Connected spoke to Dr Alice Mpofu-Coles, community researcher at the University of Reading, who reflected on a remarkable 2023 – including the University’s Bronze win in the Race Equality Charter, and being invited to Buckingham Palace.
In a year filled with challenges and triumphs, Dr Alice Mpofu-Coles emerged as a leading figure in the fields of community research, race equality, and refugee advocacy. Dr Mpofu-Coles, a researcher for the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES), has received both local and national recognition for her tireless efforts and accomplishments since arriving in the UK in 2002.
Read on to find out what 2023 looked like for her and her work at the University of Reading.
January: Race Equality Charter
The year began with a momentous achievement for the University of Reading in January, as it received the Bronze award from Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter. Dr Mpofu-Coles, a key figure in the Race Equality at Reading Action Team (RE-ACT) shared her commitment to supporting the progress of race equality at Reading: “I first got involved with this challenging piece of work in 2019 and continue to work with the Racial Equality Implementation Team.
“As a black woman who experiences racism all the time, I came into academia after a lengthy working background. I am interested in action-orientated goals that make a difference to staff and students and community. Through this work, I carry out public engagement work in the Berkshire community that focuses on marginalised communities and those from Black, Asian, Minorities, ethnic and refugee backgrounds to build relationships with the University. I also have been invited to deliver a seminar on anti-racism sessions with students in other departments.”
The Charter recognises the University’s commitment to making institutional progress on race equality – so far no UK universities have been awarded Silver (the highest award level that can be applied for) and only 37 UK universities have achieved Bronze status.
March: Women’s History Month and Lifespring Stories
As a member of the University Women@Reading Network – the voluntary run network that works to champion issues of gender equality across the University – March saw Dr Mpofu-Coles actively involved in Women’s History Month. Dr Mpofu-Coles, alongside other women from the network, helped organise the poignant panel discussion, ‘Inequalities in Maternity Healthcare’, which highlighted the lived experiences of women within the community. The University hosted the panel with the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust.
She explained: “I helped to organise the event to highlight the inequalities faced in maternity healthcare by women from Black and Asian backgrounds which was identified as a very topical issue. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in the UK, while Asian and mixed-race women are twice as likely.
“It was shocking and saddening to hear the stories of women who have faced difficulties in maternity care and were discriminated against due to the colour of their skin in the 21st century.”
March also saw the launch of the Lifespring Stories – An Oxford Road Project which will now be permanently displayed at Reading Museum thanks to Dr Mpofu-Coles, researcher Robyn Woronka, and the Museum whose team helped in curating the project. The research project shares the lives of those who live on, work on, eat on and visit the Oxford Road in Reading.
Find out more about Lifespring Stories in CONNECTED: Hidden Stories From Oxford Road
June: Refugee Week, Windrush anniversary and PAR Toolkit Launch
Refugee Week saw Sanctuary Strikers take part in the Reading Community Cup. The team was launched during the 2008 World Cup by Dr Mpofu-Coles, Tomson Chauke and Owen Muganda. It is an initiative aimed at promoting integration by bringing together refugees and non-refugees to play football in the spirit of unity.
The Sanctuary Strikers was later developed into a team by Tomson Chauke with support from Reading Refugee Support Group, and it is Berkshire’s only refugee football team. During Refugee Week 2023, the team took part in the Reading Community Cup, which was sponsored by the University of Reading and in collaboration with Reading City of Sanctuary. This year saw the tournament’s fifth consecutive year of bringing people together.
June also marked the 75th anniversary of the Windrush Generation which was celebrated by a lunch held at the University. The event, organised by Dr Mpofu-Coles, provided a unique opportunity for members of the Reading Golders Luncheon Club (a group for older people in Reading from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds) to visit the University – for most of whom it was their first time on campus.
The third notable event in June was the launch of the Participatory Action Research (PAR) Toolkit. The development of the toolkit was led by Dr Sally Lloyd-Evans, who started the participatory community research with the community of Whitley, while Dr Mpofu-Coles, researchers and Whitley Community Researchers were involved in putting together its resources and content. The PAR toolkit is for community researchers, students and academics who are passionate about understanding the principles and everyday practices of Participatory Action Research.
