Black History Month Event, Sunderland


University of Sunderland hosts community leaders in panel discussion on what it means to be black in the North East of England

On Wednesday 19th October 2016, five community leaders from the North East of England participated in a panel discussion on ‘what it means to be black in the North East.’

The panelists were:

  • Ranjana Bell, MBE (Chair of the Strategic Independent Advisory Group for Northumbria Police);
  • Dr Peter Adegbie (Christian community leader and Founder and patron of Maximum Impact Student Association);
  • Dean T. Huggins (Programme Manager with Sustainable Sunderland, a Big Lottery Fund Communities Living Sustainability project);
  • Mrs Ijjou Derrache Thompson ( member of the North East Race and Justice Regional Research Network and the North East Race Equality Forum ) and
  • Dr Elewechi Okike (Chief Executive of Academy for Excellence in Education Ltd and Director of the Centre for Research in Accountability and Governance).

The discussion was chaired by Professor Donna Chambers (Chair of the Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism’s Equality and Diversity Committee and Equalities Officer for the Sunderland Branch of the University and Colleges Union).

There were over 30 persons in attendance including students, lecturers and community members.    The panelists spoke about their lives growing up in the UK and specifically in the North East as ‘ethnic’ minorities.  Ranjana Bell spoke of the horrible experiences of black people in Newcastle many years ago when she worked as research officer which had strengthened her resolve to become an activist for change.   She spoke about how the term ‘black’ was used to describe ‘anyone not white from another country’ and how over the years she had witnessed some change (for the better) in the lives of black people in the North East.  Still, she admitted that there was still work to be done for example in terms of dealing with ‘unconscious bias.’   Dr Peter Adegbie indicated that he was not sure what it meant to be black in the North East as he had not experienced any overt racism.  He felt that being black was perhaps best encapsulated by a poem and he performed a beautiful poem that he had written for the event titled ……..

Dr Elewechi Okike spoke about her journey from Nigeria to the UK and the struggles she faced moving from a doctoral student to a lecturer at the same university. She indicated how blackness had been placed into categories according to nationality – e.g Black South African, Black Caribbean and perhaps intimated that this had served to fracture the struggle for justice.

Dean T. Huggins indicated that years ago people had preferred to use the word ‘coloured’ instead of the word ‘black’ as the latter had a negative connotation.  He also spoke about the wider meaning of the word ‘black’ and indicated that the racism in the North East was of rather raw and lacked ‘sophistication’.

Ijjou Thompson spoke about her feelings of isolation moving to the North East (Durham) from Liverpool and of being assaulted in late 1997 by four skinheads.  She found it difficult to make friends. However now she has seen the landscape change as there is more integration of the races leading to n increasing number of mixed race children.   It was the mixed race children who now had to face a number of challenges in County Durham.  She suggested that the North East was behind the times as ethnic minorities were invisible in the service sector.

After all panelists spoke there as a lively period of question and answer and it was clear that the two hours devoted to the event was insufficient to air all the issues that emerged including some from students who expressed that they had experience overt acts of racism in Sunderland city centre.   Clearly there is a need for more of these sessions where ethnic minority groups can air their experiences, concerns and emotions within a supportive environment.   It was also clear that students needed to have more information on how to deal with racist incidents and what mechanism of support existed within the university and the wider community.

Donna Chambers

Professor of Tourism

20 October 2016


Photographs courtesy of William Ang’awa

img_1765 img_1769 img_1777 img_1783