From council estate to House of Lords – race equality campaigner is honoured by University of Leicester

A race equality campaigner who rose from humble beginnings on a Leicester council estate to sit in the House of Lords has been honoured by the University of Leicester.

A mainstay of The Powerlist, which brings together professional role models for young people of African and African Caribbean heritage in the UK, Simon Woolley is a passionate advocate for racial equality, who has enjoyed a decorated career in British politics

A Crossbench member in the House of Lords, Lord Woolley is the founder of Operation Black Vote – an initiative dedicated to addressing the democratic deficit. Using his prominence to raise awareness of race inequalities, Simon has spread awareness of inequalities in health, education and employment.

Today (Tuesday 18 July), the University of Leicester formally recognised Lord Woolley’s achievements, by awarding him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws during a graduation ceremony, held at De Montfort Hall.

After accepting his doctorate, Lord Woolley gave a passionate speech to the hundreds of new Leicester graduates present at the ceremony.

Lord Woolley awarded Honorary Doctorate of Laws during a graduation ceremony

A visibly emotional Lord Woolley said: “I am a little overwhelmed. It gives me immense pride, honour and gratitude to bestowed such an honour. Above all, with it being here, in Leicester.

“I was made in Leicester, on the St Matthew’s estate, to be precise. In the 1960s when racism was rife. The skinheads used to prowl the streets looking for black and brown people to beat up. Leicester made me. Sometimes we had to physically fight those skinheads who tried to terrorise us.”

Lord Woolley told the graduates: “Today is a significant day in your lives. Martin Luther King said intelligence is not enough, true education is about having intelligence and character. This university has bestowed both on you.

“We [the University and I] are not asking for your success, we’re demanding it. Our society demands it.

“Feel the presence of your talent, feel your ambition of what you might do, made in Leicester.”

President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, said: “Lord Woolley’s life story is worthy of a movie script, such has been his journey from humble beginnings here in Leicester to his role in politics and advocating for racial equality.

“He’s a true Citizen of Change and his impact cannot be underestimated – having opened doors for so many people who might have felt politics is not for them.

“I would like to congratulate Lord Woolley on his honorary award and thank him for attending our graduation ceremony, where he was able to inspire our new generation of graduates.”

Lord Woolley served as an Equality and Human Rights Commissioner from 2009 to 2012, and in 2018 he was appointed by Prime Minister Theresa May to create and lead the UK Government’s pioneering Race Disparity Unit. The Unit collects, analyses and publishes data on how crime, education and health are affected by ethnicity.

Born in Leicester, Lord Woolley was fostered and then adopted as a small child by a local couple, and grew up on a council estate in the city. He left school without A-levels, working first as an apprentice mechanic and then in marketing for the Rank Organisation. He later returned to formal study via an access course, gaining first a BA in Spanish and English Literature at Middlesex University, then an MA in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary University of London. He is passionate about educational access and the importance of recognising and supporting marginalised potential.

Lord Woolley has a track record of addressing representational imbalances, transforming institutions, and nurturing individuals. His cross-party and cross-sector work with Operation Black Vote has seen the number of MPs from black and minority ethnic backgrounds rise from just four to more than 60 over the past two decades. In collaboration with Magdalen College, Oxford, he has been instrumental in the development of Pathway to Success, a programme designed to equip future BME leaders with the tools and knowledge required for senior leadership.

Lord Woolley was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2019 and was created a life peer in December of the same year as Baron Woolley of Woodford. He sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. In October 2021 he became Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge.

He is a regular contributor to newspapers nationally and internationally on topics relating to equality, diversity and social justice. His autobiography Soar: My Journey from Council Estate to House of Lords was published in 2022, with a foreword by Rev. Jesse Jackson.