Black History Month with Tawhida

Thursday, 20 October 2022

Meet Tawhida, our Passenger Information Manager who opens about her history and what challenges she has faced as a black woman.

As part of Black History Month , we have been catching up with our wonderful colleagues who work here at London Northwestern Railway. We pride ourselves on striving to become a more inclusive workplace and as part of this, we want our colleagues' voices to be heard.

Our Passenger Information Manager, Tawhida, was happy to take part in our series of case studies as part of Black History Month. Tawhida is a fond member of our railway family and has also been the driving force behind our internal network group EMBRACE (Everyone Meaningfully Broadening Racial Awareness and Cultural Exchange), leading the way of inclusion in the workplace. Here's what she had to say...

Tell us something interesting about yourself?

I am married with two children; a handsome 16-year-old boy and a beautiful 10-year-old girl who are of mixed race Scottish and Sudanese and we live in Birmingham. I come from a Sudanese Muslim heritage and have travelled to various countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe through my studies and career. I speak fluent Arabic, some French and Amharic (Ethiopian language). I also have an MSC in Local Economic Development which I put to good use when I was working for the United Nations Development Programme. I enjoy reading, listening to music, dancing, and spending quality time with my family. I used to play basketball despite my vertical challenges and played the clarinet, but I am very rusty now!

Tawhida with her husband and two children.

What has been the most challenging thing about being a black woman when developing your career?

My career on the railway started seven years ago, but before then, I worked for the United Nations Development Programme in Africa and in news broadcast production in London and the UAE. I was used to (and enjoyed) working in multicultural working environments - although there were some challenges in proving myself amongst my peers and acquainting myself with different cultures.

When I moved with my family from London to Birmingham and first started working for the railway it felt like a bit of a culture shock. There wasn’t much diversity within the teams I worked with and for, which gave me a sense that I didn't belong.

Tawhida at Lichfield City Community Rail Partnership

I was the only black frontline manager amongst my peers at the time and often felt left out of things. I had to work extra hard to prove myself and to navigate the complexities of working for the railway on my own and getting to grips with the roles and trying to further myself. When it came to striving for opportunities it wasn’t easy trying to break the double-glazed ceiling; being a black woman, and mother.

As a company, we are on a journey to increase diversity and inclusion and it’s great to see the changes and progress that are happening across the industry. We are on the right track towards improving belonging and inclusivity at London Northwestern Railway.

As the chair of EMBRACE I am striving hard to push forward the Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) agenda through the work we do along with our other inclusion networks, other EDI groups at London Northwestern Railway and our collaboration with industry colleagues.

Has there ever been a time in the past where you have been racially discriminated?

I recall growing up in London, we lived in the city centre. We had just started a new school and my siblings, and I were the only black children at the school. I remember the children at break time in the playground didn’t want to play with me or my siblings as they didn’t want our colour to rub onto them and taunted us about the colour of our skin and how we were different. As a child, I felt distraught and at the same time protective of my sisters (I was the eldest). This was my first experience of racism and discrimination that I was subjected to growing up.

In my career, it was more covert forms of discrimination and microaggressions that I dealt with and often got subjected to on occasions when stakeholders or customers at stations would think my team member was the manager instead of me. People would often direct their attention and conversation towards my team member who was a white male, rather than address me - even after it was pointed out to them that I was the station manager.

I felt hurt and angry at first for being dismissed but was determined to be heard and seen which made them feel uncomfortable, but I got my point across. On other occasions, I have been asked why - as a Muslim woman - I do not wear the ‘hijab'. It was sad and frustrating having to explain myself time and time again about my beliefs and my religion to those uninformed of the facts.

As a mother, what advice would you give to your children growing up?

To my children I would say, strive hard for what you want to attain in life no matter how hard it is. I will pave the way for you as best as I can and equip you with all the necessary learnings and tools that you need so you shouldn’t have to have to go through life’s difficulties as I did. Feel proud of the colour of your skin, your heritage both Sudanese and Scottish/British and always choose love over hate. In the words of the departed Nelson Mandela: '‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin or their background or religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’

Why did you decide to champion London Northwestern Railway's internal network group EMBRACE?

I decided to take on championing our ethnic diversity-focused network EMBRACE, as I felt passionate about the need to represent, advocate and support colleagues from ethnically diverse backgrounds to increase diversity and inclusivity and to eliminate any forms of discrimination and unacceptable behaviours that they may be subjected to.

Tawhida holding a placard up saying how she is a proud black woman and mother.

I am very proud to be the chair of EMBRACE and feel that through the hard work and dedication of network members we have had a wider reach and stronger presence, affecting some change by educating and changing mindsets and creating a safe place for colleagues from different backgrounds and allies to express themselves freely not only at London Northwestern Railway but across the rail industry.

What makes you proud to be a black woman?

I am proud to have come from a rich heritage originating from Sudan in East Africa, where women are symbolised as ‘Kandake’ meaning strong woman. The word Kandake, (Candace in Latin) is the name given to Nubian Queens of the ancient Kingdom of Kush who ruled as early as 177 BC in Sudan. Yes, black women did rule even back then.

Tawhida at a inclusion meeting

I was born in Sudan in East Africa in the capital Khartoum. Before the country was divided into North and South, it was the biggest country in Africa with not one, but two River Niles running through it, its people a melting pot of various ethnicities. I left Sudan at the young age of five to travel and live initially in the UK, in London. I have travelled and resided in different countries around the world and have embraced different cultures and got on well with everyone irrespective of colour, race, or creed.

Along the way, I have experienced bias and discrimination whether it was because of my gender or the dark colour of my skin. This has only made me even more determined to have others accept me for who I am and overcome their prejudices. I am proud of what I have strived hard to achieve in my career, my personal life- two beautiful children that I have been blessed with, and proud to be a black woman in the railway and the chair of our network group EMBRACE and what we have achieved and are striving to accomplish.

What black person inspires you?

There are many black pioneers and figureheads that inspire me: Nelson Mandela, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie just to name a few. But one of my favourites is the late Dr Maya Angelou. Her literary work inspires me especially her poetry. One of my favourites is ‘Still I Rise’ a poem that symbolises the struggles of black women and how they rise above those challenges. I also draw inspiration from Maya’s powerful quote: ‘Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.’

Why is it important for companies like London Northwestern Railway to observe Black History Month?

It’s important that companies observe Black History Month to celebrate black colleagues, their experiences, the communities they represent and to impart information and educate others on the great black pioneers (in the UK and worldwide), on their struggles and their contributions to society past and present.