Kaveed Ali, Director of EDI, UK Community Foundations writes
I helped my dad clear his garage this week and I found a medal. It was from the Waltham Forest Primary Schools Black History Quiz, 2009. Every October, from around age nine until I was well into my twenties, this was the event on our family calendar. My mother organised it and invited primary schools across our borough to field a team and participate. Not all the schools in the borough took part, but the ones that did had the best time. Of course, inter-school contests often cause tension and bring out everyone’s competitive streak – especially teachers’ – and these events were no exception. Imagine the scenes when I took part and my team won.
I have heard numerous criticisms of Black History Month. Some argue that it is ludicrous and insulting to confine the histories of countless unique communities to one month. I have heard others dismiss it as exclusionary and irrelevant to them and their children. Both miss the point. This month is an opportunity to focus, learn and reflect. Yet, when I joined UKCF in the summer, one of my first thoughts was how to make a big splash for Black History Month 2021. There were different reasons for this but being black and joining an organisation that has been scrutinised for the role it should play in promoting racial justice were significant. However, in the quiet, I reconsidered what my and the organisation’s approach should be to this month, and settled on a different approach.
This month provides an access point for learning. both for UKCF and for our community foundation members. It is a catalyst for understanding more about the communities we serve and how we can better serve them. Growing up in a household with two teachers, I believe real learning happens gradually. It doesn’t come from a single performance or event but develops over time when learners are supported with kindness and diligence. It cannot take place over a month. It is cultivated over a lifetime. At UKCF we want to take a long-term approach to learning because change takes time, but we are committed to it. However, before we can meaningfully act on matters like racial justice, we must first increase our collective awareness and translate it into shared understanding.
I never asked my mum about her rationale behind the quiz. I believe she too saw it as an access point to something bigger for the schools, parents and ultimately students taking part. In a way, it did not matter what happened at the quiz. The important part was the time leading up to it – the teachers who adopted black history lessons as part of their curriculum, the lunchtime practices led by more competitive school staff members and the books that students took home when it was all over. The value came from it being sustained year on year, so schools did a little more and students learned a little more. That is how we want to approach this month with our members.
No Black History Month article would be complete without the traditional Martin Luther King Jr. quote. He told a congregation in 1954 ‘we are not makers of history; we are made by history’. I agree. The history of the United Kingdom is the culmination of all our communities and must remain central to our shared identity and values. ‘Black’ history is a fundamental part of that. It is a history that is complex, painful and that has left marks on the world to this day. However, we cannot hope to start meaningfully addressing the challenges of our past if we are not committed to taking time to learn.