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Leading with integrity – supporting Black-led research

Dr Celestin Okoroji

Head of Research, Black Thrive

01 December 2022

Almost six months ago, we presented how we were thinking about Black-led research at the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health Festival, which explored the theme of "Partnering for Change". Six months feels like a long time. Six months was three prime ministers ago.

We have changed a bit too, and as the year draws to a close this feels like the opportune time to share our thinking and learning since the festival. I know that many people weren’t able to make the festival due to the RMT strikes that fell on the same day (the RMT’s dispute is ongoing). You can watch a recording of the talk, but I’ll give the broad brushstrokes here and spend the rest of this short blog discussing our current research projects and how we are working with "formal" academia.

The need for more Black-led research

When thinking about research, the mind cannot help but be focused on the academy. After all, institutes of higher education have as their primary purpose the discovery and dissemination of new (and old I suppose) knowledge. However, to put it mildly, higher ed has a bit of a problem. Academia may be the most racially differentiated profession in Britain.

There are fewer Black professors in the UK (160) than there are universities (213)[1]. Many universities use a federated model where individual departments operate somewhat independently. Thus, if we want to know the likelihood that any academic (or student for that matter) would interact with a Black senior peer (i.e. a Black professor), we would have to compare the number of departments with the number of Black senior peers. Conservatively, I’d say there were at least ten departments per university. I’ll leave the reader to determine whether the number of Black professors per department is more or less than 0.05. I know this will be a shock to many people. But it’s just as bad at the PhD, Post-Doc and Early Career stages, not to mention the attainment gap in taught education.

It’s not only a matter of representation though, and as a society, we have recently seen the limitations of a politics of representation. Academic homogeneity creates empirical and theoretical problems too because it narrows the scope of questions and hinders the proper interpretation of data. I won’t elucidate standpoint epistemology and epistemological violence here but suffice it to say, social position matters in relation to the generation of conceptual resources and too often we fail to recognise that data can be interpreted in an endless number of equally plausible ways. Yet the interpretations we don’t get access to are those of the groups to whom data in the social sciences often refer, be they Black people, the working class, women or an array of other marginalised groups hitherto excluded from the knowledge production process.

Partnering for change

What to do about all this? Well, we could wait for academia to get its act together and provide fair access to all. But we have already waited, as did our parents, and here we are still. Our presentation at the CSMH festival tried to sketch out something different – the Black Thrive Research Institute and Observatory. We are still finding our feet and thinking about how we work, but simply, we recognise that the conceptual resources required for Black liberation will only come directly from communities living with and through racism and so we must hold our communities and our needs at the centre. This way of seeing things can, and will, bring us into tension with the needs of academics and their funders to ‘involve’ various people/groups in research because this kind of involvement often comes after the research questions and other substantive matters have already been agreed. We are working through these issues with community partners in Haringey, Birmingham and Lambeth to develop methodologies for community owned data via our thriving futures programme.

CSMH Festival - Black Thrive panel

At the same time, we can use our expertise with data to resolve factual matters. At present, there is no authoritative body or group on matters relating to Black people and their experiences and typically Black people are pathologized in the media. For instance, various claims were made about Black people’s willingness to be vaccinated against COVID-19 based on very little (i.e. under powered studies making inferences about the whole population). There are similar shortcomings in many areas.

One that we are currently working on is stop and search. If we think for a second about the often quoted ‘9 times more likely’, what does it mean? Where are we nine times more likely to be stopped and when? How has this number changed over time, is it rising or declining? What accounts for regional or local variations? We could ask many more questions but there is no solid source for this information. Resolving these factual issues is part of the impetus for our Wellcome funded project with the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health, UNJUST and MySociety, which is exploring the relationship between stop and search and mental health via new data, constructed by Black Thrive, of approximately 1.5 million individual search records.

Looking ahead

I have said already that when we think of research we often think of the university. That connection is so entrenched that much of the basic components of research are very difficult or impossible to access outside of the academy. How for instance should a community organisation access the academic literature? At university, such literature is free to access for staff and students, but is a hugely expensive asset, in the form of an array of specialist software, high performance computing clusters and the assumption of credibility. Most community organisations cannot realistically afford access to such data. Despite all these resources, universities often seek to extract more from community organisations, especially access to people.

As I said at the Festival and will repeat now, we do not give or sell access to people or their information. The Centre, through its work with Black Thrive and the Research Institute and Observatory in particular, is doing something different. Instead of asking what we can give, Kings is asking itself what it can offer. The first step has been to sign a memorandum of understanding between Black Thrive and the Centre which confers visiting researcher status on all research staff at Black Thrive, this gives us access to some of those ‘in the background’ resources which are free to access for staff and students but are actually a hugely expensive asset, which community organisations cannot realistically afford. We are also collaborating on research projects where Black Thrive is the lead, rather than the more typical scenario where the university leads. There is more to come, we don’t know exactly what shape it will take, but united with communities we will challenge the status quo and develop the conceptual resources needed for our collective liberation.

[1] ‘Higher Education Providers’ in the language of the Higher Education Statistics Authority.

CSMH BT post its 002-21

Find out more

Read more about the new Wellcome-funded project here:

You can listen to the Festival panel discussion, Systems change through Black-led research: A conversation with Black Thrive, in the latest episode of the Our Sick Society podcast:

Alternatively, you can watch the panel discussion video on our YouTube channel:

If you would like to know more about the research work at Black Thrive, you can visit or email

For more information about the Centre, you can visit or email

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