Looking back to look ahead - Part 1


One of OBV’s greatest strengths has been to constantly look forward: What’s the next big project; how do we consolidate what we’ve achieved; what big dangers for race equality are we facing in the next year, and indeed the next five years?

I love looking forward because it generates a kaleidoscope of ideas; What wonderful people would like to work with, what institutions should we focus on, can we do more in schools? The list goes on and on.

At the heart of this process is to literally start with a blank sheet of paper. What you put on is entirely up to you and how much you can stretch your imagination, ambition, and above all drive.

But before I have a stab at that in Part 2 of this piece it’s extremely useful to take this precious moment to look back at the past year. After all there are few times in the calendar - Jan 2nd - when the phones are not ringing every two minutes, when there are no meetings to attend, or in my new role as a Cross Bench Peer, no legislation to scrutinise.

It’s difficult not to look back and get a sense of anxiety, sadness, and concerns about what the future might hold.

The rise of racism, Islamaphobia, and anti-Semitism has deeply affected our communities. Worse still blaming anti-Semitism at the doorstep of Jeremy Corbyn is not only wide of the mark, and also conveniently ignoring the xenophobic strain within some Brexit supporters, but more troublingly we see this divide and rule narrative about the rise of anti-Semitism, alongside an almost deafening silence about racism, worse still the disparaging of Islamaphobia, which, rather than confront this growing hatred prefer to focus on having a cul-de-sac discussion about its definition.

It’s equally difficult to ignore last year’s continuing heartbreaking stories from both the Windrush immigration scandal and the broader contributory aspects to the Grenfell Tower disaster. These ‘man made’ tragedies still leave BAME communities with a deep sense of injustice coupled with powerlessness. And lastly the too often gut wrenching news of another young Black man’s life brutally snuffed out by the ongoing gang violence that traumatises families and the surrounding estates.

But last year was not all negative, and one thing I’ve learnt over many years is to not allow a narrow and often pernicious media narrative dictate or define who we are and how we should be characterised.

Truth is that despite the deluge of challenges, ongoing struggles there are plenty of very good news stories that must be told from this past year.

For me one of the most encouraging untold stories of 2019 has been the emergence of a younger Black leadership. Always articulate, at times angry, but rooted in a space that says, “I don’t care about offending your sensibilities when I talk about race inequality, I will say what needs to be said, no matter what”. Key voices in that space are Stormzy, who has also put his money where his lyrics shout out by funding Cambridge University bursaries for Black students. Writers Afua Hirsch and Akala can be seen intellectually dismantling the populist bigoted arguments of their detractors such as Piers Morgan and Nick Ferrari. Other shining lights include BBC presenter Samira Ahmed, and Naga Monchetty, both of them have been brave enough to uncover the racial disparity of pay and lack of equal treatment alongside their fellow white presenters.

Closer to home at OBV we have plenty to cheer about too.

If there was any doubt about OBV’s worth not just last year but over 25 years, the 2019 election results would put paid that. When OBV started nearly 24 years ago there were but 4 BAME MP’s. Today our parliament is one of the most diverse on the planet - with still some way to go – The number now stands at 65 up from 52, and with the election of Abena Oppong- Asare, OBV boast 10% of all BAME MP’s coming from our family- workers, alumni, associates. This alongside two elected Mayors, Marvin Rees in Bristol, and Roxanna Fiaz in Newham, one council leader Joe Ejifor in Haringey, two elected Lord Mayors, Anna Rothery in Liverpool and Shancia Alesia in Newham, and over 100 magistrates who collectively have giving over 1000 years of public service in dispensing justice surely makes OBV the most successful BAME politically empowering project in the UK.

But when the general election was called we had no funding war chest - our funding application by the nation’s only democracy fund turned us down citing, “we not convinced about your capacity to deliver or your capacity to survive."

Unperturbed, and with the help of Karen Chouhan and the National Education Union (NEU) and one of the biggest advertising giants in the world we delivered one the most creative effective voter registration campaigns seen for some time. Young Brit Hollywood stars such Nathalie Emmanuel – fast and furious- and Will Poulter - The Revenant - lent their star appeal along with other bright stars; Ash Sarkar, Nadia Rose and Jermaine Jackman. Over all three million people registered to vote, when our Ad was launched 50,000 registered two days later. The pressure that BAME individuals were going to polls forced the main two political parties to finally talk about ways of tackling race inequality. Labour virtually adopted OBV’s race equality manifesto, whilst the Conservatives paraded OBV’s last big idea the Race Disparity Unit, and the 90 millions Youth Futures fund.

Chairing the Race Disparity Unity Advisory group at 10 Downing St has been a great privilege and I guess the two big themes we’ve been wrestling with in 2019 have been tackling inequalities within Education and employment. Both areas we’ve seen progress but not nearly enough. Due to our conversations with universities, colleges, and those institutions such as Advanced HE, The Office for Students and the UK Research for Innovation, we succeeded in getting action plans to improve BAME access, close attainment gaps, and beef up the Race Equality Charter so that it would be fit for purpose and widely adopted.

In regards to tackling BAME unemployment and progression in employment the 90 million pound Youth Futures fund will play a key part, but not as big as getting the promised legislation around Ethnic Minority Pay Gaps on the statute books. Last year we got about 70% of the way there which is a good achievement in such a short time.

It’s an honour to be challenging the big institutions of governance and civic society, but is an absolute pleasure nurturing BAME talent to become the leaders of tomorrow.

In 2019 with a small team including Ashok, Merlene, Seyi and Rafiq we nurtured around 100 BAME individuals in political empowerment and leadership. Particular highlights were the MP Shadowing scheme and our newest and perhaps most adventurous project witnessed the successful launch of Pathways to Success, a partnership project with Oxford University, Blavantnik School of Governance, Magdalene College, House of Commons and Lloyds Bank. Both schemes are about finding, schooling and guiding the future leaders. The 9 month MP shadowing scheme twins an individual with an MP, and along their experience with the MP they attend 5 training days of political theory and practice.

The second perhaps more ambitious project ‘Pathways to Success’ is about taking already very talented leaders to give them the tools for the very highest office- It’s a senior leadership residential at the one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

When we launched the project for 30 places, nearly 400 applied. Political, ethical, economic master classes were given by top professors, US political campaign gurus, leadership physocologist, and policy gurus both civil top servants and key Government advisors.

Between these two ongoing schemes and forthcoming more localised projects – which I’ll talk more about on Part 2, the conveyor belt for BAME leadership is assured.

Looking back over this last year I realised I barely took any time off- which I’ve pledged to change this year- , but for me and my team delivering, empowering race equality for our communities doesn’t get much better than working at OBV.

I guess on a very personal note to be awarded a Knighthood for services to race equality and social justice is a great honour for me, my family and close friends. And then to be elevated to the Upper Chamber now as Lord Woolley is about as surreal is it gets. The most satisfying element of these awards and honours has come from the community, friends and supporters. One friend put it succinctly when he said, “You being made a Lord makes us feel that we’re there too, or at the very least we now have access to the big house”.

He’s right of course; this role is not about me but about what more we can now do together.

So when we’re looking back, lets embrace the successes, reflect on the challenges and plot, build and plan for a brighter future, starting tomorrow.

Simon Woolley