“Some of the kids had never seen a black person before”
My mom and dad were both deaf. My dad is from Sierra Leone and his family moved here when he was two – essentially to bring him in to a school for deaf children. My mom is Caribbean – from Jamaica. She was born here and then went back to the Caribbean for a bit, going travelling by herself at 21, which was pretty cool for a young deaf woman 40/50 years ago. She met my dad whilst travelling in the UK.
I was born in Lewisham and then moved to Kent, Chatham. At that time, there weren’t very many black families. I was one of two black girls in my year, alongside a few Asian girls in a year of about two hundred. I didn’t have any non-white friends until I was 21. I didn’t know any black people – maybe a couple floating around but I didn’t have any black friends in my friendship group whose houses I would go around or who I would really hang out with.
When I was 21 years old, I went to Cardiff and figured out that I really enjoyed youth work and I have been doing it ever since. I set up a Christian group in my school. I was one of those really annoying, people-pleasing young people, keen to do the right thing. So I set up this Christian group, made friends with teachers etc. I still had an actual peer group which I think is a testament to how great they are! I think helping people was my thing – from a young age at 14 – I wanted to spend my time trying to be helpful. When I screwed up an exam or was worried academically, my godmother said to me: ‘The thing is, Joy, all of the academic stuff is important but the thing that is really going to make a difference is the impact that you make on the people around you. Concentrate on making a difference to people lives’. I really internalised that. It turned out that once I stopped worrying about the academic stuff it all was fine and I caught up with everyone anyway.
I didn’t know any black people – maybe a couple floating around, but I didn’t have any black friends
I spent a lot of time hanging out with people who were socially excluded and I just tried to be kind. Youth work wasn’t that much of a jump to what I used to do with my friends, listening to stuff going on in their houses, realising I didn’t have much advice to offer, but a bit of common sense and being nice and friendly and offering fun things to do. I felt like I was good at youth work, so I thought I’d go and do a degree in that and also applied theology – because faith is important to me too.
It was a placement-based degree so I moved to a tiny village in Kent and it was awful. In this little village, some of the kids had never seen a black person before. They just had no idea and I had never been in an environment so hostile. I didn’t have a language to articulate what was happening so I walked into a really racist place without the means to explain what was happening to me. No one was explicitly saying anything racist like ‘we don’t like you because you’re black’ – which would have been easier because then I would have known what to do. But instead it was things like people being twitchy around me – not feeling comfortable around me. I was 19 years old, keen to connect with people, and there was this immediate mistrust, immediate suspicion. People talked about my race in weird ways. One of the women in the village was holding an event called a ‘black and white ball’ and she came up to me and said: ‘We named it before we knew you were coming’. I didn’t get it. It was a black and white ball! What was that about.
In this little village, some of the kids had never seen a black person before. They just had no idea and I had never been in an environment so hostile…
I had never been so bothered in my life. People would describe me to the vicar I lived with as ‘the girl that lives with you’. They would run through almost any other description rather than mention me as being black. They would even say busty before black. People just didn’t know what to do with me I guess. But the thing I found really hard was the mistrust. The youth worker that was there before me – the only difference was the colour of our skins.
I spent two years in that village – and I ended up suffering from anxiety, really bad anxiety. It was the beginning of my anxiety disorder. I felt constantly watched and mistrusted, feeling like I must have done something wrong, because people were keeping their kids away from me, reluctant to connect with me. I was trying to do normal youth work and kept facing resistance. At the end of one of the sessions I ran, I remember one of the dads driving up, jumping out of the car and just screaming at me. I just couldn’t understand what was happening. People would try to explain it away, explaining how people around there were a bit sensitive. But it was a mess of a situation. I snapped a bit at the end of that and decided I needed to move. It had been my first proper experience of having panic attacks and simply not functioning.
They would run through almost any other description rather than mention me as being black. They would even say busty before black…
I put in a request to move and got moved to Islington. Getting here, where the shops are open at night and I didn’t need to carry a torch in my handbag like I had done in the village, it was a freeing experience. I also worked with more culturally diverse people. There were still a lot of white people but they were willing to talk to me and my boss was really anti-racist which made a huge difference. He introduced me to some of the books that helped me to understand what had happened. It had been awful but it took me a year to really understand what happened.
The people I had encountered were racist and there was a mistrust of me based on the colour of my skin. It was really helpful to realise that it wasn’t my fault and that it had been right for me to leave – because, initially, I had felt bad about leaving having built relationships with young people.
