International Clash Day: Spotlight on Olmec

Community Engagement, International Clash Day
Alina Santillan

Because The Clash was anti-racist, anti-fear, pro-solidarity, pro-unity, pro-inclusion, KEXP is taking time to spotlight local social-justice organizations making a difference in our community. This is a public service announcement with GUITARS.

Today, we're spotlighting UK-based organization Olmec. KEXP's Community Engagement Coordinator Alina Santillan spoke with CEO John Mayford about the ways they champion race equality through economic and social justice.

KEXP: What does Olmec do? 

John Mayford: So, our purpose in life is race equality through economic and social justice. And that really governs all the different areas of work that we do. In a nutshell, our core activities are really supporting people into work. Mainly we work with people who are living in social housing and we always work in predominantly areas with black and minority ethnic communities.

We've got various programs like Rise Into Employment, through which we help people find jobs. It's very important for us that people and a living wage and they aspire to their potential. So we also like to focus on throwing people into professions, into apprenticeships, into trainings, and meaningful, sustainable jobs. We also help people set up businesses. I mean if you're trying to get out of poverty, you do that, by either getting a job or you setting up a business. Our focus is on ethical business, so particularly social enterprise business and cooperative businesses. So we've been running several programs that have been going on now for 10 years to support people into business.

Currently, we're working with refugees into business, women who've done specific programs for black and minority ethnic women into business and for totally different groups. For example, young black and minority ethnic people in London. And then finally we train and support people into board positions. We have a program called Black On Board which pretty much does what it says on the tin. We train people of color to access board positions. Right now, we're working with 40 people over the course of two years in cohorts of 20 and our aim is to get 75 percent of those people into board positions. 

How can people connect to the services Olmec is providing if they're in need? 

The first thing to say about how people get connected to our services is that we normally provide our services to communities when we are in the community. We've always been a community-based and -led organization. Olmec's story begins with two Caribbean families in the '60s coming together to buy a house and then, one house became many, and they became a social housing provider which is Presentation Housing. Then, Olmec was born in 2003 and we became independent in 2010. We connect with the people that we're trying to help and identify people who take up Black On Board, potential people who are from black and minority ethnic communities who will be social enterprise, potential social entrepreneurs and support people into work. We find ways to connect with them directly. I mean, in terms of finding out about what we do we're online, we're on Twitter, we're just about to launch Instagram, and so you can access us through social networks and our website to find out more about what we do. So, the short answer is people can donate via our website

The Bronze Woman


How do you think that music, or art in general, can be used as a form of social justice? 

Well, I think that if we begin with art — I mean, the Bronze Woman is an amazing tool of empowerment and voice and social justice, so I'll just start on that before I come on to the music. For people of color, it's very important that they can see themselves in the society that surrounds them. So, when women of color and people of color see a monument like the Bronze Woman in Stockwell, it's empowering and it's reflective and that is a real social justice project. And you know there isn't enough representation in the UK and most statues and monuments actually don't represent current London which is about 45 percent of London is black and minority ethnic. So, that is an example of an expression of freedom and social justice.

I mean, music, which was sort of my kind of awakening, was very much through The Clash and that era of being a 13-year-old listening to The Clash. They stood up against the National Front who were rising in Britain. For those people who don't know, the National Front was a far-right fascist group on a platform of sending black people back, whatever that was supposed to mean and the clash and other people stood up against that through Rock Against Racism, a gig in Victoria Park in 1978. They stood up for that and then throughout everything they wrote really had that as a theme and it changed a lot of people's lives including mine. Go on to reggae, Bob Marley, need we say more about what he wrote with "Redemption Song," "Buffalo Soldier" describing the experience of enslaved black people in America during the American Civil War. We can think about Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit" describing the lynchings taking place in America and sadly in the 1930s and 40s. So there are many many expressions of music which is very democratic because it's people describing their circumstances and the injustices around them and then I think that that can lead to social change and lead to awareness. So, yeah, you can't overestimate the importance of music and how that's historically affected people generally and community generally and certainly me as an individual. 

Who are some musicians who have had a positive impact on your life besides The Clash? Are there other folks who stood out for you? 

Yeah, if I'm thinking about now, one of them would be IDLES, the post-punk band from Bristol. I saw them in their early gigs around the time of their first LP and what's really interesting about them are Joey Tolbert's lyrics. They're very honest and soft and personable. And they managed to be funny and describe what's happening to him. His first album was obviously about his mother and very personal things about his social life, but also connected politically. The second album is more, I think, looking at what's happening to Britain with Brexit and things like that. So I find their music inspiring, but also the community that's come up around. They've got this Facebook group with about 13,000 members. What's happening in that group is that people are supporting each other in all kinds of inspiring ways. [ ed. note: IDLES are performing live from KEXP's International Clash Day broadcast in London on Thursday, February 7th at 1:10 PM PST / 9:10 PM GMT ]

Another one day would be Akala, aka Kingslee Daley, and he's a grime artist who's been playing for just over 12 years. He started out as like an English Gil Scott Heron, incredible lyrics, very descriptive of the political situation and environment in London right now. The music itself is very powerful and it's changed a lot of people. But he's also set up a social enterprise called the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company with which he's worked in prisons and schools and is going around the world and showing the parallels between hip hop and Shakespeare using it as a tool to empower people and allow people to describe their situations. So I'd definitely mark Akala out as a current artist.

