BCA Managing Director Paul ‘Pablo’ Reid and TBB journalist, ShakaRa
Windrush Square in Brixton will play host to a number of significant Black community events this summer. One of the most high profile is the Grand Opening of the newly built Black Cultural Archives (BCA) on 24th July 2014. The event will feature a range of highlights including performances from Akala, Floetic Lara, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jonzi D to name but a few.
One of the many people of the moment is long standing community activist, and BCA Managing Director Pablo Reid (also known as Paul). The British Blacklist were treated to a BCA tour and an EXCLUSIVE interview with the Managing Director, providing invaluable insight into the why the BCA is so deeply rooted in the Black UK experience and the what opportunities its re-opening provides present generations.
What follows is the story of Black community activism including the role of international figures such as the eminent Garveyite Queen Mother Moore, the impact of gentrification and the inside track on how you turn 2 derelict houses on the corner of Effra road and Brixton High Street into a state of the art monument to the history and contemporary activities of Afrikans in the UK.
Greetings Brother Pablo, if you start by please explaining a little bit of your history in community work, particularly in relations to New Initiatives and Origin…
Well I was the founder member, or still am the founder member of New Initiatives Youth and Community Association and founder member of the Origin Rites of Passage Program. That organization goes back to 1988 and was based in Clapham North, it’s still going strong. Its been through it’s ups and downs over the years, but very much a home for many Afrikan and Pan-Afrikan organizations in the community. I am still looking back at that with pride and with love. We’re continuing to do good work albeit in a very stretched way at the moment because we have been offered the building, that’s the new development. Apparently Lambeth Council considers us the preferred provider of services from that building. So the good news is that not only are we talking about Black Cultural Archives but we’re potentially also talking about Wellington Road. So two big things happening in the community in 2014.
In terms of the history of Wellington Road and New Initiatives it was a hub for a lot of Black cultural and political activity from the 80’s throughout tell us about some of the events which have happened there…
Ah man, we’ve done so much. You know, ’cause you was grown up in it. So it was established on the principles of youth and community work and so first and foremost we developed a youth and community programme and as our Afrikan consciousness kicked in with the Africentric Movement in Britain at the time it started to impact and shape our thinking in terms of youth and community work. So these two parallel worlds can’t stay separate for too long, the ideas of youth and community and the ideas of Africentrism starts kind of merging and that’s where we coined and started to define our methodology around Africentric Rites of Passage as the most appropriate and correct ways of working with our young people.
But far more than what we did, it became a very central point for groups in the community, many of which couldn’t get space by the nature of the activities that we were trying to put on at the time. So New Initiatives became a welcome space and open space where we weren’t jangling keys at 10 0′clock trying to force people out, because we know that some of our community don’t turn up til 10 [Laughs]. Would still be there sometimes at 12 and 1. Then there was a big effort to clean up because if that was Friday then, there might be Saturday school on Saturday and somebody got some naming ceremony on Sunday and then youth work on Monday. So we had to live this thing and we did that for many many years.
Can we get a bit of history in terms of the Black Cultural Archives?
Well the organisation is a registered charity. It was set up in 1981 by Pan-Afrikan activists and parents. The person that we look to most is the founder member Len Garrison. What we don’t often speak about is that Len Garrison didn’t just come about, he was inspired also. So when we look to the minutes and the records we find that one of the key people in his life was a meeting that he had with Queen Mother Moore. And actually when you look at how that came about, Queen Mother Moore came to Bulmershe College in Reading. I studied at Bulmershe. So there’s no coincidence that there was a strong Black student’s collective in Bulmershe college because it was infused with really big and powerful speakers. So people like Lioness Chant and Benjamin Zephaniah and all these people come up through Bulmershe. So I was blessed to be able to study in such a space. Only then to find that one of the people that became the chair of Black Cultural Archives was somebody called Mike Lion. Mike Lion was a tutor at Bulmershe college and he actually invited over Queen Mother Moore. So the fascinating thing is the way in which all this history is stitched together. You start out one place and you can find out how it all connects up. Because essentially we’re talking about our activism in this country and efforts to some how carve out some existence here with consciousness and righteousness. And people are pulled to that or people are repelled from that.
