The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis sent reverberations around the world, including Nottingham, where thousands of people descended on the Forest Recreation Ground in a show of communal strength against systemic racism on Sunday 7 June. The protests were peaceful, but the anger, frustration and passion for forcing change – in real terms – was overwhelming. Behind the protests were three young women, friends Shan Vincent, Tyla Henrique-White and Janelle Brown who have since formed Next Gen Movement, a project aimed at empowering young people to make sure the fight against racism continues to be impactful. We caught up with Janelle to find out more, and discover where they plan to go from here…
Can you start by telling us a bit about Next Gen Movement?
It’s a Millennial-driven organisation which focuses on empowering the youth, fighting against racism and being a voice for Nottingham’s community to make a permanent change. The idea came in the build-up to the protest; we realised there were going to be loads of people there, which just made us more and more passionate, as well as reflecting on things we’d experienced. For example, because I’m really light-skinned for a black person, I don’t actually look black at all. So rather than racism being directed at me, people feel comfortable enough to make racist comments around me. It’s happened at two different jobs in the past. They can be microaggressions, like one time when there was a funeral being held for a young boy who had been stabbed, and someone sent an email around telling us to be careful because black people there would be bringing their own drinks and weed. That email was actually sent to me.
It was in discussing situations like this, which didn’t happen on the other side of the world, but right here in Nottingham, that made Shan, Tyla and I realise we needed to do something here. It isn’t just about protest; it’s about making permanent change. That’s why Next Gen Movement was formed.
What areas will you focus on?
We have the four Es, which are: education, empowerment, employment and engagement. Each of these areas has its own set of goals and timelines so, for example, with education we want to change the way that history is taught in schools because what you tend to learn about black history is slavery, and that’s it. People don’t know that there have been black kings and queens, which I only know about because my Dad taught me. We don’t really look at the fact that Britain colonized countries all over the world, so we’re looking at making a real, tangible change in that area. We’re meeting with Nottingham City Council about how we can make that happen. Even if we manage to change the curriculum in a couple of schools, it would be a great achievement.
Moving on to empowerment – so Tyla, one of the other members of the group, is black. Shan and I are mixed race, but Tyla is full black. She told us that, growing up, she really wanted to be white – you know, with longer hair, a smaller nose, lighter skin. They were the beauty standards in the nineties, and they’re pretty much the same. It’s not just with beauty, because a friend of mine said that when he goes for a job interview and he’s up against two white guys, he automatically feels like he won’t get the job. We want to empower young men to understand their worth. There might be some barriers up against you, but you can knock them down.
Engagement involves working within the community, and we’ve already set up a project with Helping Kids Achieve and The Pythian Club. It’s going to be a series of workshops, talks and training courses. We’re looking to launch that in August, but it’s obviously very dependent on what happens with COVID-19. It’s important to say that these workshops aren’t just for black or mixed-race people – they’re for everybody, and are going to focus on improving life skills like cooking and finances.
And finally there’s employment, and we’ve got a project already planned for this. Nate from Mimm is going to be offering somebody a six-month lease at Nottingham Street Food Club to set up a business. It’s going to be someone who is young, black or mixed-race and recently out of prison, because there are really limited opportunities for people in those circumstances.
Employment also involves working with companies to enact permanent changes. We’re currently working with Boots to look at how recruitment can be fairer by using things like blind CVs.
I don’t know why George Floyd’s death sparked such a huge change in a way that, for example, Trayvon Martin’s didn’t in 2014. I can’t explain it, but I can tell you that everyone felt it on a deeper level
The blind CV option is an interesting one, because it brings up the debate about equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. If I can present a hypothetical situation: say Boots advertises eight jobs using the blind CV system, and all eight jobs go to straight white men. That would still be an issue, wouldn’t it?
That’s the problem. That could happen, and where do you go from there? We haven’t fully looked into it, and there are companies out there that have used blind CVs, so before we discuss that being the best option we need to look at how it has worked for them. We’ve found that some places, like the Council, for example, have a system where if you’re from the BAME community you get a guaranteed interview. That’s also not fair in general, and it’s not fair if you’re white. It means people aren’t getting employed because of their skills, but to make up the BAME numbers in a company to make you seem more multicultural.
There have been pockets of anti-racism protests throughout your lifetime – why do you think the current movement feels like it has more longevity and potential to impact real change?
We’ve been asked this question a lot, and it’s good that people are seeing that this is different. Social media plays a big part, because we’re in the age of Millennials who, because of the way we’ve grown up, are a lot more accepting. The older generation, even my Mum’s generation of people in their forties, still hold a lot of homophobia and casual racism. Whereas for younger people, things like gay marriage aren’t even questioned anymore.
