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July 11, 2022
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July 11, 2022

Working for racial justice in the UK

Leela Ramdeen, a champion of Social Justice, before becoming Chair, Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) and the Archdiocese’s Ministry for Migrants and Refugees (AMMR) was a longstanding advocate for fairness and justice. She is also the first in our Catholic Icons web series. This is part two of the series. Part one appeared in the July 3 issue.

In order to implement some of the recommendations of the report, With You in Spirit? produced by the late Cardinal Basil Hume’s Advisory Committee on the Church’s commitment to the black community, Cardinal Hume established the Cardinals Continuing Committee for the Caribbean Community, or  ‘C 5’, as we were called.

In order to give it status, the Cardinal was the Chair and he appointed me as his Vice-Chair. A lot of people didn’t like that. But [Cardinal Hume] gave us offices and we had a budget. I worked with a committed team on that committee for more than 11 years, voluntarily.

Cardinal Hume and I were feature speakers at the first National Congress of Black Catholics, organised by the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) – from July 13–15, 1990 at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton. Thirteen years later, CARJ organised a National Racial Justice Congress. Then Fr Jason Gordon was the feature speaker, and I was the rapporteur.

Racism comes in many forms. I remember a time when Bishop Sydney Charles visited London from Grenada. I asked him to put on his robe and come with me to visit the school where I was teaching. I wanted the school population to see that black people can achieve great heights.

When he entered wearing his robe, the children laughed – including the black children, who may have internalised racism. And when he asked why they were all laughing, some students said that black people could not be bishops. They actually believed that he was pretending to be a bishop.


Catholic Woman of the Year

Over the years, I sat on a number of committees/boards, including the Committee for Community Relations: Catholic Bishops Conference, England & Wales; member of the National Board of Catholic Women: England and Wales; Vice-Moderator, Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland: Churches Commission for Racial Justice; and the Catholic Association for Racial Justice. I have worked with many individuals who are totally committed to promoting justice and peace. People like Trinidad-born Sr Monica Tywang continues to serve communities selflessly.

In 1994, I was one of four women honoured as Catholic Women of the Year. Each year four women are elected by a committee comprising representatives from various Catholic women’s organisations.

The year I received it, one of the awardees was an old lady who used to drive to and from a war-torn country, to take food and clothes to communities. There was also a nun who had worked for many years in a hospital.

A luncheon was held in our honour at the Russell Hotel, London. Honourable Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative Government Minister, had just converted to Catholicism and she was the main speaker. I may have been the first black woman to have received that award.


Fighting systemic racism

I lived in the United Kingdom for 31 years. During that time, my family and I maintained links with Trinidad and Tobago, returning for vacation regularly.

My work in England extended beyond the Church. I think I gained public credibility from my roles within the Church.

I was appointed Co-Chair of Britain’s Anti-Racist Alliance. Ken Livingstone, the then Mayor of London, was the other Co-Chair. We had some really good people on the team; all committed to eliminating racism in Britain.

We conducted empirical research to gather information that allowed us to examine the nature and extent of racism. For example, we would get a black person with an English accent and an English name, to call for a job interview. But often when the person turned up for the interview, and the employers saw that the applicant was black, the response was often: “Sorry, the vacancy is filled”.

Then, we would send a white person immediately after and that person would be offered the job. These are just examples of the extent of institutional racism at that time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, liberation theology – a Christian theological approach that sought justice for the poor, the oppressed, was popular in Latin America. However, the Church was at odds with liberation theology. In a booklet published by the Catholic Truth Society, I asked: “Are we listening to what the liberation theologists are saying about the need for the Church to be inclusive?” What would Jesus do?

When I was Inspector of Multi-ethnic/Anti-racist Education in the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), I was the line manager of the Primary Curriculum Development Project.

We examined the kind of books available to black children in primary schools. In many picture books, the only black people depicted were people who swept the floor or were in other subservient positions.

On the front cover of a Bible, Cain was depicted killing Abel. Cain was black, and Abel was white. Black people were never portrayed e.g., as a doctor, or a person in authority.

So, we purchased books by and about black people e.g., Martin Luther King Jr and other prominent black people. My team and I wrote reviews of each book, with information about how they could be used in the curriculum. We published the reviews and advice for their use, in a book entitled: Positive Books on Black People’s History. It caused a stir.

A newspaper headline read: “ILEA accused of thought control.” Honourable Kenneth Clark, who was the then Minister for Education, wanted the books withdrawn from primary schools.

I was summoned to the Chief Inspector’s Office. I showed him the book and explained the purpose for producing it. I said that I’d rather resign than withdraw them.

All primary schools had received the books and they were found to be helpful. I pointed out that no one had withdrawn racist books from schools. He listened, supported me, and conveyed information to the Minister. The books remained in schools.

The Greater London Council (GLC) was abolished in 1986, and the ILEA, where I worked, was disbanded. Powers were devolved to London Boroughs etc. I succeeded in securing a job, firstly as Assistant Chief Education Officer in a neighbouring borough.

Following departmental reorganisation, I became the sole Deputy Director of Education with a further responsibility as Head of Quality Assurance. Inter alia, I was in charge of school inspectors and advisors, advisory teachers, the youth service etc.

The black community was proud that a black woman had been appointed to this position. I was interviewed by the Editor of Roots Magazine and was honoured to feature on the front page of that magazine.

When I was first called upon to address principals and teachers at Alexandra Palace in that borough, I was nervous, but I prepared well. That was a borough in which many pupils from black and minority ethnic communities were failing. Prior to my presentation, I was driving past a flower shop, and I noticed and there were some huge Chrysanthemums on sale. I had never seen Chrysanthemums that large.

I parked and ran across the road to buy a few. My mother loved flowers. She had smaller versions in her garden. I used these flowers as my props.

Everyone was waiting to hear what this “newcomer” had to say. During my presentation, I said, “Every child who comes into your school has the potential to grow and bloom like this.” I held up the large Chrysanthemum.

I continued, “But do you see this one [I held up the smaller flower]? If you put a ceiling on children’s potential; when your expectation of some students is too low, you create roles for those students and for yourselves as teachers. So, if you think that children cannot bloom like this [holding up the large flower], what you offer in terms of the curriculum, including the hidden curriculum, guidance and so on, may cause them to shrivel like this [holding up the smaller flower].”

I received a standing ovation! It takes more than a speech to effect change though. Those were difficult years.

Editor’s Note: Fr Howard James, who was mentioned in part one, is now a parish priest in London.