Bristol’s Black leaders leading the way


Operation Black Vote has always has a long standing very special relationship with Bristol. I’m not quite sure why. I guess in no small measure we’ve been drawn there because of its awful past history - the city’s wealth is based upon the international trading of enslaved Africans - but perhaps most of all it has been due to fact that Bristol became a magnet for the post war Windrush generation to settle there, followed by Indian, Pakistani, Somali and other minority communities.

So when I was asked by Bristol Unison to come and speak at their regional Black leader’s conference. I didn’t hesitate.

What I didn’t expect to see was the crystallization of almost twenty years work in the city laid bare in such a wonderful Black empowered way.

Leading Unison activist Georgia Ramsey, who was recently received a ‘woman of great inspiration’ award, wrote to me asking me to speak. I’d met Georgia some 18 years earlier when we first began our Magistrates shadowing scheme. She was the first OBV participant on that inaugural scheme to graduate and become a magistrate. She’s given 18 years service, including chairing the bench for a number of years. Over 100 obv graduates have followed Georgia, dispensing justice up and down the country, including Sharon Foster who has now is the Chair of the Bristol bench, and has served more than 10 years.

It is credible to see Sharon’s journey from community activist to Chair of the bench, not least because on her first day working in the court she was met with the low level racism that many Black people face on a daily basis. Whilst waiting to start her first court session in the court area designated for staff, Sharon received a tap on the shoulder, when an official said to her, that members of public should not be in that area. Sharon showed her, her official pass. The women walked away without even an apology. But justice was soon to be served. When Sharon and the other magistrates appeared from the top of the court, the court office looked aghast when Sharon emerged with her fellow magistrates. And is the duty of court officials the woman in question, had to bow towards the presiding local judges. Sharon was impassive throughout, but she told me that her whole being from the inside was screaming ‘yes, yes, yes’.

Another one of OBV’s very successful alumni has been Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees. Two years ago he became the first directly elected City Mayor from an African/Caribbean background in Europe. Just last month Mayor Rees hosted the Global Parliamentary Mayors in Bristol. Given the dynamism of Marvin, Sharon and Georgia, it shouldn’t have surprised me that between them they undertook a scheme to recruit more BME magistrates. Mayor Marvin, his Deputy Asher Craig, and Sharon told me that eight BME magistrates were recruited in the courts latest round. I informed Sharon that this is perhaps the single largest recruitment of BME magistrates in one go, ever.

This news made my day: Leaders recruiting other leaders to ensure the conveyor belt of BME talent continues. And of course the brilliant two day Black leaders event over the last weekend was part of that. The two days consisted of ‘pathways to power’, understanding institutions and motivational speeches such as the highest ranking Black Trade unionist in the country Roger McKenzie. And by the way that brother can lift the roof off with his high energy talk.

Me, I was just glad to be in the space and play a small role in nurturing the next generation of Bristol’s Black leaders.

Simon Woolley

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