I don’t know why George Floyd’s death sparked such a huge change in a way that, for example, Trayvon Martin’s didn’t in 2014. I can’t explain it, but I can tell you that everyone felt it on a deeper level. Maybe it’s because we all watched the video, and it just went on for so long. I think there have been 120 black people killed by the police since George Floyd, and I’m not even sure if people are aware of that.
I think the fact that the world is in the middle of this pandemic made a difference too. The whole world has stopped, so we have more time and energy to focus on what is going on. I believe people are interested in creating permanent change, but whether that continues or not, I don’t know.
But people can and are changing. I saw a video the other day of a former skinhead who had a big swastika tattoo on his chest. He was getting it covered up and explaining how, over the last year, he’d changed his views on racism. It’s never too late for people
If you look at what life was like for black people in Britain 100 years ago, and compare it to now, you’d say that it’s much better. But obviously there are a lot of ways it could significantly improve. What would you like life to be like in another 100 years time?
For me, it’s just about unity and equality. It’s not pro-black or pro-white; it’s literally just unity between everybody. I suppose the ideal world that everyone is striving for is one where everyone has an equal opportunity and there’s no prejudice. A lot of that will depend on the media, I think. The way they portray black people contributes a lot towards prejudiced views. I recently read an article that said white men are more likely to carry knives than black men – now you would never think that by the way the media covers knife crime in the UK.
Two responses you see time and time again on social media are: ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘It’s an American problem”. What do you think when you read those?
I think it’s just ridiculous. You’ve seen those pictures, haven’t you? The one that says, “You wouldn’t tell someone with breast cancer that all cancers matter?” To be honest, I don’t argue with anyone online anymore. I haven’t got the energy for it. And for those people saying it’s an American problem, do you know that we’re the only country to have had an anti-anti-racism march? We’re the only country to have had a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner flown over the stadium of a high-profile sports game. So if it’s not a British problem, why is that happening? One thing British people really need to do is educate themselves and understand the impact the British Empire had on the rest of the world.
But people can and are changing. I saw a video the other day of a former skinhead who had a big swastika tattoo on his chest. He was getting it covered up and explaining how, over the last year, he’d changed his views on racism. It’s never too late for people.
With that in mind, how important is the act of forgiveness in society moving forward? It feels like it’s an almost daily occurrence now that celebrities are getting ‘cancelled’ for historic comments or jokes that are now deemed racist, despite publicly apologising…
It’s hard, to be honest. You can’t justify forgiveness for everyone, I don’t think. Look at Boris Johnson, for example. The comments he has made in the past are, for me, unforgivable. He runs the country and he has proven himself to be racist. But the guy with the tattoo seemed really genuine, so I wanted to forgive him. I think it’s a combination of the sincerity of the apology and how the individual feels about it – it’s not just up to me!
Can you talk to me a bit about how it felt to see thousands of people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities coming together for a common cause at an anti-racism protest you helped organise?
Firstly, Shan, Tyla and I have been best friends for the last twelve years, and are together all the time. We were in our group chat when the George Floyd video surfaced, and we were obviously outraged and very, very upset. We saw that all of these protests were happening and hadn’t seen anything for Nottingham, so we just thought, “Shall we do it?”
We had no experience, and had no idea what it was going to be, to be totally honest. We just picked a date, a time and a location, and really didn’t expect the amount of interest that we got. Within three days we had 3,000 people respond to say they’d be attending, and by the time it got to the Sunday there were 5,000. Even on the day itself we didn’t expect to see so many people, even though we had to move it from the Market Square to the Forest because of the level of interest.
It was important for us that we didn’t just have random people shouting on the microphone. We wanted people to tell their stories and for it to be authentic. It wasn’t about the world; it was about Nottingham, so all of the speakers were from here.
And then following on from that, the Council unveiled the Black Lives Matter banner on the Council House…
It was nice to see the Council do that on their own initiative. Some people have said it’s a token gesture, but we don’t care. It caused a stir and put the message out there. We can only make small changes as we go along, and we especially like the banner because there was a lot of negativity towards the fact that someone sprayed ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the Council House after the protest. It was cleaned off by a group of young girls, who we hope will eventually be the people to replace us and run Next Gen Movement.
So you don’t expect to be involved for life?
We’ve all got our own goals and truths, and this isn’t about, or for, us. We don’t want to be politicians. You see a lot of organisations that have the same people running them for years, and sometimes it’s not right. You always need young people to drive these things forward, and Next Gen Movement was created to pass on to the younger generation when the time is right. We’ll always be there to help and support, and we’ll always be the founders, but we want it to continue being handed down the generations.
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