Researcher of the Month – March 2019, Tamanda Walker

Tamanda Walker is a PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. They are funded by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities and are a member for the Centre of Religion and Public Life. 

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

 I’ve always had an interest in issues of inequality and social justice since as far back as I can remember, and this was undoubtedly shaped by my experiences growing up in Botswana (neighbouring and crossing the border into South Africa during the apartheid years), and later Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’, and in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement. Growing up within a mixed race, faith, class and culture family, and straddling worlds that were constructed by society as vastly different and often in opposition, meant I was asking my parents some pretty awkward questions from quite a young age. I definitely remember some uncomfortable questions about the significant disparities of wealth and access to opportunity between my largely poor, black, Batswana, Catholic/Evangelical relatives on my mother’s side, with the experiences of my upper-middle class, white, British, Protestant/Atheist relatives on my father’s side of the family.

Unfortunately for my parents I’m still asking these uncomfortable questions, and it’s not really surprising that the interests I first developed within my immediate family and community setting have spun out to bigger research questions about society at large. Much of my research interests revolve around questions of identity, particularly as they relate to race and religion within education, employment, community and policy settings.

 Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

 While pursuing my Masters at Birkbeck, I worked full time for a food retailer, where my remit was to establish and lead the training function of a rapidly expanding business. Because this retailer had outlets within major rail stations, I was required to deliver something called ‘Station Security Training’ as part of my role, which turned out to be part of the Department for Transport’s counter terrorism strategy. I became quite alarmed by a) the lack of training that those responsible for delivering this intervention were required to undergo; and b) the conflation of Islam with terrorism, including outright instances of islamophobia and racism within the workplace during sessions. This experience motivated me to consider more carefully how employers were engaging with questions of religion and belief and racism within the workplace, and to explore whether anything proactive was being done to ensure equity for religious and ethnic minorities. The whole experience set me off on a trajectory that led to me to work for interfaith charity The Faith & Belief Forum (formerly 3FF/Three Faiths Forum), where I led on the design and development of faith awareness and religious literacy interventions for organisations across the public, private and voluntary sector.

 What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

 My PhD research, which explores how employers in the UK are engaging with issues of religion and belief in the workplace, has emerged directly out of my professional practice. This is an area of focus that has received surprisingly little attention amongst empirical researchers in the UK, so I’ve taken quite an open and grounded approach to my data collection in order to try and understand the degree to which existing engagements with religion and belief are fostering equality, trust and inclusion amongst employees from a range of faith and belief backgrounds within the workplace. I’m currently interviewing and undertaking focus groups with a range of professionals from HR and Equality & Diversity leads, to policy makers and other professionals for whom religion and belief is central to their roles and/or their lives. I’ve also spent time observing and participating in meetings and events where religion and belief is relevant, and working with staff networks organising around issues of faith at work.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two? 

There seems to be a fairly mixed picture around the place of religion and belief within the small number of organisations I’ve encountered through my research. I’ve not done a full analysis of my data at this stage, but I think it’s fair to suggest that amongst the majority of the public and private sector workplaces I’ve had contact with there is often an assumption that religion is, or ought to be, ‘a private matter’ – something that is somehow to be left at the doors of what employers characterize as the ‘secular’, and therefore ‘neutral’ and ‘equitable’, workplace. In some cases, even where there are ‘tick box’ style attempts to include and accommodate various groups on the basis of different beliefs, religion is still somehow constructed along these lines within organizational policy, with employers committing to “provide accommodation that is accessible to all and offers privacyfor those who wish to observe their faith” (italics my emphasis), for example.

The idea that religion ought to be ‘private’ is often unspoken but seems to emerge quite pervasively when some participants are probed for their views. I’ve also seen these idea manifest as a response, and sometimes a form of resistance when employees seek to raise issues related to religion and belief at work or to seek particular accommodations. This is in spite of, the commonly touted refrain within official HR and Equality & Diversity rhetoric that employees should ‘bring their whole selves to work’ and speaks to a general anxiety around the place that religion ought to occupy within workplaces that are constructed by employers as ‘public spaces’.

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