Cllr Evelyn Akoto moderating the panel at Southwark Black History Month Event on 17 October 2015 Karin Woodley, Dr.Kandie Ejiofor , Ade Sawyerr, Professor David Muir

With so many issues within the black community it was always going to be difficult for me to prioritise on the topic to talk about.  I was therefore happy that the black councillors in Southwark who organised their annual Black History Month event provided the panel with a list of issues – attainment, pride in civic and political engagement, culture and identity and access to public services.


-On attainment

African children in the UK are smart and they excel in the school system when they are younger and aspire to higher if more traditional professions when growing up and are highly motivated.  But some find it difficult to transition into the secondary school when they become independent travellers and act out under peer pressure.  Sometimes their major problems relate the issues of adolescence when they take the tentative steps to be adults and lose a bit of motivation, other times it is about the fact that the inner city schools that they attend are not good at pushing them and setting for them standards that are lower than they are capable of achieving.  Some parents when their children are not doing well decide to send them to expensive private schools because they believe that it is the state school system that are failing them.  Private schools are expensive and some parents end of doing several jobs so that they are able to afford the fees often at the cost of the time they are able to spend with their children.

But we cannot leave the education of our children to the school system alone, we as parents have a responsibility to ensure that we play an important part of their education complementing what they learn in the school system with our values that we instil in them and with assisting them at home with their homework even to the point of setting up rules of study where we are able to assist or supervise them.

We also need to be involved in their schools ensuring that we not only attend the Parent Teacher Association meetings but also get elected and selected to become school governors so that we can influence and control: the environment within which they study, the calibre of staff and who teaches there, the curriculum and how more money can be raised by the school to provide and encourage more extracurricular activities.  We can improve the school system if we are vigilant enough to take over the system and ensure that those majority black schools also have majority black teachers and majority black governors.

Increasingly our children often excel and go to university.  This provides them an opportunity to go beyond their comfort zones to go into the universities in the provinces to learn about life outside London and have a far richer university interaction, make new friends and develop a world view of the world.  The problem however for some is that despite their academic achievement they do not get the higher level jobs that they aspire to because they are locked out of the traditional networks  that provide easy access to the jobs.  They do not get the opportunities for volunteering and to serve internships and apprentices.  Our black professionals should be doing more to open their offices and workshops to sponsor them in their search for these jobs so that they can get their foot on the first rung in the corporate world.

On Civic/Political engagement

The strength of communities is often determined by the strength of the community organisations that provide that supportive environment for it to thrive in.  It is therefore important that we must be active citizens which means that going to work, paying our taxes and voting is no longer enough to get us what we want as a community.  Government will not do everything for us; indeed governments are about one size fits all solutions. They do not know enough about cultural identities to be able to do things that specific groups of people need for their cultural identity or sensitivity and often they do not have the knowledge of minority communities.  Private companies will not do it all for us either because they are about providing services for profit and they do not care too much about specialist services  from which they cannot make a big buck.

So we have to support our communities by getting involved in community organisations where we can, campaign and advocate and also by actively engaging in political organisations where the policies that affect us are debated and determined.

We need to develop and groom politicians of all shades and colours and it is when we tie our colours to one mast that we are taken for granted.  When the authorities start discussing engagement and consultation within our communities, the talk is about going to the black churches and the black mosques but we are not the only folk who are church goers and not all of us go to black majority churches.  This is how we get marginalised when we should be sitting at the table of representation at the local, regional and national level.  To think that Obama went to a black majority church that was then used to demonise him by his own party is critical to how we much view ourselves.  We need our politicians in all the parties – when shall we have a black  Conservative councillor in Southwark.  Why should their MPs all represent lilywhite areas?  When shall we have a Labour MP in Southwark!

On identity and culture

Our identity provides us with a sense of pride and as Africans we have always lived a dual culture, firstly because we were colonised and imbibe a lot of British culture and secondly because we have lived here for several years.  But though culture is our about our identity and upbringing and is a combination of our language, dressing food, clothes and other acquired things, it is also about our training and our values.  Perhaps we the older ones have not been able to mediate our culture of achievement and motivation to our young ones but we must try our best to ensure that they do not adopt the negative aspects of the black street culture that leads them to gangs and crimes and ends us visiting Police Stations endless times in this country.

Our culture is about excellence, it is about willing everyone to achieve but it is also about creating a supportive environment of family, extended family and adopted families that is about helping each other.  It is also about explaining to our young why our rights of passage are important to us and define us.  We must explain that our general outlook is about one of positivity and not about negativity.  We should perhaps do more to have conversations with our children about who we are, we should encourage them to visit our countries of origin either with us or on their own to find out about our culture.

A sense of culture gives them the confidence to thrive despite the racism that is and will be thrown at them in their life in Britain.

On health inequalities

There is a bit about discrimination that involves not only access to jobs but also access to services.  The inequalities are sometimes very stark in the way the mainstream reacts.  Our community organisations did a lot of excellent health promotion work to help stem the increase in the growth rate of HIV AIDS within our communities, the work they did extended to policy work as well as prevention, treatment and care work only for the approved funding for HIV AIDS work to be given to THT that started out as an organisation that deals with men who have sex with men organisation.  Even the organisational development budget has been lost.

FGM has created confusion in this country because it would seem that a culture has been transported into a western environment so whether or not it has been relevant within Africa, it no longer is relevant here and parents need to accept this – a major problem if it still continues now that it has been criminalised.

The more we grow in numbers in this country, the more we get attached to issues that are not always of our making and for which there are very little resources but there lies our own inability to be strategic about them.

The issue of sickle cell is where we need to do more as a community to influence government policy.  It is seen as a long term condition that affects only black people.  There is also a lot of stigma attached to the illness in terms of the long absences from the school system for sufferers and how it affects their academic achievements.  For those in employment the long periods of absence from their work place when ill has an adverse impact on their attendance record and by extension their ability to do their work effectively.  Because organisations cannot come together to recognise the fact that it is one of the registered illness which means that it should benefit from more resources and that the commissioning should be different, we cannot still apply the pressure on government.  The inequalities continue to exist because government only wants to focus on the health issues and not on the non health issues that are often more important and create more problems such as housing, travel and other benefits.

Let us all come together and reverse these inequalities and hold the government to account