The people I had encountered were racist and there was a mistrust of me based on the colour of my skin…
I have worked here, in Islington, for the last nine years. Most of my work has been with young women and I have got to meet some really wonderful young women through my work. Many of them I met when they were about ten years olds, before secondary school, and I have got to work with them the whole way through. They’re now 19/20 and it’s such a wonderful experience, being part of their stories and experiences and helping them to navigate the challenges that they face. Being a teenager is always hard and never straightforward and if you add any additional pressures – that can tip people over the edge. And some of these teenagers were facing additional pressure such as absent parents, figuring life out on their own, abuse, grooming, struggles with mental health. I committed to see these ones through. My boss reminded me that they might not be with us at the end and that I had to be ready for that. But I was determined to see them through to the end. Some of them did come and go and there were periods where I didn’t seem them but when I left most of them turned up and said bye and thanks. Being a youth worker is really basic stuff. Usually when you tell people you’re a youth worker, people either think you’re super stupid or they think you’re super worthy. They think I’ve done it because I’m not very bright but just super kind and happy to give up my life for young people. But actually it’s not about that. It’s all about creating a space for young people. I work hard to make this moment, this room, this interaction safe for the young person to be who they are and to have a good time and to reflect, to have conversations, teach sex-ed, show how to cook, correct wrong assumptions, talk about family, race and feeling safe. I want them to feel that there is always a person who they can chat to and come back to.
I don’t think its super worthy or super stupid – it requires thought. The wonderful thing about youth work is that I am constantly stimulated, stretched and constantly being asked how and why. I have to constantly think about why we do what we do and how I respond to stuff. I have to make sure when young people ask me for advice, I don’t just turn them into mini mes. You have to know yourself, you have to reflect – if you’re not kind to yourself, your work goes downhill.
I had this particular moment when I was 20 of experiencing anxiety and its hasn’t really gone away. My symptoms have changed over the years but anytime I feel low control, high responsibility, my body lets me know when I am in those situations. I feel uncomfortable, pain in my chest. I have to decide how best to deal with the situation – is it something I am really responsible for? Therapy has given me the space to talk this stuff through. I used to panic a lot, the minute I felt anxious and then I’d spiral. But now I’ve learned to recognise the warning signs and manage the anxiety that follows.
My symptoms have changed over the years but anytime I feel low control, high responsibility, my body lets me know. I have to decide how best to deal with the situation…
When I was in my twenties, my parents got evicted from the house I grew up in. For me, that was a major shift. My whole existence was about helping people and fixing things and then my parents got themselves evicted and I couldn’t do anything to help them. There was all sorts of financial stuff that I couldn’t really be involved in. At the same time as all this, there were a number of situations in my life where I couldn’t fix things or help. But the eviction was the big one. It made me realise that I needed to be about more than just fixing things.
Women are particularly trained to be the one who give themselves for their family and community – sometimes to give to the point of being empty. What does it mean when I have given everything but all of these situations are still the same and the only thing that is different is that I am now empty? I can’t help but I still need to enjoy my life. My parents have been adults longer than I have been alive, and although they are disabled they have been managing their lives and I needed to be supportive to them but I couldn’t take it on as my own. This was important for me to learn – that I could enjoy my life outside of helping people, that I am more than what I do. The message is everywhere for young women that what we look like is who we are and I have spent a lot of my time telling young women that this isn’t the deal and what they do matters. But in my earlier years, what I did then became the measure. Whereas actually, there is more to everyone than what we do or what we look like. We are multi-faceted and multi-layered. I am a youth worker, and I dance, and I paint and I get grumpy.
I am a slow-learner so I have needed to learn this lesson many times – realising I am more than what I do. I am probably not going to be remembered or famous, I might not have changed the world, but it doesn’t mean that what I’ve done has been meaningless or wasted.
I got married 4 months ago and people ask me what married life is like and I reply ‘its alright’ and people are really shocked because they expect us to be over the moon! But there is something about things being okay and alright, shrug of the shoulders that appeals to me. I am not looking for super high mountain top ecstatic moments, I don’t have the energy to sustain that. The things that are most meaningful are the day to day ordinary moments. Being satisfied and content with doing my best instead of living at the edge of myself, where I have pushed myself so hard, worked so hard that I have cried, that I can’t function.