Life after prison – new ventures for employment and business

The last weeks has been great for me doing something new and learning about new issues – by this I meant learning about the Criminal Justice system and meeting several organisations, legal professionals, charities, leaders, academics, and persons who are committed to helping returning citizens (preferred term now rather than ex-offenders) by supporting them to resume their lives with education, business opportunities, employment skills and support. We were invited to take part in the project known as Project ReMake, which was the starting point for getting involved in this area of work.  I will discuss some of the people, organisations, leaders and programmes I have met and how I understand a little bit more on the great work, policies and the tasks still in hand to help with a very complex and emotive criminal justice system. My disclaimer is that I don’t have much exposure to prisons neither the legal system, so I am unable to speak in detail about those areas.  However, who knows, perhaps one day I may visit a prison as part of my work in libraries and as an information professional, as have my ex-colleagues for presentations in the past, and many other prison librarians. 

When I first start in my current role at the British Library, I received a handwritten letter from a prisoner who was researching kenkey (cornmeal) in preparation for starting her business when she was released from prison.  At that time, I hadn’t received any enquiry from prison before, and although I was able to find information and post it back to the person – I never met the person nor was I able to follow up and find out how the person got on with her business venture when she was released.  I still secretly wish she is doing well and even if the business didn’t happen – I admired her well-written letter asking for information on the topic. 

 “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” – Nelson Mandela

Fast forward to earlier this year, it was a nice surprise to be asked to help students in the Project ReMake project by letting them know the wealth of free resources, access to expertise and support available for business ideas and creativity from the British Library.  I was very motivated from the start after meeting project leader Judge and fellow well-connected Trinidadian Judge Kameel Khan.  Kameel was able to introduce us to the graduates from the previous cohort, as well as the large number of support organisations (from universities to charities) who would assist in the project for this programme.  The introductory session was really heart-warming and inspiring on how important the learning opportunities and support are for someone trying to restart their life after their time away from society.  This initial event happened in late February, but since then I have learnt a lot more on the organisation, people and issues for assisting as well transforming or restarting lives and communities.

The one class I attended was also very useful for me as the trainer covered Competitor Intelligence, but due to time constraints I wasn’t able to attend other classes.  However, I have since hosted about four groups of persons who have visited me at the library since the project initiation and they are amazed with our access to resources and support available for starting their businesses.  One person dubious why I wanted to help and offered to help and support him without looking or asking for something in return – I had to point out that most librarians actually are kind and do support people and businesses all the time!

There are quite a few prison libraries, and CILIP has a Prison Libraries Group. These libraries are there to provide access to education, literacy, skills and leisure, and…perhaps escape in the books that they read.  The Prison Library Group are doing great work by their Twitter feed and seems to be popular with their programme of engagement with books, reading and education. Their mission is interesting for the provision of library services to prison communities as from their newsletter in 2021, I found the link to The Hardman Directory which offers a free online access as well as ‘contains information on grant schemes and start up loans, education, employers, housing, benefit changes, debt help and mentoring; all relevant to prisoners and/or ex-prisoners and/or to people serving their sentence in the community’.  Their work is very important within the prison system and for preparing return citizens.  I do recall going to an Italian food exhibition in the early 1993s where there was buffalo mozzarella made by female prisoners in the UK.  And recently, colleagues have mentioned that there is a fashion line pop-up in Westfield by ex-offenders called Blank Canvas

Some of the criminal justice organisations I met are doing great work for restoring lives on employability and training skills for people who want gain employment or start their own business.  Some of these organisations that I encountered recently are:

  • Working Change – this is a charity who is the UK’s only employment charity solely for women with convictions.  It was great to hear the support as well as the opportunities for training and learning new skills for women.  There should be more organisation who offer employment.  One example was Capita when I attended the Project Remake event. https://workingchance.org
  • The Corbett Network – has been going for over 40 years and Lady Val Corbett was very pleased to hear about the access to business resources and support we have our library. What was more impressive – is Lady Val’s networking lunch with amazing partners organisations and leaders who are stakeholders in the criminal justice system. It was one of the most memorable networking events I went to as we were discussing persons who were still in prison and how we can support them in and outside.  Some of these programmes included Sainsbury’s employment opportunities, Meganexus Digital Academy for prisoners, and Children’s charity for highlighting the issue with children left on their own to fend for themselves whilst their parent is in prison. https://www.thecorbettnetwork.com
  • Bounceback – I was able to also meet this charity who are helping people with employment skills and turning their lives around.  There is also great at driving lots of people back into work with partner organisations with high success with preventing re-offending.  https://www.bouncebackproject.com
  • Clink Charity – The Clink Charity works to train serving prisoners in catering skills within a real-life work environment whilst helping them gain academic qualifications. They offer great menu opens by students who are working to gain skills and qualifications in the food and drinks industry. https://theclinkcharity.org

One of the main highlights from the last few weeks is the Lady Val Networking Event at the appropriately ex-court dining room at Browns in Covent Garden.  Lady Val was amusing and deeply passionate about Prisoner Re-integration with her Corbett Network… “coalition of charities, social enterprises, and non-profit organisations and businesses with a social mission. These decision-makers are dedicated to reducing re-offending by helping people with convictions find and keep a job”. 

Prison – You may be confined by it, do not be defined by it.

