A photo of a Greens of Colour event

There’s an age-old piece of folk wisdom the world over that goes something like ‘You make your own luck’.  In my experience, that’s as true in politics as it is anywhere; even so, Greens of Colour’s Conference at Friends of the Earth Birmingham’s Warehouse Cooperative falling on the Saturday directly after the 4th July General Election date had been announced, felt like something of a minor miracle.

Even though Greens of Colour were offering this ‘hybrid’ event free of charge, the numbers in attendance in-person barely made it into double figures, and the on-line attendance wasn’t much better; that in itself spoke volumes about the relevance of this Conference to people of colour who are trying to navigate their way through what is so clearly still an overwhelmingly white organization, and also to the relevance of the Party to communities looking for genuine political representation.

The lack of Green Party initiatives to tackle the problem of our under-representation has at times been equally glaringly obvious. Maybe that has more to do with the Green Party soliciting political contributions from the few people with high enough disposable incomes than it has with a deliberate policy of exclusion; as the treasurer who paid the bills for this event, I’m aware that’s where much of our money comes from too, and hope to encourage more generosity from that same group in future.

Problems like underrepresentation take both resources and political will to fix, and by putting together such an inspiring event, Greens of Colour’s committee under its Chair, Councillor Amanda Onwuemene (also the Party’s Policing and Domestic Safety spokesperson) invested plenty of both.

The time and energy it took, and the considerable dent it made in Greens of Colour’s finances, were more than justified by the opportunity it provided for Party members who share the protected characteristic of race to get together to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

This exchange was led by a phenomenal group of speakers, including the firebrand Lee Jasper, a race relations activist of over thirty year’s standing and a former Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities to Ken Livingstone; Councillor Shahin Ashraf MBE, Green Mayor of Solihull Council, Peace and Global Justice Spokesperson and Head of Global Advocacy for Islamic Relief Worldwide; Hamza Egal, a Human Rights lawyer by profession and the Green Party’s Equity, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, and Aileen Gonsalves, the Acting and Public Speaking coach, who joined us online.

The in-person and on-line audiences were almost as impressive, and included Green Councillor Shabir Fazal OBE, Green Councillor Hema Yellapragada of the nascent ‘Muslim Greens’ inclusion group, Ursula Bilson, Leicester Green Party’s Convenor and Kefentse Dennis, the Green Party’s EEDI Spokesperson. It was also good to see Shahrar Ali, the former Green Party Deputy Leader, still being able to join us too, albeit virtually this time.

Any account of a day-long, consciousness-raising intensive event like this could only hope to give an idea of what it was like, and no two accounts of the day would be the same; this is therefore one person’s take on it, and one attempt to do justice to what was clearly an excellent event.

Amanda’s introduction made it clear how important it was for the Green Party to implement the recommendations of the Diverse Matters report in full. Making the whole document available, regionally and locally, is central to that project.

Lee Jasper’s predictions about the inability of democracies to address economic and environmental crises, the trajectory of British politics towards a far-right takeover at the 2028 elections when Keir Starmer’s policies fail to deliver (as he expects they will), and the spike in racism that always goes hand-in-hand with economic woes, had too much of a ring of truth about them for complacency; a ‘wake-up call’ is what is needed, and Lee is planning to work more with the Green Party in future to help make sure it’s ready to cope with these anticipated challenges. Lee’s ideas also prompted some debate, especially about whether current Green Party anti-racist positions (for example on Gaza) were as ‘performative’ as he suggested, given some people’s experiences of support, especially at local Party level.

Shahin Ashraf, very recently elected Mayor of Solihull, followed on from Lee; she talked about the journey that had taken her from growing up in Handsworth, one of the most multicultural and also one of the most deprived areas of Birmingham, to being the mayor of Solihull. She had plenty of experience to share about the racism in Britain in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, from corporal punishment at school to having her hijab taken off as a junior civil servant; she offered ‘not having let racism define her’ as the secret to her success in overcoming this. Shahin joined the Green Party in 2017 because they were the first people to join her ‘one woman’ protest a year earlier against a racist councillor; an emergency motion proposed by the Greens then led to that councillor’s suspension. Shahin reminded us that ‘Green’ is not just about a Party, it is about a movement; and one she believes can ‘shift the dial’ towards social and environmental justice.

Hamza Egal’s presentation to the meeting, ‘Understanding Equity, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and the Equality Act 2010’ was both a detailed outline of the issues involved and also an exploration of possible solutions to the barriers the Green Party has to overcome. Hamza is using the research and information gathering he’s able to do as EEDI Manager to help create awareness and to help ensure the ‘inclusive association’ that the Green Party is duty-bound by the Equality Act 2010 to provide exists for all of its members. Hamza’s presentation is aimed at enabling local and regional Parties to be able to come up with their own solutions to any barriers that might be in the way of that. It’s an excellent new resource, and one that’s potentially available to any Green Party organization. The discussions that followed made it clear that nobody is expected to be able to remove all the barriers themselves; Hamza invited people to reach out to him and other members of the Party’s EEDI community for help any time it was needed.

Aileen Gonsalves, joining as a virtual participant, brought our Conference to its conclusion with some very welcome practical exercises about communicating and public speaking, based on her extensive work and training as an actor, writer, director and drama teacher over the last thirty years. Aileen is public speaking coach to several of the Green Party’s current leadership, and their ‘likeability’ probably has much to do with the skills she’s been teaching them; even if we have the best policies, how we communicate them is still very important. Role playing exercises were designed to help us pay more attention to the people we come across in our political lives; just being present to the needs of the people we ‘doorstep’ can help persuade them to lend us their support. Aileen also reminded us how ‘believable’ Greens can be, having fewer vested interests to placate than the other Parties; there’s ‘no agenda’ to being Green, and much more authenticity instead.

Greens more than anyone have always been aware of the need for radical environmental change; ordinary people are finally beginning to wake up to the climate and ecological emergency too as a result. The days of the Green Party being a single-issue organization are now also in the past; thanks to the integrity of our membership and our leaders, we’re now quite rightly seen as being at the forefront of the movement for environmental and social justice. Greens are now even beating other mainstream political parties in ‘first past the post’ elections on that basis – over eight hundred Councillors testifies to that. Our optimism that we can ‘Save the Planet’, in spite of the scale of the problem we’re facing, may still be what makes the Greens such a ‘feel good’ organisation. That there is still so much to do to make the Party representative of the diverse communities many of us now live in need not phase us either; all that will take is much more of the initiative and political will that this memorable event so ably demonstrated.