Adwoa Owusu-Akyem recently graduated in law from LSE. She has been listed among the top 100 black graduates of the UK in the Future Leaders magazine 2011-12. In this interview, Adwoa expresses her scepticism about devoting only one month to celebrating black history, tells us what her time at LSE was like and talks about why she has chosen to become an ‘amazing barrister’.
How did you feel when you first heard that you had been nominated among the top 100 black graduates of the country?
It was a bit odd because the way I heard about it first was from my tutor. She submitted a nomination form for me. Then I received another form from the committee, I had an exam so I forgot about it. Next they called me for an interview. I was quite nervous but the interview went very well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the ceremony because I was ill.
How did you choose to come to LSE?
I came to LSE because, quite frankly, LSE is number one for Law. Before I came here, I had been to a few other universities – Queen Mary and King’s College among them. And I know about the LSE King’s rivalry, but really when I went to King’s I just didn’t feel like I liked it whereas when I came to LSE, it felt really comfortable. LSE also had a Penguin statue! I really enjoyed my time here.
Were you involved in extra-curricular activities?
In my first year, I was events officer for the African-Caribbean society which was really fun. In second year, I did this thing called EPIC, it’s an entrepreneurial international competition. I was in the committee for it. We set up an Apprentice style competition and had students from all over the world participating in it – there were teams from Netherlands, Singapore, Argentina, Chicago, India. It was a great experience.
What’s your best memory of being at LSE?
There are certain things you get if only you have been to LSE. Once there was a protest about something near the Royal Courts of Justice. I was in computer room C120 at that time. People came in and said, come on, we’ve got to mobilise, let’s join the protest. And someone got up and said, “Sorry, I’ve got a class in 20 minutes”. It’s this juxtaposition that I like and find funny at LSE – some people are ready to change the world all the time while others just want the room to be quiet.
Where does your family come from?
Originally my family is from Ghana. I was born in Ghana and came to the UK when I was 4, so my memory of it is not very vivid.
Has your family’s Ghanaian history had much of an influence on you?
I know a lot about Ghanaian history and a lot African history in general and I didn’t do a degree in history. I think it’s a shame that we only get to do South American history, African history or Asian history outside of the World Wars only when we get to degree level. I did history for GCSEs and A levels and was stuck in Europe.
Do you believe in celebrating the term ‘black’?
I don’t know if I would say I celebrate the term. I think I am a good graduate who happens to be black rather than a black graduate. I have strong feelings, not about my colour, but about my culture. Colour is just what you’ve got, so I prefer to emphasise on the culture that you are associated with and that you grew up in.
What are your thoughts about celebration of Black History Month then?
I think it’s important in the sense that it doesn’t really get heard. I always thought it odd that we set out a month to talk about all the black people. The month really is irrelevant. What I do like about BHM though is the events organised to increase awareness about black history rather than just looking at black people.
How do you think you could promote it in a better way?
You could do something as radical as change the fact that it’s not taught in schools. Britain had a huge empire and had monopoly over a significant portion of Africa. Yet, we did slavery only a little bit in school. Even if there are small options within courses instead of having a month dedicated to black history, it would make more sense.
I mean when it’s BHM, there are pictures of Martin Luther King all over in schools. But it’s like this really sad carnival that gets swayed away. As a beginning, I can understand the importance of taking the time to consider this issue. But it’s like trying to pack into one month what should be spread within GCSEs or A levels. And then you always get a very skewed picture. I think it’s quite awkward that you always get Black American history. So you have Black UK students who know tonnes about Martin Luther King, Booker Washington, Obama but don’t know anything about UK Black history.
We heard that you have been working with the Debate Mate Scheme. What is the scheme about?
Debate Mate is a nationwide debating scheme which involves training university students to teach school kids how to debate. The schools kids then debate with other schools within their own boroughs. Through this, school kids learn requisite confidence skills, public speaking and how to structure arguments. Kids love the competitive aspect of this. It’s an amazing programme, there’s an emphasis on inner city schools. London Evening Standard recently ran a story entitled ‘The boy who refused to riot’ – it was one of the kids who was in the Debate Mate Scheme. He used to be in gangs but then he joined this and started debating. If even one kid learns, it’s time well spent.
What are your plans for the future?
The plan is to become an excellent barrister and it’s not the conventional route. People at LSE don’t often choose to become barristers. The master plan is that I get a pupillage, become an amazing barrister, get married – all that jazz but eventually I want to teach.
Do you think, as a black woman barrister, you would have a special status given that there aren’t many black and female barristers?
I think the bar is white male dominated perhaps because of issues with access to education. It is a shame that it is, at least seemingly, inaccessible for a lot of people, especially ethnic minorities. What I do like about the bar is that even though it’s hard work, if you’re a good barrister, you are a good barrister irrespective of your gender and ethnicity. If being a black barrister means I’ll be able to get along better with my black clients, then fine. You are what you are. If being black helps me and helps break down barriers, then I’m all for it.
Adwoa Owusu-Akyem was born in Ghana and came to the UK at a very young age. She went through high school gaining 3As at A-Level in History, Politics and Classical Civilisation. Adwoa then went on to study law at the LSE and is currently studying the BPTC at BPP Law School. Adwoa also plays the guitar has been part of international entrepreneurial competition. She has mentored and taught debating and English to high school children. Adwoa’s aspirations are to become a barrister and to eventually teach.