Hard-pressed Black communities in the UK need to adopt some principles of late Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey if they want to break through the economic glass ceiling, a grass roots campaigner has said.
Devon Thomas, who has been on the front lines fighting for justice and helping boost Black enterprise,said Black communities must get more unified and organised if they want to thrive and level the playing field.
With ethnic minorities being hit hard by rising unemployment – and reports that less than seven percent of ethnic minority businesses got Olympics related contracts – Thomas said that it was time for Black people to adopt some of the strategies used by forefathers such as Garvey.
In the early 20th century, Jamaican-born Garvey set up one of the largest political and black unification movements through organisations such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League (ACL).
Garvey, whose network of more than one million people stretched from countries in Africa to the Caribbean and the United States, believed that to achieve real success, Black people should unite, create their own economic powerbase and conduct international trade on equal footing with the rest of the world.
Thomas, who is head of Lambeth Enterprise, said Black people in Britain need to look beyond their own postcodes – and outside Europe – to survive. With growing opportunities in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, Thomas said: “Opportunities are now in our countries of origin, so for cultural and practical reasons, it may be sensible to think about studying (and) looking for economic opportunities elsewhere.
“We are going to have to be like Marcus Garvey. We’ve got to create an international network that links us back to where we are born if it is here, where we (or our families) originated from – whether the Caribbean or Africa and the mother country Africa… It’s got two thirds of the world’s natural resources. The Chinese have recognised this. Why have we not woken up to the fact that this is where opportunity lies?”
Thomas also said one key way to get a bigger slice of the business contracts pie, especially in post Olympics Britain, is to form business partnerships.
“We’ve got a long-standing problem with getting access to public sector contracts,” he said. “…It’s not simply that somebody is sitting there saying ‘we won’t be giving any contracts to Blacks’, but because we’re (often) small, we are at a disadvantage along with the other small businesses.”
He said: “We’ve got to learn how to build consortiums, how to go into partnerships with bigger groups. This is our only chance. The larger operators, the big civil engineering and building companies, we need to know who they are; we need to build relationships with them. We need to build associations of Black contractors who can pull together different specialist groups that can add up to a larger volume or critical mass… that can make realistic attempts to bid for this work.
“There’s tremendous work to be done after the Olympics. The whole Olympic Village has to be turned into new communities, new centres for businesses. Unless we do that (forge consortiums) we will never get access at the starting line for some of these contracts. If we don’t do that, we are going to stay on the margins, picking up little bits and pieces of crumbs that fall off the table.”
Thomas said modern Black communities can learn from previous generations like that of his parents, keen Garvey followers and grass roots activists who brought their organising skills and do-it-yourself attitude from Jamaica to London.
They partnered with other Black individuals to help set up some of the first community organisations in Brixton, south London, he recalled.
He said older Black generations banded together to set up community organisations such as youth clubs, to generate jobs and to effectively campaign for greater access to opportunities and against issues such as police harassment and racism.
STRATEGIES: Marcus Garvey
However, younger generations have become less active – to their detriment. “As the years have gone by, we have become mainstream. We believe the mainstream can take care of our needs,” said Thomas, whose input has been stamped on some of Britain’s key historic Black history moments, among them being part of Brixton’s defence campaign, helping regenerate communities and helping scores of Black business entrepreneurs to get an initial foothold on the ladder to success.
“Minority groups can’t afford that kind of complacency. You’ve always got to be creating additional things that are customised for your needs because the mainstream are never going to offer you that, but also challenging the mainstream.”
He added: “Nobody is going to pay attention to some individual voices. They respect organised lobby groups; organised power bases that can do things and change things.”
Thomas said his organisation Lambeth Enterprise is already forging links, looking to form consortiums, helping young people turn ideas into businesses, teaching youth black history and working with empowerment charity RAFFA (Renewal, Advance-ment, Financial Freedom, Autonomy) to get grassroots organisations to link together through initiatives such as the Pass the Baton Festival.
The Festival comprises a series of community events taking place during the Olympics, and to celebrate Jamaica’s and Trinidad’s 50th anniversary celebrations later this year.
Thomas said the ultimate aim is to remake the Black Triangle – the old Trans-Atlantic slave route – into “something positive and in our own interest.”
He explained: ”That triangle that worked against us. (It) took us from West Africa to work unpaid in the New World, shipped out the products of our labour back to Europe where it was resold many times over and that profit flowed into the enrichment of Europe. We want to reverse that. We don’t want to enslave anybody but we have creativity, human capacity and we want to set up beneficial trade links between these points of the triangle. We should be thinking of the markets back in our home countries. We need to do that with business (and) with culture. Everything we do need to have links.”