Angie Browne portrait

Written by Angie Browne

Education leader and founder of Nourished Collective. Author of Lighting the Way: The Case for Ethical Leadership in Schools

I have been busier than ever lately, which is a great problem to have, but as I was explaining to a group of school leaders this week, it’s also a sobering problem to have. Sobering because most of my work comes from supporting organisations who are embracing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25th 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As I am going about my work, a refrain that repeats itself over and over is ‘lest we forget’. For most of us, ‘lest we forget’ has come to have meaning through commemorative war services, services honouring soldiers that have fought and died. However, the phrase, with biblical roots, is generally attributed to Rudyard Kipling’s usage in his poem ‘Recessional’.

It seems curious to have landed on this phrase, used to celebrate British imperial power and rue its demise by Kipling. Curious because I now use it with such de-colonising intent. But, the mind does strange things and perhaps, because I am an English teacher, I so often find myself with fragments of phrases echoing about the chamber of my mind with no direct realisation of the connections being made in there, the relevance to events past and present.

Inheritance, legacy and leaving the world in better shape than I found it are such important concepts for me. I feel grateful to my ancestors daily, seek to be a good ancestor as much as I can and work in ways that allow me to live out an ambition of leaving behind something ‘good’.

I cannot read ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ without it bringing a lump to my throat. Who is not haunted by the final lines of the poem? Every single time I taught this poem the urgency of English teaching, of education and of creating a world in which our young were not sent to senseless deaths stirred me.

 

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

 

Who among us is not moved by the futility of youthful death articulated in Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. With a boy of my own now, with young male cousins and nephews galore, imagining a past in which they were sent to a far off end is heart-breaking, and the urgency of creating a better future feels ever more important.

 

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

‘Lest we forget’ comes to me when I deliver Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work because we must not keep churning out the mistakes of the past, we must not forget those that have died in senseless circumstances.

‘Lest we forget’ means that I punctuate my work with the people and the places of those whose lives we commemorate as we learn about the limitations of our humanity and commit to doing better. It means that we remember Stephen Lawrence, the black British teenager who was murdered on April 22nd 1993 in a knife attack in London by a group of his contemporaries. It means that we recognise a bus stop in Eltham, a small corner of South-East London where lies a richer meaning, a responsibility we all have to do better.

As educators the detail about Stephen Lawrence and the boys who murdered him are essential. On the day of Lawrence’s murder he had been at school, his murderers were also of school age. It is vital to my work that we anchor details like this and not allow ourselves the get-out clause of distant proximity, of hazy memory, of foggy facts. Not allow this to obscure the urgency of the work we all know we need to undertake. Work that will ensure that no teenager dies alone at a bus stop, no teenager leaves our school gates and commits such a heinous and hate-filled crime.

‘Lest we forget’ means we remember Bijan Ebrahimi, a disabled Iranian refugee murdered in Bristol on the July 14th 2013 by a man called Lee James. Lee James had been, but a 17-year-old boy when the hate-fuelled campaign against Ebrahimi had begun. Let’s not shy away from the detail and let’s be clear on the facts. Ebrahimi was beaten, dragged into the street and set alight to by a mob who had lost their minds. There is a corner of a street in Bristol where lies a richer meaning, a responsibility we all have to do better.

‘Lest we forget’ means we anchor our work to a deeper purpose. We commit to the individuals whose deaths should make for a future in which it never happens again. In the ambition, the scope, the reach of the work we engage in to tackle homophobic, transphobic and biphobic behaviour we remember Ian Baynham. We say his name. We compute the detail of the brutal attack of a 62-year-old gay man on September 25th 2009 in Trafalgar Square. We acknowledge that his attackers were of school-age at the time of the attack that led to his death. We commemorate his life in a small corner of Trafalgar Square,  acknowledging a richer meaning, a responsibility we all have to do better.

At the heart of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work for me is a desire to be respectful enough to know who we remember and why. At a personal level, it’s about a past that stretches way back to times when my ancestors were enslaved, put on boats and then brutally put to work, my responsibility to them is to make the absolute most of my liberation. At a societal level, it’s about saying the names of the people who have given their lives needlessly, and collectively understanding what we want and need to do differently to create the kind of society we are all proud of. At an institutional level, it’s about being bold enough to give the lives of Stephen Lawrence, Bijan Ebrahimi, Ian Baynham and countless others meaning through the ambition of our work, our curriculum, our institutional cultures, our organisational structures and processes.

So, over the coming weeks and months, I urge you not to forget, not to get sloppy about who we remember, why we remember them and what our remembrance means for the future. I encourage you to take care and not slip into the laziness of statements like ‘when all the George Floyd stuff happened’. Remember, with care and attention to the details, the dates, the names and follow that golden thread of careful thought through to its manifestation in precise, detailed and luminary action in your work and your life.

Supported by