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Hear My Story: Jacqueline Onalo

Category: BAME, black history month

As part of our Black History Month celebrations we are talking to role models from the UK BAME community in order to offer an insight into their lives as well as help advise candidates and employers on how best to represent and encourage equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Jacqueline Onalo FSRA

Award-winning Human Rights Lawyer

Leadership Development Trainer, Coach,  Lecturer, Equality and Diversity Expert

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” An African saying

Jacqueline has many strings to her bow. She is an award-winning lawyer and leadership development trainer. She is a Barrister and Solicitor of England and Wales as well as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Kenya. She is Founder and Director of JOLT International; a Leadership Development Organisation, Solicitor at R. Spio and Company Solicitors, Trustee of Comic Relief Chair of Community Development Initiatives (UK), Part Time Lecturer at University of East London, LLM International Law and Practice, Co-Founder of Inclusion Convention, a Leadership Think Tank. We were lucky enough to spend some time talking with Jacqueline, gaining an insight into her life, unpicking what Black History Month means and finding value in cultural intelligence. 

Can you tell us a little bit about you?

I was born and brought up in Nairobi, Kenya. Before I came to the UK race was not an issue as I came from an African country where almost everybody was black. However, Nairobi is a diverse and cosmopolitan city: owing to its location as a gateway to Africa and having a colonial history, we have some white settlers in Kenya as well as a large Asian community. My upbringing wasn’t stifled by race or gender, my parents were both professionals; my dad a prominent lawyer and my mother a nurse and counselor. I was always ambitious and knew that if I worked hard, which seems a bit naive now, I would achieve exactly what I wanted to.

When I was young I had grand ideas about my future, I thought I would grow up and be a world leader, ending poverty, war and inequality. It was simple - all I had to do was grow up. From the age of about eight I knew that I was going to be a lawyer, and I am a lawyer today. Having my parents present as positive role models I knew that hard work would lead to success. I hero worshipped my father who was very bright and respected and my mother who is a fantastic leader whom people are drawn to. I was lucky I didn’t have to look far to find positive role models. This is a key ingredient for guidance and inspiration for success.

I had what some may consider odd role models for a young child, people like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King. I naturally loved New Edition, Janet Jackson and many other Black American artists, when Breakdance the movie came out Chaka Khan was everything. I adopted my dad’s love for Lingala music, so although not so cool for the young, I enjoyed Tabu Ley, Franco, M'bilia Bel etc. I was self aware that music was not a future career because my singing voice hadn’t, hasn’t  been fine tuned. I enjoyed public speaking, debate and drama and took part in several completions and won a few competitions. I even auditioned for a part in the Out of Africa film. I tried many sports and realised I didn’t have a knack for them except walking race. I was given every opportunity to explore and discover myself. I  grew up in a positive environment where there were visible role models and my identity was affirmed through school where my attributes were clearly linked with the ability to succeed. I was allowed to excel being my authentic self.

As a young adult I came to the UK to undertake my law degree as an international student. This again felt like a bit of a bubble, it was a multinational community with shared ambitions and interests. So during this time I only experienced positives. When I finished university I applied to become a barrister, I did my Bar Vocational Course, and then I had to get pupillage. This was the time when the wool was pulled from my eyes. Competition is a part of life and there really is no point in shielding our youth from this instead equipping and preparing them for it. Academic success on its own will rarely achieve success, a lot more is required, crucial life and employability skills are crucial vital ingredients.

Can you tell us about your experiences studying law in the UK?

Lawyers can be an interesting lot and they are often very competitive. I can be vocal and outspoken when needed, even though I am often a reflective observant person. While I was doing my bar vocational course I didn’t speak that much, focusing on passing my exams and not making a name for myself as outspoken. We had to do our negotiations and advocacy exams and the students who were paired with me were very happy. I overheard them saying ‘this is going to be a walkover’. They had passed an unfounded judgement on me, which was a shock to them when we did two practical exams and I performed incredibly well. The arrogance of preconception led to one individual, who had pigeonholed me as a meek young African woman not cut out for debate, to fail. 

Rather than accepting that he underestimated a fellow student based on preconceptions (gender and race) and had not prepared adequately due to arrogance (elitism), he made a feeble complaint based on not understanding my accent (race again). The head of the course was supportive and exposed it for the nonsense it was. This was handled well and I found the mirth in the ridiculous nature of the event, but the undertones were reflective of a greater issue. Incidentally I am rather articulate, eloquent which has catalysed in a career in international speaking that has taken me around the world as a motivational speaker, leadership thought expert, moderator and chair. I fortunately did not allow others perception of me to pigeon hole me and limit my potential. 

