We spoke to the CEO and Founder of the Ubele Initiative, Yvonne Field about the incredible work the social enterprise is doing supporting communities through the pandemic and the continued fight for racial equality.


The below is a transcript of the interview with Yvonne.

To start off with, it would be great to find out just a little bit more about yourself and your own story and what inspired you to to set up Ubele.

So my professional background of many decades is community development and youth work. I’ve always been interested in social justice and social change. I suppose my very early story around how you can and should really try and intervene into systems when you experience discrimination was when I was 11. My mother actually campaigned against the local education authority – I wasn’t offered a school place that we thought we should be offered and my white friends, or my white friends who decided to apply to the same school as we did, they got a place. So rather than taking second best we campaigned! I was homeschooled for three months, with black students and black activists in my parents’ front room and lots of local media cover and letters back and forth through the Race Equality Council to the educational authority meant that I eventually went to school in January and went to a better school than I’d actually applied to in the first place. So that was my very early foray. You can just say, “No, this isn’t good enough, actually” and I think in this case, my parents thought that their daughter was entitled to a better education than that which was being offered.

I also come from a family of entrepreneurs. There are 10 of us. I’ve got nine siblings, and eight of us have all been involved in some kind of business venture, employed people, set up companies. So I had a consultancy and training company for nearly 15 years before Ubele started and I’m the only one in the social enterprise field. They’re all builders, carpenters, photographers, media people, running businesses, catering, and all sorts of things. But I suppose enterprise is in our blood and our DNA. So my sense of being able to do things for ourselves, and being slightly outside of the mainstream. I mean, I’ve worked in local government, I’ve worked internationally. I’ve worked within the mainstream system, but actually, I think I’m a person who likes to set things up and grow them from seed.

What struck me about the Ubele is that you do so much. Could you give us just a quick overview of some of the things that you do to meet your mission of helping build more sustainable communities across the UK?

Ubele started as a series of conversations in dialogue with communities that were mainly in South London, which is where I was born and brought up. I was just really curious about the fact that our parents had come, in my case, from Jamaica in the 50s and had always wanted to go back home, but then three, four generations later, we were still here. So it felt like that plan didn’t really work. I was curious about what should be a plan B? If we are going to stay here, some of us might go back to the Carribean and Africa and other parts of the world, but there was also especially in my family which is very culturally diverse with some feeling more Black British whereas some of us are much more connected to our African ancestry (I’ve got family  living in in mainland Africa, in Ghana and Nigeria, and Kenya). So out of those conversations, we started hearing a few things coming up –  the need for a new generation of community leaders, to think about how we could support our young people and the needs of our elders. And so we have grown this organisation and this social business through being still very rooted in communities.

We say that our mission is about community wealth building and that came about through people being our biggest asset. But also we were hearing that we were losing community spaces, and that there was a need for a more sustainable model to bring some of the spaces we still had back into usage, and to bring them into being fit for the 21st century  because some of them were given to our communities in the 70s and early 80s after certain uprisings and through talking to local governments about what our needs were and being quite strong and forceful about those needs being met. But some of those spaces needed serious overhaul. So we wrote a report in 2015, called ‘A Place to call Home’, where we mapped and did lots of interviews about some of those spaces around the country. That really gave us a platform for thinking about asset development through enterprise – having more of a sustainable model, a mixture of grants and loans and enterprise and activities.

We operate very much still in communities, we’re co stewards of a three and a half acre growing and community site in Harringay, where I live now, Wolves Lane Horticultural Center, which is amazing. We’re also involved in developing a black-led community space in Brixton, the Lloyd Leon Community Centre that was given to the black community after the uprisings in 1981. It’s the 40th anniversary actually, of those uprisings in April this year. And in February we became the BAME infrastructure group for London just before COVID, which is just in time, because there wasn’t actually a BAME infrastructure group for London before we were appointed that had any financial resource to do the work so we had to step into that gap in March/April when COVID was really ravaging our communities.

