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2021 Frank McGrath Perpetual Award for Equality and Welfare

20 Dec 2021
Dr Laurence Davis, Recipient 2021 Frank McGrath Equality and Welfare Staff Recognition Award

To mark his recognition by the university, we spoke with Dr. Laurence Davis on being the 2021 recipient of the Frank McGrath Perpetual Award for Equality and Welfare.

Why are you interested in EDI work?

Injustice and inequality have always upset me profoundly, to such an extent that I feel impelled to do what I can to try to right such wrongs. This was so even when I was a child. In school, I stood up to bullies and tended to befriend those who were socially marginalised in some way or another. Of course, it helped that I had two older brothers who always intervened when I needed them and the example of a fearless and outspoken mother who was and is much loved in the community.

My equality work over the years has ranged from elder care service when I was a secondary school student in the United States, to volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, social and political activism (for example, campaigning against Apartheid in South Africa, volunteering with nuclear arms control and disarmament groups, serving as land coordinator for and media spokesperson of the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign, global justice and feminist and anti-racist activism, etc.), trade union work (my first proper academic job was at Ruskin College, the trade union college in Oxford), and serving for many years as a volunteer, then trainer, then Director of Training and Acting Director of  Gay Switchboard Dublin.

I was drawn to a career in education in part because I wanted to use the tools of education to overcome social marginality. I am touched and humbled whenever students tell me that my classes have inspired in them a commitment to social justice and equality or encouraged and enabled them to examine critically and imagine transformative alternatives to deeply entrenched structures of oppressive power.

For me, equality is not about sameness. Rather, it facilitates diversity, which in turn strengthens society by making it possible for everyone to count as an individual. The economic historian, social critic and champion of adult and community education R.H. Tawney expresses this point nicely in his classic work Equality, published in 1931: ‘It is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation…individual differences, which are a source of social energy, are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are, as far as practical, diminished.’

Equality is also fundamentally about human dignity and should not be confused with charity, which implies a relationship of inequality. This point was brought home to me when I was an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s at Columbia University in New York, volunteering at the Broadway Presbyterian soup kitchen. One day I reached over the shoulder of a homeless man to serve him his soup. In response, he pointed out that this was impolite. At first, I was defensive. However, on reflection I realised that he was right, and I apologised.

Interestingly, many indigenous cultures have no concept of equality, in the sense of a notion of comparison, or at least an abstract evaluative comparison based on a standard of measure. The anthropologist Dorothy Lee makes this point in her classic study, Freedom and Culture (1959). Citing examples ranging from the Trobrianders of the South Pacific to the Wintu Indians of California and the Bantu and Lovedu of Africa, Lee observes that the fact of equality is present in these cultures, but its existence is derivative; it derives from the recognition of the right to be different, unique, from the valuing of sheer being. In the ostensibly ‘developed’ Western world, by contrast, equality is the solution appropriate to societies in which individual is pitted against individual, either in competition or in the interest of conformity. Perhaps, therefore, we ought to be thinking ‘beyond’ equality, and that to do so we need to free our thinking from ideologies of progress, technological development, and historical evolution that impede much-needed learning from indigenous cultures about how communities might truly value the extended self?

Are there any particular developments in UCC that inspire you?

One of the highlights of my job is being a member of the UCC Equality Committee, expertly chaired by Nuala Finnegan and (on an interim basis) Ciara Heavin. At these meetings I am deeply humbled by the talent, dedication, selfless commitment, and energy of this quite remarkable group of people, giving so freely of their time on behalf of the cause of equality, diversity, and inclusion at UCC. I am inspired by the stellar work of the Access team (including the Disability Support Service, Mature Student Office, and UCC Plus+), Athena SWAN unit, EDI officers, Adult Continuing Education, Race Equality Forum, International Office, University of Sanctuary Working Group, LGBT+ Staff Network, Buildings and Estates, HR staff wellbeing, IFUT and SIPTU, and many, many others. These people are the heart and soul of UCC, and all of them deserve awards.

I am particularly inspired by the increasing awareness in recent years of intersectional inequalities, and by the solidarity shown by colleagues who are intent on building bridges between and among the various groups working on EDI at UCC.

I subscribe to the old trade union motto, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, and I believe deeply in the value of what the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin called ‘mutual aid’. Unfortunately, we live in societies that tend to inculcate the opposite principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ or most selfish, societies in which it is difficult even to imagine how we might live otherwise. Hence the pleasure I take in sharing with my students examples of what I call ‘grounded utopian’ literature, such as William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1891), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1985). What makes such works particularly interesting from the perspective of students of politics – and especially those troubled by inequality and injustice – are the complex and subtle ways in which they engage the reader in a dialogue about what is, what might be, and the relationship between the two. They are thus neither purely escapist fantasies nor narrowly didactic constructions meant to secure the reader’s unquestioning assent to a particular socio-political agenda. Rather, in their most artistically sophisticated forms, they are thought experiments that invite readers to participate in a time-sensitive journey of the utopian imagination complete with fundamental moral conflict, meaningful choice, and continuing change, by the end of which the reader may return to the non-fictional present with a broader perspective on its latent emancipatory possibilities.