– The Corbett Network

The Chairman of Timpson, James Timpson, was the guest speaker at the lunch and he was one of the best speakers I ever heard! He obviously was influenced by his parents who fostered children whose parents were in prison.  One of his first visits to prisons was when his mother took him and his siblings with her so the foster child could meet their parents in prison.  James spoke of his leadership ethos of kindness and techniques for getting everyone on board and in work with trust, family friendly policies, as well as a real commitment and strategic focus to help ex-offenders to gain training skills and meaningful employment.  He likes people who relish the trust bestowed on them, staff recognition and had some personality to work and service customers.  He was very funny and engaging in his stories, such as have a Rolls-Royce for an employee of the month at Timpson, staff fund for hardship and support on whatever they like (engagement ring, divorce etc), having a day off on your birthday and measuring the happiness index of employees to judge moral and motivation levels.  James also mentioned other great companies, such as Greggs supporting ex-offenders.  We discussed how entrepreneurial most offenders are due to issues prior to offending, or whilst in prison using very little to get what they need (within reason obviously in prison). I was also pleased to hear James mention his roles in prison reform boards, government policy and improvement for criminal justice advocacy. I found out that The Netherlands is also offering great rehabilitation for prisoners to the point that they are closing a third of their prisons.   We certainly have a Champion and angel in him.  Last but not least – it was heart-warming and blessed to heard James end his talk on the importance of kindness, as well as love.  One man talking to room full of women about this was truly impressive and resonates with my own motto.

On my closing note about the project, I only recently was referred to Lucy Vincent from the charity Food Behind Bars who teaches prisoners to cook their own foods and give them skills that they can use when they come out of prison.  Coincidently, the British Library was hosting a Food in Prison event which was interesting to hear the motivations of their business – such as there was no one focussing on the plight of prison food or even talking about it.  Lucy also feels like she is giving a voice to people in prison.  The other panellists had great thoughts on the state of the funding and support for prisoners – there seems to be no interest in making the food interesting or nutritional as the prisons are ‘not on a holiday’. Lucy is hoping to counter this with using the great bakeries, facilities and equipment available in Brixton for making food, as prisons used to in the past.  However, they discussed health, wellbeing and hope for prisoners in happy prisons – whereby we should make better people and societies and in the long run.  This makes sense for cost and benefits analysis with less financial strain on the prison system.

We can examine the capitalist side of prisons and hope for better in future! On a few of the events – the corruption and privatisation for profit of the prison system was mentioned.  Just as I recently read about prison system in Akala’s book ‘Race Class and the Ruins of Empire’.  However, these discussions, thought leaders, activism and businesses – including Judge Kameel Khan – are inspirational and really are doing great work in giving us solutions to a very complex criminal justice system. 

I look forward to hearing some successful business stories from these graduates from Project ReMake, and great examples of good citizenship for those who are motivated to make the best of their new start and ventures this time around.

Difficult changes, after difficult changes but life goes on

This time last year I was hoping for a better year but on reflection, it was more difficult than 2021 for me. There have been changes in every aspect of my personal and professional life and therefore it has been unrelenting.  These changes may have been positive or negative, but due to pandemic, I still feel in a state of flux. I am hoping that life will resume to some normality but I also know this possibly would not happen for a while even though we are going into a new year.  I am just hoping there is some predictability and calm for 2022 – and in say so I hope I haven’t jinxed it!

As I reflect on the last year, I started off by getting Covid-19 in the peak time of the second wave of the Delta variant. I was already working from home and we were in lockdown, but it meant I had to self-isolate from my family.  I spent the time looking at Netflix as I couldn’t focus on work or read a book.  Luckily, I had my meals prepared for me and I didn’t have long covid as some of my acquaintances have a result of catching the virus.  I also found out throughout the year other persons who I know who caught the virus, as well as died from it. So the real impact of the pandemic started to reach me personally. 

The most positive aspect of year was the vaccine roll out which meant that there was some normality in the summer months.  However, only this week I saw a bunch of teenagers drunk on the underground transport not wearing masks and not socially distancing. I still try to maintain my mask wearing whilst on the tube and going into shops.  It is worrying that there is no end in sight in the near future and I am hearing more people say that it is something that “we have to live with”.  I do want to express my gratitude to those who are still working in the healthcare systems as we go into our second year in the pandemic – you all must be exhausted!  Thank you.

It is only in the last six weeks or so we have learnt about the Omicron variant and according to news reports, it is milder but we still don’t know the full impact.  In addition, it is causing positive Covid-19 cases for staff in hospitals and businesses, which will also have an indirect impact on staff, services and businesses.  I had a bad cold about a month ago but it was not the Omicron variant (as far as I know) but I won’t be surprise if I do get it from my social circle, the supermarket, going to local shops or using the underground in the. Next few weeks. Let’s hope not. Keeping mindful, wellness and staying positive are still necessary more than ever.

I believe professionally it has been just as challenging as we adjusted to the hybrid model of working part time in the office and at home.  I had another busy year of delivering information services and this working pattern does seem to work for now.  Of course I have more time with family and less travelling, but after such a long time I had gain some weight.  I am have started losing those excess pounds but I am also right in the holiday season now -so will have to resume my fitness and health eating drive in the new year.  I am just grateful that I have a continuous employment and work is good with two major projects completed this year on top of my normal activities. I have adjusted to these new ways of working and for delivering library and information services. 

It was also a very busy time with volunteering for SLA and SLA Europe.  From SLA Europe arranging a family quiz at home during lockdown, to assisting with our first Virtual Conference in June to a regular programme of webinars and two walks around London.  I was also very busy with SLA headquarters on their task force, Prep Council and when I was nominated for President Elect 2022-2024.  The process was competitive in the summer months, and therefore I had to prepare and research various new activities for the role I was stepping into.  I probably would not have anticipated this move before the pandemic and the use of video conference has really been one of the best transformations in the pandemic.  I know I am not perfect and I’m lucky to have a good set up at home (and in the office) but I have come to the point that I am just being my own genuine self and I believe it is the best I can do in these extraordinary circumstances. Taking on these voluntary roles – I am having to manage time and myself, my day job and my life around new meetings, context and content. I am extremely proud to represent my organisation, my European colleagues and our profession as I take this commitment for another three years starting from January 2022.  Wish me luck!

