We have lauded the diverse nature of Southwark previously in this blog and the fact that the UK is currently celebrating Black History Month (BHM) gives us another chance to.
It’s only when you have a look at this statistic in greater detail that you can really understand how diverse and multicultural a place it really is.
Around 31% of the population is of Black ethnicity, compared to an average of 17% across London. Half of this population is of African descent which could explain why it is estimated that Southwark has the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world outside of Africa.
In both the 2001 and 2011 censuses, Southwark had the highest percentage and number of African residents for all London Boroughs. In fact, Southwark also has the highest percentage and number of African residents of any local authority in Britain. This has given Southwark the moniker of ‘African capital of the UK.’
For the last 20 years in Southwark people, schools, libraries, groups and organisations host events and get involved with the celebration of Black History.
It’s a chance to recognise the contribution that black communities have made to this country
So why is it important to celebrate Black History Month? Who better to ask than Johnson Situ, Southwark council’s Cabinet Member for Business, Employment and Culture…
Speaking at the council’s offices on Tooley Street, Johnson is keen to stress Southwark’s role in the celebrations:
“Black History Month has been celebrated for many years in London, and the wider community in the UK generally, and the key to that is celebrating our diversity. Black culture – everything from Notting Hill Carnival, to attainment, to academia, to sport – it’s a chance to recognise the contribution that black communities have made to this country.
“Its roots stemmed from a time when we were trying to recognise this contribution and ever since then it’s grown.”
Johnson grew up in Peckham and has lived in Southwark all of his life.
“I was born in what was called ‘Watford Way’ which was part of Southwark council’s ‘Five Estates Peckham Masterplan’ that saw £290m of investment in the 1990s – at the time the UK’s single biggest regeneration scheme, and that area has changed dramatically. Now it is an open community and one that thrives.”
The borough has changed and awful lot since he was a child – is it easier to grow up in Southwark if you are from the BAME community than, say, 20 or 30 years ago?
“There’s a couple of ways of looking at it. You ask whether it is easier to grow up now – I’d say it is different. It’s different in terms of the challenges young people face from BAME communities. I strongly believe that we are in a better place now than when I was growing up and also we are in a far better place in terms of young people being able to thrive and feel that they are a genuine stakeholder in the community and the borough that they live in.
“Saying that – no society is perfect and I’m the first to admit that there are still challenges.”
Johnson admits that these often relate to crime and the reputation of particular areas, especially in Peckham, but believes that this has drastically changed – all for the better.
“People can now say ‘I live here and I’m proud to live here.’”
It seems as if society has become more accepting – is Southwark a trailblazer in this respect?
“I would say the one advantage of investment in recent years across London has meant that local authorities thrive as a result of diversity and you try to draw on the strengths of your diversity.
“Divided communities don’t thrive and I would say that we recognise that as a borough. From everything from our enterprise support hubs in the south of the borough to our community hubs in the north of the borough it seeks to embrace our diversity at all levels.”
Johnson is a keen advocate of social equality across the many different communities that make up the borough. But is this reflected in the make-up of Southwark’s ruling administration?
Southwark’s cabinet has ten senior positions and Johnson is the only member who hails from the BAME community. Is it fair to say that this doesn’t accurately reflect the ethnographic make-up of the borough?
“What I would say is our diverse communities thrive best when we have policies that bring all of our communities together.”
An example perhaps?
“One thing we’re working on and promoting at the moment is the living wage. That’s important because we recognise that the communities we represent (and that I represent in Peckham) will thrive best if they earn a wage that they can genuinely live off of. They need to see that the Cabinet and the Council champion policies that really affect them.”
“I would frame our success and frame where we want to be as a council by saying that we want to leave nobody behind. We have to ensure that we create the right policies where no community is left behind. I’m 100% sure that our cabinet and our local authority is very much prioritising that and aiming to achieve that.”
You are seeking to engage people with the political and democratic process
Whilst Johnson clearly believes that Southwark council are on the right track in terms of policy making, does more work need to be done to reflect the diversity of Southwark more? Could he see more people from different backgrounds being represented at Cabinet level in the top positions?
“As we seek to build our policies and we seek to build on representation one thing that is good about Southwark CAN is that you are seeking to engage people with the political and democratic process.
“The more people we can engage with within diverse communities it stands us in better stead in terms of making decisions and ensuring that political representatives reflect the society that we live in.”
“Moving forward every council (and Southwark is no different) would like to push on and challenge ourselves to ensure that we constantly reflect the society that we seek to represent. That’s why we are proud of our policies to be able to champion the BAME councillors we have, to be able to champion BHM, to be able to champion all the different communities in Southwark.”
Excellent answer – especially about the role of Southwark CAN…
Changing tack slightly BHM coincides with Anti-Hate Crime week – after a spike in racially-motivated incidents post-referendum one might expect to see an increase in Southwark that would mirror the rest of the UK.
However, in some welcome news, Southwark appears to have bucked the trend – seeing no increase in hate crimes. Does this reflect that Southwark is a more accepting place?
Johnson believes that it does: “We thrive when we celebrate our diversity and seek to build bridges and we’ve tried to do this, certainly since we (the current administration) were elected in 2010. Southwark as a whole, to be fair to all political parties, has a culture of celebrating our diversity and working to build bridges within our communities.”
“We are not being complacent and we understand that other areas in the country may have seen increased incidents of hate crimes so my cabinet colleagues that are leading on this are very much taking control of the situation and continuing to do the work necessary to ensure that all of our communities feel that they have a stake in our borough.”
Our job as an administration is to set the framework that enables our residents to flourish in the future
Johnson first became a Cabinet Member in May and the responsibility for Black History Month falls under his watch. What’s it been like as a cabinet member?
“I try and get away with saying that I’m a new cabinet member for as long as possible…! Four or five months now and I’m no longer new…
“Seriously, it’s been great. One thing that has been interesting about taking on the extra responsibility is the brief that I have (Business, Employment and Culture) is passing through our recommitment to the living wage and I was very happy to further the work of my predecessor Cllr Ian Wingfield.
“I would be naive if I didn’t say that there are always challenges and what I am concentrating on is ensuring that we are building the opportunities that residents can take advantage of years in the future and not just in the present. Whilst we celebrate the fact that we’ve recently had record levels of employment in the borough we know that jobs and the economic environment will be drastically different in ten years’ time.
“Our job as an administration is to set the framework that enables our residents to flourish in the future and that’s why we’ve set about refreshing our economic wellbeing strategy. We want to be there to support residents as they take advantage of opportunities over the next decade. “
Destined is a very strong word
Johnson’s father, Tayo, who sadly passed away in 2011, was a councillor for Peckham Ward and a former Mayor of Southwark. His brother, Michael, is a former Cabinet member himself and is a Councillor representing the Livesey Ward. So, was Johnson destined to follow his father and brother into politics?
He believes that “destined” is a very strong word… “…but I’m not going to deny that seeing the difference that politics and local government can make didn’t have an impact. I was lucky enough to have my father and brother involved in it.
“For every volunteer who dedicates themselves to serve the community, whether through politics or volunteering, there is a moment and that moment for me was the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It was very pivotal in helping me understand the changes that politics can make, and the difference it can make.
“From a young age I had a front seat to the impact that people can make (but I also saw the long nights!).”
Switching to this month’s celebrations I asked Johnson whether there were any events that he would like to highlight from Southwark’s jam-packed programme.
“I’ve been lucky enough to attend several and one of the events that stood out is the deaf people’s black history event and it was a pioneering event – the first time this year – and was very much born out of a recognition of a gentleman called Samba who realised, whilst working for disability services, that element of black history is something that could have been highlighted more.
“He took it upon himself to organise an event and invited people from across the borough. Hearing different stories really opened my eyes to the diverse range of history. Often with black history people like Martin Luther King spring to mind, names like that come to mind, what Black History is about, and what our borough is about, is the everyday heroes who stand up and contribute to make a difference to people they represent.”
Johnson was also keen to mention Sam King (MBE), who was the first black mayor of Southwark and who co-founded the Notting Hill Carnival, who sadly passed away recently. Southwark is going to have a commemoration of his life recognising all of the changes he made to the borough (20th October).
Johnson couldn’t talk about the events on offer without mentioning a famous rodent who is gracing the borough…
“I can’t ignore the fact that we have Rasta mouse coming to our libraries which is always a crowd pleaser!”
Southwark continues to be the poster boy (or girl) for diversity in London and further afield, and this should be seen as a cause for celebration in itself.
The final word is left to Southwark’s only BAME cabinet member.
“Sometimes as a society we quite rightly herald people that have made a huge difference to society and it is these people that deserve recognition for stepping up every day to work to make their communities better and stronger.
“They get on and do what they do. It’s something that thousands of residents do across the borough and will continue to do in future. It is up to us as a council to continue to champion and celebrate them.”