To celebrate Black History Month, Chidi Onyema, co-chair of our equality, diversity and inclusion staff network, interviews Janet Daby, Member of Parliament for Lewisham East, in her constituency office.
Chidi: The theme of this year’s Black History Month is Proud to be. What does ‘Proud to be’ mean to you?
Janet: It’s who I am. I have grown to be proud to be Black and of Jamaican, Guyanese Indian heritage. I believe that my heritage, upbringing and life-experiences have helped to shape who I am today.
My parents met in New Cross during the Windrush era and later married. I’m the youngest of three children. I remember travelling to Jamaica and Guyana as a child and feeling as if I had a shared interest with people I’d never met before. In the parish where my mum grew up in Jamaica, everyone was so friendly and shared whatever they had freely. In Guyana, I felt at home being amongst a lot of people of mixed African-Caribbean and Indian heritage; it was an unusual feeling seeing so many people who looked just like me. Everyone gravitates towards people with whom they share similarities, be that of age, gender or race and something else. That’s quite normal.
I am British and I’m equally proud of growing up in the UK and London, which is my home. I have experienced challenges and in my young age I have been called awful names due to my colour. I, like most people of colour, continue to face challenges due to overt and covert discrimination. However, there will always be many more people who love and accept you. They will fight with you and for you.
Chidi: What is it like being Lewisham’s only black MP and one of only a few black female MPs in parliament.
Janet: I was born in Greenwich and I’ve lived in Greenwich and Lewisham for most of my life. Lewisham wasn’t always as diverse as it is now and that occasionally presented some challenges, especially for a young black girl, but I’ve always been comfortable being around a predominately white population and have good friends from a wide range of backgrounds.
Unfortunately, it’s a common experience for most Black people that the higher you go – in terms of your profession – the more it is dominated by the white British people and usually men. On occasions I have felt intimidated by other Parliamentarians but I have come to realise that the older I become, the less intimated I feel. I remind myself of the huge wealth of knowledge that I bring to parliament; from my professional experience, as well as my work in the community and my personal experience of being a wife, mother, sister, daughter and also as someone who’s been a carer. This helps me feel empowered and reminds me that I have a duty to fulfil for my constituents. I take my responsibility seriously. I am here for them and I am their voice in Parliament.
Chidi: Are there things from your heritage that are particularly dear to you?
Janet: I was brought up in a single parent family, on a council estate, and as far as I can remember, my favourite food was ackee and salt fish and fried dumpling, and delicious ‘salt fish fritters’, which are the best! I can’t have too much of the salt fritters now because it goes straight to my hips! Recently, I’ve developed a terrible liking for jerk pork, with jerk sauce. I also adore all Indian food. If I’m honest, I love all food!
My husband will tell you that I love the old reggae music and Motown.
Chidi: Are there any specific artists you like, and why?
Janet: I love the vocal sound of female artists. There are a few songs by black artistes whose music has meant a lot to me. For instance, one of them was ‘Young, gifted and black’ and ‘Love me or leave me’ by Nina Simone. Another song was ‘Reach out and touch somebody’s hand and make this world a better place if you can’ by Diana Ross. I have been a practicing Christian since I was a teenager and I love my Christian worship; Bethel Church’s music is fantastic, and a band called Jesus Culture.
I am proud that Christians Socialists along with the unions founded the Labour Party.
Chidi: Are there things that you think can highlight black pride and contribution to society beyond the yearly Black History Month celebrations?
Janet: Black people have achieved great things nationally as well as internationally. I remember going to the Black Heros in the Halls of Fame in Hackney when I was a young person. I think we need things like that again so people can realise some of the contributions black people have made to society. For instance, not that many people know that the three-light traffic light, the first home security system, refrigerated trucks, gas masks, automatic lift doors and many other everyday items were all invented by black people. We all need to know about these kind of things because they can give our young people a sense of pride and a belief in their own abilities and what they can go on to achieve; I don’t think we hear enough about these.
We hear a lot about black people coming to Britain in the Windrush era: the nurses, the engineers, the factory and transport workers. If they hadn’t come from the commonwealth countries after the second world war, I don’t think Britain would have become as established as it is today. People tend to forget that black people have supported and sustained a lot of British institutions for a very long time.
Chidi: How do you think local and central governments can support black communities get involved in charities working to reduce violence against women and knife crime?
Janet: The first thing is that local and central government have to make the decision that they want to help and that they will fund black organisations; and that those organisations won’t be misunderstood, stigmatised and criticised.
