Mayor of Southwark, Althea Smith: Grassroots activism to elected office


Recently appointed Mayor of Southwark, Althea Smith speaks exclusively to OBV on her journey into public life.

Althea Smith is a woman with years of community experience. Having come to the U.K. aged 13 from Jamaica, she became a Councilllor in 2006 representing the ward in which she was raised. Her long standing in the area means that Smith talks with confidence about what the community needs and want. Therefore her selection Mayor of Southwark last month, was a welcomed and privileged opportunity to further serve her community.

Smith’s desire to come into politics was borne out of growing up in a high crime area. She was a trusted member of the community known for her ability to negotiate between the police and members of the community. Having initially chosen a nursing career, in 2006 having been a proactive Labour party member and community activist, Smith decided to translate the years of grassroots activism into elected office.

She said,

I thought, since I spend so much time locally, why don’t I become a councillor?

As a Councillor in Southwark, Smith well acquainted with the problems of the area, has been active. Smith holds the Vice Chair seat of the Southwark Police Community Consultative Group(SPCCG). The aim of the group is to bring the police and community together, to overcome the stigma for BME community members to have any association with the police.

We [the police and community] can work together as partners. The police are part of the community. Even if they are enforcing the law, once they finish their shifts they come back to their homes in the community. Hence to build community spirit people need to respect a person in uniform.

An example of this partnership is a bus which was hired by the SPCCG to drive around different estates, where young people could climb on to play with the installed computers and games consoles or find a safe place to do their homework. These are the initiatives Smith believes can work to bring the police and community together.

Smith also acknowledges that like other parts of the country, Southwark has high levels of unemployment and Smith has spent time nurturing young people within the area by setting up an apprenticeship scheme. She liaises with small businesses in the area and persuades them;

…of not just keeping an apprentice on for a week, but developing their skills so that they can be employed permanently. My target is to secure apprenticeships for at least ten young people before my time as Mayor ends.

Additionally, Smith’s commitment to community cohesion has sometimes taken her to situations others would steer clear from. Smith gained widespread media coverage during the London riots last year when she personally defended the area from looting and property damage. She had been informed earlier on that there was an expectation of trouble around Oxford Street. She said,

…but the trouble was in Peckham, right outside my doorstep! I got out of the car to talk to these people because this is my town, this is where I live. I told them, ‘When you burn down Peckham today, somebody will have to rebuild it.

For Smith, the reason for the riots was a breakdown between the government and the local people. High unemployment, cuts in benefits and hikes in university tuition fees all accumulated to bring the riots to a head. She states:

The government needs to listen to people more. People that you are attacking, they are the future and if you take everything away from them what do you expect them to do?

Smith is aware of the significance of her being elected to this position, particularly as a member of the ethnic minority community. With this is mind, Smith is Vice Chair of the National Association of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Councillors. Her general view is that such an organization is needed to create a visible platform on which BME councillors are championed and to attract other members of the BME community to step forward. She says:

We need to have more BME councillors

As for Mayor Smith’s goal for the future, she says:

Community cohesion. Thirteen years ago people had their doors open and you could go in to eat if you were hungry. Nobody expected to be robbed. This kind of community trust is hard to build up again, but a start can be made by getting to know our neighbours. That way people can begin to stand as one.

Parmila Kumari