In fact, before we became regional and national, we actually were local and international because we’ve done and we still do a lot of international capacity building projects through the Erasmus program, which unfortunately is ended now. But we’ve still got funding for another two years of different capacity building programs where we take groups of changemakers, and activists to different parts of Europe to do all sorts of training, appreciative leadership, action learning, art of hosting-  those kinds of programs we can offer groups and individuals to come on in different parts of Europe. So we’re local, regional, national and international. That was always a vision actually, because we are diaspora people so we will always have international links and connections. But we’re community developers so we’re rooted in communities, and we’re entrepreneurs. So all of it sort of fits together. So as I said, community wealth building is our mission.

How do you work with communities? Because you are very much rooted within the communities that you work with, how do you engage with and help co-develop some of these projects?

It’s a complex process, working with communities is never easy. So one of the projects that we’re developing at Wolves Lane is a black-led growing group that will become a small business. Black Rootz came together as a result of changes that were being made at Wolves Lane There were some changes and that meant that a couple of black growers would probably have to leave the site and we said “Well, that can’t happen, we’re not going to allow that.” So we said let the black growers come together with other black growers because we have a history of food growing but often in allotments and community gardens, not at scale and not taken to market in a collective way. So, we’ve been working with Black Rootz over the past year and a half to develop that initiative and then we’ve just got some funding to roll that up, scale it up and roll it out. So it’s food growing and horticultural training and it will be in three London boroughs as pilot. That will be generating and bringing together the next generation of food growers, but from black and minority ethnic communities.

So as you can imagine, when you’re working as an individual grower, an individual in a community, bringing people together, working together is always a challenge, because you’re used to working on your own. And also just introducing processes and ideas around business and enterprise, as opposed to just growing for self and family. So those kind of dynamics are always coming into play. It takes a lot of interrelationship building with people listening to their stories, you know, responding to needs as they emerge – walking beside. I mean we’ve got some ideas about what could happen, but our role is not to push people or to pull people it’s actually to guide them and to ask really critical questions about what is it that they want to do, what skills do they need, what skills do they have and how can they share those skills with others? Within Black Rootz there are growers that have been growing for 30/40 years, incredibly skilled and knowledgeable people, and actually using them also as mentors and as leaders but also recognising that younger people who are really into the environment and food and healthy lifestyles also need to come into leadership roles as well

We’re working with people in communities who’ve been rooted in those communities for decades, and their families have been there for decades before them and so on. They know what’s going on, they know what the needs are. Sometimes they just need access to different kinds of resources, and guidance, and for someone to listen to them and to actually empower them to act on their ideas.

The two biggest stories of last year have undoubtedly been the devastation caused by the COVID- 19 pandemic but also, we had this incredible mobilization and against racial injustice that we saw in the Black Lives Matter movement. It became really clear, really quickly that these two events, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter were fundamentally linked. Data from the ONS showed that COVID-19 isn’t something that affects everybody equally and it’s a virus that very much does discriminate. We’ve seen this in the stats showing that if you’re black you’re four times more likely to die from COVID-19, which is just such a horrific statistic. The pandemic’s impacts are layered onto pre-existing inequalities – if you’re from a minority ethnic background, you’re more likely to not be able to work from home, you’re more likely to live in an area that’s densely populated. The same systemic inequalities of health, wealth, employment and housing, raised by BLM, resulting in a disproportionate number of black and minority people dying,

Given that you’re so rooted in these communities you found yourself at the forefront of both supporting communities through the pandemic, but also campaigning for change and to bring these issues into the mainstream. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing to support communities through this incredibly difficult time and also maybe a bit about the We Need Answers campaign, which is really interesting.

In terms of supporting communities, I think, because we were appointed as a BAME  infrastructure group for London in February, and we had a mission to focus on community assets and wealth building with 12 organizations in London, we had to leave that and put that to one side and really step into this gap when COVID really exploded in London and across the country. One of the first things we did was actually try to find out what the impact would be in relation to black and minority ethnic community organisations. So we did a piece of research, it was a quick and dirty piece of research, we didn’t realise that it would have the impact that it had. But basically, from the organisations that responded, about 130 in total, 9 out of 10 of them said they were on the brink of closing, because the sector had been really weak in terms of investment, not in terms of activity – people are doing work in spite of not having financial investment. But actually the extra demands on them by the communities they were serving on the front line meant that they were really under threat. So we did the research and then we were able to use that to secure resources to do a whole range of capacity building and support activities. So last year May to August, we did a whole host of funding exercise webinars, we had weekly webinars with all the different funders that had emergency funding for COVID. They came and spoke, we gave support around writing proposals and doing financial templates and proposals and putting together people’s ideas. We gave a lot of one-to-one support. We also had a whole host of events, I mean, we just opened a space for conversations around COVID around the impact on employment and on the impact on health, and well-being and so on and so forth.