I also was able to make a mini break in summer but there have been family commitments and building work which meant that I couldn’t just switch off for long period of time.  I was able to get some longer rest time as the autumn months brought about calm and I practically have to use up my work’s annual leave.  I hope to see more of the UK next year too as I’m really not ready to travel abroad unless it is to see family or to go to SLA’s Conference in July 2022.  I am grateful for having access to green spaces and a garden which keep me busy in the summer months.  I always take pleasure in parks and beautiful gardens in my neighbourhood – hopefully I will be able to visit more gardens next year.  I have also been getting lots of lovely plants as presents, and this too is a source of joy for inside my home. 

I have left the hardest sentiments to last.  I miss my colleagues. I miss some social activities. Most of all…I miss my mother. My mother had a severe stroke in March and passed away in June.  I have been thinking of her and I especially miss her at Christmas for our chats and exchanging what we were doing.  Although I haven’t lived at home for 32 years – I still knew she was always a telephone call away and she had such a great positive influence on my life. I do feel a bit lost and sad without her here.  I have obviously been thinking of the meaning of life, love and loss in this sad time – it is only natural to go through this process. I do believe her life, my parents, sibling and relations have lived at an amazing historic time, and I cherish the stories and memories I have to them. I am proud of them. I am also fully aware of my own mortality and hope to make the most of what time I have on Earth.  I only wish for the wellbeing and safety for my love ones, especially in such a strange and turbulent time. 

As we go into another uncertain year, I am hopeful that we will carry on eventually and make the most of a ‘bad situation’ in this pandemic.  It will not be easy but hopefully our resilience and energies will be recharged after this seasonal break, and therefore we will be able to face the future again soon.  I intentionally chose the title of my blog post to ‘life goes on’ as my personal reminder, but I also heard the phrase mentioned recently in a film, and a business client also mentioned it in a seasonal note to me this week.  With this mood and note, I wanted to wish you all the best for the new year! Life goes on.

Seven actionable tips for sustainability –

Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA.

I remember COP21 for the Paris Agreement from 2015 and its’ significance and the commitments required for reducing climate change with – “every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver on these aims”. My feature photo above is of artwork that was in St Pancras station as I walked home that evening that the agreement was signed. In the last few years, the Paris Agreement is still on our consciousness as politicians wrangle with the challenges and opportunities, but even more evidently is the changes to the climate that has been proven with scientific evidence.  As CO2 rises, the Earth’s atmosphere is rising. NASA listed some of the negative impact here are: Global Temperature Rise, Warming Ocean, Shrinking ICE Sheets, Glacial Retreat, Decreased Snow Cover, Sea Level Rise, Declining Arctic Sea Ice, Extreme Events and Ocean Acidification – so for you and me…this may manifest itself as floods, fires, extreme weather with further changes to our environment on land, sea and air. There is a genuine need to act urgently to reach these targets by 2030, or hopefully by 2050.

Individually, I am not here to lecture but to learn, share my thoughts and small actions with you. Obviously, Sustainability is a very important and broad topic for my blog post but I hope to tackle it by give you seven top tips that resonate with me. Sustainability has several meanings and strands by this explanation on Wikipedia – I am not an expert on this topic, nor do I have all the answers but I know it is the right thing to do now for all our futures.

Seven actionable tips to sustainability:

  1. Set yourself some sustainable goals – The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) are a great way to look at sustainability and they are clearly identifiable on some of the ways you can incorporate and implement them in your work and personal life.  I was really pleased to attend a couple of conference talks about the role that libraries and information centres can help us achieve these goals, and it makes me proud that that the professional is right at the heart of research, best practice, scientific engagement and evidence.  These SDGs are now also being incorporated into strategies and employment roles – with organisations benchmarking and tracking their progress against these targets. The best way to start is to come up with a plan based on your values and the strategic outcomes that you want to achieve. However, there are still so much work to do and I hope little by little, we can accelerate and meet these goals together.

2. Stop! Reduce and make changes to your habits now – One of the challenges we are facing is the depletion or damage to the earth’s natural resources.  These are caused by some of our own personal behaviours for example, how much the use of fossil fuels instead of renewable energy, materials that we are consuming unnecessarily or changes to our eating patterns.  One great idea is the ‘unused paint’ shops in my neighbourhood, which are re-sold instead of going to landfills or other chemical dumping sites. There are some individual behaviours and habits listed here on Treehugger which has an impact on the climate – these include driving (types of cars and frequency), food (choices), consumerism and waste.  It is obvious that there is a trend for plant-based and vegan diets as more people become more aware of the issues with meat production and transportation and CO2 by animal agriculture. We can make conscious choices, such as having part of the week with vegan or vegetarian meals, using public transport, walking or cycling more, as well as looking critically at our consumption and consumerism and we must stop wasting. The pandemic and current shortages in the supermarket are really also making us adjust our behaviours when before it was not so urgent or pertinent. It is all a little bit of maths and awareness, but making better decisions will add up to a lot in the long run if we all start doing this. Waste not, want not, as the old adage goes.

3. Reuse, recycle, replenish – One of the best words I learnt about 11 years ago was upcycling aka reuse. This verb is great for taking what is already here and then applying techniques to make it in fashion or contemporary again.  Some of the items I have seen used are clothes, handbags, furniture, soft furnishings like curtains into cushions. I recently met a business client who was upcycling lampshades with African inspired prints. Recycling has been here for a couple of decades such as paper and newspapers, bottle banks and rubbish. The biggest change has been the move to recycle plastics and cut back on single use plastics.  The scariest is the impact microplastics are having for our oceans and food chain. Recent analysis in The Plastic Waste Makers Index by Minderoo Foundation states at Australia, The USA and South Korea are still waste the most per person as show in the chart by Statista. We should also take action to put back or give back what we take.  We need the Earth to sustain us – and in return, we also need to help the with replenishing what we take from it.  Trees are great for offsetting carbon emissions and the more we plant and replenish, the better for the atmosphere, environment and our own livelihoods. It is easy to remember these three ‘R’s – and we can use it to easily master sustainability in action.

