The importance of role models for young black people

Black role models play a vital role in inspiring young men, and Black boys in particular.

According to a 2009 report on the impact of Black role models for the then-Department for Communities and Local Government, Black role models who succeed materially were seen as positive role models by Black boys and young men.

But their influence was found to be greater on Black boys. The report suggests that this was because they were still in their formative years; in other words, the earlier young Black people have access to positive role models, the greater the effect.

And it’s clear from the testimony of some prominent Black figures just how strong this effect can be.

The Impact of Role Models on Prominent Black Figures

‌For cricket fan and Acas Diversity and Inclusion Partner, Talal Hassan, his role model was the legendary West Indies batsman Viv Richards. He ‘proved that talent, hard work and self-belief’ can bring success. When asked why role models were important, Hasan replied that they show that ‘the glass ceiling can be shattered’.

Sir Viv Richards KNH KCN OBE OOC

Similarly, Mara-Tafadzwa Makoni, a spokeswoman for the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, said the lack of role models was fundamental to this underrepresentation:

‘There are too few women to act as champions and mentors to younger women’.

Mara-Tafadzwa Makoni

The STEM Education Journal agreed when it concluded that feeling ‘a greater sense of belonging in STEM can have a positive impact on academic achievement and retention in STEM, particularly for women and students of colour.’

And at Lloyds Bank, Roland Guy, Co-Chair Ethnicity Network and Race Action Plan Lead, had been told by his parents that he needed to work twice as hard as white children to succeed. He describes how he felt when he himself was appointed as a black role model: “For me personally, I can’t put it into words! It isn’t just a list; it is an opportunity to support the Black community in a positive way.”

Roland’s own role models included:

  • The athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936
  • The superhero Black Panther (as portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman)
  • President Barack Obama
  • And, more personally, his cousin Rochelle, an inspirational young woman who died of breast cancer

Strong role models can inspire and empower young Black children to break boundaries and achieve success. And it’s clear from the economic data that this is badly needed.

The Statistics Make the Problem Clear

Figures from the tech sector illustrate a profound gap between the potential Black people hold and their economic reality.

Black women are grossly underrepresented in STEM, with fewer than 2% of female engineering professionals coming from BAME groups. And in London, only 3% of technology workers are Black.

That’s not just unfair and unrepresentative; it also has a knock-on effect on productivity and the economy.

Mark Martin, founder of UKBlackTech, sees an opportunity to utilise BAME talent to bridge the skills gap:

‘We have a great opportunity to make the UK the most innovative place in the world, but we need to ensure that the tech industry – its products, services and organisations – reflect us all.’

Mark Martin

The lack of positive role models means young Black people don’t see what they can become; that opportunity is open for them, and that they can succeed at whatever profession they choose to go into.

That’s why developing and reinforcing strong Black role models is essential. Not only to increase diversity and productivity in the UK economy, but also to create a more equitable society.

Summary

The 2009 report above includes an important caveat in its findings. It suggests that positive role models can have a negative effect if they encourage young Black people to compare their own circumstances negatively with the achievements and status of the role model.

The report concluded that it is important to emphasise how role models can help to counter this negative reinforcement rather than deepen it. Interestingly, any positive effects of the role models wore off within four weeks. Which suggests that a more sustained effect can only be gained through constant reinforcement of the original message.

It’s clear, then, that the process of inspiring young Black people with strong role models needs to be done carefully and comprehensively. Multiple role models need to engage with young Black people on an ongoing basis to sustain progress and encourage them to persist when they encounter racism or suffer setbacks in their personal and professional lives.

In schools, Black pupils often lack clear role models in the form of Black teachers and Black headteachers. And this lack of inspirational figures in the state sector, especially those from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background, disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged sectors of society.

However, some work is being done to address this gap. The broadcaster and journalist Robert Peston founded Speakers for Schools because, in his words, he was:

‘infuriated that only the leading independent schools were asking me to give talks to their students, rather than the kind of state school which gave me such a great and rounded education in the 1970s.’

Robert peston

Like Viv Richards demonstrating to Talal Hassan that glass ceilings can be shattered, role models are essential if we are to create more diverse workplaces and institutions. And if we are to empower young Black people to make a contribution to themselves, to their communities, and to society as a whole.

Join Our Role Model Programme

In 2022, Genesis Sun will be doing our part to inspire young Black people, bringing inspirational speakers to state schools across the country. Each month, young people will get to hear from leaders from a wide range of industries, helping them understand the potential they hold and the opportunities they may not have realised are open to them.

Parents

If you’d like to register your child for our programme, you can do so here.

Schools

If you’re a school interested in getting in touch with us to join our programme, please contact us here.

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