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When should our community stay silent and when should we speak out and act?

January 4th, 2012

By Yvonne Field

In April 1993, when Stephen Lawrence was murdered I worked in Greenwich  Council’s Community Education Service (Adult Education and Youth Services). Prior to Stephen’s murder in Eltham, the borough  had already witnessed a number of racist murders of young black men, including that of Rolan Adams in Thamesmead.

I remember the morning after Stephen’s murder well – I was phoned at about 10am by a community education worker who was based on the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke. He told me that another murder had just taken place on the edges of the estate. I initially felt panic and then real anger about how this could have possibly occurred again and in such a relatively short period of time. I also felt  a deep sense of sadness as it felt clear to me that although there had been considerable activity post these other murders, no real and lasting lessons had been learnt and integrated into affected systems.

A group of youth workers in Greenwich mobilised themselves quickly and we marched to the spot where Stephen had been killed, to pay our respects and to lay a wreath. I also remember  however, what seemed like a  lack of apathy on the part of some of my white colleagues  (although the potential and then actual implications of this heinous crime soon became  apparent and they began to shift their position, albeit slowly).  I as an Education Officer back then, was left with a  real sense that we should not be doing this – it was felt to be too radical an act (to march?!) – even though I thought that one of the primary functions of  community educators  was to facilitate others to act (and indeed to take action themselves!).

I also attended Stephen’s funeral and although a full to capacity church, when the youth worker who ran the Methodist Church’s Youth Club saw me outside she pulled me in and found me a seat and I witnessed the most deeply moving funeral I had ever attended during this period in my life.

I have also watched with deep interest over almost two decades, how the Lawrence’s struggle against the racist police system unfolded. I could not even begin to imagine what it might like to be walking in their shoes…of course this is not territory that one would willingly enter. This past week, the vision of Doreen and Neville Lawrence outside of the Old Bailey after the actual verdict, will remain with me for along time to come as it reflected an image of how deeply strained the situation can become within families who have experienced such an horrendous life event and such loss.  I am also deeply aware that, after 18 long years there would, of course, be considerable personal and inter-family costs, as well as the possibility of  this  impacting on future generations of their family, however seeing it in full view of the world left me feeling uncomfortable  and very sad.

I tell this story not because I want to add unnecessarily to the flurry of comments and conversations or to  particularly express my personal feelings of relief that justice has, at last, been done, in a public arena.  I write because I am in total awe and admiration of the tenacity of an ordinary family who until the murder of theirso, brother and nephew, were relatively unknown to most and who spent 18 years saying they wanted answers and justice for Stephen and did not give up until both were achieved.

On Boxing Day another young black man was stabbed, and died in Oxford Street in view of hundreds of shoppers – I am aware however that I might be also making a rather large series of assumptions here as I have no  knowledge about the circumstances  apart from what the media reported and the film footage available on YouTube (and yes I am aware the media can grossly distort events to sell their version of  ‘news’!).

However, what I witnessed was a lack of public response from any of our recognisable community leaders, and this silence appears to be a pattern when such acts are committed within our community. Having spent more than 5 years back and forth to South Africa I have seen at close quarters (in Soweto where I stay), that black communities  have clearly recognisable systems and structures and their leaders speak out and  act decisively when all is not well (within the wider system as well as within their own communities).

After this particular murder I felt moved enough to write and circulate an email which then triggered a series of interesting comments, views and practical suggestions from diverse voices from within our community. I also responded and an interesting and very  challenging debate is still emerging. ..I think it is good to talk – one of our biggest challenge to me appears how we might then act!

I have not included other responses below, as I have not yet sought  permission to publish. I will do so over the next few days and hopefully be able to post another blog entry soon which includes a synthesis of comments and emerging ideas.

One very practical outcome of this whole process is a plan to host a conversation for our sisters (who appear to be interested in dialogue and then action which resonates deeply with me)… it will take place towards the end of this month….more later on that one!

Tuesday 27th December 2011

……However as they have now announced the victim’s name, I wonder if you have any thoughts you would like to share about what is happening in and to our community, particularly in the light of the dreadful murder in Oxford Street yesterday. Black young men who appear on the surface to be intent on killing each other,regardless of the personal consequences or wider peer group, family and community impact.

What do we need to be saying and more importantly doing as a community?

Why are we staying so silent?

My proverbial question about who takes a leadership role in such situations and the deeper more disturbing question for me concerning our longer term sustainability here in the UK.

I feel that we as elders as well as other young people just cannot stand by seemingly helplessly and continue to stay silent on such matters. We must create opportunities for real, challenging and deep community dialogue and then we must act.  We can’t continue to wait for the government to react.

