Black History Month 2023 – Saluting Our Sisters

1st October 2023

We won’t stop at ‘progress’: we want equality

Myriam Ocholla is a Graduate Commercial Associate at Civica, who joined last year after completing a Masters at York University.

Here she explains the importance of Black History Month and this year’s theme - Saluting Our Sisters to honour black women’s achievements and amplify their voices.

What does Black History month mean to you?

With more knowledge and experience it takes on a new form every year. This year is particularly meaningful because I have been fortunate to have strong, empowering black women as role models all my life - my mum being the most influential. As a rule, it’s a celebration of our culture, of the freedoms our ancestors merely dreamt of, of life lost, life gained and an embodiment of the hope we all have that, one day, future generations will not have to explain micro aggressions or defend their reasoning for equality.

Why is it important that we recognise this month?

It’s an opportunity to educate and reinforce the work of those who came before us. I believe it’s so important to keep the conversation relevant. I appreciate that among black communities, opinions differ across generations. The levels of 'tolerance' vary because what our grandparents and parents endured was extremely blatant, as opposed to what we might refer to as 'micro aggressions' today. But while there is progress, I wouldn't want us to stop at progress where we could attain equality.

For most of us that live in communities and workspaces where we are a minority, it serves as a reminder that our cultures mould a large part of how we operate. This should be celebrated because we can be true to ourselves, our beliefs and actions while excelling within our communities and workplaces.

How has your heritage impacted your current position?

I attribute all my qualities – good and bad – to my heritage. I always refer to the African proverb 'It takes a village'; this outlook is and forces you to appreciate the importance of collaboration and nurturing the differences within any community. The understanding that no role is too small to make a difference and pushing for action. It nurtures individuals that are innovative, in creating a better community where everyone is held to account, fostering integrity. These are Civica values and, for me, it made sense to be in an environment where my core values align with those of the organisation.

Who’s inspired you in your career and/or outside of work?

I'm happy to say an endless list of people but my mother takes first place. She's always been incredibly independent and well ahead of her time. Watching her succeed in her career within a male dominated industry, while maintaining her core values, is the perfect example of breaking glass ceilings. She started off her career lecturing and later made a pivot into the engineering industry. Watching her navigate that time in her life and speak openly about the difficulties she's faced, not only as a woman but as a black woman, has informed many of my life choices. I’ve always tried to put my best foot forward and not limit myself based on preconceived notions, while being aware of the harsh realities I may encounter.

Is there a figure in black history that has inspired you?

There is a long list of influential women! Maya Angelou comes close but, proudly, my grandmother, Dr Phoebe Asiyo. She pioneered gender equality, fighting for equal seats in parliament, making legislative changes for the separation of women and men in prisons and child marriages amongst other remarkable causes - she was and still is well ahead of her time.

Her work in Kenya and across the world as a UN ambassador on developing women's rights has been inspiring to watch and learn from. Her bravery to work in politics both pre- and post-Kenya's independence from colonial rule allowed her to shape the laws and work to improve the rights of women for generations. She is a working member of the UN, advises political leaders across the world and continues to help young girls, orphans and women in African communities. She's incredibly inspiring and I'm blessed to get involved where I can, continuing the legacy she's built so far.

Why is this year’s theme celebrating the exceptional achievements of black women important?

There is beauty and power in representation. Our formative years are shaped by the people around us and figures we see on social media who we can relate to. Celebrating the achievements of black women is crucial in making progress in the fight for equality for us now and generations that follow.

In recent years, we’ve had historic events that celebrate the accomplishments of black women; the first black woman to hold the position of vice president in the USA, having influential films such as Little Mermaid be depicted by a black actress. Some may see these as minor, but the message they send to society and young girls alike is that it IS possible to be a black woman in society, be seen and be celebrated for your hard work. For years, we’ve seen the accomplishments of black women be diminished or not recognised in the same light as our white counterparts – the book/film Hidden Figures is a great example. This year’s theme forces conversation to be had on the exceptional achievements of black women and is crucial to the overall aim of educating everyone about the hardships minority groups face. Shedding light on black women whose work greatly influences society's progression is simply vital.