Build confidence to go with work ethic and technical expertise, but crucially build resilience. I would add that personal branding goes a long way, if you want to attract the opportunities you require, people have to know what you are good at, if they don’t, how will know to choose you, it’s like winking at the subject of your attention in a dark room.

When I first applied for pupillage I didn’t get a single interview, not even a rejection letter. I found this perplexing. I had a 2:1 degree award, which in that day was worth a 1st class degree, I was involved in debate and leadership as president of the African Caribbean society. On reflection, I was perhaps complacent - thinking that if I’m good they must want me. It was devastating. I even thought about going back to Kenya. I had a job waiting for me there, a great network from my industrious parents, but I felt within myself that I wanted to stay in the UK and prove myself as an individual; not return and succeed under the banner of ‘Peter Onalo’s daughter’. There was also the little issue of love finding me. I soon began to realise why doors weren’t opening for me and had to take a different approach. I then applied for jobs as an outdoor clerk working for a solicitors as a paralegal. I attended court regularly,  met many barristers and built a network. This involved at one time traveling to Portsmouth from London for nearly 6 months for a hearing, the commute taking up to six hours of average daily. With this increased experience and professional network in place, when I applied for the second time I secured pupillage. 

This was a lesson in networking that I had by that time not labelled. It’s cliché but your network is your net worth. In Kenya, we say there is more than one way to skin a goat, if at first you don’t succeed try and try again, each time considering new approaches to achieve your objective. Be resilient and strategic.

Can you give an example of a time when you first encountered prejudice in the workplace?

In chambers it was very busy and I felt secluded as the environment was that of an ‘old boys club’. I thought the issue was elitism as opposed to a race issue, but with experience and maturity I conclude that the two are interlinked. Social status, social mobility and race are linked. Head of Chambers, Nadine Redford QC, was a great support system when a senior QC from another set made borderline inappropriate advances. A reminder that those with agency should use it to support others. Live our values.

I started off with criminal defence work and then stumbled upon human rights and I didn’t turn back. I have been a human rights lawyer now for two decades. I initially worked for a large charity providing legal advice and representation in terms of human rights, immigration and asylum. This was the first time I began to experience prejudice. Many people would be surprised when they met me, wondering and often asking where I was from. I was almost tempted to say Golders Green as that was where I lived at the time. However their question was specifically “what country do you come from?” I found this interesting as I wondered; how does this affect the legal service I provide? Often they would be very interested in where I studied, and crucially where my qualifications were from; racial prejudice rearing its ugly head again. 

For anyone thinking it was an ice breaker or banter, it unfortunately wasn’t. They wanted to know whether my degree was from where I came from or the UK, the implication being that the UK qualifications were to be trusted over the Kenyan. The fact that I was female and young also played a part in people's judgement on my ability to perform. The questions sometimes ranged from what my age was, when I had qualified etc.This struck me as unfair but I developed a coping mechanism. The crazy thing was having to justify my competence because of the colour of my skin, gender and age. Intersectionality at play. 

An example of this continued prejudice was heightened when I had a new supervisor who conducted an appraisal. He began by highlighting that I spent a tremendous amount of time reading and seemed aghast as to why this was the case. I informed him that I was very thorough and that I wanted to ensure that in court, I was armed with as much pertinent information as possible. He had a different view. He suggested that the pace of reading was one who was semi-literate! He asked where I had studied (you can see the pattern). Further communications with this individual resulted in more insinuations and distortions of fact as he would find ways of turning things to fit a skewed agenda. 

I took this further and emailed his boss, the head of our department, to highlight what was taking place. I was not supported, instead a query was raised as to why I had  escalated the matter. At a follow up meeting I recall the statement “you are a very strong opinionated black woman”. What is wrong with displaying strength especially when under fire and having an opinion?

I knew I was in the right, who I was, how competent I was and wouldn’t be broken by this. My then lovely casework assistant, Millicent took it upon herself to make a copy of all my determinations and it turned out that I was not incompetent, or semi literate but in fact confirmed as the highest performer on the team, a great track record for success. This shut down the performance issue and it was then suggested that my supervisor undertake training as a way to reconcile my complaint. I deferred and matters went in my favour. It was a difficult period but I had supportive colleagues, including Grace Ademolake for whom I am eternally grateful for. 

