Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Spot Light on Black Women Councillors in Southwark

21/01/08

Interview with Cllr Althea Smith  

I’ve been a councillor in Southwark since 2006, but I’ve lived in the area over 31 years. I’ve been involved in the community for over a decade - giving most of my time voluntary, because I am loyal to the community. And I feel that to be part of the community you have to give up your time. And you can’t wait to be in the political arena to serve your community; you got to be serving your community all the time.

I’ve also had to look after my three children, and one grandson. My oldest is 24, second oldest is 21 and I’ve got an 18 yr old son and 5 yr old grandson.

I’ve been trying to be a councillor for quite a long time and I’ve had obstacles, I’ve had racism, I’ve had silly remarks passed by head of party members, which I ignored at the time because at the end of the day I was involved in politics since 13 in the Caribbean, and I saw my cousins become councillors, and I was determined that there was something there for me.  I was loyal to the cause because I’m a socialist and I intend to give something back to my community.  So therefore, although I had all those obstacles in my way, I was determined that one day, if the time was right, I would achieve what I want.

Now, I found there was a lot of activity around youth issues, and when I go to the town hall I speak as a tenant and as an adult, but there are not a lot of us who speak for the youth. And I thought, if I dedicate so much of my time to young people, I could be one of the first councillors that could be looking at the issues as they affect young people.  So I take them along to conference, meet them in the street, talk to them on street corners.  I’m not afraid to confront them if there is trouble.  I’m one of the councillors for the youth of Southwark, and they do know me, they call me Auntie, they call me mum, whatever they want to call me.  I am a councillor for my ward, Nunhead, but I feel more dedicated and loyal to the young people of Southwark.

I think it makes it easier for some people to engage with me because I’m a mum, and a lot of them come to my house and I knew them from when they were babies, and secondly they look at me as if I’m with them.  They say ‘You know what we’re feeling in the street, how to react to us’ -- other councillors only come to talk to them in terms of the vote. When I see them in the street, I will stop, hug and give them a kiss. 

I found it difficult at times, when I was trying to get into local politics, because people try to block my way when I speak my mind, they would say ‘You shouldn’t say things like that’. But I feel, at least when I am honest and open my colleagues know how I feel and I find you have a better relationship…I worked hard, and Sally pushed me to become chair of Consort ward, and when I became chair of Consort ward, a lot of people stop coming to the meetings because a black woman was the chair. And I carried on because I’m here for the community, not for myself.

I was the first black woman to chair that Labour party ward, and although a lot of the men were pushing us women to get involved it was a culture shock to see a woman, it was not only a woman, it was a black woman as the chair. 

I’ll give you one example of how I think I bring a different perspective to my job because I’m a black woman.  I had a tenant on the street complaining bitterly about the pub, I just got elected and she called me and I said, ‘Ok I will sort it out’…So what I did, I went to the pub and what happened was, I went to the pub and I went to school, with the owner of the pub and I said, ‘I can’t have this, I’m now the councillor for this area, we went to school together, if you’re going to run this pub you have to run it by the rules’…so I went back to the tenant and told her I’d been and she said ‘You’re brave--You were the only one who went to the pub, you went at different times, you went at 11pm and 2am. You’re the only councillor who would go to a pub at 2am if someone complained’. I said, ‘You complained, I did something’.  So that was something I did differently, because other councillors would have written letters.

Some people would say, ‘Oh, leave it to licensing officers’, because as it’s a woman that’s concerned, they would leave it to the licensing department or to the police, but because I have so much interaction with the police, and I’ve been trained, I can risk manage myself—and I found I could challenge the situation by myself, and then ask for back-up.

I think some of the young black mothers in my ward do relate to me in a way they wouldn’t if I was a man, and I’ve heard from some of the other councillors who say they talk to people and they also say I do. And they say ‘You’re different from the rest of us’.

In terms of people who inspired me to run for local office, I see Michael Manley as my role model, he was the Prime Minister of Jamaica, and when I was young I used to campaign for the party and that’s how I got involved in politics because my aunties and my cousins. We were split-family with different alliances, but when it comes to family issues we stick together and we don’t talk about politics, so therefore I grew up with that around me…I don’t have 10 degrees like some people have, but it’s about determination and I can get inspired by anyone in politics to say I want to carry on, to go further.  And I want to inspire young people and I say ‘What I didn’t achieve, I would like you to achieve’ to say, ‘Look what I can do, look what I can accomplish, I would like you to achieve it.  I would like you to get involved in politics-- if you don’t ask questions, you don’t know. So, question democracy, because you don’t know, question your MP…ask questions as young people’. 

I hope I can inspire other  young women to get into politics, especially because I was a single parent for a long time and I can illustrate how I brought my kids up alone for a long time before I had a partner, and I’ve achieved this and therefore you can achieve this.

I think that makes quite a lot of difference that people see on the voting papers and leaflets that there is a mixed team of councillors for the simple reason, well, let’s talk about Southwark. Southwark is so diverse. Now we have a lot of West Africans and they’re more involved in politics and to them, that’s a great achievement - they can say ‘At least one of us is moving forward’ and it gives them encouragement, because now there’s quite a lot of people who want to run for councillor in Southwark. 

I think it is very important that Southwark be represented by a diverse group of councillors because we’re a diverse borough, and we need to reflect on the borough we serve.

I think my proudest accomplishment as councillor is giving the youth confidence, and giving them a chance to speak their mind, because if you don’t, you don’t know what they’re thinking.

I think the Government should encourage more ethnic minority women to run for councillor, and to become MP, but I think also, we need to encourage them, not say, ‘To do this job, you get an allowance’. They have to want to do this from the bottom of their hearts; they have the inspiration from within. They need to not doing it because they see it as a career move, but how can deliver and how you be a servant for your people.  Because at the end of the day, you’re a servant for your people.

The reason I became involved with my tenants association and with the Police is because a lot of the people on my estate said, ‘If you want to get your voice heard, you have to get involved in the T&A’, so I joined the T&A and when I got there, they said ‘The police never come to our estate’, so I said I would talk to the police, and I got involved and then the police started to come to me to have tea.  And people said ‘How come they’re coming to see you, when they wouldn’t come see us before?’ and I said, ‘It’s the way you approach them’.  And I think socialising is a very important thing, because at the end of the day, you might be an MP here, I’m a councillor there, but we’re all a family. And I think at sometimes, we have to reach out to the community and say, ‘We can socialise with you, we want to get to know your family, you’re a distant family to us, but you’re the extended arm of our family-the community. And once they trust you, they’ll do anything with you—they’ll work with you.

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