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Society and communities

A new revolution

Haiti’s slave revolt led to the foundation in 1804 of the world’s first black-led republic.

The first independent nation in the Caribbean has been dogged ever since by challenges to its sovereignty and the labelling of the former colony as a failed state.

Dr Karen Salt found that the perceived legacy of race and colonial history has distorted perceptions of Haiti. By stripping away these layers, a more nuanced and informed picture emerges.

The Director of the University’s Centre for Research in Race and Rights has gone on to apply these methods of ‘deep’ historical research to help organisations, including those in the UK’s higher education sector, to better understand questions of race in building a fairer world.

Dr Salt is now strategic lead for EDI evidence at UK Research and Innovation – working to ensure that the £7 billion a year it gives to research bodies reflects the breadth and diversity of life in the UK and of its partners around the world.

Her influence is also felt at community level; driving cultural and structural change in organisations, ensuring black and minority ethnic (BME) people are better heard by funders, and helping fellow researchers form partnerships with marginalised groups who have a real stake in securing a fairer society.

Transformational change, for both funders of research and other institutions, must go beyond aspiration and the hiring of consultants, she says. Dr Salt instead has a ‘deep reach’ research methodology, that deconstructs institutions and uses systems analysis to better understand how inclusive they are.

Meanwhile, Dr Salt echoed the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)’s conclusion that too few black and minority ethnic groups featured in its research portfolio. “I was interested from a personal perspective in how many other black female-identified researchers are carrying research grants on a consistent basis. At the time (2016-17) HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) had released figures that there were 25 black female professors out of 19,000 in the UK.”

She joined the AHRC-funded Common Cause project to investigate how research institutions can better collaborate with BME groups and so deliver more inclusive impact and engagement.

"I’m thinking about how to transform spaces, lives and systems and to enable justice for different sets of people"
Dr Karen Salt

The project, with partners including race equality think-tank Runnymede, gave research organisations, cultural groups and funders such as Wellcome, the British Library, the Paul Hamlyn and Joseph Rowntree foundations and the British Academy a roadmap for fairer policies and more inclusive ways of working.

Dr Salt says: “I’m really interested in policies and governance structures. It’s not enough for me to have produced something and identify the challenges; often for most institutions the difficulty is: what they do about it? What structures do they put in place?”

In her ongoing research collaborations with organisations seeking to embed EDI, Dr Salt employs an immersive, ‘deep-dive’ approach: “Systems analysis is at the base of what I do – this might be through conversations, interviews, observations of spaces or locations, or talking to communities or users who are benefiting from strategy.”

Dr Salt’s work with Common Cause has informed the AHRC’s strategic plan and criteria for funding, partnerships and the delivery of programmes, which in turn has the potential to recognise and support the contribution of ethnic minority groups to culture, society and the economy.

The project has also added to the knowledge base of cultural resources across the UK, and the British Library is investigating how this legacy can be preserved and shared.

Dr Salt’s work with UKRI – she has a two-day-a week secondment from the Department of American and Canadian Studies – is influencing research councils to think about their own processes. In addition, work with the Race Disparity Unit and the Cabinet Office, and the Department of Students, is further signalling new ways of working.

For Dr Salt, who has a background of community development and advocacy in the US, transformation has always been a driver.

“I’m thinking about how to transform spaces, lives and systems and to enable justice for different sets of people. I’m engaged in research not because I think it’s going to be impactful or just because I want to influence a policymaker; it’s because I can see the impact of not asking these questions in different sets of communities. That’s what drives me – to not just think about how we create spaces for these conversations, but also to create the tools we need to make the world a better place.”

Karen Salt

Karen Salt is now Deputy Director for Research Culture and Environment for UKRI and formerly an Associate Professor in Transnational American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

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