International Women’s Day is often a great chance to hear about women who are leading their field and doing amazing things – so I was delighted when University of East Anglia’s network for women, RESNET invited Baroness Doreen Lawrence to speak in conversation with Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge. Doreen Lawrence is the mother of the Stephen Lawrence, a British teenager who was murdered in a racist attack in South East London in 1993. She is a phenomenal women, who rose from her grief to campaign for justice for her son and others like him, and her campaigning led to an inquiry which concluded that the Metropolitan Police were ‘institutionally racist’. After the inquiry she continued to campaign for reform of the police service, and founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust which works to support young people to transform their lives, supports businesses to be more diverse and campaigns for fairness and justice.
The conversation opened with a comment on the title of her book, ‘And Still I Rise’. Baroness Lawrence was asked how she does continue to rise, and where she draws her strength from. She spoke of the importance and legitimacy of anger as a driver, but when asked about whether she ever just wants to express her rage she said that she didn’t feel it was in her character, and that is what puzzled the Metropolitan Police. She also spoke about her motivation not to let this happen again – the pursuit of the truth was not just for Stephen, but for everyone one like him, and every family like his.
Her advice to young women getting involved in politics was not to be afraid to ask questions – something that resonates with me hugely, especially when you feel like everyone else knows what they are talking about. She said that ultimately it was her perseverance in asking questions, in asking why noone had been brought to justice for killing her son, that kept the momentum in the campaign. When asked if she had hope, she said that if you don’t have hope, then nothing changes and nothing moves on, and her hope for the future was that we continue to move forward and we continue to challenge the world around us.
She was asked what she planned to do next. The Labour Candidate for Norwich South, Clive declared ‘The Mayor of London’ which received rapturous applause. Baroness Lawrence laughed but said that her focus would be on reforming the House of Lords and bringing about change through her position as Baroness of Clarendon.
“Have you ever felt like giving up?” “Do you have a breaking point?”. Her response was that though people call her strong, she doesn’t feel strong. She had days where she had to stay locked in her bedroom, and days where she couldn’t go out. She reminded us that this campaign had spanned over twenty years, and of course there were highs and lows. But ultimately, there was always something that picked you up again. This is enduring reminder to those of us who want to campaign for a fairer world – these things take time, and energy, and perseverance.
Doreen Lawrence was named as Britain’s most influential woman in the BBC Woman’s Hour power list 2014, and this brief hour with her clearly demonstrated why. Her commitment to justice, to supporting young people and to honouring Stephen’s name are incredible, and can be summarised by one of my favourite quotes of the event: ‘Someone once said to me that one person can’t change anything – so I told him my story.’