BCA during the ’80s
So what was Black Cultural Archives doing from 1981 and through the 80’s?
Ok, so it was located on Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road. 378 Coldharbour Lane on the corner which is currently a chicken shop. I think we shared the space, before my time, Timbuktu and Brother Ajani, was there running a book shop, so that’s part of it’s history. The director at the time was Sam Walker and he was there collecting documents, so too was Len Garrison and the other volunteers building up the beginnings of a repository of Afrikan presence in Britain. That Archive was very much about people giving to BCA things that we think are important. There was no great scientific approach, no great methodology more so than these documents are important, these photographs are important, these records are important, these magazines are important, we need to give them to the Archive. So that’s how it all started and that’s what I call the legacy collection, before the organisation – I don’t like this word but I hope you understand what I mean by it – before the organisation turned a corner and became more “professional” in that respect. So it was doing that there, you had exhibitions, put on events and it tried to, I think it was on 2 or 3 occasions, tried to run with a capital campaign to raise money to open up what was called at the time a Black Museum.
But what’s interesting is that sometimes when you think about the Black Cultural Archives one of the questions that always comes up is ‘Why isn’t it called the Afrikan People’s Archive?. It’s really interesting in that the actual constitutional document, when you go to the constitution it’s the “Afrikan Peoples Historical Monument Foundation.” – that’s the constitution. I am not sure how this came about, but it’s trading as the Black Cultural Archives. It might just be that for some people it was a mouth full and they say ‘Bwoy lets cut it down to that’. Or it might be that within the organisation, they were grappling with quite interesting and difficult challenges and you know that conversation there. The founding people said it’s the Afrikan Peoples Historical Monument Foundation, trading as the Black Cultural Archives – it ticks both boxes [laughs]. But I don’t know I am only speculating that.
Brixton is quite a hub for the Black experience in general. You could have an archive on Brixton alone. So if we’re talking about 1981, there was an uprising in Brixton that year, another one fours later. Do you know what activities were around those events and the Black Cultural Archives at that time?
I can’t see the Archives directly at the forefront of the Uprisings or anything like that. I know it would have been perfectly located, so immediately opposite; certain buildings went up in flames. So what is currently the Dog Star for example, that building would have burnt and the other buildings. So the building that the Black Cultural Archives were in didn’t get touched. I would hope that one of the reasons why it didn’t get touched is because of some of the work it was dealing with, and that it wasn’t just bun down everything, but there was some careful selection of what was gonna get bun down. I was 18 at the time, so I can give you some eye witness accounts on this one, don’t draw me on my activity though [laughs]. But, I can’t quite tell you about BCA role besides in the archive it would have gone about the business of documenting and collecting newspapers, articles, reports, anything that was published at the time. Certainly when it comes to newspapers, things like African Times, Caribbean Times, Black Root Magazine. So we can go to the Archive and say, OK, why did we collect these things? We collected them because it gives us an opportunity to research.
Queen Mother Moore alongside Len Garrison, Dawn Hill, current Chair of The BCA, Yana Morris and Vincent Thompson in the 1980s – Picture from www.voice-online.co.uk
So there was a time when we actually lost that building on Coldharbour Lane. When was that and how did that come about?
Wow – you been doing your research [laughs]. Well I can tell you the inside track on that, you get the exclusive. Lambeth Council occupied that building and another building. At the time I remember Black Cultural Archives going to the council and saying that we were interested in this building and the council saying “OK, if you move from 378 Coldharbour Lane” – and another organisation they were talking to, I think they were called the Afrikan Caribbean Family Mediation Service, if they were to move as well – “if you both move to Kennington then the council will be able to sell those buildings”, because they actually had three buildings, one that was empty and two that was occupied and if we both went into the one in Kennington it would release those two assets and they could sell them. So that’s what they wanted to do.
What year was that?
