Sharon Grant has a long and rich history with Tottenham. Her late husband, Bernie Grant, was one of the UK's first Black British MPs. Bernie was the MP for Tottenham in the late eighties and nineties, with Sharon being very involved in his political career and his legacy since then. Sharon is known to be an outspoken and passionate person, particularly about local issues, and has worked tirelessly on many causes and campaigns for people whose voices are not always heard. We were very appreciative that she took the time to share more with Rachel Ho.
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
My Dad was a headteacher, and my Mum an author and teacher too. After the war housing was scarce, and I grew up on rural council estates. As my Dad changed jobs, we moved from Kent where I was born, to Norfolk when I was 5, and then back to Kent when I was 11. Then we got a house attached to his new school which all seemed rather posh!
Describe your relationship to Tottenham.
Its been the backdrop to my life for 35 years now, and I’ve got personal connections in Tottenham with probably thousands of people in one way or another. So I watch quite carefully what’s happening to it, and worry a lot about the way in which people are affected by outside pressures, especially government policies.
Photo supplied: Sharon Grant
You seem to be a busy women! Tell us about some of the work you do and have done in the local community.
That will take quite some time,and cover a lot of ground!
I first got to know Tottenham when I was a councillor from 1984-1990, and chaired the Women's Committee we used to have in those days. It was an incredible induction into the lives of women in the borough, women of all ages, races and cultures and sexual preferences. These were powerful, strong women who were the backbone of their communities, and my goodness did they know how to organise to defend their services, and their civil rights! We campaigned for all sorts of things which are now taken for granted such as equal rights at work,and in education, maternity leave, for services for older women, and better lighting in streets and parks, and to get women into non-traditional jobs in the council such as building trades.
After that I left my academic career to run the office of late Bernie Grant MP from 1987 until 2000, first of all in West Green Road and then opposite what is now Aldi in the High Road. That meant not just supporting his work in Parliament, but also dealing with literally thousands of personal problems that local people brought to him over some 13 years or so. Its not until you’ve done a job like that that you really get to know a community in all its richness, with its triumphs and its sorrows, inside out. And what a huge privilege it was to be trusted daily with the details of people’s lives, often people with jaw dropping multiple problems you would not believe that anyone could have.
Photo supplied: Sharon with Bernie Grant (L) in the mid 80’s when he was Leader of the Council.
At the root of so many of these difficulties in that period lay two major problems, the first being low income and secondly institutionalised racial discrimination, by public services, government, and employers . Too often it was women that bore the brunt of this, struggling to raise children, but being thwarted in their efforts to improve their circumstances by accessing training and jobs. But their strength showed through despite adversity, and I remember lively campaigns to demand nursery provision, play facilities as well as self help group set up to provide training for women, led by some awesome women leadership figures, especially from black and Asian communities.
After Bernie’s death I moved on to head up two organisations which championed the consumer or user of services, first of all the users of health services, and then the users of transport services. Far too often those who run services have little understanding of how it feels to the on the receiving end of them. Listening to users is now understood to make sense – both in terms of public satisfaction and in terms of cost. What’s the point after all of providing a service that no-one really wants or needs or in a way that actually creates difficulties for people?
I also stepped in as Chair of Haringey’s Citizens Advice Bureaux for several years - desperately needed service locally providing trusted advice about rights to benefits and services across the board. In theory people have a lot of rights, but this means nothing unless you have the knowledge and wherewithal to exercise them, whether it be your rights at work, your entitlement to social security benefits, or to be treated fairly by the government or council perhaps according to the law of the land. Contrary to popular belief, there are for example millions of pounds which go unclaimed in benefits in our borough each year, because people don’t apply for them!
On the same theme, nowadays I chair a small social enterprise called Public Voice which is based at Tottenham Town Hall. We run Haringey Healthwatch which tries to listen to the views of NHS patients and social care users locally, and influence decision makers to improve things. For example, when we heard the huge difficulties that people were having getting GP appointments, we campaigned for a new medical practice for the area, which has now opened at Tottenham Hale and has done a lot to ease access to doctors for local people. Due to the level of unmet need we exposed, in the next couple of years there’ll be two more health centres opening in the borough we hope.
We also support a fairly new structure, the Joint Partnership Board, which is trying to provide a voice to adult social care users. That is desperately needed in these times of austerity – when both the Council and the local NHS are struggling to meet the needs of the elderly, those with mental illness, physical disabilities, dementia and learning difficulties in particular. And sadly, so often behind closed doors, we have an army of largely women carers who carry an unimaginable burden at huge sacrifice to themselves. That’s a cause close to my heart, and I’m determined that their rights too aren’t forgotten.
All this involves sitting on a variety of committees to get user’s view across, and wading through large amounts of paper! However, I’m often the only voice of the service user in a room full of professionals such as doctors, senior council officers, so it’s a responsibility I take very seriously. This also increasingly takes me out of the borough quite a lot, as so many decisions are taken at a multi-borough level.
