Today the University of Sussex awards an honorary doctorate to actor and activist Baroness Lola Young. The following are the words of Professor Andrea Cornwall, Head of Sussex’s School of Global Studies.
Baroness Lola Young began her career as a stage and television actress. She then went into academia, rising rapidly to become Professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University. From there she became involved in arts development, promoting black arts and culture, directing the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage project, and as a member of the Boards of several national cultural organisations including the South Bank Centre, the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and the National Archives and is currently a trustee of Somerset House. She has advised many public bodies on diversity and representation, including the BBC and the Arts Council. Baroness Young served as Head of Culture in the Greater London Authority from 2001-2004, and was awarded an OBE in 2001.
A member of the House of Lords since 2004, Baroness Young is an Independent Cross Bench peer and has been involved in campaigns criminalising and combating modern forms of enslavement and improving the experiences of children in care. As an ambassador for the Ethical Fashion Forum and MADE-BY, Baroness Young established, and chairs, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion. Baroness Young is also chair of the Task Group producing recommendations and guidelines as part of The Young Review: Improving Outcomes for Young Black and Muslim Offenders, and served as a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
In addition to these achievements, Baroness Young has made significant contributions to addressing a major global issue of concern to students and researchers in Sussex’s School of Global Studies, that of labour ethics in global supply chains. Our interest in global labour standards is reflected in a number of activities in the School, including our new MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy, the activities of our Centre for Global Political Economy and the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, as well as in undergraduate study of topics such as corporate social responsibility. Linking workers’ rights and the ethics of fashion, Baroness Young has done much to advocate for change. I’d imagine in this hot weather many of us are wearing cotton. Baroness Young’s words in a speech in the Lords are a reminder of what’s at stake:
There are many people who would not wish to wear garments made from cotton harvested by children forced to work in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan instead of attending school—I should declare an interest here as a patron of Anti-Slavery International, which has worked ceaselessly to try to persuade Governments and the EU to work harder to stop this practice—but it is impossible to know the source of your shirt, skirt or trousers. Yet some of our largest fashion retailers will not undertake to demand that the companies in their supply chain stop using cotton gathered by state-sponsored forced labour.
It is this that Baroness Young’s championing of Transparency In Supply Chains seeks to address, through a Private Member’s Bill that has just received its second reading in the Lords and which seeks to add government and public authorities to those held to account by the Modern Slavery Act of 2015.
Silk spinners, Assam, India (Getty Images)
Baroness Young was also a passionate advocate of the right of young people aged 16 and 17 to vote in the recent European referendum. As she has said:
Young people will challenge our habits, thinking and actions, as well as our judgment of what is right for the country and what is wrong. That is their job.
In the School of Global Studies, we are proud of our students’ critical questioning of the status quo, whether of truths we might otherwise take for granted or the way our institutions work. This generation of students—one that is more diverse than ever before in our history as a University—is bringing into question the extent to which our curricula challenge or maintain systems of knowledge and perspectives on what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts that reproduce colonial ways of seeing and doing. We’re committed to answering this challenge, building on a heritage in Post-Colonial and Cultural Studies to which Baroness Young has contributed as an academic and the values that make Sussex University so distinctive.
Baroness Young, your contributions to promoting diversity in public institutions and to marking and archiving the cultural history of black Britain, your efforts to humanise our penal and care institutions, your work in the Lords and with organisations like Anti-Slavery International in bringing an ethical approach to a global industry that is better known for its appalling labour standards than its transparency and equity, all of this and much else besides makes you an inspiring role model for us all.
It gives me much delight to present to you, Chancellor, for the degree of Doctor of the University, honoris causa, Baroness Lola Young.
Andrea Cornwall is a political anthropologist who specialises in the anthropology of democracy, citizen participation, participatory research, gender and sexuality, and is the Head of the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex.