London Connection Q&A: Cheryl Brown

LLB graduate, attorney and author Cheryl Brown talks to Lisa Pierre about being called to the Bar, working at UNESCO, and why her mother and father were the wisest people she's known
Cheryl Brown
Cheryl Brown (pictured left) at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee in Paris, September 2012
The LLB gave me many career options and opportunities which I had not had before

Cheryl Brown is an attorney in Jamaica. Graduating with an LLB in 1998 has, she says, "opened up lots of fields". Indeed it has. Cheryl is currently Jamaica’s representative on UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee. She also manages the Office of Sponsored Research at the University of the West Indies and is Chief Adjudicator for the Literary Arts for the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission. In 2010 she published a a book of literary criticism, Black American Literature: from Beecher-Stowe to Baldwin (VDM Verlag Dr. Müller) and more recently has published an article on the ethical concerns faced by medical personnel as a result of recent scientific progress. She has two daughters, Lauren and Elise.

You are involved in so many different projects. Is your career as an attorney still your career priority?
Yes. I have long wanted to study the law and feel strongly that everyone ought to do either a liberal arts or a law degree no matter what they end up becoming. I would not refer to it as a ‘career’ at the moment, in that I am not out practising the law exclusively. In my present job at the university, however, I do, surprisingly, as much law as several of my classmates from Law School, who are in-house counsels for large firms or for government departments.

For example, as the person who is supposed to protect the Intellectual Property of the Campus, I am always using the law – in contracts and various forms of agreements as well as in the filing of patents and so on. And generally on the Campus, if the senior administrators have a contract which they need to sign, the practice is for them to ask for my opinion. Additionally, I am also involved in ethics and there is a surprising number of lawyers on National Bioethics Committees (NBCs) as well as on the IGBC.

"Much of what I have done over the past 10 years can be directly attributed to having acquired a Law degree."

How much has your LLB helped you?
It gave me many career options and opportunities which I had not had before. In fact, much of what I have done over the past 10 years can be directly attributed to having acquired a Law degree. It has been the underpinning for most of my achievements in the last decade.

Was there a particular reason that you chose to study through the International Programmes?
At the time – and even now – I had obligations which prevented my being a face-to-face student. Not only was I then married, but I had two young daughters and am traditional enough not to have wanted to leave them for extended periods of time. The International Programmes was a godsend for someone like me.

It turned out well, since, having to read all the texts and teach myself – which was what we did at the time – I acquired a fuller and broader grasp of the law. No one had to distil anything for me.

How important a part do you think education plays in shaping one’s opportunities?
As we would say: Res ipsa loquitur (‘The thing speaks for itself’). The world today is extremely competitive and not only is one degree not usually enough, but a variety of interests and qualifications – even if not all tertiary – is extremely important if one is to really self-actualise and be competitive.

This, of course, is for those of an academic frame of mind. I have always maintained that if you are to be a dressmaker, be the best one there is. But, in any event, it is education or training which one must have to be able to use the opportunities which present themselves.

This, coupled with being in the right place, having the right attitude and being receptive will usually take one far. Education by itself, though, is sometimes not enough; a little luck is often necessary. Let us not forget, as well, that entrepreneurial opportunities are also there for those who do not wish to work for others, and having the right education/training is essential.

"If you have the confidence which knowing your subject matter gives you, it is obvious to all and people will listen. Your opinions will matter. That is an important starting point."

No one will deny that there is still a bit of nepotism and the importance of having the right contacts exists, but I have also noticed that if you have the confidence which knowing your subject matter gives you, it is obvious to all and people will listen. Your opinions will matter. That is an important starting point.

In your opinion, what is the toughest challenge women face in the workplace?
Deny it though one might, women, I have found, always seem to be having to prove themselves in ways which are not asked of men. Just recently, my niece – who is a paediatrician – was being interviewed on the telephone by a university hospital in Canada. They asked her if she had children and when she said yes, the next question was who would look after them if she came to do postgraduate work. Men are not asked questions like this.

I would not like to prioritise the challenges – there is that of salary differentials and having to deal with the ‘old boy network’ which is alive and well – but overall, there is still general stereotyping, negative stereotyping in this part of the world, although my generation has made significant strides and we are slowly but surely being represented in the Boardroom.

Generally, though, to achieve this, women have to work harder and be more qualified, to stay in the same place or to be perceived as being competent. I will not live to see genuine equality – except in the professions – between men and women in the work place.

My daughters’ generation is interesting to watch because they are not prepared, for the most part, to be as accepting as we were and so the changes re perception of a woman’s role are happening for them. They are making this happen.

"The Law, in Jamaica, is one of the greatest examples of progress."

Do you think opportunities for women have improved in the Caribbean?
Yes. In the past decade or so. But at a price, as I suggested earlier, and because so many more have gone into the professions where they can and do work for themselves. The Law, in Jamaica, is one of the greatest examples of progress.

For the first time we have a female Chief Justice; a female Attorney General/Minister of Justice and a female Director of Public Prosecutions (whom I happened to have taught English Language and Literature from Fourth Form to Sixth), all at the same time. But this tends to happen more in the professions – engineering, law, architecture, medicine. Much more needs to be done in the private sector where, for the most part, the females are bunched in middle management.

This defies the statistics which prove that more women have had tertiary education than men, particularly in this generation. One of the repercussions of women becoming more educated is that the vast majority of professional women in Jamaica remain unmarried, or the marriages do not last. This is quite noticeable. And a pity. And the major reason is that most men do not like having a wife who is more educated than they are. The ‘price’ to which I keep referring. We apparently cannot have it all.

Tell us about your role as Jamaica’s representative to Unesco's International Bioethics Committee in Paris.
The IBC consists of 36 members drawn worldwide at the invitation of the Director-General. One can imagine how discussions can range over a wide area and be filled with different perspectives and why consensus is difficult, if not impossible, in certain areas. As Jamaica’s representative I have to keep up with the literature; know what UNESCO is planning in training and education in ethics in all areas of the world; be aware of the agenda items for the sessions and be prepared to discuss them. I have always to know what my Government’s position is and why it holds it and be able to articulate and justify it. Things become interesting when governments change and views on certain topics change overnight. There is still, however, a little ‘wriggle room’ for individual opinions, within the framework of the overall opinion of the country.

"One has to keep up with views and with what is happening in the field and this involves a lot of reading. Being ‘moral’ and knowing what one feels is ‘right’ will not suffice."

Do you find this role demanding?
I am not a trained ethicist. Not all members of the IBC are. But I have written a Code and Policy on Research Ethics for the UWI and staged two international ethics conferences here. I presented a paper on the Law and Ethics at one of them. And now that the National Bioethics Committee has been formed, the interest in ethics has been cemented.

One has to keep up with views and with what is happening in the field and this involves a lot of reading. Being ‘moral’ and knowing what one feels is ‘right’ will not suffice. One has to approach each situation from the ethical point of view and to know what these sometimes competing views are.

At a conference in Paris in 2008, the topic being discussed was cloning. For some countries it is a scientific matter; for some it is religious and for others it is cultural or all of the above. The difficulty is that ethics is not a discipline and several other disciplines (medicine, law, for example) wish always to define what it is. It can, at times, appear to be a shifting target.

Lisa Pierre, Simon Askey, Cheryl Brown
Pictured above from left to right: Lisa Pierre (Alumni Relations Manager), Simon Askey (Deputy Director, Undergraduate Laws Programme) and Cheryl Brown; Alumni event, Jamaica, 2011.

You used to be a teacher. What was the most enjoyable and hardest aspect of this profession?
I never found anything hard about teaching at the time. The salary was terrible and, in the end, that was a major factor in why I left the profession. And, given the subjects I taught, I was always marking essays and grammar, and that I did not love. But it was a natural fit, I loved the interaction and to this day, it gives me great pleasure to have ex-students – some of whom are now teachers and most of whom have children – thank me for teaching them.

At a banquet, the Director of Public Prosecutions was the guest speaker and she took the time in the beginning to recognise, she said, “the person who taught me to love language and literature...”. I felt quite overwhelmed, especially since this had all happened so many years ago. One feels as if one is contributing to the development of the society in a very tangible way.

Do you think young people today have the perception that education is a waste of time in light of so many just wanting to be rich and famous?
This is an entire interview in itself. There is a perceived, general ‘dumbing down’ of the society – worldwide, some say – in the traditional forms of education and several of us older folk are on the verge of becoming ‘dinosaurs’, especially when we make literary references to Chaucer, Shakespeare and what used to be considered a traditional education. No more can we say: “Et tu, Brute?”, or “I wandered lonely as a cloud...” and expect our children to know automatically of what we speak. And if, like me, you are not so proficient in the technological arena, you are considered a bit past it. Education is now more relevant.

The internet and computers generally and all the attendant toys – iPods etc – have contributed. It is easier to access a summary on the net than to go to the library or to read the book itself. Then there are shows like American Idol where one can become rich and famous overnight; the adulation and wealth given to people in sports and so on. This generation moves in general more quickly and there is little time for reflection. Where once one wrote a letter and waited several days for it to arrive at its destination and then for the response, now one has only to press ‘send’ and voila!

"If there is something you really want to do, you make the time. When I was doing the LLB I was married, had two young children, worked full time. I found 20 hours per week, every week, to study."

Is there anything else you would like to be involved in, in the future?
I started in teaching and it is my first love. I had toyed with the idea of combining teaching and the law – teaching the law – but am not able to see how this could materialise.

I think it is much too late to start anything new, but recently I became a member of the National Bioethics Committee of Jamaica, so that will take up a bit of time when we have to ponder issues like abortion and cloning and so on and deliver a position.

You play tennis three times a week. Where do you find the time?
If there is something you really want to do, you make the time. When I was doing the LLB I was married, had two young children, worked full time. I found 20 hours per week, every week, to study.

I live with a lot of stress and the tennis is not only for enjoyment (which it is) but is a great stress-buster, plus it energises me. On a light note, I tell people that every ball has a name and that is why I never miss. I go home after work and sort things out and then go to the Pegasus Hotel, which is only five minutes drive from my home, and play for an hour or an hour and a half on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday afternoon. I did this even while at Law School. Each of us who plays there regularly has a tennis name. Mine is Venus.

Who has had the greatest influence on your life?
This is the easiest question to answer. My mother and my father, both of whom died within six months of each other in 2008. Neither of them, to the uninformed observer, was ‘successful’ as the world tends to define success and they were not educated to the tertiary level, but they were the wisest people I have known and instilled in their four daughters a love of learning and a sense of interior certainty. They also had two of the largest funerals I have ever seen which was a testimony to the way they lived their lives. They were both extremely generous people.

"My mother was very down-to-earth and full of little sayings"

My mother was very down-to-earth and full of little sayings such as “common sense is not common at all” and “all these educated fools” whom she heard on the radio or saw on the television. It was from my mother I first heard the expression: “If you do not stand for something, you will fall for nothing”. For her, the recipe for success was common sense, confidence and integrity.

They also told us, long before Barack Obama came on the scene, that we could do and be anything we wanted. We believed them. What both parents placed the most emphasis on, however, was family, love and loyalty. My father told me – perhaps not original – that he had never heard anyone say, on their deathbed: “I wish I had spent more time in the office”.

When I was called to the Bar in the Supreme Court in Jamaica, my father, who was then in his late 80s, with two of his brothers (they are all now deceased) were the first to arrive to witness the ceremony. My mother was ill and unable to climb the stairs. It was a very emotional occasion.

You love literature. Who is your favourite character from any literary work, and why?
I have two – one is/was a living human being and one is fictional. The fictional character is Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. No matter how many novels I read, Elizabeth retains her hold on me – or, perhaps it is Austen’s depiction in that subtle, ironic way.

The real human being is Diana Trilling in her book entitled The Beginning of the Journey. This is a counterpoint to her husband’s book, The Middle of the Journey. Diana wrote this book after her husband had died, and this in itself is telling. In his work, which reveals the ups and downs of his literary/academic career, partly because he was Jewish, he mentions his marriage to Diana, but one is only vaguely aware of her as his shadow or accessory. He speaks fondly of her but her views and opinions are not mentioned. Lionel Trilling was regarded – still is – as one of the finest literary minds of his time.

In her book, the situation is balanced and one realises that she was an intellectual in her own right and gets a glimpse of what it would have been like to walk always in her husband’s reflected glory.

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