Professor Nelarine Cornelius, Professor of Organisation Studies
Professor Nelarine Cornelius is a Professor of Organisation Studies and Associate Dean for Academic Staff Development in the School of Business and Management. In her profile, she talks about her own family history and the importance of Black History Month for current and future generations.
How long have you worked at Queen Mary?
I’ve worked at Queen Mary for nearly 5 years. I was glad to come here because I’m a Londoner and was able to come back to work at a London-based university. My research that reflects what is important to me. I am a member of the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity (CRED). I’m really interested in the relationship between West Africa and the City of London especially the commercial ties between the City of London and West Africa including its darkest, most shameful moment: the transatlantic slave trade.
I was interested in coming to Queen Mary because of its history of social justice: Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry offered medicine to all and the People’s Palace offered education to all in an area that had, and still has, among the highest poverty levels in the UK.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month (BHM) is critical to not only for Black history but British History. For many years, the presence of black people in the history of Britain has been airbrushed or erased. Slowly, their contributions are being recognised, and BHM has an important role to play. For example, the bailout for the slave owners is the biggest that the British government has made: no reparations for the slaves, though. The contribution of black people has been consistently undervalued and this has particularly been highlighted by moments as diverse as the Windrush scandal and the important role of Black people during the first and second world wars.
There are so many black people who contributed to culture, history and society and their stories need to be heard. My own great uncle (Alexander Looby) was born in the West Indies and he went to the US when he was very young. He progressed through the American university system before heading to Tennessee to set up his own firm, became a civil rights lawyer and consequently, white racists dynamited his house was dynamited. He survived and pressed on. He helped set up laws to ensure the rights of black Americans, but literally bore the scars for his contribution: he was disabled for the rest of his life.
When my parents arrived in the UK by liner, they were offered all sorts of jobs as they travelled away from the ship in Southampton, and she became a social worker for difficult children. Many of those Caribbean migrants went into roles that have made huge contributions to the UK and, for the third and fourth generations, like me, we really need to be able to see that. If you are cut off from your history, you are cut off from an important part of your identity.
What has your involvement in Black History Month been here at Queen Mary?
I’m an Associate Dean for Staff Development and I keep eye on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff development and try and remove barriers to advancement. There are challenges and there is still a lot of work to be done. Historically, I’m interested in British colonial policy especially in West Africa and particularly the links between West Africa and Britain going back to Roman times and beyond. I am also researching the historical contributions of black community organisations in West Yorkshire. I have been involved in panel sessions on race and racism during BHM at Queen Mary, Addressing Race at Work.
Describe your average day/week
I don’t have an average week. As well as my work for Queen Mary, I’m the Vice Chair of British Academy of Management, and Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development relating to diversity and ethnicity are at the core of my work. I recently joined the British Library’s National Life Stories project trustee board, and my contribution will include encouraging the recording diverse oral histories for the project archive.
Do you work closely with any colleagues or teams? How does that work?
I work with colleagues in CRED in particular and with colleagues in University of Sindh in Pakistan, University of Lagos, and University of Paris Nanterre. This came about through research projects, and connections with my former doctoral students who are now academics.
What do you see as your role in helping Queen Mary University achieve its Strategy 2030?
The primary contribution is to make sure that we serve our BAME academic staff well, fairly, and consistently. I don’t think that is the case at the moment. The senior investigating police officer in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry said that it took BAME officers in his constabulary three times as long to move through the career pipeline: this is the case in many organisations. I want to identify the blockages and remove them.
Queen Mary seeks to be the most inclusive university in the world and if it wants to meet that agenda, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. We do well recruiting to under-represented student groups, it is a destination for many who are the first in their generation to go to university or are from poor families. We need to do everything we can to ensure they get the quality of degrees and careers they deserve too.
What’s your favourite place on any of our campuses?
The seventh floor of the graduate centre because the view of London is magnificent. I love the city I was born in and to be able to see that panoramic sweep is breathtaking.