There was Shirley Franklin, the first female African American mayor of the City of Atlanta who came into power in 2001, and I had the pleasure of working for her.
During my second year at Middlesex University, I was awarded a scholarship to study at Spelman College, a historically Black college and university, also known as HCBUs. It was this opportunity that led me to meet Lord Simon Woolley, his organisation Operation Black Vote presented the chance for two students to study in the USA.
I sat in a room (along with 20 other students) with Lord Simon Woolley and Diana Abbott MP, and listened to their words of encouragement that the world was ours. I knew that I wanted to apply but I was too scared. Why? Well for most of my life I was told that because I am Black and female, my dreams will be limited. Being the first in my family (in the UK) to go to university this was deemed enough, going to America to absorb and be inspired to do so much more, seemed impossible. Nevertheless, I applied and spoke my truth, to live a life filled with life-long accomplishments and not limited to what others thought that I, a Black woman, should achieve. It was heard and I won the scholarship.
The first lesson I learnt whilst living in Atlanta is it is not New York. Growing up I spent many days in the New York suburbs of Brooklyn and Queens, and I was comforted by how familiar they were to my life in London. Also, New York is home to many West Indian migrants, so culturally there’s no difference. In Atlanta, I got to meet African Americans from across the USA and I was as curious about them as they were about me. Of course, they liked my accent and I spent many hours listening to them impersonating me. I always found it funny that to them I sounded like the Queen and that they did not register my East London twang . I also spent endless hours talking to them about the then President, George Bush Jr and at that time, the USA was at war (along with Britain) with Iraq. I remember showing them the front pages of Daily Mirror and Guardian to give another perspective. They were genuinely interested and it made them question their own media. We also discussed how racism can rare its ugly head in multiple ways. In the USA, it is upfront and violent. You know as a Black person the areas you’re welcomed in and not. We spoke about Georgia’s historic treacherous treatment of Black people and we were angered that a debate was still being heard in court as to whether to expulse the confederate flag. In return, I told them that Britain was in denial about its racism and that the country (and many citizens) were not prepared to discuss and take action against systemic systems that purposefully held people back because of their skin colour. We felt united in our woes, but jointly determined to push forward for our generation and the ones to follow.
And then there is mayor Shirley Franklin. I worked in the media team for her office. I was in awe to represent a woman who looked just like me. For the first time ever, I witnessed a Black woman at the helm of an organisation. One that could not be ignored or dismissed. She was a true powerhouse and carried herself with grace. Here was a woman who carried the burden of being ‘a first’, yet still had to argue as to why the confederate flag is seen as a mark of terror for Black people. Yet, there was a real buzz that someone who truly understand her constituents was going to represent them. It could be seen that mayor Shirley Franklin’s appointment was a gentle step towards healing for the descendants of those who had previously perished.
In my final week, mayor Shirley Franklin held a good-bye ceremony for my fellow student and myself. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. Due to feelings of pride that this Black woman was striding forward in a western political world that was dominated (and continues to be) by white rich men, and that I would return to Britain with a trickle effect feeling that my life did have purpose and is valuable. That I owe it to my ancestors, the world and myself to be the best version of me, regardless of the battles that will be presented. And to this very day, I am remain motivated by this and by mayor Shirley Franklin.