I further developed my resilience and reminded myself of whom I am, what I had achieved and could continue to achieve. I was going to excel, succeed regardless. We do not get anywhere on our own, our tribe is important, a reliable support network.

So what have you done in order to make a difference?

I have become a diversity and inclusion expert focusing on race, gender and age - things I can relate to, but at the core I am doing this because it’s the right thing to do. In recent times, as a human rights lawyer, I have encountered employment matters with terrible instances of institutional racism. It has also affected people who are very close to me, the later has really made it hit home. There are numerous people suffering at their workplaces in silence. The side effects of this are the development and, or worsening of mental health issues, having to quit jobs, constructive dismissal or just having to put up with it. 

When I speak to white people about racism, I often get the response that “I am a good person, I am not a racist, so what has this got to do with me? You should be working with the racist people and tackling the issues with them”. My approach is, I accept that you are not racist, but how do we move you from being non-racist to anti-racist? Anti-racist means that you should care if institutions are racist. If there are pockets of racism in your organisation you should be active in tackling this. You shouldn’t be complacent, you should push back against it and do something about it. My argument is that it is a collective solution. It requires everybody taking part, not just BAME people within an organisation, but everyone. If we are a BAME collective working in silos and not collaborating with our white counterparts then we are not going to get anywhere quickly. We want to bring people together to forge the right culture of equality collectively. 

We don’t want silence, we want people to be active, because whether we are at work or play we should have the same experience of dignity, respect and opportunity. Treat other people like you would like to be treated. That’s a moral code that transcends race, gender, disability, sexual orientation indeed any difference. We need to adopt the shared value system and stop being silent to discrimination. If you do nothing in the face of inequality then are you then by default complicit in the discrimination. No More Silent Witness.

I recently suffered racism at The Botanist in Chelsea, the management handled the matter exceptionally well but my friend watched in silence, the latter made me very angry and disappointed especially because he portrays himself publicly as a white person who loves black culture and advocates against racism but when confronted by it outside a vacuum, became a silent witness. He did not need an education because he often educates others on this subject matter but the duplicity is something that was a personal blow. However, knowledge is power, it is good to really know your people. My emotional and cultural intelligence grew with this incident. It also highlighted the difference between being non racist and anti racist, as highlighted in that famous Martin Luther quote “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

I am a product of mentorship and sponsorship of many including white male managers, the most remarkable was Paul Warburton. I often wonder what became of him, I have tried to find him in recent years to no avail. I would like to say thank you again for his support and that he sacrificed too much for our team. I have had allies of so many diverse backgrounds.

Why celebrate black history?

We must get to a stage where we don’t need Black History Month, where black history is an integral part of our everyday narrative, and the history of the world. Black history has been written with a selective and single-sided voice and this needs to be corrected. We need to change the narrative of black people being somehow less, or at its worst: sub-human. Where does this come from, why are the echoes of colonialism, apartheid, segregation and the slave trade still the singular narrative? Why is it that Black people are so feared that their history and present narrative is designed not to celebrate and elevate but to suppress and silence. It is because we are great beyond measure and compare, once we realise this, we will soar without restriction, own the penmanship of our narrative. 

Black history and not the redacted version must feature in our curriculum. In the interim, Black History month is used to showcase our wonderful hidden history. Crucial for knowledge sharing, inspiring self belief and confidence and connecting everyone, because regardless of race, we are all the same.

We must share stories and ensure a richer perspective on black history in our homes, schools, work places, on social media, on our screens etc The hidden truths must be exposed to set the record set straight with candour  and dignity, for example: I found out that my great grandfather fought in World War I. He went out to war, left my great grandmother pregnant and never returned. He died for the Empire. He has not been recognised, nobody knows where he died. My great grandmother died in childbirth, thus my grandmother Truphena Vuyanzi Amena was born an orphan. The history of WWI and WWII has sought to eliminate the contribution of black people. And this is an example of institutional racism. 

So why celebrate black history? As with being British, or having any cultural heritage, it’s integral to our identity. In Kenya we have a saying:

‘Mkosa mila ni mtumwa.’ / ‘One without culture or identity is a slave.’