I also sit on the Haringey Police Independent Advisory Committee, which is a place where community meets the local police service. Again extremely important – I go back a long way with our local difficulties in police community relations, and as they too try to cope with lower budgets and worrying serious crime levels, talking has to be a good idea.
Also not many weeks go past without my popping in at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, where I’m on the board. It’s becoming quite a busy buzzing place, as people come and go to the events there, and is nowadays a popular meeting place for creative people as well as lovers of good food and drink in our café.
Photo supplied: Sharon at Bernie Grant Arts Centre with EastEnders star Rudolph Walker.
I’ve been immersed in the project since it was just an idea, from fighting for the money to build it, to working its now famous architect to design and build it, and now to growing it into a place which really provides opportunities for artists and audiences alike.
In addition I run a separate small charity called the Bernie Grant Trust, set up after his death to pursue some of the anti-racist causes that he believed in. It also owns the all his papers and memorabilia which are all now catalogued and archived at the Bishopsgate Institute in the City, and used a great deal by researchers and students.. We’ve just won a major Heritage Lottery grant to develop these into teaching resources for the national curriculum, to help a new generation learn about the struggles which black communities faced in the 80’s and 90’s. It will also involve collecting the oral histories of those who were active in those struggles – important before that generation pass on.
On top of the local work, I do some research work part time in parliament, and I sit on the board of Which? the consumers association.
As a woman, how do you think Tottenham has changed? What would you like to see change?
It's changed a great deal, in all sorts of ways. We have a very different ethnic mix now than we did 30 or so years ago, which enriches our community enormously, but gives us new issues as women to address. Language, religious and cultural challenges aren’t new to Tottenham, and I’m proud of the way we have dealt with them in the past. However, we no longer have the either public services infrastructure or indeed the thriving voluntary sector that we had to support women as we did, and I’m afraid a lot of women lead pretty isolated lives, many in extreme poverty, as mothers, as carers, or in their old age.
Of course, we now have social media and communications as never before. On one level this facilitates communication between individuals, but I’m not sure that it does between communities and neighbourhood, It also excludes a lot of people, although there are some exceptions such as Harringay Online. People are far less likely nowadays to be involved in community action or activity designed to benefit the wider neighbourhood or community than they used to be, and prefer to be “armchair activists” with their finger on the Facebook or Twitter button.
At the same time, there are far fewer places where people can meet together, as community organisations close have folded and their buildings are converted into flats. The remaining community centres we have, struggle to survive as council grants have dried up.
There’s also far less opportunity nowadays for women to work locally than there was. The only major employers remaining in the borough are the Council and the NHS, themselves employing far fewer people than they did. That means working outside the area, and the commute becomes an issue, and the juggling with childcare commitments that go with it.
On the plus side we still have some amazing, powerful, women in Tottenham who are leading the way in education, in healthcare and in the Council, as well as in the faith and voluntary sectors, to try to make it a place fit for women to live fulfilling, healthy lives and where they can realise our abilities and achieve.
Photo supplied: OBE in 2014 “for services to the community and the arts”. Taken at Buckingham Palace with her Mum & sister
If I was to name them it would be a very long list, and I’d cause offence by leaving someone out, so I won’t! They know who they are!
What would I like to see changed?
Well there a long list of government policies I’d like changed of course!
In particular the resources given to local government need to be dramatically improved. We are approaching crisis levels of funding in social care for the most vulnerable people in our community, with the Council facing impossible choices about what to cut next. The burden of this falls on families and carers, and we now have a considerable number of even children who are carers for their parents. Completely unacceptable.
But apart from that, I’d like to see more promotion of all the positive activity that goes on in Tottenham and the achievements of people that have been brought up here. And if we are to build much more new housing, I hope it will be affordable for local people who see Tottenham as their home, and that it will include the community facilities which bring people together. And lastly, I’d like to see much more encouragement for young women to get involved in public life locally. The more women we have locally making decisions that affect our lives, the more likely we are to make life better for the next generation of women and men!
Favourite thing to do in Tottenham?
I’d find it difficult to choose between going to a play at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, and walking on Tottenham Marshes and onto the bordering Walthamstow Wetlands which are amazing! I’m always surprised how few people know that we have such a vast expanse of open countryside on our doorstep in Tottenham.
Anything you would like to add?
Yes. I’d like to thank all the doctors, nurses and NHS staff that serve Tottenham. We have some highly dedicated professionals working under impossible circumstances to look after us, both in local GP practices and at the North Middlesex University Hospital. They’re doing an admirable job under pressure, and they need to know we value them in our community!
Thanks too, to all of those who work voluntarily in our community to run local organisations, lead neighbourhood campaigns and projects, and support vulnerable people. It’s those people who make us a community, not just a bunch of individuals each pursuing our own interests – and who will make Tottenham a better place to be as time goes on.
Find out more about some of the work Sharon is involved with: