Amanda Wilson was born in London, but spent her formative years growing up in west Sussex. In 2014 her company published the unique book, Letters to a Young Generation, a collection of 13 letters from men who understand what it’s like to be a black male growing up in the UK.
The British Blacklist speaks to Amanda before the launch of her second book, Letters to A Young Generation (2), this time dedicated to young African-Caribbean females in the UK; recognising the importance of having British African-Caribbean personalities as reference points of success for young people in the UK. Wilson also sheds some light on the challenges she has faced working in the British school system, on the lack of black male teachers in schools and why she’s not afraid to remind young women that there’s nothing wrong with being a lady…
How did you get into writing?
In 2009 I entered a competition called, National Novel Writing Month. The idea was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I wrote a novel called Karaoke Praise the Lord. I didn’t do anything with it. A few years later, I was encouraged by my husband and daughter to publish it. So rather than go down the traditional publishing route, I decided to set up my own publishing company, 910 Publishing.
In 2012/2013 I had the idea for the first book of letters. This came as a result of being in education and around people who work with a lot of disaffected young people. It was a time of the riots as well. We hear a lot of the American struggle, lots of African Americans write books and sell their stories. However, there wasn’t anything that I could see from a black British perspective. I thought it would be great to have something written by black Britons for young people to relate to.
What inspired you when you were growing up?
I spent my formative years in my foster home in Sussex with an English family. I didn’t have black role models as such. I came back to London when I was about ten years old. I don’t think there was anything I could say that actually inspired me. It’s only of late I can really say someone that really inspires me is Jamal Edwards. I really admire what he’s doing. I look at someone called Sonia Meggie, I’ve watched her journey with Inspirational You over the years. She has worked really hard to get to where she is today and she brings people along with her. That’s the thing that inspires me, individuals who take others along on the journey with them. They do not forget where they come from. I think that’s really important.
Yes. I sent a tweet out to some contributors to find out why they agreed to contribute to the book. Dr. Diahanne Rhiney said it’s about sending the elevator back down again. I think that’s so important. Young and older people can see that it’s possible to get to the top and for somebody to show them the steps it takes.
Do you find that people in our communities who are successful are invisible to our young people or is it our young don’t know they’re available?
I don’t think they’re invisible. If we’re talking about the UK black community, we can now roll certain individuals names off our tongue – David Harewood, Idris Elba, Jimmy Akingbola, Angie Le Mar, Leah Charles-King. If I speak to my 19-year-old daughter she could reel off quite a few well known black individuals. This is great, that’s how it should be. Due to the size of the United States their role models are more prominent than some of our black role models. They’ve got more money, they’ve got more capacity and more opportunity.
Self-help and mentoring happens out of school, can you think of anything specific that schools aren’t doing and what do you think could help more…?
Obviously as a deputy head I have to put a disclaimer out there. My husband used to work at school in Hackney as a mentor. The challenge schools have is funding. Schools have a finite amount of money. I work at a primary school in Greenwich, it’s predominantly white female. I’ve got a number of black boys; they are in the final years of primary school going into secondary school. I know if you don’t grab them at this age, they are going to go in the wrong direction. The problem is we don’t have black male role models working in schools. I’ve tried to get a lot of individuals in to do some work. Sheldon Thomas, he does a lot of work as the founder of Gangsline. He said some schools don’t have the money and some schools don’t want to spend the money. Thankfully we’ve managed to find somebody to come into our school. I’m a black deputy head, so I’m able to identify what’s needed and fight that cause.
If you’re white and middle class, you won’t really understand why a child is acting like that. They need someone to relate to, someone who can talk to them at their level. Someone from their perspective to explain why you have to work extra hard. That’s not going to be received the same way coming from a white middle class man. I’m not trying to be political. Unless you have been working in that environment for a long time and really understand the whole culture; what’s going on behind the scenes; you can never really appreciate what’s needed. My headteachers are both middle class white females, they oversee two black schools. One of them is in Woolwich and 90% black African. They have worked in that school for so long, they are alongside me. They are saying to the educational psychologists; we need a black male working in our school. One minute we have funding for learning mentors and then we don’t. It’s not solely down to individual schools; it’s down to what the government is doing to help fund certain initiatives. They give with one hand and take with another. They make the whole thing that more difficult and schools have to make that difficult decision as to what they deem more important at that particular time.
How difficult is to hire young black males as teachers?
We recruited for teachers last year, it’s hard regardless of race. It’s much more common in secondary school. It’s rare to get males in primary school. I guess it’s one of those things where you have positive discrimination. If black guys don’t want to go into teaching you can’t force them to go into a profession. However, you’ve got a lot of youth workers. A man we’ve just employed came in on another project in the school. We recognised how good so I spoke to my head to find out ways in which we could keep him. The other problem is that support staff don’t get paid very much. It’s more attractive to work as a youth worker outside of the school. We can get in organisations like Sheldon’s and Black Boys Can, but it’s a real challenge. These challenges have been going on for the fourteen years that I’ve been in education.
If young people look at the general socio-economic status of black people, how would you highlight what makes us so great, from one generation to another?
This generation is probably a lot more aspirational than my generation might have been. For some of us, it has taken us a long time to say, I can do this. Our young people are not waiting till forty. When you’ve got the likes of Jamal Edwards, Bianca Miller, trailblazing; there’s no fear involved. I think for us there might be more of a fear of failure or criticism; in some cases, of the hard work that it entails. I wish that I had this idea ten years ago. We are getting there slowly. If you look at the Power Lists, there might be more young people under the age of thirty that are doing well. It may mean that those over forty are doing so on a smaller degree. There may be success stories that you haven’t heard of. They may have put themselves on platforms that you may not have heard of. Maybe we’re just a bit more modest. We don’t like the attention like the Americans do. Maybe, we’re just happy to be doing it in our little towns.
…And getting on with it
Yes, rather than thinking we have to shout about it. It’s obviously a different time as well and access to opportunity plays a part. You didn’t have Instagram. Social media has totally changed the game. The promotion of this book has been made easier because of social media. Young people grab a hold of these things, older people are a lot more cautious. From a networking point of view, I’ve not met half the people who are in the book. It’s been through social media that I’ve contacted them via email. The first time I will meet a lot of them will be at the launch in December. That hasn’t stopped them from getting involved. If the older generation get on board of social media, they can leverage it to their benefit and you have got to go with what works, because otherwise you will be left behind.
Generally, self-help is quite popular across the board, whether you’re young or old, why do you think that is?
Everyone is looking for a way to get where they want to be, in the fastest way possible. There are a lot of books now on building your business or building your brand. These books and websites are going to help you get there a lot quicker. I think it is about capitalising on that. It’s almost like your own personal coach. You can take your own personal coach with you, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Why aren’t we more inspired by those immediately around us?
Some are inspired by the person they are at the dinner table with, because they can really see the journey they’ve been on. However, with other people, it’s how well they have been elevated. You see them on television and in the newspapers all the time. It feels like they’ve got more of a story to tell and they’ve made it.
You spoke at the launch of the last book about appreciating talent that we have, why do you think we are not doing that already, what do you think we need more of?
The performance poet Charlie Dark, posted a tweet about how he would have to go outside of the UK to be appreciated. I don’t know what it is. If you have got an accent people perceive you a lot better, especially if it is an American one. In America they celebrate success a lot more, and they hold you high on a pedestal. Here, whether you’re black, white or Asian; and you have money, it’s almost like you’ve sold out. What we need to do is to celebrate that someone has made it. It’s British culture in general, and we are our own worst enemy. It is the gentry and the aristocracy. It is ingrained in us now, the them and us. There’s probably a lot more social divide in the UK than there might be in America. It may just be why Black British people just embrace that British culture. So we don’t see it as such a great thing if somebody’s made it. It’s getting used to it; there has got to be someone that breaks that mindset. They celebrate more, there are lot more shows where they are doing just that. [We] have so many that they are diluted, which is an issue in itself. They should collaborate, rather than have so many that you don’t get to hear about so much.
In your book, which letter affected you the most?
They all stand out for different reasons. Love her or hate her, Sinitta’s was really interesting. She’s been through a struggle. She had to be quite strong willed in her mind and didn’t allow anybody to beat her down. She likes Pop music. Some people would be like, why would black people want to do that? It’s that mentality. Why can’t they do that? Why can’t you do Pop music as a black person? Why do they have to do Soul, Reggae or Gospel? We need to do what suits us. [That’s] the kind of struggle that she’s had to go through. Jennie Steele, she has gone on to be domestic violence ambassador. We tend to hide away from these types of experiences. Where they might enable someone to break through an experience they have gone through. Just looking at Angie Le Mar’s letter; breaking through that industry. I think the key message that comes through all the letters, is that they all started off to some extent as a vulnerable young girl. They have had to build their confidence. They have had to overcome a lot of prejudice and block out a lot. Ronke wrote about how she looked physically and how that could have been a stumbling block. She had to have the strength of character to say, I’m not going to allow that pull me down. She’s come a long way and made a success because of it.
Is there anything else that you picked up for yourself from the letters?
It’s a confidence boost. As a black person in school leadership I am a minority, there’s only 2% of us in leadership positions. What I see from the seventeen letters is that I’m among good company. I think that’s important and that you’re not the only one striving. I think some young girls need to be taught that there’s nothing wrong with being a lady, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of yourself and being yourself. Personally, it has taken me a long time to find out who I really am as an individual and to be comfortable.
Do think there is room for rites of passage programs or almost even charm schools? Children go into schools for education, but character building is missing…
It’s like when you prepare for a job interview you kind of have coaching on what you should wear. If you want people to take you seriously, this is how you need to present yourself, whether you’re in school, or the street. For a lot of our young people, that is their downfall. There’s nothing wrong with hanging out with a group of friends on the street. It is about what impression are you giving off, when you are hanging around. The classic is when you are on the bus on the way home from school. Sometimes people want to go downstairs, it’s outrageous sometimes. If you understand the same way you act in front of your grandmother is the same way you act in front of the bus driver, it’s very important.
Amanda Wilson is a very inspiring woman, fourteen years in education has not been in vain. The messages that are contained in her book are great tools for raising the consciousness of young African-Caribbean women in Britain today.
Letters to a Young Generation is due for release on Monday 7th December.
To find out more about Amanda Wilson go to www.910publishing.com