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By Herminia Ibarra
‘I was raised in Kingston, Jamaica, in an environment that gave me a strong social conscience. My parents are Rastafarians. They taught me to always question the system and how it operated. They encouraged me to analyse discrimination, to call it out for what it was.
My first experience of discrimination happened early in life. There are aspects of Rastafari culture that are quite patriarchal: as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers. I was outgoing, rambunctious, and wanted to run around with my brothers. In my teenage years, I wanted to test fashion, but wearing trousers was out of the question. It made me realise my position in the world. When I wore trousers for the first time – age 15 – it was a complete rebellion.
As the eldest, with four younger brothers I was second in charge when my parents weren’t around. I was given additional responsibilities from an early age, so I learnt, as part of my socialisation, to distinguish when it was time to play and when to be responsible. Later, I rebelled, and did things behind my parents’ back, as teenagers will do.
Academically, high school wasn’t an exciting experience for me. I was bright as a lamp, but unchallenged. My mother knew I needed more than what the school system offered, so she provided it at home. She made sure I had the confidence I needed, but it backfired. If you teach children about positive self-image, freedom of expression, the first place they decide to rebel is at home.
My mother worked at the University of the West Indies. She started out in urban planning and social work, and by the time she retired, she was an administrator. My father migrated to the US and became an educator in the middle school system in New Mexico. Both were avid readers. Very early, I was introduced to Black authors: Chinua Achebe, Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney, Erna Brodber, Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon. My parents provided me with an alternative curriculum. As far as they were concerned, the one I received at school wasn’t Black enough, so they gave me a deeper, alternative education.
I loved literature and history. With languages, I was more interested in the etymology of the word – why do we say ‘West Indies’ instead of ‘Caribbean’? I questioned the assumption that we understand the language that we’re speaking. A lot of the time, we just learn it.
My aunt, Judith Wedderburn supported the People’s National Party in Jamaica and she is a well-known women’s rights activist and gender development specialist in the Caribbean – quite a stalwart – so it runs in the family. My cousins and I, in the late 1970s, would attend political meetings. I still remember the songs. I didn’t take it seriously at the time, I was more interested in who liked who than the political environment. But things did stick, songs like, “Forward march against imperialism”.
Because high school wasn’t exciting, my grades weren’t good. I wasn’t doing well enough to have any input in my own future. My mother sent me on a student exchange programme in Maracaibo, Venezuela, to finish high school. I was thrown into a school system, in a language I knew nothing about. She must have known, in her parenting brain, that this child needed to be challenged in order to learn – and it worked.
I did really well. I returned and went to a community college in Jamaica and did my A-levels. From there, I went to university. By most standards it was quite late, as I was 22, but I didn’t go until I was ready. By the time I went to the University of West Indies for my undergraduate degree, I was ready to learn. I passed with flying colours. It was at that point in my life that I got more involved in activism.
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“My mentor would say, ‘Go out into the world and don’t be afraid, you have a right to be here.’ Now I repeat it”
I’d like to think I’ve made a difference to other women’s lives. I’ve been involved in women’s rights organisations in Jamaica, Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean. I’ve mentored several women who’ve gone on to do very well. They’re shining, taking up space in the world.
Louis Lindsay, an academic at the University of the West Indies, was one of my mentors. He would say, ‘Go out into the world and don’t be afraid, you have a right to be here.’ He’d say it all the time, and now I repeat it.
It was very validating when I applied for and won the Women in Leadership (WIL) scholarship at LBS. I knew the competition was fierce, from other equally talented and qualified women. I certainly think women in leadership programmes are essential: women make up half the population, but when we look at leadership roles in any country, the figures are less than 30%. It’s important to provide women the space to have those opportunities, such as the one I was given at LBS.
Everything I learned on the WIL programme has impacted my return to work. It informs my strategic planning process and has given me a lens to look at inclusion and diversity at the University of the West Indies. It’s something we could take for granted in the Caribbean, as we’re not ethnic minorities. But there are other issues to do with diversity and inclusion that are important – disabled and LGBTQ+ people, for example, where there is room for improvement.
“The tools provided in the WIL programme were very practical. You can’t always wear systems on your shoulders, you have to get the job done”
I’d recommend others attend the WIL programme. Especially the range of women and types of industries we came from. All of us were leaders, movers and shakers. There was such inspiration, strength and resilience in the room. But we’d overcome similar obstacles. The programme demonstrates a strength in leadership that women almost always have. You really see it a lot more when women are together. It’s like magic.
The tools that were provided in the WIL programme were very practical. You can’t always wear systems on your shoulders, you have to get the job done. The programme also helped us understand the difference between having a job and developing a career. It was important to see growing in leadership as part of our career trajectories. Because I was able to learn those tools in an environment with other women leaders, it made the experience more rewarding.
Sponsorship is an essential part of the WIL programme. My immediate boss, Cecile Minnot, was my sponsor. She’s an executive leader, so her plate is extremely full, yet she was supportive from the beginning. The WIL programme at LBS has undoubtedly been the launchpad for bigger and better things. I applied to the programme for personal and professional reasons. I left having developed a keen interest in leadership as a discipline. I wasn’t thinking about it that way before. It opened up a new area of interest for me, beyond what I’d initially envisioned.
“We can come up with policies every year, but implementation is what matters!”
In 10 years, maybe less, I hope to be in an executive leadership position that has a significant amount of impact on inclusion and equality policy – but to me it's more than policy, it’s about impact and implementation. We can come up with policies every year, but implementation is what matters. That’s where the real difference to people’s lives is made.