Dr Mpofu-Coles explained: “The work is incredibly fulfilling to researchers and the community. The challenge with taking a participatory approach is that the work is underfunded and has precarious temporary contracts with unusual working hours. There are also different systems and structures you must engage with, working across numerous departments within the University and with external partner organisations. Hopefully our toolkit will help with navigating these challenges”.
October: British Science Association project and Black History Month
In October, Dr Mpofu-Coles continued her research work with the British Science Association (BSA) Community Led Research Pilot, which is partnered with the University of Reading and supports communities that are new to, or traditionally underrepresented in, research to develop and deliver research ideas.
Alongside supporting 13 community groups across Berkshire, Dr Mpofu-Coles organised a collaborative event at the University, bringing together approximately 80 people from different communities across Berkshire. Of the event she said: “Most of whom attended had never been to the University before.
“One group member said that he thought universities were pretentious and that working with our team had made him feel welcome.”
For Black History Month, the BAME Network and Women@Reading worked together to host an event on the theme of ‘Saluting Our Black Sisters’ which celebrated the phenomenal Black women across various Reading communities and their expertise and accomplishments.
November: Royal recognition
November proved to be an exceptional month for Dr Mpofu-Coles. She explained:
“I am collaborating with Dr Holly Joseph from the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism on a participatory research project about heritage language events on Oxford Road in Reading, where over 70 languages are spoken.
“We were invited to give the Salvesen Lecture at Edinburgh University on 17 November 2023 to talk about why understanding families, communities, and social inequalities are key to supporting children’s reading. We also received an award from the businessman and philanthropist, Alastair Salvesen.”
The month concluded with a Royal invitation to Buckingham Palace for a Humanitarian Reception hosted by His Majesty King Charles III and Queen Camilla. The invitation came as part of the voluntary refugee work by Dr Mpofu-Coles with City of Sanctuary. She explained:
“I have spent over 20 years advocating for and supporting refugees locally, nationally and internationally. My refugee work started in 2003 through lived experience and has included volunteering at Reading Refugee Support Group as Vice-Chair and Chair and helping set up Reading City of Sanctuary. I am a trustee of the national charity City of Sanctuary and Vice-Chair for the Alliance for Cohesion and Racial Equality in Reading, which works with refugees.
“I have previously been recognised with an Honorary Master’s Degree in 2014 for contributions to community education, refugees and civil service and an award for being the most inspiring refugee woman in Reading 2020. I played a leading role in the Reading Refugee Support Group, being awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2019. I was also given the Grassroot Community Awards for Black History Month in 2022 for contributing to racial harmony and community engagement strategy.”
Despite all this, she still couldn’t believe it when she got the invite. Dr Mpofu-Coles said:
“When I was asked to provide my details to be invited to Buckingham Palace, I thought that things like that don’t happen to people like me.
“At the palace event, I greeted the King and briefly discussed our work with the City of Sanctuary. It was an out-of-body experience, and I loved how I spent a long time talking to high-profile people like Jon Snow, Sir Trevor Macdonald, Dame Joanna Lumley, Adrian Lester, Sir Michael Palin and Tamsin Greig about humanitarian work and our experiences inside Buckingham Palace”.
Reflecting on the remarkable year she has had, Dr Mpofu-Coles expressed her gratitude and excitement for the diverse projects that are to come in 2024.
She said: “I’ll be continuing to work on many of the projects from 2023, as well as supporting with new projects. There is never one day that is the same in my work, and some days are very challenging. Still, I enjoy the different work – thinking strategically, implementing and working with other academics across various disciplines at the University and with diverse communities. I am constantly reminded of a quote from one of the books that changed the way I work in research and with communities – Decolonising Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith:
“Research for social justice expands and improves the conditions for justice; it is an intellectual, cognitive and moral project, often fraught, never complete, but worthwhile.”
Find out more about the charities mentioned:
Reading Refugee Support Group
To share your story or to find out more about how you can volunteer at the University of Reading, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is adapted from, A year in the life of a researcher: from community engagement to Buckingham Palace, published by the University of Reading’s Connecting Research.