"You need patience and mindfulness - light is everything."
Sade Sangowawa is the founder and CEO of CiC (Cultures in Community), a Stockton-based community interest company working to advance economic and social independence for people from black and ethnic minority communities. Every year, she organises Taste of Africa, an event that “celebrates everything that is positive about Africa and Africans.”
When did you come to the North East?
I moved to Tees Valley from London in 1994 and when I got here, there weren’t that many black people. I felt people were friendly, but my kids were the only black children in their school. It was very difficult to get a job, even though I was highly qualified. I ended up trying everywhere. Then an agency in Hartlepool called me up. I didn’t know where it was – people kept saying – you don’t want to go to Hartlepool! But I was really pleased somebody had offered, so I went for the interview and met this amazing couple, and they got me an interview at British Steel as a Purchasing Clerk. They kept saying – it’s such a low level job for your qualifications – and I said it doesn’t matter! I just need a job. I need to get out of my house, do a job, go back home. I had an interview with the manager at British Steel and they kept saying I was over qualified, more qualified than them. And I said Look! just give me a job. I’ll do it very well, I won’t leave. So I persuaded them, and that’s how I got my first job up here.
What made you set up CiC?
"My children would bring back questions that teachers had asked them at school.."
One of the people who was sending my information out told me that even though my qualifications were better than others, she never got a call back for me. I said – I understand, it’s the usual. It’s discrimination, or people being uncomfortable with people from other cultures. My children would bring back questions that teachers had asked them at school, or I’d be asked questions around what is this, is it an African language? And I’d think, well what’s an African language? And they’d look at me puzzled, as if they were thinking – well you should know, you’re an African! And I’d think – I’m from Nigeria! It’s a continent not a country. Even though I would make a joke of it, for me it was becoming ridiculous. I thought, I wonder what the perception is of a black kid in a classroom? And people are not getting jobs.
I thought how do you educate a group of people about another group of people? Without forcing it down their throats, letting them make their minds up about this group of people. People said, that’s what the legislation is there for. But I thought, that’s not it: if you know how to push the legislation, you know how far you can push it before you are classified racist. But I thought if you promote the positive side of black people enough, people will see the positive side, rather than what they see on TV or hear on the radio, they can genuinely make up their minds.
This fitted perfectly with Black History Month, which is about the contributions of black people to this great nation. I thought, how can I make this a positive experience? Make it fun, make it visual, not too much talking. Let’s do food, music, fashion, everything that portrays culture, art, people and let’s see how it goes.
The thing to bring people together is food. Food is food, rice is rice! So we had an evening in October 2004, in the International Centre in Stockton. We had food, arts, fashion show, poetry, drama, music, dance. Black people in the community were contributing: doctors, social workers, community workers – people who had come here, and were contributing to the economy.
I didn’t think it would work. In a predominantly white environment, I was trying to push what I thought was the right thing. But by 6.30 the place was full, you couldn’t move.
That’s how the event started. It was a way to break down stereotypes for black people. For black people to showcase themselves, and everything that is good about the culture itself, not the stereotype of what they see. If we continue to show the positive side, I felt, then there will be a snowball effect, people will start to learn and maybe ask more questions, research more, ask themselves why and educate themselves. That was why I started it.
Have you run the event every year since 2004?
Yes – with sweat, tears, frustration, anger, joy, determination, stubbornness! There have been times when it’s been challenging. There have been times when it hasn’t been the flavour of the month with local authorities. A lack of support. But I met Dr Ashok Kumar, the MP, in 2005. He said – we fought this battle of equality – its not easy – we’ve had to fight. He said you’re going to face big challenges and some people are not going to like it! But don’t give up. It’s not the numbers that stand, it’s the determination of those who are willing to stay the length of the fight. You’re a black woman. You’re going to get it! But things will change, and maybe they will change faster, if you make a stand.
At the time I thought – come on. It’s not going to be that difficult! But it has been that difficult. But we have opened minds, or helped people to be more open minded, to think outside the box. That’s a change happening.