I feel that some parents might need parenting and other forms of support…who is prepared to do something to make a real & sustained difference?….

Questions, more questions than I alone can answer…but I feel so sick and quite tired by it all.
Comments and suggestions please, especially about process for making something happen. Could the Ubele initiative (that I and some others have been working on for the past 9 months provide a platform or space within which to host some of these urgent conversations or  in some other manner?
Views please…….

Thursday 29th December 2011

Hello there!

 Thank you for the responses to my email of two days ago, about the murder of a black teenager in Oxford Street on Boxing Day (see below). 

 As you can imagine I have received a number of replies (interestingly though predominately from women) – many expressing similar sentiments and themes. 

I am (and I presume others are), still waiting for a community response on a regional or national basis – it doesn’t seem quite right to me that the spokesperson who the media contacted was Barry Mizen – maybe I am subconsciously waiting for our own men to respond and am somewhat deafened by our seemingly  public silence on the whole affair!

 …..As women appear to be more energised to act at this point in time (although we need to keep dialogue open with our brothers especially as there are now a number of national organisations for Black young men with Black men taking the lead),  I was feeling that we just cannot continue to wait around to see who says and does what….I  was wondering if I, along with other women, should convene a London wide conversation of black women who lead community based organisations (and/or who identify as community based activists), with the purpose of surfacing, learning and creating opportunities for collaboration leading to new action and to specifically find out:

  •  which women are offering  what and where for and with young black people involved in gangs, gun and/or knife crime, as well as offering forms of parenting support (so we can make connections, identify similar approaches, try and create opportunities to support each other/ work together). Approaches and interventions could be informal or more formal and include  preventative programmes (families and/ or young people), alternatives to custody or post custody and/or family support activities
  • what black women feel and/or know is going on in our community and why this is pattern is emerging?
  • what key lessons are already being learnt and how to make them more widely available?
  • and what we could or should be doing as an appropriate community based response or series of responses – for me the main reason to do so would be to have an effective collective response and voice as well as to design further strategies.

 Apart from someone who is passionate about the sustainability of our community, I am also the chair of the Lambeth Women’s Project (LWP) and one of the lead people in Ubele (which is Swahili for ‘The Future’). 

 As some of you already know, I now use some creative processes which I feel we could use in this process – they should assist us in creating a safe space for dialogue and to reduce potential conflict . Using them also means no expert speakers, no panels and no ‘Q and A’ in sight!!.

 I also have names and contact details for some  black women – I am sure you will have others – if so please forward them this information and ask them to contact me so I can add them to the growing list.

 I would suggest that maximum numbers should be between 20-30 women who are in some type of leadership role (informal or more formalised)…again any advice on this would be welcome as I didn’t want to exclude key black women who feel stirred enough to be involved in collective action.

 I also don’t have a budget to draw on to support this, but ideally we would need to convene somewhere in central London (where it is easy for women from all over London to get to), …if anyone knows a free centrally located space please let me know..or a minimum would be to host it in a space with easy public transport access….we could also bring food to share. 

 We could possibly make a small charge per person towards venue costs etc –  we could host the conversation on a Saturday in mid to late Jan…….thoughts and offers please. Thanks……

 Please let me have your thoughts and /or creative ideas……looking forward to hearing from you.

 Friday 30th December 2011

I have noticed that some people have become quite energised about the suggestion of a space being created for Black women to convene around these issues. Though interesting itself,  I hope we do not loose the overall focus, intention and passion for facilitating social change within our community.

 I am also really very curious as to why there did not appear to be a similar level of energy emerging from within our community when for example, 100 Black Men, London, was established here, modelled on the organisation that is based in the USA. (I have nothing personal against them OK, it is just an example!)…maybe there was this kind of debate somewhere in our community which I was not party to…..

 I am not in the least advocating this approach for Black women here, but it appears (as I have just Googled and checked what I thought I knew in order to get my facts straight!), that there are also several chapters of an organisation in the USA called 100 Black Women as well as a national Coalition of 100 Black Women…interesting for me to see that our sisters in the States still have the desire and feel the need to organise collectively….also is there also not an organisation based here of Mothers’ against guns and knife crime? (Sorry, I should have Googled it too but I am rushing and need to go to a Kwanzaa community based event very shortly).

 My inquiry earlier this week started as questions about what is happening in our community (the murder was not the over riding factor but another catalyst – some of you will know that I wrote an article about this question back in Nov 2010 and then set about creating Ubele as a black led community space for dialogue and was not specifically about Black women convening to explore these issues. 

