Activating Tottenham

Seema Chandwani is a long time resident of Tottenham and an extremely active member of the community, both politically and through her trustee work. She is passionate about social issues and can often be found campaigning for minority groups and other worthy causes. Anyone who follows Seema on Twitter know she is not one to be shy in speaking her mind, so Rachel Ho caught up with her to find out her thoughts about being a woman in Tottenham.

Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?

My family opened a grocery store in Tottenham in 1982, when I was three-years-old. Sadly they separated shortly after and for logistical reasons me and my father moved to Tottenham so he could run the shop, his business and still look after me, and could attend the school across the road.

My father came to the UK from India, in the 70s, after his older brothers. My family were Hindu-Sindhis (from the Sindh province). After partition, Sindh became part of Pakistan, and there was displacement of Hindu’s living in Pakistan (likewise Muslims living in India). Over 700,000 Hindu Sindhi’s left Sindh as part of the ‘Sindh exodus’ and became refugees in India.

Photo supplied: Seema Chandwani

My father spent most of his childhood in refugee camps, he was not educated and worked as a child labourer in the textile industry. As he got older, he became involved in Sindhi rights campaigns which got him in a lot of trouble and he was sent to the UK to both prevent him from any further trouble but also to help earn additional income.

He came to London and worked in Brick Lane in a textile factory, his English was not very good and he was grateful for the work, albeit low paid. He made the owner of the factory a waistcoat for Christmas, using traditional Indian fabrics and the owner was so impressed he was commissioned to do more for exclusive clients – his most famous client was George Best. He became very wealthy from his fashion business. But like a lot of people he was hit by the recession in the late 80s.

I guess from about 7-8 years old, both the business and shop collapsed and we lived in poverty. My Father reverted back to political campaigning against the Tory government and well, as a single parent, I had to go to these meetings with him.

Describe your relationship to Tottenham.

I went to primary school in Tottenham [and secondary school in Hornsey]. I have lived here since I was 3 years old (37 years!) with only two breaks. The first when I was 14 and we were evicted, but rehoused in High Barnet and the second when my Father passed away when I was 15, I had to go into care and then ended up living with family in Southgate.

I guess it was then I realised Tottenham was not a place, it was my home. I felt very isolated living away from Tottenham, not only because I was away from my friends and familiar spaces, but because other places felt bland and soulless. Great gardens, but no-one seemed to connect with each other.

In High Barnet I felt out of place racially, it was weird to get on a bus and not see the diversity I was used to but also realise I was the only person on the bus from an ethnic minority. I saw NF graffiti and on a few occasions had racial abuse shouted at me.

So I guess my relationship with Tottenham is it’s my home, I love the vibrancy, the diversity, the sense of community and the energy. Yes it may have social problems, but it’s a place where everyone is their own person, respected not judged for their differences and welcomed regardless of race, class or dress.

You seem to be a busy woman! Tell us about some of the work you do in the local community.

It scares me when I think about it if honest. I am the Constituency Secretary for the Labour Party in Tottenham, I am the Chair of the Haringey Trade Union Council (TUC), I am the Co-Convenor of Haringey Stand Up To Racism, I am a member of the Police Independent Advisory Group (IAG) and I am also a Trustee of the Bernie Grant Trust. I also work for the Selby Trust in Tottenham.

I am very passionate about all of the bodies I am part of, I find it hard to say no. But also very fortunate that in all of these groups, there are other fantastic residents who work really hard and make it successful.

I think it is vitally important we fight to retain the fabulous diverse community we have in Haringey. Likewise I believe the role of Trade Unions is vital in defending and fighting for workers rights, we can see from the campaign led by Haringey Unison, that without the fight we can have Care Workers in our borough not paid properly.

How did you get involved with politics?

My family say I am just like my Dad, and I believe there was some nurturing when I was younger, I was definitely raised as a Socialist.

Photo supplied: Seema with Jeremy Corbyn

But I do believe if I was raised somewhere else, I probably would not be as political as I am. Being raised in Haringey, especially Tottenham you experienced politics. I vaguely remember the Broadwater Farm riots, I do remember Bernie Grant being elected in 1987 as the first Black MP and the empowerment that gave Ethnic Minorities to fight for their rights.

I joined my Dad on the Poll Tax demonstrations, we protested outside Hornsey Police Station when Joy Gardner died following an immigration raid. I remember the campaign against Section 28 and how Haringey Council and Schools defied the law and educated us that Homosexuality did exist and it was perfectly OK.

When I was 16 I campaigned to save the closure of Youth Centres in Haringey, I remember the nerves I had entering that Council Chamber and how frustrating it was to explain something so obvious. Campaigning and public speaking came naturally as I had seen it so many times growing up.

Being involved in the Youth Forum helped divert me away from trouble, I had already been in a lot of trouble in my teenage years. It also gave me confidence, I often skipped school and most teachers couldn’t stand me (except Mr Noble as I will send him this – he was probably the only reason the school didn’t expel me several times).

I also recognise I benefitted greatly from a Labour Government, they came into power just as I turned 18 and had to leave care. I know if it was not for Bernie Grant and Cllr Diakides I probably wouldn’t have been housed and gone on to University.

I guess I got involved in ‘party politics’ in 2011 after the coalition government formed. I literally just went online and signed up.

It would seem that politics is not for the faint hearted! What advice would you give to women who want to get into it themselves?

In Tottenham, women in the Labour party are certainly not shy – they very much hold their own, but all have different personas, so it’s not because we shout louder to be heard. Labour has a lot of ‘gender quotas’, so most positions need to be 50% women.

Photo supplied: Seema with David Lammy

As a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) women, I am really under represented, both nationally but locally, yes in Tottenham. I guess there is an added responsibility on BAME women like me, to encourage others to be involved. I ran for a national Labour party position and I topped the ballot with 109,000 votes – so across the UK, Labour Party members supported me being elected.

I would not say it was easy, I got a fair bit of online racist trolling and a couple of emails of a racist and Islamophobic nature (even though I am not Muslim), but nothing compared to what David Lammy or Diane Abbott gets.

But you don’t have to join a Political Party to be political, I see people who do political activism across the borough and they’re not doing it via a political party. People involved in their trade union, people involved in Friends of Parks groups, the STaRT campaign, Haringey 38 Degrees, families and young people campaigning against youth violence, people campaigning for refugees to be settled in Haringey.

It’s all politics, parties do not own politics, people do. People power has to be what shapes politicians, or they won’t change.

As a woman, how do you think Tottenham has changed? What would you like to see change?

Erm, not really! I mean, people are changing but that’s the beauty of Tottenham, we have had different generations of immigrants making Tottenham their homes for centuries, from French Huguenots in the 1500s to Syrian Refugees and Polish migrants today. It’s exciting to see new shops and restaurants open up where you can try different things.

I guess if I want to change one thing, it’s the house prices – they are reaching epic heights and I have seen many people being priced out.

Favourite thing to do in Tottenham?

Well, my partner who is new to Tottenham is loving the beers and pubs. My favourite thing is shopping, although it’s my favourite thing anywhere in the world – but you know you can get everything in Tottenham from Kente Kufi hat to great Turkish food.

Find out more about Seema:

#womeninpolitics #campaigning #activism #politics