Do young black people in Sheffield face more barriers today than they did in the 1970s?

Guests at The Star's round table event about what it's like being black or from another ethnic minority in Sheffield today
Guests at The Star's round table event about what it's like being black or from another ethnic minority in Sheffield today
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Do young black people need to overcome more hurdles to succeed today in Sheffield than they did 40 years ago?

That was one of the claims made as The Star brought together people from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds for a round table discussion about the challenges faced by those communities.

The Star's editor Nancy Fielder with Clinton McKoy and Melissa Simmonds

The Star's editor Nancy Fielder with Clinton McKoy and Melissa Simmonds

For all the positive noises about tackling institutional racism and opening up more opportunities, some contributors suggested things were harder for those entering the job market today than when they began work in the late 70s and 80s.

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They called for a new mentoring scheme in which positive role models work with young people to inspire them and help them build the skills and connections needed to climb the career ladder.

But amid the frustration there was optimism around the table, with talk of the opportunities available to the new generation if they have the self-belief to push for their goals.

Race has rarely been far from the headlines in Sheffield over recent months, from reports of a banana being thrown at a black player during a university ice hockey match to the abuse directed at Councillor Magid Magid after he became the city's youngest lord mayor.

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The city was also caught up in the Windrush immigration scandal which shook the nation, and a black teenager and a young black man were among those killed in a wave of stabbings.

With this in mind, The Star invited black people and those from other ethnic minority backgrounds - including community volunteers and members of the property, education, financial and political spheres - to share their experiences of what it is really like for them living in Sheffield, how things have changed and what still needs to change.

One of the first things that came up was the plethora of often confusing labels used to describe what is a disparate group of essentially non-white people - from 'BAME' to 'people of colour'.

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Mohammed Mahroof, a property consultant who was recently elected to Sheffield Council, said: "We're still being labelled and some of them I don't even understand. I don't like labels because it means you're already starting to say there's a weakness about you and people should be looking after you."

He joked that the colour of his skin had occasionally proved an 'advantage' in his career, making him harder to forget him in a field almost exclusively populated by white faces.

But he said it remained a very 'middle class' sector and there was a 'glass ceiling' which young black people could find it hard to break through.

Sonia Gayle was born in Sheffield in the early 60s but had lived in London since the late 80s, working in the finance industry, before recently returning to the city.

She said: "The opportunities for social mobility which I had growing up in the 70s don't seem to be there anymore in Sheffield and I'm not sure why."

She told how she had experienced discrimination in the workplace, once being mistaken for a tea lady in a high-powered meeting, but tried not to let such episodes get to her.

"If you try to carry that baggage, racism can wear you down if you let it," she said.

"It's about having that mental strength and ability to keep pushing. There are opportunities out there if you keep pushing."

But Dave Campbell, a counsellor who works with many young people, warned it was 'dangerous' for those already well-established in their careers to underestimate how hard it could be for young black people to prosper in a society dominated by white people.

He said the key was not for employers to 'lower standards', with plenty of talented young black people looking for jobs, but for them to 'make it equitable'.

"You have to create a support network which enables people from all backgrounds to attain the same level of skills," he added.

Melissa Simmonds, who works to raise awareness of autism among the black community, said: "Many black people feel disenfranchised because of the lack of opportunities and what they see or hear every day. It seems unfair to simply tell them to rise above that."

There were differing views about whether the public or private sectors are doing more to be inclusive but a general consensus that there is too much box-ticking and empty gestures in each, with people often being more interested in being seen to do the right thing than making a genuine difference.

There were also concerns about the short-term approach. Where things had worked, people said, like with the Black Palm mentoring project launched in the 90s, additional public funding was rarely committed to further capitalise on that momentum.

Mr Campbell praised Sheffield Council's efforts to level the playing field, commenting that 'although some of the policies may be dubious, at least it's trying'.

Clinton McKoy, of Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA), suggested money talks louder than race when it comes to the private sector.

He told how many years ago he had been talking to a senior figure at a leading insurance company, who showed little interest in what he had to say until he suggested that seeing more black faces coming out of its offices might attract more potential black customers.

"For the first time he heard what I was saying because it was about how they could attract more business," he said.

"Before that, they hadn't wanted to see the meeting going anywhere. They just wanted to tick some boxes and look good."

Ms Gayle revealed she got her first job because her employer had been willing to take a chance on her 'god-given skills'.

She questioned whether she would get the same opportunity today in a world obsessed with paper qualifications, which she claimed often say more about how much people have been 'hot-housed' than their actual competence. For that reason, she suggested, education is more important than ever.

As a supply teacher, Ramon Mohamed has taught at primary schools across the city but claimed he had never come across another Asian teacher even in schools with predominantly Asian pupils.

"It's really frustrating that many of these pupils have never seen a teacher of Asian heritage before, because children need good role models," he said.

Irshad Akbar, a business mentoring manager, described education as the 'bedrock' and agreed that having role models young people can relate to is key.

"There are more opportunities available but without the right role models young people often don't know about them," he said.

"We need to show them they can do this."

Bolu Bello, who is studying at the University of Sheffield, grew up in Kent where she saw few other black people.

"When I came here I was overwhelmed by the number of people from different backgrounds," she said.

"But there are certain areas which have become ghettoised, People will say that's the dodgy part of Sheffield. You shouldn't go there at night."

Others claimed neighbourhoods in Sheffield had been more diverse during the 70s and the widening divide in house prices around the city was not helping.

Mr Campbell said there is a desperate need for a new mentoring project in the city, where positive role models - not just traditional high-fliers but people who have tried their hardest to lead a good life when it would have been easier to give up - try to engage young black people.

Simply seeing and reading more about black success stories - be it on posters, in exhibitions or within The Star and Sheffield Telegraph - could make a big difference, he added.

"Young black people need to be hearing more about not just high achievers but people who have got their lives straight and are trying hard to raise their children well," he said,

"They're the people children on the street sometimes look up to - the people who live next door to them and look like them."