What has been the effect of Taste of Africa on members of the African community?
The event has given a sense of pride and identity for black people, for black youth, for work. We’re talking about integration and community cohesion, about black youth standing and being proud to be who they are. I started an event called Proud To Be Me, which came out of Taste of Africa. It was focused on the black youth and saying to them you have to be proud of who you are. And yes, I know, you are in the minority when you go to school – but you have to know who you are and be proud, or you have to live by somebody else’s label. Gradually those kids went on to perform at Taste of Africa, they did drama on slavery, on stereotyping, on bullying. Standing in front of a thousand people! They would do poetry, and gradually I forced them to do a fashion show, using the clothes Africans wear. At first they didn’t like it, but the reaction they got, people clapping, boosted their confidence: they felt good about it.
"You need networks, to support you.."
Later, we started looking at work experience, especially when we started to get a lot of migrants coming in. We started thinking - how do you get work experience? If nobody will give you employment, and they want you to have work experience? So we started using ToA to help people get work experience, so they had understanding of British culture up to a point, and also informal mentors. They would have an understanding of how the British system works, around time, around reliability, around how to act. People got that through becoming part of the event, contributing their time, groups doing the cooking, learning how to manage people, and they developed networks. You need networks, to support you, indirectly or directly to move you on. It sort of evolved. It’s not just about the event any more.
CiC as an organisation puts people into employment and helps them move on. Taste of Africa has moved into Cultures, so it’s become an all year round thing now.
"There’s a lot of discrimination, it’s systemic."
Do you think things have changed?
Yes, actually. I think a lot of people have benefitted. People are a lot more aware of black people now. They are still marginalised, for various reasons. But awareness of black people, awareness of where they come from, awareness that they can be doctors, lawyers, accountants etc – people are a lot more aware. This has changed perception a lot. Has that translated into employment? No. It’s hard – there are certain professions, such as doctor or nursing, these are the professions black people go into because it’s easier to get a job. Yes, there’s over representation there. But in terms of other professions, it’s very difficult. There’s a lot of discrimination, it’s systemic. We have seen an improvement. There have been changes, but it’s not good enough.
Has your approach changed over the years?
I still feel passionate – and angry! Passionate because there are other groups in BME but they are smaller, maybe disadvantaged. It can become survival of the fittest. The smaller groups now need to fight for their rights within the system. That’s difficult because to want to do that you need to be community focused, as much as when I came in 2000, or in 1994. But the landscape has changed – people are more individualistic, the priorities are different. It’s more personal, my family first, and that’s happening a lot. The landscape has changed, and people are a bit more enlightened.
What have you given up?
A lot! My career – what I wanted to do as a person. Some time with the kids – my kids see me as everybody’s mother, or aunty! They are fine with it – my kids, all the young people, have realised what a massive influence ToA has been on their lives, career, in developing them as people. They all have empathy for people, willing to give, communications, resilience – they are all linked! When anything happens, they are all linked to each other. They have become friends. So sacrifice yes, but it has helped my kids to grow, it has altered their lives.
Do you think you have a certain style which helps you in your work?
I have always felt it’s important to be very well-dressed. I think it has helped me not to be overlooked, by both men and women. Maybe it’s about being extremely confident and happy with the way you look. I’ve also had to develop a more assertive style than comes naturally to me. I was brought up to be humble and reserved, but I have learned that there are times when it’s very important to be assertive and speak up for yourself. I think this attitude may have put some people off, but it has also helped me to get attention and interest in the projects I am involved in. And people always come to my events!
Do you think there have been influences from childhood that have shaped you?
Well perhaps I always felt different. I was mad about lawn tennis as a girl and played for my school, then my state, then my country. My dad really supported me and really, I was his favourite child. I was sent to the US for university and managed to complete my degree in two and a half years, by doing extra courses during summer. I am very driven, and I never give up! When I came to the UK, I had to start over again, but I had a plan – it’s very important to have a plan. Plus I think I like to show people that it can be done, if you are determined. So you can be successful, if you just keep going.