This would be around 2002, 2001 when the early idea was forming and by 2006, cause you know these things take time, by the time you’ve won the attention of the councillors and you have a real project and they start getting brought into it and you’ve gone through some of the struggle – it takes a number of years before they take you serious. So by 2006 Black Cultural Archives had moved from Brixton to Kennington and we shared the building with that organisation those two premises in Brixton then got sold and unfortunately the one on Coldhabour Lane is now a chicken shop. I look back on that with some regret. It was to some extent a bit of a gamble because if we didn’t secure the funding to refurbish this building then we would have been left out in Kennington. We had to really trust in the project to know that – you know what, if we’re gonna do this and do it properly, then there’s no question about whether its going to be a success, we have to really go out for it. That’s what the council is offering so we went for it knowing that we were coming back to Brixton. But not knowing at the time that it was going to take £7 Million to do so.
Who came up with those figures?
Well we went out and got cost consultants and business plans to look at what it would cost. The building was in very poor condition and a lot of work needed doing to it. When you then add to that that we needed certain standards to be taken seriously within the heritage sector, it meant that dis ting cost money – serious money. So what do you do? Do you say to the council “Well can’t you help us?”. There comes a point where an organisation has to stand on its own two feet and if it believes in its mission it has, to say – OK I see you and I raise you, let’s do this. So that’s what happened, we said we’ll go to Kennington, we’ll use the time in Kennington to put in place the infrastructure, to put in place the standards and to start a fundraising campaign. The great news Brother, the great great news is that we did secure £7 Million. This building that we’re sitting in now is paid for, we don’t owe nothing on it. We’ve got a 99 year lease on the property and during that time I’m hoping that we actually buy the property from the council. I think that’s only right and proper, but we have a good amount of time to do that. The building didn’t cost £7 Million, the building only cost £5.8 Million. So what we’ve done, we’ve not been stupid, we’ve taken the £1.2 Million, ploughed that into the business plan to take the edge of off the year on year fundraising that takes place. That’s the challenge. We can pat ourselves on the back and say yeah we’ve made it, but the only thing that we’ve made is a building. The big challenge now is it’s a robust business plan, it’s the organisational stability, how we manage to keep it going forward.
There was noise in the community about this project happening at the time. Different levels of information, in terms of what people knew. But what was the community response at that time?
I think the community was in principle, supporting to any such progressive ideas – no question. I’ve never felt unsupported by the community. But I think, when I look in the church for example I see that there is a practice of giving money. When I look at other types of community organisation, we might have a value for education but we don’t give in the same way. Maybe because a lot of us are struggling as well. So in terms of financial support, there was always financial support. But I think the support more came from volunteer time and you can put a value to that. This is probably one of the things where we might miss a trick here, cause when we’re applying for funds when we have a lot of people that are contributing their time, we can calculate that as community in kind contributions and even without any money we can say – YES, we have X – which is a multiple of our time that we give, our professional time. I didn’t know any of those things, I had to learn them things. Before that, I thought you had to have the money in your hands. But there’s all kinds of ways accountants help to find ways of demonstrating that you have the money and you’ve done your bit.
Ok so, give me an idea of physically how the building changed?
We worked with our architects and created a wish list. We said, for BCA to do what it wants to do in terms of realising its mission it needs certain things. It needs an Archive. But I didn’t just want an archive as a lock up of documents and say yeah job done. This needed to be much more than an archive, it needed to be an educational learning space, it needed to be able to animate and bring that archive alive. So I started to say BCA, though it says Black Cultural Archives, Black Cultural Archives has an archive, but it’s more than an Archive. From there we said, we want a gallery and we want learning spaces, we want places for people to meet and we want to be linked toan outdoor public space because we want to do festivals events and conferences, all kinda things. The architects were saying “boi that all can’t happen here”, because it was just two little houses. So eventually they came up with a scheme that allowed us to build an extension. We got planning permission and that’s how we got the gallery, the archive, the café, the shop, all these different elements that the business plan needs to keep this thing viable. The conditions of the Heritage Lottery Fund, is that it has to be free to the public to come in. So if you wanna come to the BCA you can come into the gallery space and you can use the archive free of charge.
Now I think that’s an important value. But as an organisation it causes a problem because, Ok that’s a lovely principle, but how you gonna pay the bills – light bill, telephone bill, staffing? So we had to come up with an approach that is an amalgamation of fundraising, earned income, secured grant. Then now, important relationships with the community – sponsorship. I mean I have had to learn so much just in terms of how to make something viable. I didn’t have this knowledge before, I feel a lot more equipped now to advise and support other organisations.