We also set up with Patrick Vernon, who’s a very well known social activist, the Majonzi Fund, which is a fund, which has raised over £80,000 and that’s to provide bereavement support and counseling support. And also, we haven’t given money for the second part yet, but we will – small grants for memoria so that if people want to remember loved ones, they can have a small grant to do things like maybe plant a tree or something like that. We’ve also done a number of pieces of research, actually – we did a rapid review of the impact of COVID on those groups with protected characteristics. So we looked across all the research that was done in London across all the different equality issues and groups that had actually spoken to their staff and organisations to see what themes were cross-cutting and no surprises – economic, health, digital exclusion, and so on were areas that that came up very clearly. I mean, as I was saying to you earlier, I’ve had COVID, my daughter has, my brother was on a ventilator, we’ve now got staff who have had a number of deaths as a result of COVID during this wave that we’re currently in. So we were dealing with as an organization, the impact of COVID on us personally, as well as within the wider community, and obviously, within our families. So we were trying to balance those things that were playing out at the same time, which was really, really challenging.

Some of the things we’ve been doing. As a result of the work that we did earlier last year we’ve got a new program that we’ve just launched till the end of March. It’s three months of support to Black and minority ethnic organisations and social businesses through what we’re calling Mali Enterprising Leaders England – Mali is another Swahili word, Ubele is from Swahili, which means the future or the way ahead, Mali means precious or of value. So we’ve taken it to be someone or something of value and precious to our communities. So Mali Enterprising Leaders is a national program. And we’re going to be supporting over 80 groups in the next three months looking at what their needs are in terms of capacity building and focusing on those needs, we’ve got teams of associates working with them. And the last major area that we did apart from funding and support was to get involved in developing funding programs. So through conversations across the country with infrastructure organisations, we set up the Phoenix Fund with lottery money. The Global Fund for Children worked in collaboration with us. Ubele acted as the national conveners and then we had participatory grant making with the infrastructure groups and anchor organisations, 18 people and organisations were on six panels that came together to make decisions. So we gave just over £2 million through that route.

The other major piece of funding that we’ve been involved in is the Community Led Organisations Response Fund for COVID (CLORS). And that program unearthed about 1400 groups. We gave away nine and a half million pounds to about just under 400 groups who got funding and support. The support now is happening to those groups that got funded. We gave up to £20,000 pounds, with the CLORS program, and up to £20,000 pounds w the Phoenix Fund – unrestricted funding. So that funding was often a lifeline to organisations,

In terms of the campaign, #WeNeedAnswers, that came about because Patrick Vernon,  is an internationally renowned campaigner. So when we were hit with the disproportionate impact of COVID on our communities he said Yvonne why don’t you start a petition. So we started the petition on 38 Degrees saying actually, we’re so outraged by this, what’s happening, and the government was just floundering, it was just all over the place. You know, you could just see all these images on the news and in the news media and so on, as to who was being impacted. So we started a campaign saying we wanted an independent public inquiry. I’ve never done anything like that before, in terms of doing an online petition and we ended up with over 30,000 signatures on that petition. And then we had a group of young activists come together under Ubele and decided to drive forward that campaign. Leigh Day, the solicitor’s approached us and said, can we help? How can we help you we’re human rights lawyers.  So we wrote to the government, we put the petition aside and we wrote to the government saying the grounds of which we wanted to push them for an independent public inquiry. Actually, what was really interesting, they asked for more time to respond and they eventually responded with a 10 page letter which Leigh Day said was unheard of!

However we got to the point where we thought is this going to fly or not? How far can we push this? And as you will know independent inquiries take a huge amount of time – years and years and years, however, what we’ve done is, we’ve actually then aligned ourselves with the families of the bereaved because there is a campaign around that. So Leigh Day advised that we align ourselves with that group, because actually they’re pushing for an independent inquiry. And actually, within that group, of course, it’s disproportionately BAME families, because of the impact. So that’s where we’ve got to with the campaign, that we’re actually working alongside that group.

But I mean when we wrote the letter to the Prime Minister saying that we wanted this independent inquiry, we managed within 48 hours to get over 80 really high profile signatures and now that letter has over 600 signatures on it. In fact, we’ve given it to the Museum of London because they want to use it as a centerpiece of an exhibition, they eventually develop around COVID, and also the disproportionate impact on BAME communities in London. So they asked if that letter could be given to them as a sort of central piece of to tell the story of what’s happened. So we were delighted to say, absolutely, this letter is part of the history of what’s happening and happened during this period.

Let’s talk about the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you feel we can keep the momentum behind the campaign going?

Well this year is also a really important year for black British activism around racial injustice. We have the uprisings that started in Brixton, and then was catalyzed across the country – so Toxteth and Handsworth and other places. It’s the 40th anniversary of that moment in time. There’s an organisation that’s been developing for the last three years an initiative called 81 Acts. And there’s going to be 81 acts of defiance in Brixton and hopefully in the other cities as well. It’s about saying – we need to remember this time and what’s changed since in 40 years? And actually we demand to be heard and for action to be taken. The other thing is this Monday (18 January) is the 40th anniversary of the New Cross fire when 14 young people in New Cross died. In fact, it was 13 and one died two years later, because he committed suicide. Both of those events were 1981. And the reason why I mentioned them is because although the New Cross fire has had two inquiries that came up saying it was not a racist attack there has been over the decades, as we’ve tried to delve into what happened with the inquiries and the questions and the distress and so on the sort of racist overtones within what was around that event which are still very much part of the narrative. And obviously Brixton and all that happened there. So, you know, we still have stop and search disproportionately being used, we still have school exclusions, we have all these things that still are absolutely examples of systemic racism within our society

I was 20, in 1981. So I, I remember the New Cross fire, I remember the uprisings. I was training to be a community development worker up in Birmingham at the time. So this was all part of my history as a young woman. And so for me, I think what’s interesting, because, you know, as we went from the 80s onwards, the whole narrative around race and actually been able to call out institutional racism dissipated. When I was actually involved in activism in the 70s, and 80s, we could talk about, and we did do anti-racist work, we could talk about racial inequality, we could talk about systemic racism, we could talk about institutional racism, although that term came later with the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. However, we did challenge it directly and then over the 40 years, it all kind of became wishy washy into diversity, and you know, sort of other kinds of terms that made everybody feel more comfortable. Not disregarding the fact that lots of other groups experience inequality, discrimination, exclusion  and prejudice. But actually, the whole use of the word race and racism was actually kind of pushed under the carpet and felt to be too uncomfortable.

What Black Lives Matter did was bought it very clearly back onto the agenda.  Individuals and organisations are talking about what does it mean to be anti-racist? Even to mention the word racism is part of what’s common at the moment. And is this just a moment in time? Will it become not so fashionable, as you were saying, you know, kind of let’s do these sort of tinkering around the edges and think we’ve done change that’s needed? Definitely not. And for me, what I am noticing in some organisations that say that they’re taking these issues seriously now – for me, the question is, what’s happening at your board levels? What’s happening in your long term strategy? You know, yes, of course, employment practices, and how you work with local communities and so on. But actually, where are you trying to make the real change? And do you know, if you try and make the change, and you’re serious about it, things will change, which means that it’s not business as usual for you, yourself and your white colleagues. And are you ready for that?  I just heard yesterday that an organisation is bringing a number of new black staff into the organization. I’m like, hmmm so you’re gonna get three or four or five or six new black staff? Do you really know what that might do to your organisation? You know, and are you ready for that? Now, I want to be a fly on the wall because I think there will be some interesting conversations! I’m being diplomatic here about what it means to actually change in the way that organisations work and operate and their culture and who’s included and who’s excluded. So I think that, that to me, is the interesting thing about Black Lives Matter that he opened up a previously closed conversation.

I mean, I just think I don’t know where George Floyd is in this in the universe. But if he’s looking down on us, his murder was not in vain because it opened up a conversation and an opportunity for people to step in and say “Hell no, not on my watch anymore.” And for me, that opening up, it still feels like it’s still just about open. I’ll be interested in what this year brings both in terms of first anniversary and the other events and other global events that have systemic racism in the core, especially when it’s an anniversary. But I’m very optimistic about the young activists and their ability to organize mass movements.

Especially online as well.

We were talking about the Steve McQueen series before we came online. And I was just looking at the Mangrove Nine and watching Darcus Howe using the printer how we used to produce leaflets and things and how the police would come in and smash up the photocopy and so on. But just watching the way we used to have to organise. But you know, but now you can just whizz something off. So my hopes are that the young activists continue to push and push and push and not take no for an answer. And a lot of the young activists are involved in the frontline – they’re reading, they’re, they’re sharing knowledge, they’re, they’re engaging in inquiry and curious and actually are very, very persuasive in that argument. And I’m just like, Yeah, go for it – I’m the biggest cheerleader. We’ve got a lot of young activists around us, and I’m just their cheerleader.

As a social enterprise community, something that we’re proud of is the fact that social enterprises tend to be more representative of society as a whole. Our social enterprise report in 2019, showed that 13% of social enterprises are BAME led but just like any industry, there’s systemic injustice is within the social enterprise movement as well. What are your thoughts on what the wider social enterprise community could do better to support BAME businesses and of the wider fight for racial equality?

I’ve been talking with colleagues at Power to Change at Access Foundation, UnLtd, for example, over the last few months, and you know, what, is not clear, although you can see, you know, the percentage of BAME led social enterprises within the sector, it’s still not clear, we are still lacking intelligence about the nature of these businesses. So what kinds of sectors, how large or small are they? Because certainly with the funding that we’ve been involved in giving, which we knew before, anyway, but we’ve been really supporting a lot of micro groups, that have turnover of less than £50,000. So for me, I think that there’s something about the social enterprise sector understanding the nature of the BAME led sector, within social enterprises, what their needs are, what their challenges are. Huge issues. I mean, I’ve been in business since the 1990s. I’ve been in business for 25 years, this year, I had a company limited by guarantee, which was a consultancy and training company. And I know the issues from there, and they are still absolutely within the social enterprise sector which is about access to finance both in terms of loans, as well as some of the grant programs –  our communities are just not accessing those opportunities to grow

But actually, where are the social enterprise advisors from our communities? I do know that we used to have social enterprise advisors that were from black and brown communities because there were lots of networks and I was involved in black women in business and African Caribbean business network, where are those networks and where are those advisors from our community?  Because we know if I’m a business being supported by somebody who looks like me and understands what it is to develop and grow a business, you know, there’s an instant rapport. I can sometimes say things to that advisor that I wouldn’t want to say to a white advisor, actually, I just wouldn’t want to say it. But there’s also understanding the ways in which we grow our businesses and also some of the markets that we’re in, I was just talking to somebody yesterday saying that actually, for investment purposes, social investors didn’t want to give a black woman who was doing hair products investment, because they didn’t think there’s a market! Well some years ago when I was I was at a great concert in Spelman (one of the historically black colleges in Atlanta) one of the speakers said black women in America spend nine times more on hair and skin products than white women do. This panel of white men saying there is no market for black woman’s hair products. Ridiculous! So, I think some of the assumptions about us and our businesses and you know, our business growth potential. And also just about who, even within BAME communities who are seen to be the more natural business people rather than others, even within our communities, there’s all that sort of discrimination going on.

So I think research and investment support. And also because we’re about community wealth building, I’m really, really keen to get businesses from the BAME community that work together. I mean, you know, there’s that old adage, you can go fast on your own, but you can go further together. We’re really about trying to get small groups of people from our communities to work together on the business ideas and to develop them collectively. Because I think you can go much further and you get different skills together. And it’s a challenge sometimes, because obviously, people have got different ideas. But I think that the sole trader, yes, that’s one model, for sure. And that’s how people often start, particularly if you’re working from home and setting up an idea, but I also think that we’re quite interested in collaborative businesses that can have a small group 2,3, 4 people and that’s what we’re about. That’s what we’re kind of interested in. But there are huge barriers, you know for BAME led social enterprise, some of which I’ve outlined.