Cheryl Brown is an attorney based in Jamaica. She gained her University of London LLB in 1998 and served as Jamaica’s representative on UNESCO's Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC), later serving on the Bureau of the IGBC. She subsequently served on the International Bioethics Committee (IBC), and on the IBC’s Bureau.
Brown was selected as one of 150 inspirational women associated with the University of London as part of the University’s Leading Women campaign, which marks the 150th anniversary of women being permitted to sit ‘special examinations’ at the University of London.
While in London to attend the University of London’s second 1858 Charter Lecture – focusing on women’s higher education and equality in the workplace – Brown talked to London Connection about growing up in Jamaica, seeing life through different prisms and her desire to be a novelist.
CHERYL BROWN: I sat and I cried for three days when I was told I was going to be featured in the gallery of 150 Leading Women. I was so taken aback and honoured, I still am. When I went on the website and saw the 150 women – there was the first female member of the House of Commons; there was my favourite writer, Virginia Woolf; there was Ruth Jhabvala; there was the Queen Mother; and there was the first female Prime Minister in the Caribbean, Eugenia Charles, a woman I've always admired. There were all of these people, it really overwhelmed me to be in their company.
Our generation was the first to be able to acquire tertiary education. People like my father, who died 10 years ago when he was 93, was largely self-educated, and just worked hard at whatever jobs came his way. My mother worked so hard, she went out to work. The Lord blessed her with four children but she raised 17. Her favourite comment was: 'There's always room for one more'. And, in a very real way, I think we've always tried to emulate that.
An emphasis on education
It was a wonderful upbringing. We were poor, like most first generation university people in the Caribbean, but we never knew it because we were surrounded by so much love and the emphasis on education. The four daughters that my parents had all went in to non-traditional roles: being an attorney was predominantly male; one was the first female to go to the technical university and do quantity surveying, she now has her own company; one is a Vice-President.
When I said to my father, 'Do you think I'm too old to go to law school?', he said 'Not if you're my child'. I'm not sure if the quotation is his, but he said: 'You're never too old to be what you could have been'. That was a wonderful statement. And so I went off, and I was among the oldest in the class.
I started out in the humanities, a double major in French and English. After that I went to teach, and that was the only degree I did full time. I was 21 after the first. The University decided I'd done quite well and offered me two postgraduate scholarships, one in English and one in French. I decided to do English and never regretted it. I did an MPhil in English on Black American literature, with an emphasis on James Baldwin. The University suggested that I do some more work on it and submit it as a PhD. I said, “I don't think I'm going to be an academic” so it does not make sense – first big regret of my life.
Then I did a Diploma in Education while still teaching full time, did very well, and I think a week after finishing that I resigned from teaching when I realised I could not raise a family on a teacher’s remuneration. I was at home and somebody called – I've never been interviewed for a job, I've always got a call saying 'we hear that you're not working' – and I ran the Social Development Commission (SDC), which is the largest statutory body in Jamaica and deals with people who are not academically oriented. We opened the HEART Academies – the Human Employment and Resource Training Trust – and we had several of these.
While I was running the SDC, I did a Postgraduate Diploma in Management in the evenings. Nothing was ever done easily! They asked me to come back and teach on the course, so I was studying, running the SDC, teaching, and had my first child at the same time. Whenever I look back, I think 'how did you do that?'