What future for girls?
Jackie Walker addressed an event on International Women’s Day at the Turner Gallery, Margate. This is an edited version of her contribution.
I DON’T AGREE WITH THE PREVIOUS SPEAKER’S remarks about success in life depending mainly on individual effort and confidence. It doesn’t apply to the child who died on Greek shores, washed up like so much detritus, nor to the more than 600 unaccompanied refugee children freezing tonight under tents not far from here. These children have no real choice as to what happens to them.
Recently there’s been too much focus on personal, individual development, personal volition. So attendance at personal therapies, gyms, self-awareness courses is going up while, until very recently, interest in politics, working in solidarity with others, was out of fashion. If you do well or badly, it’s all about the individual, we are told. A lot of people who have power – the establishment – just love it that we think that way. I want to change that.
When I’m talking about politics, what I’m really talking about is how my life experience has made me know that we need fundamental change if we want to make all our lives better. The personal for me is very much the political, and I live it every day of my life.
To tell you something of my story: like all of us, we are the product of not just our own lives but of many other lives before us, people related to us by blood, by culture, by circumstance – and not.
So on this International Women’s Day I want to pay tribute to the women of my family who fought and died to survive the kidnappers and the slaving ships, the whip, the slave masters and the hangman. I pay tribute to the women, and men, who fought and died for the emancipation of slaves.
This emancipation was not solely achieved by Wilberforce and a vote in Parliament. Real change takes action, and emancipation would never have happened without the sacrifice of those, some white but mostly black, who gave up their lives and well-being to the cause.
I want to pay tribute to my mother who migrated across three continents, who was part of Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement in America, who was beaten and tortured and called a communist because of her activism and her refusal to be oppressed.
It was her courage in becoming a migrant that brought me to Britain. Like others from the Caribbean of her generation, she saw Britain as a sort of Promised Land because she, like King, had a dream about what she wanted for the lives of all children, of her children, and her children’s children. I still have that dream.
And today, celebrating the achievement of women across the globe, I honour the struggles of migrant women everywhere who strive to give their families the life of their dreams.
My mother died when I was eleven years old, when like so many migrants, we were hopelessly poor. But she gave me that vision, and I used that to get to where I wanted to be – part of that age-long struggle for equality and justice.
After she died I was taken into a children’s home and started to share my life with children that no one, including at times their own parents, wanted: that’s the brutal truth of how it was then and still is now.
I left care, got a job, put myself through university, became a teacher and worked for ten years in schools in the poorest area in London. You may be able to imagine the deprivation of the lives of these children, but the cruelty many of them faced, inside and outside of their homes, even now I still find barely believable.
After a while I moved to Dorset, became an adviser working on equalities and a specialist on anti-racist work in majority white communities – all very good preparation for living in Thanet.
I worked with bigots and racists, with churches and charities. I worked on projects with maladjusted young people, with local communities, with the police, in prisons, with sex offenders and murderers. But what I saw simply reinforced the shocking truth of my own life experience – that it’s not a coincidence that our prisons are full of the poor, the mentally ill, of ethnic minorities and the socially maimed.
We make society’s failures. And after these experiences, what could I do but become political? I want the world to be a better place for my children. But if I don’t fight for your children too, my kids can’t be really all right unless yours are too.
Politics is a blunt tool, it’s a mis-shapen tool, but it’s the main one we’ve got to make real social change happen. What future for girls? It’s not up to ‘girls’. It’s up to me and you!