If you study, live or work in an institution which doesn’t respect where you come from, it’s very disempowering. David Lammy’s earlier this year made comments on the white savior mentality. For some people all they see of Africa is poverty, hunger, abuse, less. This is not a true representation of Africa, it is only partial. London has the highest rates of child poverty in the country, that does not make the U.K. a poor country that does not care for its children? A predominantly negative representation of  Black people undermines, perpetuates prejudice and curtails opportunity. We don’t hear that Kenya gave the world mobile money with M-Pesa, that 70% of Kenya’s power is from renewable energy sources, the world’s most popular and effective environmentalist is the late Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Nobel peace laureate etc. We need to celebrate more than one narrative when looking at black history and stop the tired, narrow narrative of Africa and Africans being ‘less’ than their global counterparts. Our representation historic and contemporary matters especially to our youth, it must be something they are proud of, learn from not something that causes them to recoil and trigger negative perception.

Who are your role models when discussing black history?

This year I want to do something different and change the narrative by telling a folk story from my Banyala tribe. This is because I love this story but also because a lot of traditional African storytelling is oral and at a risk of dying. I will discuss the Oracle of my clan, Nakavuka, was a woman. Her story is tragic but inspiring. My clan went to war to preserve the honour of  her name and our people, claim justice. My culture is one of a history of ethics, rights and effective governance. It isn’t the popular pornography of a primitive people with no moral, social, judicial or political system. We had all of these and held/hold women in high regard. I want to share this story in schools, with the corporate world, my neighbors, at conferences etc I want black people to have a sense of pride in their history and white people to hear and appreciate a different “her-story”

If you are stripped of a positive and honest narrative how can you find pride in yourself and your identity? How will others receive and rate you when they have been fed half truths and grand scale duplicity?

My Instagram handle is Namakhia_Malenya , Namakhia identifies me as a member of the accomplished Abamakhia clan and Malenya means sparkling (beautiful, intelligent, special) one. This name is steeped in history, identity, self belief, possibility and pride. Another notable Namakhia is Professor Emeritus Magdalene Odundo OBE, a respected academic and artist. She has broken the world record twice for selling the most expensive pottery globally. My role models are my daughter and mother, Mary Vuyanzi Onalo and Vanessa Kanaiza Onalo whose journeys in inspire me. Nasike Akello a bold Banyala environmentalist, a vocal activist who is the recipient of the Wangari Maathai scholarship. I stand on the shoulders of numerous role models, popular and little know, they educate, guide, inspire and fill me with pride. I have shared the history of these role models and numerous others through the years; Maya Angelou, Mary Seacole, Oprah Winfrey, President Obama, Tata Madiba, Mohammed Ali, Fella Kuti, Professor Wangaari Maathai, Dianne Abbott, Harriet Tubman, Michelle Obama, Yvonne Eruteya, Genevieve Talai, Tessa Calleb, June Gumo Kidenda, Jacqui Osei Fremah, Dr Titilola Banjoko, Gina Miller, Dr Shola Mos Shogbamimu, Thomas Sankara, Yaa Asantewaa, Paul Theodore Onalo  etc

Final Thoughts

All our stories are important, a doctored or hidden history is damaging, we have the wherewithal to remedy this so that we no longer need Black History month because it will be part of the fabric of world history, not some other history to be celebrated annually. 

Kanye West said “We don’t need Black History Month, we are making black history everyday.” It is a personal and collective responsibility to tell our history, and create a history of our own that we and future generations can be proud of. 

I am Jacqueline Wedube Elizabeth Onalo, I am named after my paternal grandmother Elizabeth Wedube Onalo as my culture dictates, when I show up, I show up, not only for myself but also for her. This is crucial because my story, her story, our history is important. 

We die two deaths, one the physical, the other when the last person to call our name dies. We are immortalised by our names, our history, this is is universal. If Black History is not accorded the merit it deserves, it will die off and that will be a tragic death for some of the world’s most important, instructive, compelling, inspiring and interesting history.

“Many stories matter. 

Stories have been used to repossess and to malign.

But stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. 

Stories can break the dignity of a people. 

But stories can also repair the broken dignity.”

~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This is why the full version of Black History matters, the good, the bad and the ugly. There is enough of the latter, time to remedy this with the good.


Email: [email protected]

LinkedIn: Jacqueline Onalo FRSA

Links to social media: 

Twitter: @JacqueOnalo   

Facebook: Jacque Onalo

Instagram: Namakhia_Malenya

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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