Artist Akon is known for his musical talents and his hit songs ‘lonely’, ‘belly dancer’ and ‘smack that’. Besides his musical talent, Akon started a charity in 2014 called ‘Akon Lighting Africa’.
In Africa approximately, there are 600 million people still living without electricity. As a child, Akon knew the realities of not be able to access power this is why this project is important so other people don’t go through what he went through. To tackle this problem this charity aims to provide solar powers in African communities that lack electricity. Also, Akon and his two co-founders have opened a solar academy to help train and educate engineers to produce solar energy in Africa. This charity gives opportunities for Africans to devise new innovative and technical solutions for their local community. Akon Lighting Africa gives hope to Africa, that change is coming and Akon using his platform positively allows the world to see the good work he is doing.
Last month, The Ethical Unicorn blogger, Fran interviewed me.
We discussed the importance of local government, why and how to get more involved.
“Today I’m so excited to share an interview with one of the most inspiring people I know, Seyi Akiwowo. I met Seyi several years ago, and have seen as she has worked for several years in social policy and sustainable development in the UK and abroad in places like Kuwait, Istanbul, UAE, Prague, Brussels, India and Bosnia. In 2014 Seyi became the youngest black female member of Newham Council in London, and she also writes and speaks on issues around diversity in politics, discrimination (particularly against women of colour from working class backgrounds), social and economic inclusion and methods to improve civic and political participation among women. Basically, she’s a badass.
2016 brought its fair share of political upheaval, with many left feeling somewhat helpless and frustrated in 2017. I spoke to Seyi to learn more about politics on a local level, and why it’s more important than ever to get involved.
What is your role in local government, and what does that entail?
When I was 22 I was elected as a Newham Councillor to represent and advocate for 30,000 diverse residents and local stakeholders on the council and when making local government decisions. Over the last two years and nine months I have had various roles, this includes being Deputy Chair of the Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Commission where I co-wrote the Newham Domestic Violence Report and wrote the Newham and Brexit Scrutiny Report.
I hold regular advice surgeries for my residents who have council related concerns or ideas this can range from issues with parking, planning permission, anti-social behaviour to fly-tipping, housing needs, libraries, youth provision, the administration of government welfare benefits, adult social care, children in care, adoption services and mental health support services.
Being a local Councillor is becoming increasingly important not only because more central government powers and oversight are being devolved to local government but because of the increasing need for local leadership and a local facilitatory role.
As a local Councillor I have a good overview of all local stakeholders in my ward such as the local police officers, school headteachers and small business owners, local activities such as Crossfit, career advice and temporary shelter and key community groups. This allows me connect communities, and particularly connect residents with a need, to local support and services.
How did you first get involved in politics?
Ever since my parents moved to Maryland, East London in the early 90s I’ve always been involved in my local community in some shape or form. I’m sure the local newspaper still have cringe-worthy photos of me in costumes dancing in Chatsworth Estate Fete with the local dance team.
My first engagement with representative positions was at Maryland Primary School where I was a school monitor, and then at my local secondary school in Forest Gate where I was a School Council Representative. Once I left school I decided to become a member of the local Labour Party and have been ever since. I am now Chair of both my Branch Labour Party and the Women’s Forum, as well as Executive Officer of West Ham CLP. As the Women’s Officer I’ve increased young female engagement in party politics, raised local women issues to the Council and has raised funds for charities such as Bring Back Our Girls.
There is an embarrassing Young Mayor video manifesto floating around the World Wide Web. This because I ran and was elected to be on Newham Youth Council and UK Youth Parliament in 2009. As an ex UK Youth Parliamentarian and Youth Councillor in my teens I found a real passion for youth rights and addressing social inequalities as a young activist.
What made you want to pursue it as a career?
Outside local politics I developed a strong passion for UK and international education and subsequently took a few courses as part of my BSc Social Policy degree at LSE. I knew I wanted to, and eventually did, work abroad for a season in Brussels where I had a fantastic experience working for the European Youth Forum, a European IYGO (international youth non-governmental organisation) advocating for youth rights as a Youth Policy Monitoring and Communications Officer. In this role I lobbied Members of the European Parliament on youth issues such as youth unemployment across Europe, informal education and increasing youth participation in democracy.
However, it soon became clear to me that I missed witnessing how policy can improve and impact lives, and so I came back to London to campaign in the hope of being elected as a Newham Councillor in May 2014.
Why do you think people should get involved in local politics?
Granted local politics isn’t as sexy as national or even international politics but it is so important. The closer something is to you the more impact and influence it will have on you right? That’s exactly the same for local politics.
If we look at how far right groups increase their political power they start of with gaining as many local council seats as possible, local politics is super important.
What are some of the best ways to get involved to see positive change in our communities?
