By Yvonne Field
Last November I wrote an article entitled, ‘My Big Question’ which was a personal enquiry into the long term sustainability of African and Caribbean communities here in the UK. Having spent all of my professional life working with individuals, groups and organisations which seek to promote social inclusion, I was raising challenging questions about the effectiveness of six decades of social policy interventions and programmes which to my mind, had little substantial and long lasting effect within these communities. Given that we of African and Caribbean decent, continue to be included in some of the negative indicators cited for educational achievement, unemployment, health outcomes, the criminal justice system etc. and the ‘race’ dialogue seems to have fallen of this government’s agenda, even in its Big Society, I was anxious for my community to convene and start conceiving and designing new, previously unthought-of solutions for ourselves.
It was my 17 year old daughter Lara who alerted me to the fact that riots were just about to begin in Lewisham, our home borough. Although heading home from West Ham, her Black Berry Messenger service was keeping her and her friends several hours ahead of events being reported through Sky and the BBC news.
Once safely home in Catford, via Blackheath (as central Lewisham and all its transport system was on lock down from about 4pm on the Monday), Lara was able to provide up to the minute accounts of local shops, districts and neighbouring boroughs which were being besieged by groups of young people and adults. Catford town centre was one of the most affected areas within Lewisham borough, with JD Sports, Argos and Blockbusters being affected the most. We watched in dismay as parts of Croydon and Hackney were also rioted – we felt, similar to many others, that these particularly poor neighbourhoods were left to burn. One local response that we were both involved in was an emergency meeting being convened on Tuesday afternoon, at a local youth project in Deptford. Overnight we produced stickers and book marks with a message that this unacceptable behaviour and we went into Lewisham and Catford Town Centres and spoke to all sections of the local community to seek their reactions to what had happened and to elicit support.
I also attended a local special police consultative meeting one evening– the previous meeting had by all accounts been somewhat unruly (why should people not express frustration, anger and fear?), and this one attempted unsuccessfully to ‘contain’ people down, by taking all the questions from the floor and then grouping them.
What I saw was a missed opportunity for real dialogue facilitated between communities of difference – the police, the local authority, local businesses, old and young people, black, Asian and white people to name just a few ways in which the conversation could have been convened. The follow up meeting takes place later this month but it feels to me as though a unique opportunity was missed.
What has this all got to do with my race you may ask? Although post riot evidence suggests that black young people were not the main perpetrators, the catalyst for the riots was the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police, the media disproportionately reported black young people’s involvement and comments from the noted British historian David Starkey, upped racial tensions substantially by adding fuel to already raging flames. One thing that struck me however, was the lack of a rapid co-ordinated response from within our community – we appeared to lack a clear strategy and to not have a nationally recognisable organisation or a group of leaders to represent our position coherently.
Since April this year, in response to my original big question, a volunteer ler group of some twenty African and Caribbean community facilitators from aged 21- 60+ have been in intergenerational dialogue (a collaborative enquiry) surfacing some of the big questions facing our community. Through the birthing of the Ubele initiative (which is Swahili for The Future) we intend to extend the invitation for dialogue and action to others next month. Such conversations could eventually extend to other communities.
The need for collective action in the aftermath of the riots makes the need for such crucial conversations even more urgent. We need to create a space to surface our concerns, challenge our assumptions and areas of weakness as a community and design our own new solutions. I along with the other ‘Ubele Critical Friends’, need to find new ways to become even more resilient as a community so that our sustainability here in Britain is assured.