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Chelsea Kwakye: Kicking up a Stormzy

World Book Night is an annual celebration of reading which falls on 23 April 2021. Twenty-two incredible books are chosen and given away in youth centres, colleges, prisons, public libraries, mental health groups and other locations to promote reading. Alongside the likes of Stephen King and Jane Austen, Taking Up Space: The Black Girl's Manifesto for Change by current ULaw student Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi has been chosen as a book that could change lives. We caught up with Chelsea to discuss the inspiration behind the book and tackling imposter syndrome.

Tell us about your debut book Taking Up Space, that was published last year by Stormzy’s publishing house, #Merky Books, and has gone on to receive critical acclaim. What inspired you to write the book?

We decided to write Taking Up Space because it was an opportunity to explore what it means to be a Black woman within education – something that is rarely discussed. We talk about everything from the barriers of entry into university, activism, mental health and diversifying our curriculums. The book addresses and acts as a guide for young Black women and non-binary students in the hope that their experiences will be validated. For everyone else, we wanted our experiences to be heard and understood.

The book is coloured with a vast number of experiences and that’s where our interviewees step in. Black students aren’t one homogenous group. Instead, we all have different stories to tell, that should be understood for their uniqueness. For us, it was also recognising that there are certain experiences that we can’t speak on and so, it was the perfect opportunity to give Black women and non-binary students a platform to speak about their own experiences.

Taking Up Space is set to be adapted into a television series – congratulations. Can you share any early details on what viewers can expect?

Thank you. It is all very exciting. Sid Gentle Films (producers of Killing Eve) will be adapting Taking Up Space into a television series, so I know we can expect amazing outfits and good music. Things are very much still in the development stage, but we are both excited to see our experiences played out on screen and I know that everyone we are working with will be able to capture that perfectly.

You speak very openly in your book about imposter syndrome and how being the only Black female on your history course at Cambridge University was an isolating experience. What advice would you give to students facing similar challenges?

With imposter syndrome you often feel like you are the issue. That to be an imposter means you are the odd one out – which is true – but that this very fact is your fault. If you go into an environment and literal markers (the people, the culture, and the things celebrated) are telling you that you are an imposter, then you can begin to question why that is. My advice to students is that times will be hard, but always remember that you deserved your place, and you worked for it. When you grow into that simple fact then you are on the road to not standing in the shadow of imposter syndrome but rather, next to it i.e. understanding that this will always be an issue and never go away, but you will learn your own ways to address it.

The #BlackMenofCambridge campaign thrust your work at the Cambridge University African-Caribbean Society into the spotlight. Did you notice any change in the conversation surrounding diversity and inclusion, particularly in the legal sphere, after all the media attention?

Visualisation has always been something really important  to me. The campaign was a visual reminder of just how dire the situation was at the time. As students, we were really eager to have our voices heard outside of university walls – it seemed the only way people would perk up and finally take you seriously. So, when that campaign went viral it really set-in motion a string of initiatives. This was just a drop in the ocean compared to all the things students had been campaigning for in previous years already.

You recently started your training contract at Ashurst. What has your experience in City law been like so far?

Trainee life has been really interesting – especially considering that we are in a pandemic and everything has moved online. I feel like now as trainees we have to adapt to a different style of working, but this is one where even people much more senior than you are still trying to figure out the most effective way to do it i.e. managing a team remotely and ensuring new trainees feel integrated.

Overall, the experience has been a welcome but steep learning curve – which I am sure most people would agree with. Ashurst has been super busy which is always a good sign and I have learnt a lot within the past three months.

For students from a minority background who may feel apprehensive about applying to a top law firm, what advice do you have?

Firstly, figure out if this is something you really want to do away from the pressure. This is particularly so if you come from a working-class background. Many people do not talk about how a two-year training contract offers job and financial security – something that is very important, especially if you help out with family bills etc. However, it is really important you fully understand what the job entails.

Regarding being from a minority background, despite this being a very real issue, please do not let this stop you. If you have the skills and are committed, apply.

You secured your training contract with Ashurst following a summer vacation scheme at the firm. What tips can you share with students hoping to impress during a vacation scheme, virtual or otherwise?

Show that you are looking towards the future. When I applied for my vacation scheme, I was in my second year and knew that I wouldn’t be joining Ashurst until three years later. Not only was it important to see where the firm was in 2017, but also where it would be in 2020 and beyond. Did I believe that this was a place I could progress, learn and have a sustainable working life? Also, globally, what impact and role would the firm have in years to come?

If you are hoping to impress, then show that you want to get involved.

This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - Read Employability Special, the issue #6 of Verdict magazine