Tim Brown (right) at the Black Lives Matter protest in Doncaster
2020 has been a year of transitions, of metamorphosis and growth. For some that has meant a lot of pain and anguish and for others triumph and rebirth. For most, however, it has meant both. A year like this requires us to look at our lives, the way that we navigate through it, what we can change and what we can do better. Through the Black Lives Matter movement a lot of us have learnt about ourselves and the way that we look at racism, the way we respond to it and how we can continue to fight it. Also through this movement I met Tim Brown, an activist who has been fighting racism in Doncaster for over twenty years. Its people like Tim who have paved the way for people like myself to use our voices and platforms, which is why I wanted to take the time to share his journey with you.
Born in 1965 and growing up in Scawthorpe, Tim is second generation Jamaican, and much like many Caribbean immigrants at the time, Tim’s father was part of the Windrush generation. Tim’s father came from a warm, familiar, lush green country to a contrasting cold, sometimes hostile but equally beautiful corner of Doncaster. Tim sites his father as one of his greatest inspirations; “he was a hard working man who always provided for his family, you know, he was a miner, it’s a dangerous job but there was alway food on the table and we were never cold and we were always happy”.
Growing up Black in a predominantly white area in the 70’s came with its own issues and challenges. Tim found solidarity in his Black classmates but they were few and far between; he later found that playing football for the Scawthorpe Scorpions helped him to integrate with the local community. However, it wasn’t until Tim took a job in Saudi Arabia, as an electronics technician, that he started to see the greater inequalities in life for the first time, including the huge class divide between the wealthy and the poor, despite the country itself being rich, was a real eye opener for him.
After seven years out in Saudi Arabia, Tim returned to Doncaster and turned to his own community to start making changes. The first project he took part in was Friends of Grove Gardens, a community led programme that helped replant and revitalise a local derelict park. This was his “first experience of community coming together to deal with an issue where local government (through lack of funding) couldn’t”. The programme was so successful that it is still around today. A few years later Doncaster was hit by a scandal infamously known as ‘Donnygate’, it one of the worst local government corruption cases to date. The details on Donnygate are boundless but for Tim one of the worst casualties of the fall out from this was the loss of Doncaster’s African Caribbean centre. Allegedly there was an agreement that there was no rent to be paid for the use of the centre but once the scandal broke it was closed down. With no documents to prove the agreement, there was no way to fight back.
“I realised that the Black and African communities had no say in the council and what was given could be so easily taken away.” Tim went on to ruminate, “You know I feel as though the councils relationship with the Black community always feels as though they’re doing us a favour, there’s been no difference in 30 years.”
The next course of events are what led Tim to take action and oppose the council for nearly two decades. In 2002 Professor Gus Johns released a report, commissioned by Doncaster Council, to investigate the needs of ethnic groups in Doncaster. His findings were that the Council was complicit in and at ease with institutional racism and his report suggested one way to help counter-act this was to invest in more African, Carribean, Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese focused initiatives such as a learning and leisure centre. The Mayor at the time, Martin Winter, made a public promise to invest £500,000 into this programme but the money never appeared. Through Tim’s investigations this proposal appears to have been privately “overturned somewhere between 2008 and 2013” according to Councillor Glyn Jones. Unfortunately there is no record of who overturned it or why they did. Despite this still being chased, no record has ever been produced. When I asked Tim about the councils reaction to him, I was met with a heavy sign and he went on to clarify; “I feel like they hold me in contempt. They would rather spend thousands on barristers to stop people like me gaining access to the most basic pieces of information than to rectify their own issues of institutional racism. In a way there is some vindication through the course of current events; whilst as a Black man the last few months have been grievous, its forcing the council to shine a light on the racial inequalities they allow. For example, only 2% of council jobs are taken up by Black citizens. This percentage also includes those in janitorial work not just those in higher positions.”
In the interest of gaining a wider perspective, I also asked Tim about the Black community’s response to him. “Its a mixed bag” he admits. “The majority welcome someone who is willing to challenge the council but there are some, especially those in higher places, who benefit from the set up.” There are only really two forums for the Black voices of Doncaster: the Minority Partnership board and the Inclusion & Fairness Forum (IFF). I can attest to Tim’s frustration as I have been present when the Inclusion and Fairness Forum have misled us. During a COVID Oversight board meeting meeting in July 2020, we asked about the Council’s response to Coronavirus disproportionately affecting Doncaster’s African, Carribean, Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese citizens. We were told that the Doncaster Talks programme had reached out to local Black organisations and communities for their views and experiences on the impact of COVID on their lives. When asked to provide evidence of this, the council eventually produced a list of questionnaires that had been sent out to the general public and put online for people to fill in. There was no evidence that anyone who had responded was black as this data hadn’t been gathered. So not only was the council’s statement misleading when they said that they had reached out directly to black organisations, they also could not use the data they had collected to determine ways to benefit the organisations and communities in Doncaster that have been adversely affected by COVID.
Though Tim may not feel as though he has seen much change in the local government’s responses to racism, over the last two years he said he has seen a huge rise in the amount of independent groups speaking out. It’s an exciting time we are in, where we can see every day people creating platforms for themselves and producing new initiatives that really show how “we as individuals are harnessing our voices and pushing for change in our own communities”. In Doncaster we have organisations such as Doncaster African Caribbean Support Group (DASG) and 2nd Generation (2G), supporting elderly and vulnerable Black citizens to get whatever they need during lockdown, whether that is collecting their shopping or dropping off cooked meals or even their medication. During Black history month, Tim has helped facilitate an event at Cast, presenting a double feature of Skin & Coal by Claudine Boothe and Digging Deep by Norma Gregory; two documentaries following the lives of Black British Miners. Tim has also managed to help secure a meeting with the Director of Public Health, Rupert Suckling and Chief Executive, Damian Allen amongst other council members to discuss topics such as asset based development, the council’s organisational response to recent events and the role of the Inclusion and Fairness Forum going forward.
So what advice does Tim have for those who are looking to start their own fight against institutional racism? “Remember that the fight against racism has been going on for 400 years, set yourself measurable goals so you can see the changes that you are making, collaborate with like minded people, we are stronger in force, ask questions at every opportunity, find out the democratic mechanisms, use them to your advantage and most importantly recognise that young people, for the first time in a generation, have the opportunity and power to influence and change their local governments so we must use our platforms”.