Siobhan Harper-NunesDevelopment, Equality

It makes me sad when I see everyday sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or ageism. It makes me sad when people use acts of atrocity conducted by a crazy tyranny to slate and undermine the rights of others.

More recently the events in London and now Manchester, and the subsequent Muslim bashing on social media has made me sad to be human.

I’ve rarely said anything very contentious in public as I honestly believed that as the head of an organisation that appeals to women from all social and political persuasions, that it was not my place to be seen as right or left.

Indeed, I am neither as what I believe often does not sit easily in one camp or another.

But I’ve changed my mind.

Most of my personal opinions actually sit very neatly into the values of our organisation:

  • We value diversity
  • We value and respect all our fellow human beings
  • And we value our communities, our society and our planet.

So here is what I believe…

I believe the world needs to take notice of what we’re doing to our planet, so, that we can leave a world for future generations.

I also believe that if I work hard and long, I should be allowed to reap the rewards of my labour and pass those gifts on to my family.

But most of all I believe fiercely in creating a more equitable society where all people have access to education, jobs and a decent standard of living. To live without fear or hatred in harmony with their fellow men and women.

I have been pondering issues of equality since I was in my 20s. I have always had a firm belief in fairness, instilled from birth by very fair parents and I grew up in a household who fought for the rights of our fellow countrymen.

But as with many young people in a wealthy society born of parents with a decent standard of living, liberty and equality were mere terms that took a back stage to the everyday joys of love, family and eventually career.

It was only after I had my son Alex that these issues became issues for me again as I strove to create a life for him and returned to education to begin my career in earnest.

I studied Social Policy and was drawn to the topic of Race. We all had to take a short course but having been alerted to the intricacies of this field explored it further through my dissertation as I looked at how policy can perpetuate discrimination and how very unfair our society actually is, especially if you happen to be black (or Muslim).

I took comparative social policy and compared legislative measures in the UK, US and Sweden. I looked at Race and Housing, Race and Education, Race and Health and I saw the reality of the limited number of black students on my course – I was asked many times to pose for prospectus after prospectus designed to increase uptake – being one of the few black women at the University at that time. I was such an outspoken blighter, I was invited back to teach social policy after I graduated.

It was the 90s and there was also a semi-determined push to increase the number of black and older students through the Access programme, and I watched dismayed as students who had no experience of formal education, suffered by the lack of support on offer to help them navigate a foreign terrain.

I fought and won the case for intensive pastoral and mentoring support for the Access Students in my department and became quite the advocate of certain issues (got me the pus at the university however) but my passion continued for around 2 decades.

It was only one day quite by accident, I saw a student – she was disabled – grapple with the paternoster (a moving lift that consisted of open compartments you stepped into and out of when you reached your floor). I loved the paternoster, they were fun and as an able-bodied woman in her 20s, could spend ages jumping on and off – much as I did as a child in the playground with the roundabout – playing daredevil as we spun it faster and faster.

It never occurred to me, or it seems the people who designed them, that this quirky and fun contraption was actually a source of great anxiety to someone who was movement challenged. I watched as she navigated these perils and it occurred to me then, I might fight for black rights to education, but what about this woman’s right to enter the building?

I began realising that whist as a black woman, black issues were my key concern, others had similar difficulties accessing education, facilities, and opportunities that I actually took for granted.

Since then, through my research and my work, I have observed some of the harsh realities faced by the young, the aged and the disabled. I have worked with gay and lesbian groups, transgender groups and of course women’s groups. I have also delivered a plethora of training around equality, starting with RAT in the 90s, right through to Equality and Human Rights training post the 2010 Equality Act.

In fact, it was whist I was delivering training around the expectations of the 2010 Equality Act, to a team of people working for a human rights charity, that I heard a member of staff say:

“I get it and I can see how hard it must be to be gay but I draw the line at transgender. No no I can’t go there.” She shivered, squirmed and giggled all at the same time.

My co-trainer responded immediately and firmly, trying hard to stifle her displeasure: “it’s not a pick and mix” she said.

I nearly wet my pants. I loved her statement. I thought it was both funny and accurate as I imagined walking up and down the aisles of Woolworths equalities counter, trying to decide which equality I’d choose today!

I have used that line often since. It reminded me of the poem by the German writer, Niemöller:

“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

 Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—  Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

 Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—  Because I was not a Jew.

 Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

After all equality is equality, and fair is fair – you either believe in enabling a fairer society or you don’t.

I have chosen to focus on women’s issues through my work but it doesn’t mean I no longer fight for other equalities.  After all it makes no sense to say, I think we should have fairness for women, or black people but not for the disabled, Jews, Muslims, Gays or Transgender people.

That said, thankfully, protecting marginalised groups and working to create better opportunities for all people is no longer a matter of personal choice….

It’s definitely not a Pick and Mix, It’s actually the law of the land.

I just wish more people, the authorities especially, would act against people – including our celebrities and statesmen and women, who insight hatred, and violence against other groups.