4. Innovate and inspire with new ideas – In the last decades we have made baby steps with improving sustainability, such as with technology by less paper printing in the office, digital transactions replacing paper, and even using more reusable drinking bottles! There are great inventors and innovators who are coming up with ideas which enable us to adapt and change to more sustainable models and products.  We need this creative energy to help us get to Net Zero and some of the entrepreneurs I have met in recent years have been great at coming up with ideas for the sharing economy and circular economy.  Transport is one of the main causes of CO2 but there are also innovations and shifts happening, but probably not as fast as they could be. Car sharing and pooling has been introduced in neighbourhoods and is practical as well as economical.  Electric cars and charging points have really taken off and the hybrid model is much talked about (I first started noticing electric cars growth about 10 years ago).  Buses in London are now electric, and cycling has grown exponentially in the last 15 years, with infrastructure changes to our road layouts, neighbourhoods and even office spaces. Living and working in London, I still rely heavily on public transport. Rural and towns outside of London still use their cars an awful lot due to the cost and inconvenience of public transport.  Perhaps we can lobby or come up with better ideas for rural areas too. The financial, profitable benefits and the value of sustainable concepts, products and services are being realised.  There is still so much we can work towards that will be real benefits for small as well as large companies. Let’s keep our thinking hats on for these new sustainable ways of living and working.

5. Spread initiatives from local to global – The problem with an unsustainable climate and world at large, is that climate change has no borders and it is a global problem.  We are all feeling and seeing the impact of floods, hurricanes, fires etc locally or globally. The local community can help collectively in providing green initiatives, sharing resources and support for wider issues with waste and scarcity, such as with food banks, repurposing, swapping and support for low footprint businesses.  Corporate Social Responsibility is great for big business to give back to local communities and if this is not already in your values – you better get started! The bigger picture is also great for business who are thinking of communities that are distant but also part of our supply chain – I met a business client who is collaborating with a rural textile and organic dye producer in India for her clothing designs in London. Being able to support communities in this ethical way is great for knowing our manufacturing processes and supply chains, as well as not having a negative impact with 21st century globalisation. Being responsible for our local and global initiatives give us a better chance of working collaboratively and effectively to achieve global goals. Good leadership demonstrates and operates in this interconnected, bigger picture and ripple effect basis.

6. Community and society – A lot of the issues being discuss depends on acceptance that climate change is happening now, and that we all have a stake in the impact it is having on our Earth.  It is great that there is scientific developments that get us excited and can help us understand and evidence climate change.  However, we are never going to make changes for better and sustainable life on Earth if we do not get our communities and societies informed, enthusiastic and doing their bit for the planet.  Individual responsibility is great for doing what each one of us can change within our control, but we also need the collective support and compliance from communities and society.  Green spaces, food programmes, wildlife, local authority services such as rubbish collection and clean drains are all contributing to the ‘engine and ecosystem of our environment’.  It annoys me that trees are being cut in my borough which is changing the landscape and impacting on the environment.  Bullish behaviour and arrogance to the needs of the community are sometimes disregarded by those in authority, and we also have citizens who are dirty culprits who litter and fly-tip in large scale dumping.  This makes me sad…and angry.  I also love wildlife – birds, spiders, squirrels, cats, foxes, insects and other creatures and some do sometimes come to my home and garden despite being in an urban environment.  However, we need to remind people to respect nature, and each other to help us work together collaboratively on these important societal issues that affects our communities. 

7. Champion and commit for the future – I have read that we are unlikely to reach our Net Zero targets by 2030 and it is more likely to be 2050.  We are tackling big issues for this big planet and therefore there is not going to be a ‘quick win’.  What we really need are champions, leadership and like-minded people to make sure that we stick to these promises and pledges to ensure that our behaviours and actions are happening now, but also sustained and ingrained for the future. There are quite a few of us who do support green initiatives but if they are enforced in law perhaps in the future – we won’t have much choice, and therefore personal responsibility will be applied in these scenarios.  Making a commitment to these goals and sustainability actions makes perfect sense to me. Sense and sustainability actions will help us achieve these changes and ensure that they do not slip away or disappear. Let’s get it done!

Volunteer – your community really needs you!

Just be yourself….  This has been my guiding thoughts in recent years especially after using social media for such a long time in a transparent and open way.  It is hard not to be real or your authentic self and it is where I have been bringing my true self from my local community to my global activities with family, friends and fellow professionals everywhere.   

The last few months has been challenging for me as I get to grips with the loss of my mother but it also seems to be a time when my professional volunteering and work have ramped up with some fierce momentum.  I wanted to let you know some of the main highlights of these activities, how fulfilling volunteering…and work can be, especially if you have direct impact and responsibility for your global and local communities.

August started with my colleagues and I collaborating in the British Library’s Community Engagement programme in our local borough with their holiday club with teenagers, which is part of the footballer Marcus Rashford’s holiday club programme.  We spent two days with young teenagers giving them support, tips and techniques for business ideas.  It was refreshing hearing about the innovative and cutting-edge perspectives they have for new technologies, and other new business models. There is nothing like youth to keep you on your toes!

I particularly like some of the skilful youth workers who knew how to keep young people engaged for the holiday club, and there really is an art to making sure that you connect in a learning environment with teenagers.  It was also a good time for me to be involved with our Community Engagement team in one of their outreach programmes for our local community in the heart of a busy ‘world-class’ city.  I was able to get to know the community engagement project team better and hopefully will be in a position to contribute with them in the future.  We are looking forward to hosting a sustainable theme event in future and ideas are already circulating. So watch this space!