What EDI initiative in particular are you proud of?

There are many, so it is difficult for me to single out one or two. I am very proud to have served on the working group of the Equality Committee responsible for planning, organising, and publicising the University’s first Equality Week, successfully launched in October 2016 with over 100 staff and students in attendance. Topics covered over the course of the week included action towards gender equality in UCC; trans awareness; the launch, with the Director of HR, of UCC’s participation in the GLEN Diversity Champions programme; support for Traveller students and other underrepresented groups in accessing higher education; and a dialogue on race, religion, and ethnicity in higher education. Annual Equality Weeks have since become a fixture of the UCC EDI calendar. 

I also take great pride in having contributed to the formulation and rollout of UCC’s first Gender Identity and Expression policy; advocating successfully in the Equality Committee for the creation of a working group to address the issue of racial equality at UCC (out of which emerged the much-needed Race Equality Forum); reviving, leading, and developing the then-struggling LGBT+ Staff Network, now flourishing under a new leadership; and writing newspaper articles, organising public seminars, and canvassing in support of the successful marriage equality campaign.

Has the equality landscape changed in UCC since you took up a post here and if so, how?

I recall vividly meeting with Barry O’Brien, UCC’s Director of Human Resources, in late March 2015 to discuss the current state of the university’s equality policies and procedures with respect to its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender staff. I was joined at this meeting by Cathal Kerrigan and Joan McCarthy, the co-founders of the LGBT+ Staff Network. At this meeting we proposed that UCC join the GLEN Diversity Champions workplace equality programme, intended to promote the inclusion of LGBT+ employees in the workplace. The Director of HR listened carefully to what we had to say, and finally responded that the most appropriate forum in which to pursue the matter was the UCC Equality Committee. Following the meeting I did a web search for the Equality Committee, only to discover that it had lain dormant for years. Thus began a lengthy process of lobbying for the revival of the Equality Committee and the appointment of a new Chair, which eventually bore fruit.

The reactivation of the Equality Committee fundamentally transformed the EDI landscape at UCC. In terms of LGBT+ rights, in my then capacities as Chair of the LGBT+ Staff Network and UCC’s LGBT+ Staff Liaison Officer, I noted in my November 2016 submission to the Equality Committee’s Annual Report to Governing Body and the University Management Team that UCC had almost no structures in place to support its transgender and intersex staff and students, and that it lacked the equality and inclusion infrastructure and governance structures necessary to engage adequately with LGBT-related equality issues. I recommended that the university collect, analyze, report on, and benchmark UCC in relation to LGBT+ equality data concerning staff recruitment, selection, and promotion; employee engagement; membership of university decision-making committees, groups, and forums; and that it monitor and track employee perceptions of LGBT+ inclusion and diversity over time. I further recommended that it build on such a survey by undertaking an assessment of, and action plan aimed at eliminating barriers to the participation and promotion of LGBT+ staff in the university. I suggested that it revisit public statements, images and communications which are used to market UCC to potential staff and students so as to ensure that they are LGBT-inclusive; review UCC student and staff registration processes to expand the gender options that can be selected; ensure that UMT leadership, Heads of School and Unit Managers understand and enact their critical roles in creating an inclusive and respectful culture for LGBT+ employees; appoint a Vice President for Equality and Inclusion, as recommended by the HEA; enhance equality linkages with academic committees and introduce equality committees at School level; and establish regular consultations with trades unions on equality issues, amongst many other possibilities.

Five years later, I am delighted to confirm that, while much hard work remains to be done, UCC has made tremendous progress in a relatively short period of time promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion across all the nine grounds outlined in the Equal Status Acts. This is due in no small measure to the establishment of the EDI Unit in March 2018 and the outstanding and indeed indispensable work of all its staff.

What does getting this award mean to you?

The people I most admire in this world work quietly and without fanfare to try make life a little bit better and more tolerable for us all. I don’t like boastful people, or inveterate attention seekers, who in my experience tend to be those who are least concerned with the welfare of others (for example, a former politician and media celebrity whose surname rhymes with ‘rump’; hint: I teach U.S. politics). Perhaps for these reasons my first reaction to the announcement of the award was a feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment. Then, however, something remarkable and entirely unexpected happened. Dozens of congratulatory emails began pouring into my in-box, some from colleagues who I hadn’t spoken to in years. This touched me deeply and reminded me of what I sometimes lose sight of in the largely compartmentalized, hustle and bustle of my daily work routine, namely what a wonderful community of people we have here at UCC and what a privilege it is to be a part of that community. I feel honored to have been selected for this award, named after a committed trade unionist and champion of social justice and equality, and I will treasure both it and the kind words it has elicited from family, friends, and colleagues.

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Unit

Comhionannas, Éagsúlacht agus Ionchuimsitheacht

South Lodge, College Road, University College, Cork, T12 RXA9