What I find with most black charities and organisations is that for them, it’s not just a profession but that they come from a position of serious endeavour and passion to improve the experiences of our community. In my work, I hear of some really sad and desperate stories of poverty and hardship within the community. What I often find is that smaller organisations that are black-led or run by diverse groups are overlooked and the money always goes to the bigger organisations that are more established or have networks or are able to articulate themselves in way that is more acceptable. What I think needs to be done is to focus on what the smaller organisations are able to achieve and what are the outcomes they’ll be able to present. Even more so, funding authorities need to engage directly with community-led organisations and see how best they can be supported. I think there’s a stigma out there against black-led organisations and I fear that this may not improve anytime soon, which is a great shame.
Chidi: BAME communities in particular appear to have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Is there any message you have for this community and for those of us who work with, and within the community, to encourage vaccine uptake?
Janet: Nobody wants to die, that’s the first thing! The vaccine is there not only to help save your life but those of others with whom you come into contact.
I think the first thing is that you must listen to people; you have to acknowledge their doubts, fears or personal experiences as to why they don’t want to have the vaccine. I’m not into criticising people who are hesitant to take the vaccine. I believe that is unhelpful and counterproductive. What they need to know are the benefits of the vaccine. The approach must be to listen to their fears and then to engage with them. I’ve not met anybody who after a conversation with others hasn’t then gone and got their vaccine.
GPs, nurses and other health workers are well-placed to allay people’s fears and they should be encouraged to make contact with them. Ultimately, the aim and endeavour is that everybody gets double-jabbed.
Chidi: Having lived the life you have, what would you say to the young Janet?
Janet: Hmm! I’d encourage the young Janet to get involved in politics much sooner, perhaps as a student even; I think I would have enjoyed that. Politics affects everybody’s life.
I didn’t grow up in a political home and I didn’t know much about politics. Young people are passionate about their communities and about making a contribution to the betterment of society but don’t know how to get involved in party politics. We need to tell them how to get involved in politics.
The Criminal Justice area interests me. I find it disturbing that young black people are more likely to be arrested, charged and receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts receive and that’s not right! I would encourage the young Janet to get involved earlier in this area of work.
Finally, I didn’t find out I was dyslexic until I was an adult, it’s nobody’s fault, but it would have been nice if the young Janet found that out a bit earlier.
Chidi: What are you most proud of as a public servant?
Janet: A few things really. One is when I was a local councillor; I was able to work with local community leaders to set up a foodbank in the heart of Downham, which is a bit of a beacon now for people experiencing poverty and deprivation. I’m just so grateful to the volunteers and everyone who’s involved with that food project for having the heart to do what they do.
When you work on small scales to touch an individual’s life it goes a long way and means a lot; helping people move to better accommodation or access justice is a fantastic feeling.
A wider campaign that I did in parliament was to ensure that the families of porters, cleaners and other sundry workers within the NHS who died of Covid-19 had the right to remain in the country. That was a privilege that was only being offered to the families of doctors and nurses, but I led a campaign with the GMB union to ensure that was extended to everybody else within the NHS, and thankfully, we were able to persuade the government to change its policy very quickly.
Most recently, I’ve had a public meeting to support Afghan residents who are concerned about their relatives back home. I wanted them to know that I’m here to listen to them and to take their cases to the government, and that I’m here to empower them to know what to do. I was able to involve the council, the local councillors, the relevant cabinet member, local organisations and a variety of concerned residents who just wanted to help. We had an MP surgery, London Migrant Network and a mental health organisation there too.
Chidi: Finally, do you have any parting words?
Janet: I think communities need to lean on each other a bit more, lean on each other for support and where we can help someone, we should. It is a great feeling to be able to help others!
The other thing I would say is that you’ll never know if a door will open until you push or pull it. To our young people especially, I’d like to say be true to yourself and never see things as unachievable – rather think of how best you can overcome hurdles to achieve your dreams. Remember, the tree trunk lying across the path to your dreams could either be an obstacle or a stepping-stone – your mindset will make the difference.
I’m living proof that you can achieve your dreams. Who would have thought that the likes of me would become the Member of Parliament for Lewisham East? But, you know what? I have great people who’ve stood with and supported me. I now fight with them and for them. I fight for all people who need a voice and I try to be that voice as best as I can – and at the same time remain true to my own values.
I hope all the staff at Lewisham Homes have a wonderful and enjoyable Black History Month, and I thank you for all of the work you do for my constituents.