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The Wisdom of Elders

1st December 2020

Professor Uzo Iwobi OBE, Founder, Race Council Cymru

Uzo Iwobi

When Professor Uzo Iwobi OBE saw the images of people who had died from Covid-19 back in March, alarm bells started ringing. She raised concerns at an informal conversation with ethnic minority leaders who joined the discussion, including her husband who is a law lecturer- all discussing these matters and the visible disproportionate number of ethnic looking images on TV news items.

Ethnic minorities make up approximately 5% of the population in Wales, but the colour of the people on her TV screen – the physicians, NHS front-line officers, essential workers – were predominantly Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME).

The Swansea-based lawyer who is a professor at practice at UWTSD immediately got in touch with Judge Ray Singh CBE, the chair of Race Council Cymru (RCC), to discuss the disparity. The Council – which Uzo founded in 2010 – was established with the mission to bring together key organisations within Wales to cooperate on promoting integration and championing justice and race equality in institutions and society.

Race Council Cymru helped to gather BAME specialist’s business, social sciences and consultants of medicine and law to inform the First Minister's Covid 19 BAME advisory committee chaired by Judge Singh CBE. The subgroups explored the geneticand socio-economic factors which impact on BAME people making them more susceptible to contracting the virus to help understand and prevent the spread of the virus. During this time, Uzo found it important to volunteer her services and expertise to support BAME grassroots communities reeling from shock at the sudden deaths due to Covid.

Through the National Lottery Heritage Fund, RCC was also able to collect and tell the stories of young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds through the Crossing Borders Music and Heritage project which supported young people through the pandemic led by Ify’ Iwobi. National Lottery Heritage Fund also funded the Windrush Project “Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History”, highlighting the contributions of the Windrush migrants, who form part of its family and board as many passed away during the pandemic, including the Windrush Cymru Elders member Donna Campbell. It also provides support to those in particular need, such as the elderly.

"Our immediate need was to embrace the families that were bereaved,” notes Uzo. "We clubbed together to get flowers for them, making sure we were calling them, checking in with them, linking in with their churches and family support groups.

"Many of them became totally isolated, there was a lot of anxiety and stress with no close family around them. We needed to make sure that Race Council Cymru created a welcoming environment amongst grassroots communities, delivering food parcels and doing whatever people needed from us, all while we were doing the high-level strategic work.”

Uzo herself convened a number of Zoom sessions across Wales to help BAME grassroots to articulate their fears and concerns, also helping some elders’ digital skills to get online and providing virtual ‘cwtch’s’, or cuddles, across the internet. She also created a BAME Covid-19 WhatsApp support group for nearly 100 leaders across Wales and a WhatsApp group for approximately 150 diverse ethnic minority organisations to share learnings, support and best practice.

The highly decorated British-Nigerian solicitor/ barrister and equalities practitioner was, “humbled that people would even trust me to help in their lives” all the while suffering losses of her own, with long standing colleagues and fellow activists such as Donna Campbell and Brian Mfula - who both passed away whilst serving on the NHS frontlines, as well as Angela Barnes Vice Chair of the Windrush Cymru Elder, Patti Flynn RCC Black History Wales Patron and Mr Isaacs their Windrush Elder. All passed away during the year of the pandemic.

"When you're in pain and when you have lost so much, to think of somebody else coming in with a solution, even when you're not prepared to wake up and face the day, is such a challenge. Everyone is sharing collective pain and collective encouragement, which is so powerful.

"These were people from so many different religions and beliefs coming together through these groups. This pandemic is a war on humanity and for us to come through it, we have to join up and support one another. Brothers and sisters, white and black, supporting each other.

RCC is just one of the many incredible organisations that receive a small share of the total of £30m of support which is raised by National Lottery players every week, and Uzo concedes that without the funding, “it would be impossible to do what we do. That funding impact is phenomenal.

"We now have historical records about the huge contributions the people of Windrush have made. Without the National Lottery Heritage Fund, our lives would be very empty. There would be a haunting silence where there could have been love, joy, activity, expression, creativity and recollection of the contributions of our elders and so many who have given so much to make Wales a prosperous society.

"Kids' lives have been forever changed because of projects such as Crossing Borders. The next generation can speak confidently, they can talk about who they are, their culture and heritage.”

Since being told that she will be recognised by The National Lottery for her civic work, by being projected on to the famous sarsens of Stonehenge, Uzo says that she’s still in “dreamland”, adding that: "When they called me, my jaw dropped. I was incoherent. It just doesn't happen to ordinary people like me!

"It shows that people have hearts and they are looking for people who serve at the grassroots level, who are on the ground working with other ordinary people.” Huge thanks and heartfelt gratitude from my family and I to those who nominated me – this is totally unexpected. I am blown away!”