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Studying the University of London LLB opened up a lot of different things

LLB graduate and attorney Cheryl Brown on being selected as one of the University's Leading Women, the power of education and her desire to write a novel.

Written by Peter Quinn |

LLB graduate and attorney 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."

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?'

Cheryl Brown pictured in Senate House
"You learnt to see life through so many different prisms: through the philosophical, through the medical, through the religious."

Thinking from your own perspective

Studying the University of London LLB opened up a lot of different things. I was invited to serve on UNESCO's Ethics Committee and all sorts of things happened as a result. I've always said, no matter what you end up being or doing, there are one or two degrees you should do. Start off with humanities for the broader picture, thinking from your own perspective, including History, or the law, which again focuses you but also strengthens the mind and the memory. You ought to do one of these. 

I think the LLB is the degree I've welcomed the most, but the profession that I've enjoyed the most is teaching. And I think I'm going to end my career as I started, in teaching. There's something about seeing the light going on in people's brains. 

I remember years ago I was teaching in an all-girls High School and there was this one girl who proudly put up her hand and said: 'I've never gone to the library and have never read a book unless it was on the syllabus'. About four months into teaching, one Monday morning she put up her hand and said 'guess what, I went to the library and borrowed a book'. It sounds ridiculous, but my entire day was made."

Seeing life through different prisms

I served on the Inter-Governmental Bioethics Committee for six years, it was so fascinating. Then I was appointed to the Bureau of the IGBC, and the very next year I got a phone call from the Director General of the Ethics Section of UNESCO inviting me to serve on the International Bioethics Committee – I was one of 36 people who are invited in their own right. I served on that for eight years and I absolutely loved it. The things we discussed included refugees and the ethical concerns about housing them and giving them jobs. I'm not going to say it's easy to integrate them – it is extremely difficult – but they need a chance. They are not running away through choice, they're usually running away because there's war, there's oppression. A lot of them are trained doctors, trained teachers, and they're leaving everything behind. Host countries could benefit.

That part of coming up with strategies, which were published, including the legal and ethical aspects – the LLB degree was so useful, because when you are talking about ethics you have to talk about how the law is going to affect things. You learnt to see life through so many different prisms: through the philosophical, through the medical, through the religious.

I've always wanted to write novels and poetry. I have a title for a novel, Table For One. Last night at dinner in the hotel somebody came in and I heard the waitress say, 'How many of you?', and he said, 'Table for one'. And I thought, no, no, no, you can't use that phrase ever again, that's the title of my first novel! It came to me in Germany when I went to see the Berlin Wall. I was leaving in the morning at five and the taxi man pulls up and puts the suitcases in the trunk. The trunk is still up and I said, 'Was?' And he says, 'Der man'. And I said 'Nicht man'. And he looked at me with such pity, this is what got me – she's travelling on her own and there's no man. A friend said you should call the book Table For One: Nicht Man.