I know that my past employers are doing community engagement, and was aware of the benefits of community from my childhood. In the Community Affairs team at PWC, I was inspired by one of the founders of the department over twenty years ago, where they implemented literacy programmes and various funding streams that were awarded to staff to help with their local communities.  It is good corporate social responsibility, and we need this in such challenging times regardless if we are a first world…or developing country. It makes great business sense to use these outreach and localised initiatives to help with digital literacy, reading and good citizenship. Therefore we can see allies and benefactors in these corporate social responsibility initiatives for our communities and citizens in general.

On a global level, I am beginning to see new ways that world challenges are being incorporated into lines of work and company missions with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out in 2015 by the UN for a sustainable future in 2030. These guiding principles and focus are now visible in job descriptions, research, books and information being produced in industry, science, academia, etc.  I recently attended online the SLA Europe and SLA Conference where there were great content and visual presentations for example by Elsevier on their resources. They were actively tracking the number of research outputs coming out from countries, their impact and rankings.  Personally, I think the SDGs are great for reminding us of what we should be working on collectively now, and how much more that still needs to be done whilst we sit comfortably on our mainly first world problems. The pandemic has created lots of new challenges whereby we have to be in a position to incorporate, and actively work on these issues and opportunities as a matter of course and urgency. IFLA have also produced a resources page for the SDGs here.

There has been a lot of ways that we can incorporate social good in our volunteering. There are activities in my profession that require us to reach out to others who may need that support, helping hand and lifting up.  Mentoring, informal chats or social get-togethers are great for helping us to make those connections and support systems.  There is something special when we get insights from someone who may be able to offer us guidance, and a support network whether we are looking for a new job, ad-hoc support or industry insights.  I certainly needed a bit of a sounding wall recently for my professional life, and did the same to someone who contacted me after recently moving to Ireland, and another who wanted to chat from New York.  These were held in my own time and it makes it all worthwhile when conversations are fruitful, encouraging and positive.  The pandemic has enabled more meeting by video-conferencing calls, and it is certainly one of the best times to think wider and broader with technology to collaborate with those we can engage with now, and in the future. It was only about seven years ago that I spent £18.00 on a telephone call to Germany when I was introducing a volunteer to her role in supporting me.

As we reposition ourselves in the new normal during this pandemic, it is good to remind us that there is still a lot of work to be done for social justice and equity in the profession…and also in wider society.  It is shamefully shocking how imbalances and unfair some of the societal systems are in place in a predominantly white privileged and supremacist systemic structure. In large countries such as the USA and UK, there are great levels of ignorance which is brought on by inequalities that I can identify with terms such as disinvestment, information poverty, and micro-inequalities.  It is actually very sad and disheartening to see the evidence and context of these terms in the wider context.  Yet we haven’t done enough.  Why is this? Are we given enough funds? Power to execute plans? Support and time?

One thing the pandemic has taught us is the importance of caring for those near and far to us.

Regardless of the big issues we can’t control around us, I still try to do a little as I can when I can.  I recently, have been hearing from local gardeners in my neighbourhood who are busy helping with our local green spaces.  I have less to do as we have actually sorted out green spaces in our neighbourhood over the years but if left unattended…it can become like weeds (which is also good for better ecosystem really).  It has been great to bump into the local professional gardener recently as he said that he can advise me on buying a tree for the street, what soil I may need, and which supplier to use! When it is easy to search online it is so great to get this free advice from a fellow volunteer in the local community.

To sum up my last few weeks, I wanted to remember the people who have inspired me in their generosity in giving their time, effort and perhaps financial support to those causes small and big that will have an impact other people’s life, near or far.  Programmes in our local community and global organisations can all do better and more to engage us with the issues at hand from fighting social mobility, poverty, access to literacy, education, work, care and love. I recently met an ethical fashion business founder who was helping rural communities in India but who also want to ensure that their stories are heard and organic products are showcased.  By building in her story with her strategic partners overseas, she has created a better value proposition for her customers, and it is great for getting their joint story on the road to success within these global sustainable development goals.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done.

Do tell me that this makes good business sense.

A tribute and celebration of the life of my mother on her passing

OM bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥtat savitur vareṇyaṃbhargo devasya dhīmahidhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt

We meditate on that most adored Supreme Lord, the creator, whose effulgence (divine light) illumines all realms (physical, mental and spiritual). May this divine light illumine our intellect.

Word meaning: Om: The primeval sound; Bhur: the physical body/physical realm; Bhuvah: the life force/the mental realm Suvah: the soul/spiritual realm; Tat:  That (God); Savitur: the Sun, Creator (source of all life); Vareñyam: adore; Bhargo: effulgence (divine light); Devasya: supreme Lord; Dhīmahi: meditate; Dhiyo: the intellect; Yo: May this light; Nah: our; Prachodayāt: illumine/inspire. Source: https://www.sathyasai.org/devotional/gayatri

I would like to honour and celebrate the life of my mother, Kamala Rampersad, by paying tribute to her life with these few words.  My mother was born in 1940’s Trinidad in a large close-knit Indian family.  I can only imagine how it was from stories, photos and tales told of that period. I do know that this was a family who kept their Indian and Hindu traditions despite being in the heart of Port-of-Spain, but also integrated with Westernisation. 
 