 I was indeed  unapologetically deeply emotionally moved by what transpired on Boxing Day and make now apologies for feeling saddened, anger, grief, disbelief, despair and then feeling unexpectedly energised to act. I  was very curious to find out why the silence (when so many spokespeople from our community came forward and/or came forward during the August uprisings) and to see how we might respond as a community (not just for now but on a longer term sustainable basis). 

 I  am committed to supporting Black women to convene and act collectively in this matter. If this is one starting point which has emerged then we need to use this as a catalyst for action. I have also deliberately attended a wide range of community based events this past year and still can’t see how parts of the community based system connect up. 

 Furthermore, when reflecting on some of the black women’s initiatives and projects ( primarily based in London) which subsequently folded including Brixton Black Women’s Centre OWAAD,Obaa etc,  plus my first full time professional youth work role almost 30 years ago,establishing Lambeth Girls’ Project, which is now Lambeth Women’s Project, I felt using this particular lens might provide a useful perspective and possibly opportunities for future collaboration – I know that women work well together and will often look to find creative ways to include men in their work.

 I really don’t want to get into gender battles about this and I am not advocating separatism as is being suggested  – conversations between black men and women are happening all the time (for example through Ubele, and a myriad of other orgs, at dinner parties etc. etc), and will hopefully will continue ad infinitum. I will contribute whenever possible and am invited and where it is felt that my questions (and they are simply what I view as compelling questions), might spark a level of curiosity amongst others.

 Black women in dialogue in a particular space is only taking ‘one slice’ or perspective from within our total  system at a particular point in time and hopefully won’t been seen as some kind of threat to Black men or Black manhood – this was not and is not my intention by suggesting this as a way forward. 

 Young people(under 25 years old), older people, men, etc. all need to brought into this conversation (and are already in the centre of many of them as they should quite rightly be!). Through Ubele we have agreed that the conversations that are crucial to our community needs to be inter-generational, however as I mentioned earlier time is of the essence and there is much work to be done. I will hopefully try and create ways of working with whoever comes forward with offers and suggestions of possible collaboration.

 We acknowledge and support Black men meeting over this issue (with and also without Black women), for some time now. Maybe because of the incident this week, Black women have responded and come forward to say ‘….yes…it’s time to meet and talk’.

 I will let people know when and where we plan to convene as Black women and who will host the conversation..hopefully a Black male (who possibly already knows me) will come forward and ask for us to widen the conversation to include males soon after we convene???????

 I am also really interested to hear about some of the other initiatives that are happening so we can begin to see the bigger picture…..maybe someone has done this already..if so, and you are able and/ or willing to share it , please do send it to us and thank you to those who have already shared what they know is happening. We shall try and tag them to the Ubele Facebook page and include them on our blog in the new year.

 Friday 30th December 2011

 …..I have now had a chance to read your emails and must apologise again for not referring to your original response to me. Your lone male voice indeed got lost as I was rather overwhelmed by the number of women who have been responding with energy and passion and who want to take collective action… and they are still coming through….

 As a result  of the emails received from women, I took a decision to make a suggestion about how we might act together as black women and have now had quite a bit of support for this idea so it should hopefully happen next month….it was certainly not about disrespecting black men or any semblance of self promotion (please also see my email response to Yvonne C) – it was about asking some members of our community the question which is really taxing me and giving me sleepless nights (and has been for more than 18 months – this is not a personal new inquiry) – WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON WITHIN OUR COMMUNITY AND WHY ARE WE SO SILENT??!!! 

 I feel it would be good to meet (at some point) and am sorry if I seem not to have been clear as to what I am actually suggesting. I am not single-handedly advocating programmes or actual the issues at hand are extremely complex and multi-dimensional and cannot be solved by myself as an individual – this complex area of concern needs, I feel, a variety of potential solutions….which are interconnected….I am however advocating a PROCESS for facilitating community dialogue and new ways of convening, reflecting and and creating new solutions innovation for solving tough problems is what some people call it…others give it different names…..Surely we need to be doing some different things after deep and honest introspection as a community…if this is not needed now I will indeed close my computer and join the silence….

 It might end up that we decide that we need to co-create new kinds of economic, educational, political and social programmes etc etc. -however  it is not for me to determine what might help support our community at this crucial point in time. I am however happy to create and help host a space and facilitate a process, along with some of my colleagues…and see what possibilities emerge……and that our conversation as black women could include seeing who is doing what and where, joining some of the dots and also seeing where there are gaps and what else might we need to do using a particular process which can hold multi-stakeholders and potential divergence. If I have led you to believe I was offering something else (or indeed had most of the answers)- again apologies….

 I will be closing down our public conversation by email as of now (as I need to start reflecting on and planning the work that now needs to be done) but as I stated above am really happy to meet for an hour or so at a mutually convenient time.

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