Reggae-wise, I've mentioned like Bob Marley, but Linton Kwesi Johnson is a black Brixton artist from the 70s, still going now as a poet and again describing what was happening back in the 70s in London. He was also involved in founding the British Black Panther movement. I found his lyrics inspiring and the music's brilliant as well. Later on, I was listening to Fela Kuti, the Nigerian artist who was inspiring and describing what was happening in Nigeria at that point. So many many artists, but those are the ones I'd pick out and highlight. 

It's so interesting that even though we are in completely different countries, we're going through very similar things. When I was researching the types of organizations that I wanted to uplift and support, I was thinking, okay, you have The Clash an all cisgendered, straight  I'm assuming  white dude band who are appropriating music from communities of color and then also trying to uplift what they were doing and having that message around race and social justice and using their privilege to elevate those communities, elevate that message, be the ones who were taking the risk, whereas communities of color had more to lose by taking a risk and saying very similar things. And Olmec was definitely an organization that stood out to me especially with the focus on black minority and ethnic groups  "BME" there in London being equivalent to "POC" here in the U.S. people of color or communities of color  but really wanting to highlight those who are most impacted by economic injustice.

It's interesting to hear you use the phrase "race equality" where here, in the States, we more often use the term "racial equity." Equality gives everyone the same thing, but when we're really talking about people who are most impacted by systematic oppression and institutionalized racism, equity looks at who actually needs more? There's a man named Vu Le who wrote an article on equity work called The Courage To Be Unfair. He used an example where you have three sandwiches and have three kids. The fair or equal thing to do would be to give each kid a sandwich, but the equitable thing to do would be to find out more about each kid and give based on need. What if one of those kids just came from a birthday party and is full, but another kid hasn't eaten in two days? From an outside perspective, it might look unfair for you to give the kid who hasn't eaten in two days more sandwiches or all the sandwiches, but that's actually the equitable thing to do. And so it was a really cool way of describing how we're approaching equity work and that was just a way I hadn't thought about it before which I think made it more accessible to talk about. I mean, obviously you're not going to turn down a child he's starving, right? You'd have to be pretty evil to do that. 

One thing that I would also say is really important about Olmec, is that it's always been white, black, and minority ethnic people and that's really important because Olmec is an example of communities organizing themselves. It's not about white power and privilege doing good for the poor. Olmec is, and always has been, led by communities themselves finding solutions around issues. As I mentioned before, the origin of Olmec started with Caribbean families clubbing together to buy a house when those solutions didn't exist in wider society and so fast forward now: Olmec is independent, but our board consists entirely of black and minority ethnic people. And when we think about how we approach supporting people into work, we're looking at the person and allowing people to determine their own solutions not people imposing solutions on them. So, if we're doing employment advice, we try and understand somebody's aspirations and work backward from there and then we'll get them the tools so they can plan for themselves and connect with the things they need to do in that case to get a job.

And it's the same thing with business. It's not the business advisor that makes social enterprise successful, it's the social entrepreneurs. So, it's our job to give people tools and then they will determine their success. I think that's really important and that's why we're so passionate about social enterprise cooperatives and communities organizing themselves to find better solutions. Now that doesn't mean exclusivity. It doesn't mean that there's only black and minority ethnic staff and it doesn't mean that white British people don't use the services, because they do, but it's ensuring that our community reflects the communities we're serving and I think that's really cool. And there are many issues of injustice that affect women, oppression in terms of sexuality, in terms transphobia and disphobia, affecting people with disabilities and when we talk about intersectionality, those issues cross over with race. So Olmec's focus has been race equality. To that point, we're very fortunate that the Chair of our Board is Dr. Omar Khan and he's the Director of the Runnymede Trust which is the premier race equality think tank in the UK. And so that they've been going for 50 years and it's their job to do research, collect data sets and look at all of those issues how that impacts on minority communities in Britain. They look at housing employment, health, and education outcomes and we're very fortunate to have Omar and that organization working in partnership with us so that they can inform what we do.

So yes, race is one part of systemic injustice but, you know, in America and Britain, it's a big part, isn't it? The wealth of Britain and the States, in no small part, was built on enslaving people, commodifying people, and using them to generate wealth. And I think that in both countries, the prevailing culture is still one of white power and privilege. We look at Brexit, we look at Trump — those are manifestations of those things. I think certainly in the UK, Britain hasn't acknowledged that injustices built its wealth and power. I really don't. And I look at Germany, for example, and I think they've done much more to acknowledge what happened in the Holocaust than Britain has done to acknowledge what happened through Transatlantic slavery. So I think when Britain and the States sought to acknowledge their histories, I think there'll be healing for both cultures, both countries. You've got the injustices of people's life outcomes being affected by their color, so there's that aspect of pure justice which should not really exist in the 21st century, but it does. And this culture of white power and privilege, in a strange way, is detrimental to white people because it gives white people a false sense of superiority which is not rooted in any fact, but a sense of entitlement and deranged sort of perspective on history. So I think all of those issues are important, but I think race is not a bad place to start and most certainly needs to be addressed. 

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