Despite the large number of household names and celebrities being awarded honours this year, the one name that underlines how the Establishment has started to recognise the contribution of our diverse communities is the knighthood for Sir Simon Woolley.
As a young person, campaigning for human rights and justice, the name that I came across most often, and which was most often mentioned as a hero of the cause, was Simon’s. I watched him lead the fight for equality in the hostile environment of rampant racist attacks against him and other black communities in Britain. But it is his unflinching dignity and determination to never to give up that continues to inspire generations of ethnic minorities. Through his example we realise that we also can turn hate into a positive force for good.
It was under Simon’s leadership, and with his understanding that “our democracy is only as good as the diverse voices within it”, that he was able to convince BAME communities that positive change could be won through the ballot box.
By founding Operation Black Vote, more than 20 years ago, Simon provided the mentoring and support that led to Baroness Sayeeda Warsi becoming the first Muslim woman to serve in Cabinet, and to Tanmanjeet Singh “Tan” Dhesi being elected as the first turban-wearing Sikh MP. Simon’s impact has been far greater than just increasing the number of BAME members of Parliament though – he showed that true power lies with the ordinary people of this country: his defining achievement.
Whether through hard-hitting campaigning, including having black celebrities whiten their faces to highlight the fact that ‘if you don’t register to vote, you’re taking the colour out of Britain’, or through his soft power and influence in persuading Theresa May as Home Secretary to stop the indiscriminate targeting of young black men through racial profiling via stop and search, Simon’s genius has been in using disruptive campaigning. This has ultimately led to so many from BAME communities playing integral parts of our wider civic life.
International human right activists from Rev Jessie Jackson to Rev Al Sharpton have all rallied around Simon, rightful recognition for our very own leading civil rights campaigner. We cannot underestimate the importance of Simon’s instrumental effort in launching the Government’s Race Disparity Unit Advisory Group, which has done essential work in progressing the agenda of equality for all.
But Simon’s knighthood is also symbolic on a deeper level: it is wonderful to see our Government recognising the contributions of those who have disagreed with them in the past. The honours system is clearly progressing beyond simply awarding those who narrowly toe the Government line.
Simon’s sincerity and commitment to truth is inspirational for us all and is a sign that the system is now reflecting the diversity of modern Britain.
If you are inspired by Sir Simon Woolley, as well as by many of our other diverse community volunteers, help make the honours system more representative and nominate someone today at http://www.gov.uk/honours.