It was a time of great changes after the World War II, and some young girls were given newer professional roles in Trinidad at the time.  My mother completed secretarial examinations in ‘Pitman Training’ for typing, shorthand in the 1950s (later bookkeeping), started driving and working as a personal assistant for her father at his custom broking, left luggage and other businesses.  It was a pioneering time when entrepreneurship and innovation were happening at a very quick pace in the twin islands.  Close friends and other families at this time in Port-of-Spain were running businesses, and newer careers that will go on to create our national identity and culture.  Her family was known and even close to other families, such as Joseph Charles (founder of Solo Beverages), Naipaul (such as in V.S. Naipaul), and some others I won’t mention for privacy. The stories told by her and our relatives are truly great and captures the essence of the class structures in families and society at that time in Port-of-Spain. My mother would have been an active player, as well as a living embodiment of this high calibre of post-war Port-of-Spain. 


 
In the early 1960s my parents got married and this is where, even on a small island, there were stark differences in town and country.  Life in the village was very much still linked to the sugar industry and the surrounding sugar plantations.  My mother had some adjusting to her new life but she also fitted in beautifully and friendly with the other lovely people who are still to this day in the village. There are amazing stories told of life then and the way things had developed over the years.  Religion, cultural traditions and social life were very much integral to the way of life.  There were the usual support systems of the extended family, neighbour and community that pulled together.  I do believe that it was a time when the term “takes a village to raise a child” really does make sense.  I personally witnessed this in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was reassuring in the last few days since her passing I am hearing how she supported other families and individuals in the high, lows, bad and good times in their lives, as well as how some of them have been there for us.  
 
In terms of her achievements, she was able to provide support to several villagers, family and friends for functions by providing some financial support, cooking, chatting, peace-making, helpfulness and good all-round cheerfulness. It is well-known that my mother can cook in bulk and was called ‘the best cook’ and baker in many ways by many people. I will miss her delicious cooking and baking and she was certainly unique in her hand at the various cuisines. She loved music and allowed us to indulge ourselves. She loved Trinidad Carnival and witness the splendour of it in Port-of-Spain from the 1940s. She still loved going to see the mas’ too until recently.


My mother was an active member of the Dow Village Hindu Mandir for decades and had an leading role in their planning, service and events committee – as well as a devotee on a regular basis.  She also volunteered for many community and social initiatives over the years.
 


 
It is the small or big acts of kindness that are the ones that we will treasure forever. I would like to mention that family life will obviously be where her kind-heartedness, gentle and loving nature would come through unconditionally, as with most parents.  As a couple, my parents were the ‘star boy and star girl’ of their generation. They were undoubtedly hard-working, committed parents and wanted the very best for us, especially with sacrificing their own wishes and time so that we can get the higher education in our younger years.  There was little educational support then for those who were average (like me) but wanted to pursue a different field than the one available at the time.  However, they still made it possible for me to ‘follow my dreams’ and to be the person I was hoping to become in London and Europe. The hardest part of all of this is that I left them in a loving family at a very young age.  This love never diminished with distance – it only made it stronger and more cherished to this day.  My parents were great to me, and through my own family I hope their memory and sacrifices will be told for years to come. My mother has been able to travel, as well as spend extended time with my brother in Canada, and most importantly, she was able to visit India twice and this was also one of her dreams growing up as an Indo-Caribbean in the 19th Century.
 
My mother had emotional intelligence and was practising mindfulness before I knew what these were labelled! She was sensitive, spiritual and careful of other people’s feelings – and this is something she took to heart in terms of the use of kind words, actions and deeds.  As she was spiritual and ‘in tune’ with her religion and spirituality, she also seemed to me to practice mindfulness in her mannerisms, thoughts and prayers.  She had a remarkable view of life in a very philosophical way, especially after losing family members, my father and sister (both between 1999-2000). I do think this gave her the ability to see the bigger picture and context of us as players in life and the need for genuine support from those around us – some have labelled her a role model, as well as the peacemaker.  These are not easy to do, and sometimes it is the harder role we take on as leaders in our own life’s way, missions, journey and story. I can tell you real anecdotes and true stories but the moral of her story is that my mother has been influential, and is truly my role model, remarkable and an inspiration. 

 
And so, this is a very brief outpouring of grief, appreciation and thanks after six months of intensive health issues with her wellbeing and health. One day I may be able to give her, her generation, family, neighbours, town and village the justice of a more in-depth piece of writing and research.
 
Today, my family and I wanted to thank all the persons who have helped and supported us recently. I want to thank everyone who has interacted, cared and loved my mother over the years.  She truly was special and she deserves a farewell that is honourable, admirable and appreciative for her way of life, actions and deeds.  I will always miss and love my mother.  I wish her peace, albeit in the after-life, heaven or paradise. It is all the same. May God bless her soul and may ever-lasting love and light shine on her forevermore. 


TVAMEVA MATA PRAYER

Twameva Mata, Chapita Twameva Twameva Bandhu, Cha Sakha Twameva Twameva Vidya, Dravinum Twameva Twameva sarvam mama deva-deva

O God, You are my mother, my father, my brother, and my friend. You are my knowledge. You are my only wealth. You are everything to me and the God of all Gods.

This mantra is usually recited at the conclusion of a prayer session, meditation, or religious function. Here the devotee surrenders his or her individuality to the Lord for his Grace.

 
Om Shanti Shanti Om

The Green Shoots of Spring

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

 – Marcus Tullius Cicero, Epistulae AD Familiares Vol. 2 47-43 BC

One of the best ways of trying to keep sane, calm and upbeat in these very difficult and challenging times is spending time outside, exercising and…gardening. After almost five months of lockdown, I can write about other pressing issues as the UK opens up on retail, leisure, cultural centres, libraries etc.   However, it will be a missed opportunity to now see the beautiful displays and sense of change that comes with the changing of the season. Without a doubt the last winter has been one of the most difficult in our lifetime which the cold spell compounded with restrictions to group festive celebrations, New Year’s Eve parties, carnival get-together and birthday celebrations.  The green shoots of spring bring us new hope of a coronavirus that is under control here (for now) and gaining some more freedom to spend time outside to enjoy the coming spring and summer seasons. 

According to Mintel report on Hobbies and Interest February 2021, the lack of commuting and space time as the lockdown took over, meant that there is more time for hobbies such as “Baking, Handicrafts, Gardening and Home Improvements”. There was also a spike on Google Trends for people researching for these topics. We also have surplus time to spend on our hobbies and exercise due to the lack of commuting time. Gardens are great places to find peace, tranquility and mindfulness.

“The power of hobbies to improve mental wellbeing is set to drive growth throughout 2020. As mental health continues to be in the spotlight, hobby operators that position their services and products as beneficial in this respect stand to benefit.”

(Mintel Hobbies and Interests – UK, February 2020)

Garden Centre were some of the shops that remained open most of the last few months were garden centres and as soon as the weather was a bit better – I went to two of my favourites in my vicinity. I spent time looking at acid compost that I needed for a Magnolia plant present I received.  I always end up spending more money than I intended when I visit that garden centre as it has some amazing plants that I do know find in the commercial garden centre.  The centre is called Northfields and has been going for a number of years and seems to have some great photos of its’ horticultural historical business.  It was really busy last summer at the peak of spring reopening in the pandemic! I plan to go back in the next few weeks to find some plants on my wish-list. So fingers crossed.

I was able to germinate some courgette seeds and I hope to plant them in the ground in the next few weeks.  I also put in some herbs and lavender plants this month. There are some local friends who seems to have access to allotments.  There photos of their progress and the ‘fruits of their labour’ (pardon the pun!) on social media is always great and inspiring to see. This allotment hobby is not a programme that happens in other countries, but our Italian cousins in Rome had an allotment with lots of impressive and delicious Mediterranean vegetables, fruits and herbs.  I used to enjoy the visit there when we went a few years ago.  Italians also process and bottle their tomatoes into ‘passata’ from the summer for next year ahead.  My mother-in-law was also doing this in Bedford up until a decade ago.  I also saw on social media that my Trinidadian-Canadian friend who is married to an Italian-Canadian doing this same tomato processing recently. I can only imagine the great flavours of the sauces they make! There must be something special about making your own vegetables but I don’t seem to have much luck as yet with tomatoes.

Over the years I have bought a few gardening books and love looking at photos in books and magazines.  About 20-25 years ago, there was a great interest in gardening design and make-over TV programmes.  It still seems to be some during daytime TV and I tend to catch up on ‘Gardens World’ on BBC iPlayer if I can’t look at it live.  It does make me feel happy to see the plants and stories from other gardeners.  The format also shows other members if the public in their gardens and sharing their tips with us.  I love the diversity of the gardens and their presenters.  I also take inspiration from some of these and can easily spend more time looking at this sort of light-hearted shows.  I may also splash out in a few gardening magazines soon.

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

– Aubrey Hepburn

Due to traffic-calming and environmental improvement measures in my neighbourhood, there have also been continued guerrilla gardening in my community to help with these issues.  In our local neighbourhood, some of my neighbours are also planning a Chelsea Fringe this June as a spin-off from the Chelsea Flower Show.  And guess what? …I have never been to a Chelsea Flower Show even though I used to hear about it on the BBC World Service when I lived in Trinidad. Trinidadian horticulturalists do take part and sometimes win at the Chelsea Flower show too!

I have noticed that there are lot more plant and gift shops in my high street and hear that the twenty-somethings are buying more plants.  There are definitely more plants in the shops in my local areas, and flower retailing were busy for Valentine’s Day and Mothering Sunday in London despite the lockdown.  I received a few flower bouquets as presents from friends in March and it was nice to receive them even though we could not meet.  Getting flowers by post is also something that is new to me. Bloom and Wild is a popular brand that is used for home deliveries.  Flowers are one of the treats I have been buying myself in the last year as I am home to enjoy them!

Horticulture businesses are generally doing well in the pandemic as most people are spending the time in the garden spaces that they have. Garden shops are one of the main retailers that we can still pursue at our leisure without causing too much of a commotion.  There is also the birth of the new type of business – the Lockdown Gardener called Doorstep Gardener, whereby garden centres were initially closed and persons were buying plants and seeds online.  My local supermarket was the only place where I could buy plants and seeds at the beginning of the first strict pandemic lockdown but it was interesting to see the innovations online as well as in-store evolutions. There is also Pleydell Smithyman who offered a drive through ‘click and collect’ for plants.

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body but the soul

– Alfred Austin

The environment and outdoor spaces are a major part of our wellbeing and mental health factors.  I have really enjoyed my local walks in residential areas of my neighbourhood, as well as venturing to some of the greener spaces. You can be assured that you will have lots of space to social distance with the added benefit of seeing beautiful nature.  There is also evidence that we enjoy green spaces, meeting friends and family outdoor and use them as places for relaxation.  For those in urban areas, the pandemic has been bitter sweet.  We are able to enjoy a quieter city but if you lack access to green spaces at home, the parks and communal spaces have been really busy during this lockdown period.  Apparently, there are 10% of Londoners who have moved to the rural areas as there are more opportunities to work from home with less commuting time and costs.  This BBC article ‘How Covid have changed where we want to live in March 2021 explains some of the reasons why Covid-19 have impacted on property sales and moves out to the country.

Last week, I also went outside of my local area for the first time since December to visit Hatfield House Garden, which was about 50 minutes away from my home.  It was reasonably priced for the garden visit and I have been meaning to visit even thought I have driven through Hatfield hundreds of times on my way to Bedford. Hatfield House Garden was the childhood home of Elizabeth I of England and apparently, she received the news of her accession to the throne whilst reading a book under an old oak tree.  It was a lovely woodland and ornate garden, as well as a show of vintage cars on display.  The walk in the woodlands, the sundial and hew hedges were interesting to see. The Old Palace is still used as a function hall and it was fabulous to see it being used for Indian weddings. 

