On June 22, 1948, 492 people of Caribbean descent arrived at Tilbury Docks, the main port for London. Aboard the MV Empire Windrush, these people – mostly men, but also women and young children – had arrived in the UK as a result of an extended invitation by the British government. Only three years after the end of WWII, this wave of immigration was incentivized by the government’s promise of full citizenship and a “better” quality of life in Britain, in exchange for rebuilding the country that had been ravaged by the war. By 1961, the UK estimated that more than 172,000 West Indian born people had journeyed to Britain. Today, those who were a part of this mass migration are known as “The Windrush Generation”, in honor of the first ship to dock at Tilbury.
70 years since people of Caribbean descent boarded the MV Empire Windrush, Black communities in the UK make up 3.4% of the overall population, including people of Black Caribbean, Black European, and Black African descent. While that number may seem small, the impact of the Black community in the UK cannot be overstated.
Besides Caribbean people playing a key role in the rebuilding of Great Britain after World War II, Yvonne Field of the Ubele Initiative, a non-profit organization based in London, says that “many people of African heritage also came to the UK as students, and make up a large percentage of British doctors and other highly-educated professions.” As of the turn of the 21st century, Black Brits made up 4% of all employed doctors, the second largest ethnic minority demographic after Asians. Yvonne says, “We have a lot of quantifiable data about our situation. If you want to know how many Black people are in prison or how many Black people have gone onto university, I can tell you.”
Yvonne is a Black Caribbean British activist, community organizer, and daughter of the Windrush Generation. One of 10 children, Yvonne understands the way that history and policy has shaped the social landscape in Great Britain today. Speaking about her own family, Yvonne says, “We’re 4th generation and very, very British. We’ve got children and our children have got children… Here is home.”
Over the decades, Yvonne says that Black people in the UK have worked hard to establish practices, services, and interventions within their communities. However, much of the work has been volunteer and project-based, meaning that creating lasting impact within communities and influencing the wider system has been an ongoing generational challenge. “In the 1980s and 90s there was a huge anti-racist, anti-sexist movement where we were able to make quite significant inroads,” Yvonne says, “But under Cameron and Austerity, it’s like this was an elastic band that was pulled and now everything’s gone back.”
And it is in this context that Yvonne established The Ubele Initiative. In 2012 she began by meeting with local community members and connecting with a diverse array of social justice organizations. They discussed the nuanced issues and goals within different communities, and the intergenerational cooperation necessary to strengthen community roots and build a stronger network. After officially registering as a social enterprise in 2014, the Ubele Initiative in collaboration with community-organization network Locality released a report one year later, titled, A Place To Call Home. The report outlines Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) projects and organizations throughout the UK, with focus on London, and the challenges they are facing to remain in existence. A Place to Call Home also designed an interactive Google map, including 150 African Diaspora community assets across England that currently exist, have been lost, or are under threat. The report states that although there is an increasing need for services by BAME-led organizations, the main threats to these services are rising contract costs and limited funding:
It is clear that the difficulties and insecurities facing many BAME-led organisations trying to safeguard community assets is not due to lack of ambition, interest or demand for services. Indeed, there is evidence of increasing demand for services, especially in relation to meeting the needs of an ageing population…. Due to increasing up-scaling of contracts to deliver important services, such as supporting the elderly, or youth services, BAME-led organisations, like many other community-rooted organisations, are losing vital funding and finding the “replacement” services don’t meet people’s needs.
“So what do we do now, and what do we do for the next twenty years?” Yvonne asks. The Ubele Initiative is one response: ‘Ubele’ means ‘Future’ in Swahili. Using the 2015 report as a roadmap, Yvonne and the Ubele Initiative work with other Black and Minority Ethnic organizations in England as a consulting and organizing firm so that organizations can secure spaces and funding.
As a direct result of the A Place To Call Home Report, The Ubele Initiative has teamed up with Mali Enterprising Leaders to coordinate a massive collaboration with five Black and Minority Ethnic projects across London and Manchester. The Ubele Initiative’s mission in working with these five projects is to help them hone the monetary funding and people-power to build lasting roots within their communities so that they can exist regardless of the UK’s political system or financial situation at large. All of these projects focus on comprehensive community-strengthening through the empowerment of artists, education of children, youth and sports clubs, and health and social services for immigrants and the elderly.
The Ubele Initiative works with organizations not only in the UK, but also on an international scale. Today, the Initiative is also working with PatHERways on an 18-month international project aimed at improving women’s representation in political decision making. Notable is the focus on young women to ensure their voices are amplified and recognized. The project also emphasizes refining training methods and improving cross-organization networking. Co-funded by the European Commission via the Erasmus+ scheme, this marks a huge milestone in the breadth of Ubele’s mission, and will ensure that young womxn have access to political institutions for years to come.
Yvonne from the Ubele Initiative and Dan Biss
In the light of Brexit, government austerity, and the recent political assault on the Windrush Generation, there is an undeniable significance in strong, grassroots support of BAME community self-sustenance. With funding for BAME initiatives threatened by budget cuts and the hostile policies to people with immigrant backgrounds – especially People of African Descent – as a result of Brexit, Yvonne sees a future in which there are structures in place to continue her work and the work of countless community organizations, regardless of government support.
The Grenfell disaster in June 2017 serves as another reminder of the dangers posed by the indifference of successive British governments of both parties, while also the importance of BAME-led community organization. While reports about unsafe cladding on council buildings have existed since at least the eighties, the power of perseverant BAME communities, like the people of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, remain vocal in their protests, and locals activists have been far more successful in generating and donating aid for victims than larger organizations. This bodes well for the Ubele Initiative’s goals of continuing intra-community justice and support.
From the preventable tragedy of Grenfell, to the recent political attacks on the Windrush Generation and their right to residency and citizenship, to the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equity, the United Kingdom – like its neighbors across the West – have to make immediate and long-lasting social changes. This year marks 70 years since Yvonne’s family came to England as part of the Windrush Generation, and her journey is a testament to the unflinching dedication of so many Black and Minority Ethnic community members to ensure their place to call home remains in the UK today, tomorrow, and forever.
To learn more about the 5 specific projects the Ubele Initiative is collaborating with, click here.
About the Author: Dan Biss currently resides in Southern Germany. Originally from outside of Washington, D.C., Biss organizes events for People of the African Diaspora, facilitates workshops for justice and empowerment, and writes down everything in her mind. In 2014 she began a blog about sexuality, pop culture, and her pursuits to live more intersectionally… You can follow her journey on Twitter @xDanBiss.