The completed British Cultural Archive Building in Brixton
The launch event is on the 24th July. What can people expect from that event?
From 6-9 O’ Clock, we start off with a drum call. Priestess Omilade will be pouring Libation and we have a series of contributions, both artistic cultural contributions and more kind of speeches. So that’s gonna be on Windrush Square. We’re hoping that the community come out in force. Its not the official opening of the building. What’s it is it’s marking the completion of the build. The community can come in from the very next day. Because I’m expecting considerable numbers of people to turn up and if everybody does turn up, it’s impossible for everybody to come into the building. So this marks the opening, but actual access to the building is from the following day.
What’s are some of the plans for the work the organisation wants to do in the immediate future?
We’ve got a learning team and they’ve put together a program that consists of a response to both formal and informal learning. On the formal learning, they’ve been creating materials for schools, so Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 learning packs across 5 different subjects. So they will be inviting school groups in during the day. We will be selling those services. Those packs will be available online for people to download. That happens virtually immediately. Then on the informal side, Janet Brown who works at the Victoria Albert Museum, does fantastic work for the V & A and jobs shares with us, she’s been putting programs together of talks, walks, seminars, conferences. I am looking forward to how she responds to the idea of the Len Garrison memorial lecture. I’m looking forward to how we pull together from across the country and internationally, key speakers around questions that are pertinent now and how we grapple with that. Outside of the official opening hours, which are 10-6 from Tuesday to Sunday and there’s a late one evening a month, I think it’s a Thursday, that’s when we’ll go into the archive, we’ll bring things out of the archive and say let’s look at this or we’ll bring a speaker in and say help us to understand this. But outside of those official opening hours, there’s opportunities to book space within the building and I’m hoping that the community embrace that idea. The other thing I think is crucial is that Brixton is changing and I want us to claim the space. I want us to be comfortable in this space. I think that is a message that we have to extend, so that we are really at home at the Black Cultural Archives.
Well that leads me to my question about the so-called gentrification of Brixton. Everyone is talking about it and it has been vicious. Has that had a impact upon the development of the Black Cultural Archive and if so what?
Wow, what a question. I mean – I grew up in Brixton and I can see those changes and I am uncomfortable with those changes. But I am not romantic about the past. I mean I grew up at the time in what was called a West Indian Take Away – I don’t use that phrase anymore, but I grew up in a take away of fried fish and bami and bulla and whatever. I grew up in that environment so I remember very clearly some of the issues, some of the tensions at the time, them times was tough. But it was also home. So it was reported in the press as a ‘no go zone’, but for me it was home. So I’ve seen some improvement to the public realm. I’ve seen some prettying up. But I’ve also seen the way that the market is so transformed that I am uncomfortable with it. You used to be able to go in that market and it was inundated with Black people. When they were selling yam and dasheen and various cultural produce or it could be cloths and prints – all kinds of stuff. Now we have a whole range of café’s and food outlets and whole queues going around the block to eat pizza, from people that I don’t recognise.
What’s interesting is that I can walk up an down Brixton High Road an whole heap ah people know me and hail me up. When I go into the market, no one don’t know me. I think that’s interesting. That tells you how much of a change. I did write to the Secretary of State, cause there was a time when the market was being considered for redevelopment and I think people wanted to turn it into a hotel or something and I wrote to the Secretary of State and we won the argument in terms of its planning designation. We made sure that it’s impossible for them to turn the market i to flats or whatever. But what you couldn’t make provision for is the type of change that would take place within the fact that its still shop units. So we’ve lost now, so many of the small Black businesses.
In terms of BCA, when we started off in 1981, it was clearly a Black community and BCA was of that community. And it’s taken us so long now to establish ourselves and now the community has changed [laughs]. But I am hoping that wherever we live, this time we might haffi get on a tube, or a bus to come. Maybe as it tips in one direction, maybe Black Cultural Archives, and I might be being idealistic here, but maybe Black cultural Archives is part of trying to tip it back towards other Black and Afrikan initiatives, finding itself comfortable back in Brixton.
