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  • Writer's pictureKemiALondoner

Black History Month

Last month I was asked to write an article for the Local Government association for Black History month. LGA is non-partisan so I was asked to amend it a little.

However, here it is in it's original form:

Cllr Kemi Akinola is cabinet member for Voluntary sector, business and culture and Deputy leader at Wandsworth council. She is a Labour and cooperative councillor and a Food justice activist. She is a Trustee for the Independent Food Aid Network and was awarded the Chris Herries award for commitment to Co-operative principles and values in October 2022.]

At the last Co-operative conference I was asked how it felt to reclaim the council from the Conservatives after 48 years. I crowdsourced the answer from Wandsworth Labour councillors and we agreed that it was Incredible but that we all feel the weight of duty and the expectations placed on us by our citizens to provide a better borough that works for everyone.

I experience this every day, with the extra distinction of being Wandsworth's first black/African Caribbean in the leadership And a woman. It is indeed a tough gig, but someone has to be first.

I grew up in Wandsworth and attended most of my schooling here before going on to study architecture and then community and youth work. From a young age, I was taught to treat people as I would like to be treated, and as a result, I have always felt a sense of community responsibility and valued dignity in practice. So, it stands to reason that the majority of my employment experience has been in the third sector, and that one day I would establish my own Charity, Be Enriched.

Be Enriched exists to eliminate social isolation and to develop skills in others via the use of food as a catalyst for change. Regrettably, it persists because the rates of food poverty and hunger are too high to ignore. Early on, I became aware of the geographical disadvantages of areas like Roehampton in terms of food access. After consultation with local residents, my organisation created The Food Bus (@LDNfoodBus) - a converted double decker with a shop, café, and kitchen on board that travels around Wandsworth and Lambeth serving low-cost food and delivering training courses and events. Food is transported straight to the homes of those who do not have access to traditional shops.

The need to address societal concerns such as these sparked my adult interest in politics. It began with grumbling to my ward councillors, until my late friend Cllr Andy Gibbons persuaded me to stand in a soon-to-be-vacant seat and truly become involved.

I'm delighted I did because it has given me a platform to address societal problems I encounter on a daily basis at work and boosts representation on what has traditionally been a council dominated by white men. I strive to be a good role model for other women and non-white youngsters, showing them that politics is a place for individuals of all races and make it my duty to support new talent across the borough. I help others up the ladder, instead of pulling it up behind me.

Although I've been Deputy Leader for three years, being the majority party gives me a far larger platform to share that message, and my cabinet brief allows me to be visible at a wide range of events. I'm particularly glad that in the recent election, we expanded the diversity of councillors from two to eight. Whilst strong visual representation is important, diversity is essential due to the information and connections that they provide, allowing us to better assist our citizens practically and culturally.

It is Black History Month and the Labour group has utilised this month to promote diversity and inclusion through a month of workshops, speeches, meetings, and advising sessions hosted in our Black History Month Hub, which is located within one of our shopping centres. This demonstrates our dedication to our citizens by making ourselves available to the public and being present in locations where they go, rather than the other way around. And we intend to deliver all our work listening to, co-creating, collaborating and co-producing with our communities.

This is how I’m working our third sector partners.

There has not been any structural support in Wandsworth for voluntary sector organisations (VCO) in the past 20 years. Given how much local government depended on VCO's to feed, advise, assist, and inform residents during the last three years, it felt logical to invest in the third sector and this is where the majority of my efforts are focused. I also declared a borough of sanctuary within my first week, and will now be working with refugees and associations to deliver the action plan to support them.

This will involve repurposing abandoned retail units as communal spaces or pop-up units, which will provide much-needed foot traffic for neighbouring businesses, and I am collaborating with Platform Places on this.

As successive socio-economic and health pandemics have battered the boat, there are significant strains on businesses, particularly hospitality, and although we do what we can to help local companies, a lot of the support they need can only be delivered by national government.

Leading a council through a cultural transformation at a time when we appear to have no functional national government and are about to enter a period of recession driven by the same ineffective national government, our largest concern is money - inflation and reduced income to Local Government. Everything is much more expensive than it used to be, therefore delivering on our manifesto is challenging. However, we have four (or fifty years) to achieve this, an incredibly qualified and knowledgeable administration, and officers that want to assist us to give the greatest outcomes for our residents, so I am confident we will be successful.

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