Not only is activism important, it’s also essential to values of human rights and civil liberties, and the persistent and vocal advocacy for a cause remains as important as ever, and Zita Holbourne being one the UK’s foremost activists to date. Zita is a working mother, a community and trade unionist, an activist, a human rights camaigner, and an artist, poet, PCS trade union representative and a founding member of Black Activists Rising against Cuts – a national campaign established to respond to the disproportionate impact of cuts on black workers, service users and deprived communities. Zita is also a champion for equality and diversity and a committed human rights activist, with over 20 years’ experience, and being a member of the TUC Race Relations Committee for almost 12 years, Zita Holbourne remains as needed and respected as ever.
Yes, the TUC set up a Task Group, and whether things since then have changed for the better, the answer is, actually, things have got worse in terms of institutional racism. The Police forces have not implemented the original McPherson recommendations to date, SUS laws have returned with young black people up to 27 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, and there have been a series of deaths at the hands of the State with families fighting for years and decades for justice, on top of that we’ve seen the introduction of the most racist piece of legislation introduced into UK law that I have seen in my lifetime, that being the Immigration Act, and there is a further Immigration Bill going through of which is a great cause for concern. Austerity has amplified racism at work and in service provision, the disproportionate impact of cuts has led to black people losing their work and when black people lose jobs they stay unemployed for longer because of the discrimination that already existed, in effect funding cuts have led to community organisations providing specialist, and essential services to black communities as well as those monitoring, and campaigning against racism have been forced to shut their doors, it means that along with tuition fees and the scrapping of EMA, we have a situation where there is reduced access to education and the poorest young people start their working lives in debt, zero hour and fixed term, temporary contracts meaning that black workers do not have job security and cannot plan for the future, I could say a lot more but essentially, institutional racism has got worse.
Where did you start from: what traditions did you grow up with?
Growing up I remember my parents and families being quite political, they stood up to racism and also supported the anti-apartheid Movement boycott campaigns, and growing up black, with a black mother and white father, in London, in the 1970s and the 80s meant that there was no choice but to stand up to racism, and for me that was the start of my activism. I always had an interest in human rights, and a strong sense of equality, at school I was a counsellor, a student activist at college, and a NUS representative in the art school I attended, and just as importantly, when I was a teenager my Dad worked and lived in Lesotho, Lesotho was surrounded by South Africa which was at the time an apartheid state, and after visiting South Africa, consequently the horrific things I witnessed and experienced first-hand stayed with me, so much so, coming back to the UK I campaigned against apartheid and organised boycotts, even as a young worker I experienced a lot of discrimination in the workplace, both on race and gender grounds and consequently became a union representative in the Graphic Print and Media Union, and also working with the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) unions – I am still very active in the trade union movement, I am elected to the PCS National Executive Committee and am a Group Vice President, as well as that l've also been elected to the Trades Union Congress Race Relations Committee.needless to say I’m still very active in the trade union movement, through my role in that movement I've championed equality, and campaigned against racism at work, as well as for human rights internationally, not just in the UK.
Essentially what were the factors that led to you becoming a founding member of Black Activists Rising against Cuts?
I founded BARAC UK with Lee Jasper, the both of us are the co-founders, prior to the Tories coming to power, as part of the Con-Dem coalition I had been running campaigns and representing workers in group actions against the impact of job cuts and relocation, these actions by the then Labour Government impacted disproportionately on black workers, and concerned that under a potential Tory leadership the cuts to come would be far worse an impact on not just black workers, but black communities, I felt that there was a need to do more than just representing workers in my own sector. As a trade union activist, and just when I was reflecting on how worrying it all was, and thinking about what I could do, and with Lee Jasper holding the same concerns I did, and putting a call out for some volunteers to monitor the situation , as a result I contacted him to volunteer, but also to say that we needed to do more than just monitor, we needed to campaign, hence by the end of the meeting BARAC was born. And the name and the acronym it what it is because it described what we intended to do, but also, because of the election of Barack Obama it was a name I felt people would remember, we were drawing on not Barack Obama the President but Obama the community activist on the South Side of Chicago.
In your personal opinion, just how much of an impact is it?
I think there is always more we could do, but what it has done is bring black trade unionists together with black community activists, working together in a way they had not done before of which gives a voice to our communities in the wider anti cuts movement, needless to say at the same time building a counter narrative to the myths and lies or worse still silence about the impact on ‘us’, in the mainstream media and by politicians alike. And as far as the impact is concerned, cuts and austerity have also come with deepening injustice and racism, it is the very reason we continue to support individuals and groups, including family justice campaigns against deaths at the hands of the ‘state’, campaigning against institutional racism in the arts and culture sector, campaigning for migrant rights and against the impact of climate change, and carrying out humanitarian work regarding aid to refugees in Calais.
