Where were you born? How was your childhood and upbringing and how did it shape you into the person you are today?
I was born in Rusholme, Manchester. My parents are of Nigerian heritage. The way we were brought up is that we were told by our mother that outside of the house was Manchester, England, however, inside the house was Nigeria. We were brought up to know our language (Igbo); know our customs and traditions; our foods and our dress even the meaning of certain types of attire. My parents took me to Nigeria for the first time at the age of 9/10. Our upbringing really educated us about our identity, we were Biafrans and became Nigerians after the civil war. We were Africans!
What’s your opinion on the worldwide movement of Black Lives Matter(BLM) and the killing of George Floyd being a catalyst for change?
It really feels like enough is enough this time. People are talking about racism as if it is a new phenomenon. Really racism has always existed, and still does. The BLM movement and seeing graphic videos caught on mobile phones has enabled individuals and groups to talk about their experiences. [People of colour] now have the opportunity to talk freely about racism. This is a subject that we Brits have never spoken about in public. We have a new age of people who want to understand racism and why it is wrong to treat a person differently because of their colour. Therefore, we can now talk about it. We should take the opportunity now to discuss, explain, talk about our experiences so that others can learn why it was wrong.
Tell me about your fight against gun crime in Manchester.
I am the co-founder of CARISMA Services Ltd previously known as the charity CARISMA (Community Alliance for Renewal Inner South Manchester Area), set up in 2003 as a community response to the gun and gang crime which was prevalent in Moss Side and the surrounding neighbourhoods. Our group acted and placed itself as the bridge between local grassroots groups and individuals and the key stakeholders of our communities.
We initiated real truthful conversations about and around gun and gang crime. We were also a pressure group on local and central government and managed to bring gun crime to the top of the government’s agenda, after six years. I led my team to be the voice for the voiceless when it came to gun and gang crime, speaking up for the young African and Caribbean men and their families who were so easily stereotyped as gang members. [We worked with] gang members’ mothers and families.
We took on Greater Manchester Police, local government, central government and even the media. We pressured them to change their views about Moss Side and Manchester and continually asked the question: “why were they prepared and willing to demonise a whole community of people to gun crime when we were not the ones smuggling deadly weapons into the country?”
How does it feel to be the first black woman, and first woman full stop, to have a sculpture in the town hall?
This feels absolutely FANTASTIC! My statue is a legacy that will always be around. My statue creates a new paradigm in the history of Manchester. Firstly, the first statue of a woman to go on display in Manchester Town Hall in 150 years; second, a statue of an African woman; and third, I am still alive.
You are a community peace activist and have been recognised as one of the 50 most influential women in Greater Manchester. Tell me how you got this well deserved title.
I used to refute the title of “community activist” however over the years I have realised that that is exactly what I am. A lot of my work is based around changing negatives into positive, dealing with conflict and how to resolve it. My work has always been about “peace and conflict resolution”, how to resolve conflict peacefully. Over the years I had led my team using creative methodologies to solve the conflict on our streets. Resolving conflict in a way which actually involved people doing something practically and not just talking about it.
All the work I have been doing over the past 20 years was in a very big and visual form. I am involved all sectors of society in how to build social capital. Bonding with local grassroots groups and individuals; bridging different communities together so as to bring about understanding and linking with institutions of a hierarchical nature for the use of their resources. This is why I was seen as inspirational and influential – I am able to move in different spheres of society.
What are your dreams and hopes for the future of society and Manchester in particular?
To become a society which is safe and secure for all. For all members of the society to be able to respect and honour the identity of each individual. To be a society which is not afraid of having difficult conversations, as this brings understanding, peace and love. Positive Energy Always Creates Elevation – P.E.A.C.E.
What do you think needs to happen for us to shift the balance in society and make it a more equal accepting place for all different races and religions and backgrounds?
We need to see more people of different races and religions and backgrounds in “senior” positions of civic society, in organisations both public and corporate as well as in the decision-making roles of our society. Only when you see someone who looks like you in a senior position will you know that the society is inclusive of people like you.
Finally, in 100 years from now, how would you like to be remembered in the history books?
Wow! I would like to be remembered as the Nigerian born in Britain who was the first to have a statue (made from 50 recycled guns) of herself on display in Manchester Town Hall as a tribute to her work of reducing gun and gang crime by 92% in Manchester.
Lamin Touray interviewing Dr Erinma Bell
This story is one of two unpublished chapters that were originally written for Stand Up to Racism’s Black History Matters: Made in Manchester book project. You can find out more about the book and buy a copy here.
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