Ethnic Minority Women Leaders: Susan Belgrave

I was born in London but my family returned to Barbados in 1966 arriving just a week before Independence and I grew up there before attending university in the UK and initially returning to Barbados to work in the Foreign Service. I realised that I did not like the bureaucracy involved in working in the civil service and being a lawyer offered a chance for independence and an ability to affect the outcome in any particular situation. As a junior civil servant sometimes it seemed that you achieved very little that was meaningful.

When I first started practising at the Bar, there weren’t many Black lawyers and it seemed a struggle to get into good chambers and establish a practice. I came to the Bar in London having studied for my law degree in the Caribbean and not really having any contacts or friends in the legal profession here. I think back then many people did not think you were up to the job and would prefer a man, usually a white man. I was the sole breadwinner at the time and so I threw myself into this, I was lucky just having spent some time in Brussels and having a masters in European law which gave me a bit of a competitive advantage in the 90s when EU law was very new. Like everyone else, I had to win my cases, gain the trust of my clerks and get some experience by doing pro bono work as well as get my name known by writing, holding seminars etc.

I think you have to work twice as hard to make an impact and try to find an area where you can add value that someone else might not be able to. You also need to have a strong sense of self as it is a very bruising and demoralising profession sometimes.

I have been very fortunate to have been a member of really great chambers over the years. You hear some dreadful horror stories but this has generally not been my experience. Your chambers becomes a bit like an extended family and if you are not comfortable there and don’t have efficient, helpful and supportive clerks it can all go awry. The personal affects the professional and vice versa. I had my second child while at the Bar in 1999 and became a widow in 2003 and have had serious health problems. Without supportive management teams, clerks and colleagues, I would not have survived. It is a great privilege to be trusted by a client with their case, my cases have become increasingly challenging and a few have been important in my area of employment law.

I like the flexibility, independence and the need to be a self-starter and use your initiative to get ahead. I have been able to juggle personal and professional demands which have sometimes seemed impossible.

Maybe it is because I come from a small island but I have always been interested and excited to meet people from really different backgrounds, it is something I really like about my area of work as I specialise in discrimination. I think we all benefit from have people with vastly different perspectives to our own – as long as everyone is respectful it is important to listen. Diverse lawyers mean generally a better service for clients and allow us all to be a bit less dogmatic in our own practices and lives.

susan-belgraveGrowing up in the Caribbean there were lots of strong Black women in prominent positions – my Black female Headteacher, Dame Else Payne, was a Cambridge graduate and the first Black woman to hold the job at my school, my father a lawyer. I could see people like me everywhere in politics, medicine, law so I didn’t have a single role model. Employment Judge Christiana Hyde is someone I respect greatly. I admire Michelle Obama and Valerie Amos but there are scores of high achieving women and particularly Black women who provide inspiration.

I became a trustee of the British Foundation for the University of the West Indies (BFUWI) in 2011. We organise a number of events for the Caribbean community in the UK as well as try to raise money for students in the Caribbean who attend UWI as I did. As Caribbean governments are badly affected by the global financial downturn they are unable to contribute to the university’s campuses as they used to. I studied law at Cave Hill campus in Barbados.

UWI has been the engine of growth of English speaking Caribbean over 50 years of independence providing civil servants, teachers, scientists, business leaders for the region. I think that the region has a wealth of talented people quite apart from our excellence in the fields of sport and music. We try to showcase some of that among the Caribbean diaspora here in London. In particular, we use primarily Caribbean professionals to hold educational programmes for youngsters here. They do not always have the benefit I did, for instance, of seeing Black people achieving in all walks of life.   Black children in the Caribbean attain excellent educational standards and are competitive with their peers elsewhere; we believe those based in the UK can overcome hurdles here and achieve as well. It is something of a passion for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *