More action needed to tackle deep rooted racism in Sheffield

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The chair of Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association said the city needed to focus on actions instead of talk to tackle the city’s deep rooted and systemic racism following a report.

Robert Cotterell, chair of SADACCA, said Sheffield still had a very long way to go.

This was highlighted in a report that was discussed at hearings on culture at Sheffield’s Race Equality Commission last week.

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The report was co-produced by Sheffield Council, Sheffield Museums, the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University following Black Lives Matter protests that saw the toppling of an Edward Colston, slave trader, statue in Bristol last year.

It reviewed the city’s museums, collections, streets, public art, libraries and monuments and found no statues such as that in Sheffield but identified features within the city’s physical fabric that “perpetuate racist, outdated and uncomfortable messages”.

Mr Cotterell tuned in to the hearings on culture where the report was discussed and was astounded and concerned by the lack of action being taken.

He said: “There are so many conversations that need to be had but we already know what some of the answers ought to be so let’s not sit around tables for too long, let’s start getting some actions out there … You can’t just keep sitting and saying ‘well, we are having a conversation. We are talking about this, talking about that’. No. You know what needs to be done, get on and get it done because it’s only by their actions that people will be judged, people will not be judged by what they talk.

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“I quote James Baldwin, famous African-American, who said: ‘I can’t believe what you say because I can see what you do’. I think that says it all, that was in the early 1960s when he was talking about the civil rights movement in America and here in Sheffield, England it’s still evident today.”

The review found a stark lack of diversity in the city’s monuments. Of the 100 on the council’s asset register, none were dedicated to a non-white figure and of the 20 ‘Sheffield Legends’ plaques celebrating contemporary Sheffield personalities set into the pavement outside the Town Hall, only one – for Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill – celebrated someone of ethnically diverse heritage.

The same problem was found with the city’s public art including historic and recent commissions. Although works over the last five years were not yet added, of the 277 listed, only one – Benjamin Zephaniah – was by an artist who has an ethnically diverse heritage.

Mr Cotterell said: “The review and recognition has been long overdue and I guess it shows us how far we have got to go that in 2021 we are looking at the situation for Black art and Black artists in Sheffield when they have been around for such a long time but still fighting to get recognition and commission … In my lifetime in this city, 61 years now, the council doesn’t have anything that it values that represents me.

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“Now of course we are not just about everything that’s Black, there is much more to my life than the colour of my skin and my experiences of racism. We like to do ordinary things around art and entertainment and culture and ordinary community living but we do have a significant problem in this city that the council presides over.

“It’s mainly the council because it’s the leader of city and what happens in this city is down to the council and it is quite concerning that they don’t see anything of significance from any one of our different communities that ought to be represented in their top 100 and it is really astounding but we are just beginning to learn about some of the very recent history of Sheffield and its involvement in the slave trade.”

He said for many years people thought Sheffield was not involved in the slave trade apart from abolition efforts by people such as Mary Anne Rawson and James Montgomery.

But research by the University of Sheffield showed the force behind Sheffield’s fame and progress, its steel industry, was heavily involved in the slave trade. Metal goods like cutlery were traded with slave owners and tools made in Sheffield were used to build slave ships and for slavery work on plantations.

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In terms of what actions need to be taken, Mr Cotterell said a key step was better allocation of funding and resources. “We know some organisations, particularly in the community and voluntary sector, are very well funded but you can look at a whole host of non-white voluntary sector organisations that are struggling to get by from one day to the next. That is something that could be shifted overnight.”

“Another major issue in Sheffield is the lack of diversity in leadership,” he said. “Some of the leadership roles as board directors, CEO etcetera. There is little or no presence for us. So one of the targets is to have 25 per cent non-white leaders in the city by 2025.

“I think that is a great call but it’s a tough one because what people in power, in the Town Hall and in the public sector and voluntary sector, what these organisations have to realise is for them to really create some equity across the leadership in their organisations, they are going to have to give up some power and that is not going to be taken very easily.”

He said: “People have really got to get down and do some hard thinking. Some of the outcomes will be painful but it will be positive pain in the end. Because if it means that we are taking steps towards the whole of the city being able to develop and thrive then that brings so much more back to everyone. It’s about enabling everyone.”

Following the report, the council said it would develop a five-year programme to better represent the city with input from the Commission and a consultation.

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