I got other media requests, and then others, and so on…
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help you get into your career? My time at Queen Mary was a major factor in helping me get into my career. This is for two reasons: because of the opportunities I got whilst I was there; and because of the hard work I put in. These two things worked together to allow me to get the most out of my university experience.
I came to Queen Mary as a single parent and I knew early on that time management would be crucial since I would be balancing childcare and studying. Luckily, the university had a fantastic nursery on campus which opened for 9 hours a day. I used those 9 hours a day as wisely as possible by doing a day-by-day studying plan every week.
A major inspiration for pursuing my career came in the form of my dissertation supervisor, who provided invaluable academic feedback and career advice. The department had two of the best British politics professors. Their advice and guidance was second to none and ultimately gave me the added enthusiasm to enter into the world of British politics.
What is the most exciting thing about what you do? The most exciting thing about what I do is that I work with organisations and individuals who are passionate about creating policies which make people’s lives better. The Centre for Social Justice is an exceptional think tank which cares strongly about improving the lives of the most disadvantaged and whose policy recommendations are very often taken up by the government. The Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission is also playing an important role in improving race relations and tackling inequalities. I feel very proud to be involved in both of these organisations.
Can you talk about a more challenging aspect of your role and how this has helped with your development? One challenging aspect being involved in roles that are associated with one side of the political spectrum has been contending with negative commentary from opponents, which can sometimes get nasty and personal in politics. Opposition is always inevitable in politics, but the current climate means debates and conversation can get very heated and divisive, especially on social media. I have learnt that it’s always best to try to put facts over feelings. Also, I’ve learnt that you get much further when you listen carefully and try to understand the reasons people disagree with you. This has allowed me to challenge my own beliefs and try to find common ground with others.
What are some of your favourite memories of your time at Queen Mary? Some of my favourite memories at Queen Mary were the social and political events. Going to events was a great way to meet people from walks of life I otherwise would not have come across, and to socialise with students and staff. Seeing mine and my friends’ hard work pay off after three years during the graduation ceremony was also a memory I will treasure forever.
What are your hopes or plans for your career going forwards? My future career goals are to continue working in the world of policymaking and to be someone young people can look up to. I would also like to continue contributing my thoughts and opinions on politics, culture, and society through the media.
What would your advice be to students applying to study Politics at Queen Mary? How can they make the most of their experience? If I could give prospective students some key pieces of advice they would be: firstly, treat studying like a full-time job. You will always feel like you are playing catch-up unless you get on top of the work by religiously planning and sticking to your study routine. Secondly, read, read, read. Many of my peers got into the habit of doing as little reading as they could get away with, and this was reflected in the grades they came out with. Ensuring I did all the required reading plus as much reading as possible for assignments allowed me to get into a habit of writing academically, and also gave me a wealth of knowledge I would otherwise have missed. Thirdly, make use of your tutors and supervisors. Many students did not have much personal contact time with their tutors or supervisors. Making sure I always spoke to my tutors about my work, and got as much feedback as possible, allowed me to fix my mistakes and keep honing my skills. Fourthly (and this is the most important one as far as careers are concerned), get as much extracurricular experience under your belt as possible! There are always opportunities to be found, both within the university and outside it, especially on the university’s careers board. Getting experience (even if they are voluntary roles) will make you stand out for prospective employers.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Mercy or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at email@example.com.