I would encourage everyone reading this to:
1) Go on to their local council website,
2) Find out which ward you live in
3) Find out which councillors represent you
4) Follow your local councillors and Member of Parliament (MP) on social media, get clued up on what they are doing.
5) Email your local councillor and MP and introduce yourself – network, get on their radar and go meet them. Councillors have drop in surgeries or you can email them and ask to meet with them for coffee. I would ask them what they have been doing on the council over the last few years and what their priorities are.
6) What’s one local policy topic you are interested in or would like to know more about? If you’re a young person and you’re concerned about the closure of libraries and youth clubs ask your councillors what their opinion on this is and what they are going to do about it. If you’re concerned about the environment, ask your councillors what your council is doing to reduce fly-tipping and littering. If you’re concerned about health services such as mental health, ask your councillors how they are going to ensure the Conservative Government funding cuts will not impact on local mental health services.
Also ask your councillors about community forum meetings that you can attend so you can stay plugged into what’s happening locally, meet your neighbours and stay in the loop with what your representatives are doing.
7) Send this challenge to one friend to do.
8) Submit a question on a topic important to you to your council leader/ Mayor to be answered at a full council meeting.
9) Register to vote. As soon as you turn 18, register to vote. Encourage family members over the age of 18 to register to vote. If you don’t register to vote you’re not on local political parties’ radar so many political activists/ councillors/ MPs won’t bother to knock on your door to ask our things are going in your area.
10) Explore the top 3 political parties website, what their policy priorities, do you agree? Why? Be brave to share on your thoughts online.
Do you have any advice for others who may want to pursue a career in local government like yourself?
1) Confidently network, particularly outside your comfort zone. Meet new people and seek advice from experienced councillors. Then ensure you pay it forward. Provide that same support to those who are coming up behind you.
2) Find your interest, this may change as you get older and gain more experience, that is totally fine. There are a lot of interesting policy areas in local government, it is impossible to cover them all, pick no more then five and become an expert. Stay clued up with new developments opinion and key players. Try to pick a topic a bit out of your comfort zone, for me it was pensions and financial investment- boy did I learn a lot!
3) Politics is hard and requires resilience. Staying in politics requires even more resilience! Write down the main reason(s) why you want to get involved in local politics. Make a copy and give one to a close friend or family member and keep one on your fridge/ notice board/ bible or diary. When you need encouraging turn to that bit of paper/friend or family member and remind yourself why you are in politics for the long run.
And there you have it. I particularly love this:
‘The closer something is to you the more impact and influence it will have on you right? That’s exactly the same for local politics.’
Because it’s so true. If we look at any government as a whole it can seem overwhelming, and we feel powerless. But if you break it down, focusing on your local area and what matters to you, together we can see change happen.”
Meryl Streep is Using her Platform Positively!
Hollywood Actress Meryl Streep was honoured for her lifetime of notable work last night at the 74th Golden Globe Awards. Accepting awards is always an opportunity for people with platform to show leadership, call for action or just say it like it is. Meryl Streep did just that and I am so so pleased! She called out the disgusting behaviour of the President-elect during the 2016 US Presidential campaign and after the horrifying election results. My favourite line in Ms Streep’s speech is:
…we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.
This was in reference to a statement about how wonderful it is to be actress. Meryl Streep knows that with being a Hollywood actress there comes a platform and it should be used to amplify the voices of those that get ignored. If more of us use our platform positively in 2017 we can avoid a continuation of all the awful events of 2016.
Here is Ms. Streep’s entire speech:
Please sit down. Thank you. I love you all. You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend. And I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year, so I have to read.
Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said: You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.
But who are we, and what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island; Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids in Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in London — no, in Ireland I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a girl in small-town Virginia.
Ryan Gosling, like all of the nicest people, is Canadian, and Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, and is here playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
They gave me three seconds to say this, so: An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that. Breathtaking, compassionate work.
But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose. O.K., go on with it.
O.K., this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re gonna need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
One more thing: Once, when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something — you know we were gonna work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight.
As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art
Meryl Streep is UPP!
Not sure if it is egotistical of me to write a #LocalLeadership blog post about my own leadership skills but I think if I were to ask influential boss women like Nan Solane, Rachel Tripp or Lyn Brown I think they would say “WRITE IT SEYI! “.. ..so I am :). Rachel would actually say something like… “Don’t just write about things after they happen, it’s okay to write a in progress post too”- a good tip for bloggers!
I’m a locally elected Councillor in the best ward in Newham (yes I am biased) with my colleagues Cllr Rachel Tripp and Cllr Anam Islam (we are literally the perfect diversity poster picture, mum of three, Bangladeshi East End lad, Black young woman). Over the last two years and 8 months, I’ve tried various ways to do politics a bit differently, this has included Skype and pop-up advice surgeries, blogging and digital engagement in decision-making. You can read about the various things me and my colleagues have tried here. I’ll be sharing a new post called “Things New Councillors should do!” soon.
