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BHM: Reflecting on unsung Sheroes… by Yvonne Field

October 28th, 2020

As part of a social labs exercise, I recently produced a map which allowed me to surface some of the major policies, people, events and publications which had influenced my life over a period of 50 years. I was surprised by the number of insights which emerged and the real sense that the majority of the historical events which immediately came to mind stemmed from the USA and not the UK.  

“This led me to question why our Black British Women’s grassroots political history of organising and activism during the 1960’s to 1980’s was not more widely known and celebrated.”

Our Place to Call Home report in 2015 shed light on the overlooked and often unrecognised contribution that women’s leadership has made to the development of our communities. 

So, during this Black History Month, I want to celebrate a few of our unsung sheroes of the Black British Struggle. This includes my mentor Sybil Phoenix, OBE who built the first Black led purpose built youth club in the UK and has provided a home of safety, lifeskills training  and educational support for several thousand young women through the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust (named after her young daughter who died in a car crash);  Mavis Best who campaigned tirelessly to repeal the SUS laws in the 1970’s which were a precursor to the insidious Stop and Search laws we have today; social justice activist Olive Morris who founded Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and died only aged 27 years, Joan Riley who wrote The Unbelonging a novel about sexual abuse in Black families and who was vilified by our community for surfacing what was seen as unspeakable and Marlene Bogle who set up Brixton Black Women’s Centre and London’s Black Lesbian Centre who acted as a mentor for work that I was involved  in during the early 1980’s to establish Lambeth Girls’ Project and who died earlier this year. I would also like to shed light on all the Black African Caribbean and Asian Women youth workers who have worked tirelessly over decades to support the development of our communities especially those who have remained my sisters for more than three decades and who came together to form Aurat/ Obba - African and Asian Women’s Youth Workers Group back in the 1980’s.

Sybil Phoenix, OBESource:

Sybil Phoenix, OBE


Mavis Best Source:

Mavis Best


Olive MorrisSource:

Olive Morris


Marlene BogleSource:

Marlene Bogle


Joan Riley Source: Creator: National Portrait Gallery London

Joan Riley

Source: Creator: National Portrait Gallery London

During BHM I remember other events and people who defined some my more youthful days (maybe the reminiscing inevitably starts as one enters the 6th decade!): the Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth and St Paul’s uprisings in 1981 and the and highly creative work that 81 Acts of Exuberance Defiance are doing to commemorate this event next year, which we are supporting; the racist murders of three young men aged 15 – 18 years in less than two years whilst I was working in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, namely Rolan Adam, Rohit Duggal and then Stephen Lawrence; witnessing, Nelson Mandela being inaugurated as the first Black President of South African in 1994 along with the rest of the world when only 10 years earlier it felt like I would never see the dismantling of Apartheid in my own lifetime. 

Another stark insight that arose from this exercise was how my life has been and continues to be shaped and influenced by the triangle of my ancestors; my personal and professional life being interconnected with Africa, the Caribbean and Europe – navigating three continents often simultaneously in my daily life can sometimes feel conflicted and yet the flow is seamless. Completing a DNA test last year gave me more information about my African ancestry. Indeed, this unearthing of history is part of the personal work I choose to do in the forthcoming years to help shed light on my own Black history.

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