Founder member of the BCA Len Garrison who died February 2003
In the interim, do you think that the BCA will struggle to maintain relevance surrounded by everything that is happening in Brixton?
Mmmm… Possibly. Because, relevance to who? I think if we’re trying to appease the, I suppose the white middle class values – then we might be irrelevant [laughs]. You get what I am saying. It all depends on what perspective. I’m sure that it’s gonna be challenging for lots of people who feel that they are comfortable with the content, feel that they already know the content. I think evidence has got a beautiful way of getting us to rethink something. So you’ve got ideas for example, about history, but when you put the evidence down in front of us, it may change the way we see things. I am also hoping that that evidence creates the opportunity for us to have the conversations that are needed.
I’ve seen some fantastic things. I’ve seen people take out archives sit quietly in the library and you just have to wait for a little while and wait for the next thing that the person says and often it’s about childhood memories or it’s about Nanny or back home or something. So that Archive has got a wonderful way of triggering memory. So in that respect I think it will be relevant, how we engage with that as a community I think is really gonna be interesting, because if something’s triggering for you and something’s triggering for me, and something’s triggering for everybody else – I’m looking forward to how we share that and how we learn collectively. Because the Archive is one thing, the exhibition is one thing. I think it’s then what happens with human beings when that material comes out.
It is often said that young people are not very interested in history. What is the particular significance of BCA to the younger generation and how have young people been involved in the development of BCA thus far?
There’s a sister that I introduced you to, or who you introduced yourself to, who recognized you from nuff works that you do in the community I am sure [laughs]. Syreeta – she’s set up a youth forum – she’d never set up a youth forum before. So she went out to the schools, she told the schools about what it is that we’re doing, she invited people down and a number of young people came down from different schools. From there she spent a few months just introducing them to what we’ve got in the archives and then sat down and said, ‘what d’you think?’. The immediate response from the young people was “More young people need to know about this”.
So that’s an indication about what happens when you put our content in front of our people. Often times when you think about libraries and young people it’s boring, archives even worse – who wants to go sit round dusty documents. But when you put our content, with our faces and that could even be from young person’s point of view strange hair styles and funny clothes, right, but it’s us. It look like granny, look like mum, look like whatever. When you put that in front of us we react differently, because we’re responding to ourself.
So the 1st thing that they decided to do as a youth forum was to put on a conference and they put on a conference at Southbank University called “Check Your Selfie”, an absolutely fascinating conference. I sat down and learned. Everybody had a phone and Simeon Brown was a facilitator at the time – a young man who used to be an archivist for BCA . He basically said, how many people have got a phone in a room, and everyone took out their phone. You know young people most of the time it’s either Blackberry or iPhone. So they all came out and he said we are all walking around with computers. Then he started to talk about tweeting and he put up a website that showed you a picture of the world and wherever there were white lights was where the most active tweeting were taking place. He got everybody in the room to tweet #CheckYourSelfie, and on that website a light came up and it said #checkyourselfie was one of the most active tweets in that moment in the world. He used that as an example of how mobile phone communication has the power to change things. That was an introduction to, OK, now let’s look at Black activism and what would our activists in the 60s have done if they could communicate like that. Then that then kicked off another conversation, which was “boi, they woulda closed it down, there’s no way they would have allowed that”. But then it raised other questions about established media and how that’s been undermined by technology, social media and so on. So I came away thinking, yeh, I went to a workshop organised by young people and I learned something for a change.
Thank very much Brother Pablo. Any last words for this interview?
Come down to the Launch. 6-9 on 24th July. It’s taken over 30 years to get to this position. I think it’s important to stress that this isn’t the achievement of success of any one person. The baton has been changed and changed. Our beloved Len Garrison, he’s now an ancestor, he actually passed away in a management committee meeting, so we are looking at blood sweat and tears. We stand on the shoulders of all those who came before. So this is something that we really ought to embrace. I consider it to be historic. And the success of this organisation is based upon how we as a community embrace and support it. So I am asking for that support.
Fore more information on the launch and other BCA events visit: http://www.bcaheritage.org.uk/
interview with Paul ‘Pablo’ Reid conducted by @ShakaRaBKS for the british blacklist