A new normal where everyone celebrates our history every month and not just during Black History Month
Here’s my speech from the Black History Month celebration with North Peckham and Commerical Way TRA
Good afternoon everyone.
I am delighted to be here today and join hands with you all for this Black History Month celebration. There is nowhere better to remember the people and events in the history of black people than here in Peckham, where I feel at home.
I want to thank Beverley Allison for organising today’s celebration. Beverley epitomises the people of Peckham. She puts others before herself. She works tirelessly to build a stronger community in Southwark. She has big heart and I’m inspired by her leadership. Beverley, you are Peckham’s champion. You are my hero. Let us give her a standing ovation.
My friends, it is special for me to be here today given my most memorable charity and sightseeing trips to Africa and the Caribbean in the past few years.
Two years ago, I visited Ghana, where I tasted the most delicious mangos, and Jamaica where I saw the most beautiful, Blue Mountains, and drank the best coffee ever. And most recently I visited Nigeria where I ate the best noodles in the world: Indo Me.
During these trips, I learned first-hand about the history of black people. I remember visiting Elmina Castle in Ghana and was absolutely shocked when I learnt about the reality of the slave trade. However, the best part of these trips for me was to meet the friendliest people in the world. They were welcoming and warm hearted, always with a smile on their face. They were thrilled to share their culture and cuisine.
I was excited to see some early signs of economic prosperity in those countries. I agree with President Obama’s prediction that the 21st century will be shaped by what happens in Accra, Lagos and Kingston and by the peoples from these countries. The future of Africa and the Caribbean is bright.
People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience. Your journey speaks to my own experience: just like yours, it is filled with ups and downs as I mastered two languages, two cultures and two socio-economic levels.
My story began 7,000 kilometres away from here in India. During my summers as a child, I would stay at my sister’s house. Her place had no bathroom, no running water and one electric light. I remember collecting five buckets of buffalo dung everyday, which I’d make into pancakes and we would use for fuel.
Through hard work at school, I won entry to the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the world’s leading engineering universities. Based on my academic performance, I obtained a scholarship to pursue a Masters’ degree from Clarkson University and went to New York at the age of 22 in 1986.
My excitement of flying for the first time was short-lived. The second I stepped off the plane I dropped to the bottom of society. For the first time in my life, I was a fish out of water: a different culture, a different language and a different socio-economic level. I was dirt poor.
After getting encouragement from local church leaders, I told myself that I had not come to New York to settle at the bottom of society. I would work hard and invest in myself to reach to the top to realise my dreams and the dreams of my parents.
The first thing I did was to build a bank balance to boost my self-esteem. I decided to save 50% of my monthly scholarship which, I assure you, was no easy feat. I never ate out in New York for the first 12 months, but I still had the most delicious food everyday… because I cooked it myself! After one year, I had saved more than 4,000 dollars. After graduation, I worked as a project engineer and continued saving 50% of my earnings.
I worked overtime all the time to excel in my job and save money faster. When not working overtime, I would use my time to volunteer in my community as a fire-fighter and paramedic. As a result, I made several friends from whom I learned how to deal with my funny accent. By the way, I never had any accent problem in India!
I can’t tell you how happy I felt when I had saved 50,000 dollars, enough to pursue my next dream, that is, to get a Masters’ in Business Administration degree. In 1992, I graduated with an MBA from University of California, Los Angeles with the Dean’s Outstanding Student Award, the highest honour given to any student.
After graduation, I joined Goldman Sachs on Wall Street. By the way, I was interviewed 31 times before I got that job! I continued to save at least 50% of my earnings to fulfil my next dream: to start my own business in New York and London.
After jumping over hurdles one by one, I launched Global Markets Consultants, a management consulting firm, in London and New York in 2002 and have been its CEO ever since.
As you can see, you, or your parents, and I have shared the same journey by travelling thousands of miles to England with a dream to reach for the stars and believing that our background would be no barrier to our success.
I am proud of all of you for taking this bold step. This journey has been possible because of your courage, resilience and leadership.
We must recognise and celebrate what each one of us has achieved so far.
We have worked hard to pass lots of tests, earn degrees to become qualified as per the UK standards.
We are talented and have mastered a new language and a new culture and a new socio economic level.
But our dreams have not yet been fully realised despite our nonstop efforts. We find ourselves in a world that is opposite to the world we had in our dreams. We are forced to rebuild from scratch the reputation and community we enjoyed back home. Because I’ve gone through the same journey, I know your hopelessness…but I also know hope.
The famous African writer and educator Chinua Achebe wrote ‘if you don’t like my story, write your own.’ And so, ask yourself today: do you like your story? Are you happy with where you are in the UK?
Or do you want to write or re-write your own story?
Because if we really want to give our children the role models and opportunities they deserve and if we want to reach to the top, we must write our own stories. Today we have the power to make change happen ourselves. And I am here to help and encourage you to write your stories so together we can turn them into masterpieces.
The first chapter of our story should be to rid ourselves of the label BAME. Its shelf life is over; its time has come to an end. It makes a mockery of our diversity and talent in an age where we are about 50% of the population in Southwark.
We need a new normal in Southwark and beyond.
Where it is normal for everyone to have talented minorities as their role models; where it is normal for us to be judged by our character and not our colour; where it is normal for everyone to celebrate our history everyday and not just during Black History Month.
For this to become a reality we need to be like Beverley; we need to be at the top in our respective field. So what should we do?
First – we must lead our community in Southwark and beyond at the highest level and not settle for anything less. The time has come for us to challenge leaders at the top. You can do it. I know you can, because you were leaders back home. I have seen for myself that each one of you possess a vibrant mix of talent, energy and hope.
To start with, you can become College Governors, participate in the London Marathon, or become Magistrates, like Donald Cole, here in England. Let us challenge ourselves to become leaders at the top in England now, the way we were back in our home country.
Second – let us support each other with the fundamental belief that out of many, we can still pursue our own individual dreams and also come together as one family, united by common heritage and journey. Let us make unity our strength.
Third – share your culture with others. Make sure your neighbours enjoy rice & peas like you enjoy hamburgers. Introduce Nollywood to them when they talk about Hollywood or Bollywood. Talk about travelling to Africa when they talk about travelling to Europe or Asia. Let us share with the world our heritage and our story.
This will start to make our dreams a reality. My dream is to provide new avenues for talented minorities to become top political leaders TODAY, not in 2050, so that we can fulfil our shared vision of the future.
Our vision is to have a talented minority from this room in the House of Commons for Southwark by 2015. Our vision is to have 50% talented minorities at the top political decision making table in Southwark by 2020. Our vision is to have a talented minority from this room to be the Prime Minister of the UK by 2030.
So if you want to lead your community and write your own stories, I can give you this opportunity now and support you. We need leaders like you who are driven, engaged and passionate; who put their community first over party politics; and who want both equality at the top and also top leadership jobs for all. And when we have achieved our vision, we will be writing our own stories with an ending that reads ‘Yes, I made it to the top in Southwark, in London and in England.’
So I’d like to conclude by saying that you and I should be proud of what we have accomplished so far and celebrate our beautiful journey. But there is still so much more to do. We have unfinished business.
Rosa Parks said ‘you must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.’ My friends, what we are doing is right not just for us, but for our next generation and our community and our England. I truly believe amongst us here today, anyone could be a Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther King or a Barack Obama.
Now is the time for us to rise up and fight for equality at the top.
Now is the time for us to become masters of our own destiny.
Now is the time for us to write our own stories.
And ladies and gentlemen, this is my dream. Thank you