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“…understand who you are, the nature of your identity. Be proud of it and have confidence”
Baroness Valerie Ann Amos was born on the island of Wakenaam, a Dutch word which means “waiting for a name.” At age nine, along with her siblings and parents, she migrated from the unnamed island to England. There Valerie navigated a future, making a name for herself, including toppling barriers and breaking ceilings.
Valerie was born on March 13, 1954 to Eunice and Michael Amos who were both teachers/ educators. She attended Townley Grammar School for Girls, She was the first black student in her school and excelled in both academics and sports. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, Warwick University (1976), a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies, Birmingham University (1977), and did research work (graduate studies) at East Anglia University.
Valerie has given of her life to public service. She was a Local Government worker, spending nine years (1981-1989) in grassroots democracy, during which time she visited several boroughs in London. In 1989 she was appointed Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission. This Commission is responsible for promoting the law on workplace equality in nine areas which are considered “protected.” Ms. Amos’ duty was to ensure the commission she led protected persons from being discriminated against based namely on: – sex, age, race, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, religious background and pregnancy.
In 1995 Valerie took up appointment as Director of Amos Fraser Bernard, an international consultancy business she co-founded. From 1997 her career took a different path. Politics. Valerie is a member of the British Labour Party.
Baroness, politics and being many firsts
In August 1997 Valerie was elevated to “life peerage”- a noble rank of the British honourary system – and appointed Baroness of Brondesbury in the London Borough of Brent by Britain Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In 1998 she was appointed Baroness-in-waiting Government’s Whip in the House of Lords, i.e. the upper chamber of the British Parliament, where she served as a Member of Parliament until 2001. She was the first woman of colour to be appointed to the position.
From 2003-2007 she served as Leader of the House of Lords and President Council which was another first as a black woman. She also served in Blair’s Cabinet, having been appointed Secretary of State for International Development in 2003, becoming the first black woman to serve as a Minister in the British cabinet. In this portfolio hers was the opportunity to work with the British Foreign Office, international and domestic aid agencies, and foreign governments to help raise the standard of living in developing countries around the world.
In 2019 Valerie was appointed Master of University College, Oxford University, a position she took up in August 1, 2020. This again was another first with the distinction being that she became the first female Master and the first black head of any Oxford college. Prior to her present appointment Baroness Amos served as Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations (2010-2015), a position she assumed after demitting office as United Kingdom (UK) High Commissioner to Australia. And in September 2015 when Valerie was appointed Director of SOAS, University of London, she became the first black woman to lead a university school in the UK. According to its website it is “the world’s leading institution for Oriental and African studies.
Outside of politics and diplomacy Baroness Amos has found time for other events. From 1994-1998 she was Chairwoman, Board of Governors at Royal College of Nursing Institute and of the directors of Hampstead Theatre. She was also deputy chair of the Runnymede Trust, a trustee of Institute of Public Policy Research and involved in Project Hope, an NGO which promotes healthcare.
Honourific titles and award
Additional to the honorific title Baroness (i.e. Lady) Valerie has been awarded Companion of Honour (CH) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her services to the UN and emergency relief in conflict areas, and is also a PC “Privy Counsellor,” a title affixed to current or former members of the House of Commons or House of Lords.
The essence of herstory
Baroness Valerie Ann Amos’ story is one of getting up, going forward, keep climbing and not waiting for someone to give her a name but who, through hard work, has succeeded. Along her meteoric rise she has not forgotten her past which she continues to wear with pride. She credits her foundation in the little island of Wakenaam, which she remembered as close-knit community which had an important influence on her life.
In reflecting on her life, she reportedly told Nigel Rosser, of the Evening Standard that “There was that community bond among residents. Every adult looked after the children. I think one of the most important things is to understand who you are, the nature of your identity. Be proud of it and have confidence.” A fitting philosophy from someone who once lived in an unnamed place but rose to make a name for herself.