Denise Stephenson's article

The link between social inequality and social mobility


by Denise Stephenson



I have lived experience of social inequality and saw firsthand how this can hinder social mobility. My parents are Jamaican and came to the UK when they were very young. They met, had 4 children and settled in a Council flat in North West London where my mum lived for 32 years.

We were poor. My mum worked in a factory, my dad a bus driver.  They worked hard, but they were immigrants who came to the UK at a time where good housing and jobs were difficult to come by if your skin wasn’t white and your accent wasn’t English.  I grew up knowing what it was like not to have any money in the house, seeing my parents worry about how they were going to feed the kids, pay the electricity and the gas to heat our home in winter. I know what it’s like to go without. I also know what it is like to dream about what it would be like to have a house, a garden, a better life for my family... and I came to know that in order to do these things I was going to need a fair degree of luck, hard work, determination and people who could help me along the way. 

 

When I was 14 I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer, after a life changing experience with a black barrister who visited my school to tell my class his own story of success. In my mind all lawyers were posh white men, but here for the very first time I saw a real life representation of what I could become. I was fortunate to have a head teacher at school who believed in my capabilities, after sharing my dream with him he confirmed he would help me. Most of my class teachers told me it would be too hard and advised me that I would be more suited to becoming a social worker or nursery teacher.  I now know that this kind of advice was commonly given to and dissuaded most BAME students and those from lower income backgrounds. I was not prepared to give up on my dream and with every ‘You can’t’ I heard, I silently countered with ‘Watch Me’.

 

Throughout my journey through law I countered all types of racism and prejudice. There were people who acted as barriers to my progression, not because I was not capable, but rather because my ‘face did not fit’. I was a young black woman, from a working class background, who had attended comprehensive school and then had done her law degree at an old Polytechnic!

After 10 difficult years, I qualified as a lawyer in June 1999. I was made partner at my law firm in 2009, the first black partner in the firm’s near 200 year history  (I left the firm in 2019 after 14 years). I currently work as the Senior Planning Legal Adviser within Royal Mail’s Legal and Compliance Group.

 

There are recent studies which have shown that being born in a higher socio-economic class means you are likely to remain in that class, but being born disadvantaged means that you have to overcome seemingly impossible barriers in order to fight your way out of the poverty cycle.  When you grow up in a house full of professionals you are practically groomed to know that you will (more often than not) end up in a professional job.  Parents are able to buy houses in areas with “good” schools or send their children to private school where they learn all the skills (academic and soft) required to negotiate their way through university and eventually to get through the graduate “milk round”. Being able to navigate through social etiquettes and conversations, being able to adapt to the cultural differences in higher education and then employment are tools that are not often gifted to young people in lower socio-economic backgrounds.

 

I started my charity Reach Out 2 Kids (ROK) in 2011 as a way to overcome barriers to entry to higher education and employment for children and young people from BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds. We believe that young people who struggle not only with securing good educational grades, but may be caring for younger siblings whilst their parents are out at work, be the main carer for their parents, may be worried about when next they are going to eat, should be afforded the same access to opportunity as others who do not have these struggles. In order to source the amazingly talented, clever, dynamic young people within these social demographics, industries need to reach out and change their methods of recruiting. 

 

We are at a turning point. In the context of Covid-19 and the black lives matter movement it is a perfect time to effect lasting change. Let's think about what we can do to improve the lives of these young people. Let's reflect on our historic recruitment practices. Who have you been employing? Are they prototypes of your existing workforce? Do they truly reflect the societies you serve? Are you getting a more diverse point of view? Do you have the best people for the job? If you have not cast your net wide enough, how would you know?

 

Let’s try to change social inequalities and improve social mobility in our own ways. Surely that’s for the good of all of us?

 

Denise is an experienced Senior Planning Lawyer currently working at Royal Mail Group Legal and Compliance, as their sole Planning Lawyer in the UK.


She was previously a Partner at the City London firm, Sharpe Pritchard and was the first black partner in close to 200 years of the firm’s existence.


Denise is the founder and CEO of her charity Reach Out 2 Kids (ROK), which she founded in 2011 to address discrimination, inequality and denial of opportunity for BAME and socially disadvantaged young people and children. 


She is the co-founder of Emancipated Run Crew (ERC), which provides a safe space for and showcases black runners.


Finally, Denise is a co-host of The Start Line podcast with her sisters Jules and Petrina, providing a voice for black females, runners and a space for the black experience.


In 2018 Denise was nominated by BAME 2020 as Trailblazer for the Future for her work with her charity

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