Civvy Street

Army officer's inspirational advice to tackle racism

Lt Col (Retd) Michael Lawrence has advice for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities entering civvy street.

A British Army soldier with 37 years of service under his belt has spoken of the determination he has felt his whole life to face racial prejudice head-on in order to lead the way and be an inspiration for others following in his footsteps. 

"I chose to take that head-on. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be a role model." 

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Michael Lawrence is keen to encourage others from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community who wish to transition to civvy street to first and foremost believe in themselves and see themselves as being worthy of success. 

The British Army veteran started his military career as a Gunner in the 1980s at a time when racism was rife in the Armed Forces and in the general public as a whole and is one of a small percentage of people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community to transition to civvy street as a Lieutenant Colonel. 

He is passionate about diversity being visible so that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities can see opportunity wherever they look and be inspired to not let prejudice get in the way of their dream career. 

He was particularly moved by retired US Army four-star General Lloyd J. Austin III's appointment as Secretary of Defense in January 2021 – the first time an African American has taken on the role - saying in a post on social media: 

"If you can't see it, you can't be it. 

"Great to see another person of colour appointed to a senior position. 

"A diversity role model helping to break the glass ceiling."

The former soldier advises anyone with dreams to join the armed forces that, whatever your background, "It's absolutely achievable and everyone should aspire to that."

While serving, Lt Col (Retd) Lawrence had many friends from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community that would leave the British Army or become disillusioned due to the way they were being treated or because opportunities were not being presented to them. Speaking with Richard Wyeth, BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, he explains that he chose to tackle that prejudice head-on, saying:

"I had role models already in my life that I could model myself on and I just wanted to continue that. 

"I suppose I consider myself as a bit of a Pathfinder, a bit of pioneer knowing that someone's got to go through the pain, someone's got to push through the barriers to allow others to come behind it, and so I suppose my military life has been defined by those characteristics." 

Tips and advice for transitioning to civvy street 

Because he wanted to be as successful as possible, Lt Col (Retd) Lawrence worked hard, did not take no for an answer and tried his best to achieve every goal he had set himself. 

The veteran admits that ending his career as a Lt Col with customer-facing jobs helped make the transition to civvy street relatively easy for him, saying: 

"My last two jobs was as Lt Col and they were very much customer-facing jobs ... which really prepared me for talking to people in suits, talking to people about commercial issues, about procurement, about all the sort of things that as a soldier you don't normally get involved in." 

His time serving in the British Army and the transition to civvy street has encouraged him to help others with advice for service leavers, especially those from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. He said: 

1) Believe in yourself 

"Firstly, don't doubt yourself. You're as good as anybody else around you. Do not doubt yourself. 

2) It's not what you know 

"Make sure you really work on building up your network. The network is so important. Most people that I know of, ex-forces, have got employment through either someone they know or someone who knows someone that they know rather than actually going down to the job centre. 

3) Don't forget the power of LinkedIn 

"I would say really major on building up good, robust networks with people that you met over the years in the military, outside the military, on the different platforms such as LinkedIn and then exploit those networks, really make them work for you." 

Tackling racism in the armed forces 

Lt Col (Retd) Lawrence is not alone in his fight for equality and diversity. 

Former senior British Army officer Lieutenant General (Retired) Sir Tyrone Richard Urch tweeted a statement of support for all British Army personnel from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in June 2020.

It followed the murder of George Floyd and killing of Breonna Taylor in America in 2020, and the subsequent protests by the Black Lives Matter movement – whose mission statement is to "eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes."

Sir Tyrone said: "Over the past fortnight, we have seen an explosion of anger and frustration across the United States regarding racial divisions and the impact they can have on all of us; that anger has spilled over onto the streets of London.

"We are not immune to racism here in the UK and, as a representation of society, neither is the Army. 

"I am acutely aware that the British Army, like many institutions in society, still has some way to go but I believe we are taking big steps in the right direction.

"I am determined that we will push back against racism, hatred and division and that we will continue to work tirelessly so that, one day, conversations can centre solely on a soldier's or an officer's skills and achievements in the Army, without any reference to their cultural background of the colour of their skin." 

It has been suggested that the more diverse the British Army is, the greater the pool of skills will be available which in turn will lead to better operational effectiveness.  

In response to the independent Service Complaints Ombudsman calling upon the Ministry of Defence to do more to tackle racism in the Armed Forces in December 2019, the MOD released the following statement: 

"Racism has no place in the military and anyone found to be behaving in such a way can expect to be disciplined, discharged or dismissed. 

"We are committed to stamping it out and have a range of measures to ensure that this issue is tackled. 

"This includes creating a new team to deal more quickly and effectively with complaints by service personnel of racism, shifting the culture of the armed forces so that everyone feels included, with even more emphasis on stronger leadership action and improved education and training. 

"Earlier this year we published the Wigston report to further address inappropriate behaviour in the Armed Forces." 

The Wigston report was a review into inappropriate behaviours and was commissioned in response to repeated instances of inappropriate and allegedly unlawful behaviour by serving members of the UK Armed Forces.

The review, conducted by incoming Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Michael Wigston in 2019, found "an unacceptable level of inappropriate behaviour persists" in the military, saying:

"A significant number of our people have experienced bullying, discrimination and harassment, including sexual, but have not felt able or been able to come forward to report it."

The report, however, did state good behaviour in the Armed Forces is "the norm".

The Secretary of State for Defence accepted all 36 recommendations on how to investigate and deal with inappropriate behaviour within the armed services.