As a councillor we have the right to ask two questions to either the Mayor or council at our full council meeting. Following my visit to Emmanuel Church on Romford Road on Christmas Day I was stunned at the number of homeless and vulnerable members of Forest Gate and also with the new government grant awarded to Newham I will be asking a question around homelessness, our plans and how we will partner with third sector in delivering services and support.
But I had been struggling to think of a good second question. I didn’t want to ask a random question but then didn’t want to waste the opportunity. Then this idea came to me, like for many, in the shower (did you know this has been scientifically backed up!) and with the seed of inspiration planted by Jezza’s use of public questions during Prime Minster Question Time I thought why not ask Forest Gate North ward residents what they would like me to ask? What ever people may think of Jeremy Corbyn I think this was a brilliant initiative. It’s time for us to do politics differently and I believe this starts with local leadership in local government.
In Newham and I’m sure this is similar in many other local councils, the voter turnout in the last election was only 40% that means the majority of Newham residents didn’t engage with the local elections. Voter turnout will probably be even worse come 2018 elections because of Cameron‘s silly voter registration policy. But! I believe this should push us to do even more to engage more local people in local democracy and local government by doing the simple things like…
- Asking the public to submit questions they would like you to ask/find out.
- Holding public discussion forums on specific topics. We had one on our response to the refugee crisis, what we want from our next London Mayor, one for youth and young adults, Waste and Environment, Public Realm and Rachel is hoping to do on one planning in the near future.
- Forming local community groups. Two years ago I helped set up Friends of Maryland which are now a flourishing independent group of residents and local businesses with an annual Christmas tree ;).
- Asking residents*1 questions, they have ideas and answers and in with this new idea I’ve learnt they also have really interesting questions that need raising.
- Digital engagement via social media. But be careful to not be over reliant on this. Not everyone is on the internet.
- Doorknocking residents, introducing yourself and asking them how things are going in their local neighbourhood.
- Transparency, tell residents what you’re up to. The more you tell them the most they are forced to listen 😉
*1 Make sure the residents you are engaging represent the diverse nature of your area- age, race, culture and gender etc!
I remember reading an article about Mayor Mick Cornett leadership years ago and was so inspired by how local leaders could affect real change in their local communities. So it only felt right for the first #LocalLeadership blog post to be about Mayor Mick’s amazing achievement.
On New Year’s Eve in 9 years ago the Mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett declared that his city had to go on a diet, and lose a collective million pounds in weight. London Borough of Newham attempted to do something similar this year called the Million Miles Together Challenge and with a few more tweaks it could have the same impact. Anyway back to Mayor Mick, he had been diagnosed as obese and realised his constituents were also, Oklahoma City was named one of America’s fattest cities (not a Top 10 list you wanna be on really?).
In just 5 years he achieved his goal. Here a few cool key things Mayor Mick did…
Held a conversation! Sounds so simple but having a genuine two way dialogue with residents is so effective but always dismissed. I guess the logistics around holding conversations are easier said than done but doing the right thing isn’t always easy (Gosh! I’m pulling out all the phrases here!) Mayor Mick also encouraged conversations to take place within the community, faith groups, schools and homes.
Worked with the media. Let’s face it the power of the media can work with you or against you. Mayor Mick was brilliant at getting the local media not only on side but supportive of the initiative. And I guess getting on the Ellen Show will push your message out there a tiny bit ;).
Regeneration, Mayor Mick redesigned areas of Oklahoma City. So rather than favouring cars they encouraged walkability using a ‘walkscore’ a mapping term created by City Planner Jeff Speck (my Forest Gate North residents would LOVE this!). He created a wellness centres, encouraged cycle lanes, side walks (pavements), connecting libraries and schools via nicer pavements. (Another new an interesting mapping term is “obesogenic”. This is a name for places that have the most difficult walkable areas and the highest amount of obese people. I wonder where London and boroughs in London would rank in this list.
However, regeneration like this can and did encourage rapid gentrification. I personally don’t think gentrification is a innately bad thing. However, gentrification needs to be seriously managed with proper leadership, basically I think this requires local (and regional) government intervention i.e. building affordable (and I mean affordable) homes, up-skilling communities, free high-quality ESOL classes and real community cohesion initiatives. Gentrification can’t be about pushing natives or the “roadmen” out. What it should be about is encouraging social mixing which is also good for improving educational attainments in schools and those with more cultural capital helping to lobby for a better local environment for everyone not just their newly coined “village”.
You can watch more about Mayor Mick Cornett’s initiative below.
Let’s Change the Change