Following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, the TUC set up a Task Group to examine institutional racism, of which you were a part of, If anything, since then has your findings changed for the better? And if not, can you say why?
Could you share with us some of your successes?
I founded the Roots Culture, Identity art exhibitions and collective, I’ve established numerous black structures and initiatives to bring black people together, and give them a space to air their voices and take action, I have represented hundreds of black people in their cases over the years so every case I win is a success, not just for the individual but for the precedent it sets for others. I launched a campaign to get the Voice Newspaper Olympic Accreditation, and forced the BOA to do a U-turn, I played a leading role with a brilliant team in the Boycott the Human Zoo campaign, I spoke at the Paris Climate Change conference recently on the links between refugees and migration with climate change, and I was part of a small team that successfully campaigned to keep Mary Seacole and other black history figures on the school’s history curriculum.There are many successes I could name, what keeps me uplifted is making a difference for others, seeing others grow in strength and confidence and creating is what keeps me going, what I would say is that my biggest success is as a Mother, raising my son to be a kind hearted, strong, determined, smart young man. I have won some awards so I guess some people would call that success, for me what these awards do is give recognition to the wider movement of trade union and community activists - the unsung heroes – those who work tirelessly every day out of love and passion, and brings some attention to the issues I am campaigning on.
What is it about poetry that moves you in the way it does?
Poetry, together with my visual art is the blood flowing through my veins, and I have written poetry for as long as I can remember, once being a vocalist and a songwriter the songs were destined to go public, and for a long time the poems were shoved in a drawer, thankfully I came to realise they were my therapy, and writing about what pains, angers and uplifts me, wooed by the performance buzz, after a few open mic sessions it took off from there. Consequently, I’m called a political poet and a griot of the struggle by those who know me, I guess because I document through poetry the things I am campaigning on, things that are happening in the world around me, for me what I do as an artist, poet, writer and activists is all part of the same, and there are so many amazing poets on the scene right now, and others we don’t hear so much about, I think that poetry has the power to move people, it’s a way of getting a message across to audiences that a speech might not reach, its a form of edutainment which has the ability to connect people and issues, when you perform or read a poem you are giving a piece of your heart, your deepest thoughts, your ideas - art has the ability to open hearts and minds
For Mothers, as an individual you are a beacon of inspiration, and with all the various organisations you are a part of, and the commitments you have, how do you make it work?
Thank you so much for saying that, I really appreciate it, I guess you could say that I am good at multi-tasking, but I’m also a person who thrives under pressure, who cannot sit and do nothing, and doing what I do lends itself to my personality, it keeps me alive, in the end I just simply cannot sit back and watch discrimination and injustice happen and do nothing. I believe if we all did a little it would make more of a huge impact, hasten to add I feel we all have a responsibility to ourselves, and to our kin and communities to stand up to injustice and discrimination and for equality and rights, and my driving force for the years that have passed is my son, I want the world to be a better place for him, where he would not have to dedicate his life to fighting and campaigning, even though the heartbreaking reality the next generation will have to, therefore it’s up to ‘us’ to play our part in arming them with confidence, support, love, upliftment and strength, and that goes a long way I think.
What question would you have loved someone to ask you when you started, and why?
What is your aim and goal ? What can I do to help? How can I support you? How will you get to where you want to end up and what support do you need to get there?
Do you have any advice for aspiring activists such as yourself?
My advice is to do what you are passionate about, don’t not do it because you are the only one, there have been many times when I was the only one saying something but gradually I convinced others, and don’t doubt your own ability to be the inspiration you seek, also, take care of yourself, be good to yourself, recharge your batteries when you need to and surround yourself with people who care about you and love you, and don't give up because others pressurized you to, likewise don't think you failed if you did not get the end result you wanted, you can always try again. Don’t suffer in silence, speak out, never under estimate the power of your voice in speaking truth, chances are hundreds will be feeling just the way you do, but may not have the courage to say it, and do remember, that what doesn’t break you only makes you stronger, and you have to be strong as an activist but you are allowed moments of anger, sadness and fear, it’s about how you channel those emotions as they are all part of your journey.
What does the future hold for Zita Holbourne?
Who knows? As an activist you never know what campaign is just waiting to happen around the corner. There are lots of things I want to do, especially creatively, my new book of poetry is due to be published soon and I do need dedicate time to promote that. I would like to set up my own business and not have to do my day job, combining my years of experience as an activist and campaigner with my passion, and love of the arts, needless to say the sad reality is that discrimination and injustice will need challenging and campaigning against for a long time to come, what's certain is that I will continue to campagin for equality, freedom, justice and rights through art, activism and poetry, so, watch this space, then again don’t just watch, join me, willing volunteers are always needed and welcomed.
Zita Holbourne, not only has it been inspirational, its also been an absolute pleasure.
Thank you for having me.