Around 80 people gathered online today to make and hear impassioned calls for a “persistent solution” to address structural racism in Hackney.
The meeting, arranged by non-profit Hackney Council for Voluntary Service (Hackney CVS), was hailed as a “really important and long overdue” conversation by attendees, who included representatives from across the voluntary sector, NHS, and Hackney Council.
The meeting comes in the same week as Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville pledging to “do more” on the issue, with speakers calling for a permanent physical and legislative infrastructure to be put in place in the borough to support and empower people from minority ethnic communities.
Community educator Toyin Agbetu said: “When I think of structural racism and its impact, I think of the emotional burden that is placed on our shoulders. It comes home with you. You take the trauma into your dreams and your waking morning, and unless you can meditate or find a space, which often we can’t, it follows and haunts you.
“There is also a financial burden. A lot of us do this work on a voluntary basis, not because we don’t have our own dreams and aspirations, but just to survive. That unpaid labour, that duty that we have to carry on top of us existing, is straining and stressful.
“If it wasn’t structural racism, we’d have a chance. But because you’re dealing with institutional racism, you know that when you stop, the infrastructure keeps going on. We have to find a solution that is persistent, and moves beyond a fad, or as we recently heard from someone, a ‘moment’. This is life.”
Agbetu and others went on to call for the need of a physical space in the borough, pointing to the loss of much-missed Dalston community centre Centerprise and underlining the necessity of an equivalent, with a specific empowerment space for the use of people of African heritage.
As well as physical infrastructure, the meeting discussed the need for a legislative framework to be put in place in line with the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD), with Agbetu envisioning a specific and well-resourced IDPAD working group which could scrutinise such issues as homelessness and policing, reporting back in 2025.
The Town Hall was also called on to pass a motion on a racial emergency as an equivalent to its climate emergency motion, with council equalities chief Cllr Carole Williams present to pledge the council’s support, saying: “We have been working since 2016 to do everything from campaigning about the injustices of the Windrush scandal and calling on government to implement the recommendations of the lessons learned review, to campaigning against No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), and have worked with Meg Hillier on the unfair NHS charges for migrants.
“We’re also leading on the response to the felling of the statue in Bristol as well, especially as we look around the borough and see the symbols and names of the slave trade in our streets, in the very places that we call home.
“We want to see long-lasting change in the borough, and remove all structural inequality, including a piece of work Cllr Anntoinette Bramble is leading on looking at the education curriculum.
“I, as cabinet member for equalities, will always do everything I can to call out inequality, discrimination and racism where I see it. It often leaves me unpopular, but I will continue to do it, because it is the right thing to do.”
The meeting also heard demands for a “cultural revolution”, with a rethink on how young men of African heritage are presented in the media through the lens of violent crime, with discussions focusing on the potential establishment of a body similar to the Advertising Standards Authority that could enforce on persistent offenders using racist narratives.
The words ‘responsibility’, ‘exclusion’, injustice’, lack of representation’, and ‘violence’ scored highly when participants were asked what impact structural racism has on their organisations.
When asked, ‘How do we stop racism?’, high-scoring responses were ‘education’, ‘reparations’ and ‘defund the police’.
Speaking out on a recent incident in Dalston in which a teenager was kneed in the head after being pursued by local police, Hackney CVS CEO Jake Ferguson said: “‘Defund the police’ has come loud and clear from our brothers and sisters in the States.
“I have written to the Mayor of London to say that if we as taxpayers are funding a system that oppresses some of us, we ought to be able to take that money away.
“Some of these things like the gang matrix, Operation Trident, which targets Black communities, Prevent, which has impacted negatively on different Muslim communities, it all costs money and we pay for it as taxpayers.”
Speaking on the Dalston incident, for which the Met has referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, Ferguson added: “It’s like America but without guns.”
He also highlighted the work of Hackney Account, which recently wrote a comprehensive report on a lack of trust in police in Hackney.
Speakers called for those present to look back at the history of race inequality and past injustice in Hackney, such as the campaigning around the death of Colin Roach while in police custody in 1982, in order that activists may use past experiences to inform future change.
The meeting dealt with the importance of addressing both power and obstacles to power, as those present underlined the importance of making “practical measures that can be seen and are visible”.
Issues addressed included the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on minority ethnic communities, as well as a disparity in levels of homelessness and a lack of diversity in the community and voluntary sector.
Ideas included not holding discussion or interview panels without diversity, making changes to the educational curriculum, listening to individuals’ lived experiences, and the appointment of designated people in organisations to discuss racism or racist bias similar to safeguarding leads.
Frustration was also voiced at the lack of an outlet or professional support space for people who have experienced racism to help each other, as well as the feeling of being marginalised or seen as a problem if speaking out on structural racism, with associated calls made for the creation of mechanisms that enforce change and create support for colleagues who speak out on racism.
The importance of using correct terminology was also highlighted. The term ‘BAME’ was criticised as a catch-all definition that does not capture the detail of describing different communities, with some community organisers speaking of their experience of having been labelled ‘grassroots’ organisations in applications for grant funding because of their race, rather than being treated on an equal footing with others.
Other organisations discussed the impact of the term ‘BAME’ as “lumping everybody into one small category”, with the need for organisations being able to apply for targeted funding for their own clients, rather than receiving smaller shares across all minority ethnic communities.
Hackney CVS CEO Ferguson pledged his organisation would host more sessions focusing in on issues including education, staffing, and definitions and terminology, saying that his organisation was keen to roll out a resource which could help train people in unconscious bias and institutional racism.
Ferguson said: “This is a really important conversation, and long overdue. Many of us have been talking about racism for decades. What has been fantastic about the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the world is that it has allowed us to have more conversations about racism, as if we don’t we are never going to change society.
“Racism is everyone’s business. It’s not a Black thing, it’s not a white thing. If we can create a society free of racism, we’ll be a stronger, fitter, healthier and more sustainable society, and certainly more equal.
“In Hackney, we have a Mayor and a set of politicians who actually would probably agree with us that racism should no longer be tolerated and that we need change. That huge upsurge of protests and people wanting their voices heard is a culmination of centuries of injustice.
“We need to ensure a levelling of the playing field. If we want to change the narrative and the legacy of enslavement, and turn it into a positive, we need to look at the assets within the community and help communities own this set of issues.
“For a borough like Hackney, it has always surprised me we don’t have a landmark building saying, ‘This is the African diaspora. This is a place that we celebrate all that comes with African culture and its contribution to the world’.
“We shouldn’t need to be talking about racism. We should be seeing each other as absolute equals. The problem is we have a society that has historically oppressed certain people.”