On our walk at Hatfield House, we actually bumped into 88-year-old twin sisters who were friendly and spoke to us on our walk.  They conveyed their love of walking in the woodland park and local gardens to find what was interesting to watch and talk about.  They were really special and sweet to share this with us as it is exactly what I do too! We wished each other a good day and safe journey to our homes.

I am looking forward to visiting some more outdoor spaces as the weather gets better such as Beth Chatto’s House in Colchester. When I am able to, I am hoping to visit Trinidad again to see family but, in the meantime, visiting places of relaxation and natural beauty are some of the few pleasures I am looking forward too and the green shoots of Spring seem to symbolise so much hope.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.

– Luther Burbank.

#ChoosetoChallenge – Celebrating the 110th International Women’s Day

It is exactly 10 years since I first celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) for the first time, and it feels right to write about the progress, changes and challenges that women are facing.  The theme for this year’s IWD on 8th March is #ChoosetoChallenge, which spans the whole month of March for Women’s History Month. I will look at some of the areas that affect women and my views on the topics as gender conversations have certainly moved on with more fluid and open discussions.  Non-binary gender identities, gender pay gaps, gender bias, feminist protests and leadership roles are some of the topics that are being pushed up the agenda and discussed in many (not all) countries to challenge the status quo and act as “agents of change”.  Like with many aspects of life, there are some countries that are performing better than others and new generations are demanding more equality and inclusivity – we can’t run away from this.  What we can do is learn from each other, support causes that we care about that affect women…and lift each other up in what is a difficult era in a pandemic.

Some of the main areas where I feel we have made progress over the last few years are in our openness to discuss in greater details inequalities in the workplace, health information, body positive images in the media (think Lizzo!), learning about key women heroines and achievements, finding places where we can network and most importantly, amplifying our voice on feminist issues. 

There are stories of the feminist movement of women rights who had led the way in the past, and they will always be great for inspiring new generations of girls and women.  I certainly didn’t know all feminist over time but some of characters that I have discovered on the last ten years – Ada Lovelace, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Tubman, Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker, Mary W. Jackson, Claudia Jones, Manuela Saenz and many many more!  The access to information on the internet and social media have made their struggles, achievements and stories celebrated with new energy and creativity. 

At university, I completed a module on women’s right from the industrial age to 1990s and therefore learnt about the suffragette movement with admiration for figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett and other women who fought for the vote. It was great to actually do a tour of Westminster a few years ago where the struggles and battles they won were highlight in the living recollection in the space where their hardships and successes were made collectively to give us the vote.  This was obviously an international achievement with New Zealand as the first self-governing country to give women the vote in 1893. We mustn’t take this hard-won right for granted. I still don’t know a lot of great women but it seems the topic is covered in education in schools now, and this generation of girls and young women are able to freely aspire for greater equality, and continue to push and challenge for changes that will affect them in their lives.

The struggles are real still in many parts of the work – education and access to work are some of the basic rights that women have to still fight for in the 21st century – the UN facts and figures women states: “women make up two thirds of the world’s illiterate people”.  There are other challenges such as poverty, work, health and getting into leadership roles which are specific to locations, but generally we still have a way to go. Low literacy and education levels really makes me sad when I hear that some women don’t get the basic right to education.  My parents allowed me to leave a happy home to come to study in a foreign land when I was 18 years – because they believed in me.  I will be forever grateful for their support and help they showed me by financing my studies here. I know that this was NOT a privilege.  I haven’t had free university education – a privilege that many of my university friends may have took for granted 30 years ago. It was difficult and I didn’t see my family for four years, but at least it gave me the ability to support myself and follow some of my teenage dreams.  There is this great graph below by Statista which shows the top 10 countries which have full equal rights for women.

Source: Statista

Not all girls or young women have this option to this day.  Adult learning is possible (plus you never really stop learning), but there are still countries where the cost of education is too high, accessibility and social structures are barriers too.  The cost of higher education in the UK is so high currently that I am deterred to further my studies until I am more financially secure.  One reason I pro-actively keep up my Continued Professional Development (CPD) is because I work in a professional field that never stops serving, changing and develops with technology.  I wish the governments and organisations would value this industry so that we are not at a disadvantaged professionally.  Generally, there are less negative gender equality issues in my professional field as there are more women who work in this area, but men in the sector are usually paid more, and get the top leadership roles. 

“Companies that overlook half of the world’s population overlook half of the world’s talent. To compete effectively, we need to reflect the diversity of the world in which we, and our clients, live and work.” Sheila Penrose Fotolia. Chair of the Board Jones Lang LaSalle

According to this review by Hampton Alexander on the FTSE 350 companies, 33% of women are on UK board leadership roles. In other sectors, the glass ceilings have been smashed but the percentage is still low. In the 2000s, I heard the term ‘old boys’ network’ for the first time but it seems change is slowly taking effect in the last few decades.  Businesses need women for diversity of thought, opportunities and for understanding their customers and stakeholders. Women offer insights and perspectives which open up new markets and ideas rather than having all-male boards.  Women also make up a large amount of the consumption and economic power of business services and products, and therefore you would be missing a new era of inclusive thought if talent and insights were not brought to your business. It is great to have diversity in business as it yields better results and cultivates innovation.  Having women in the decision-making roles also correlates to better business results according to Women on Boards

Over the years there are lots of research I have seen where it makes great sense to have structures, policies and initiatives in the workplace which foster greater support for women to progress beyond their roles and to “smash the glass ceilings”.  These may include improvement in attracting women to traditional male-dominated roles, offering better working patterns for working mothers and families, being flexible, and more defined supported routes and policy such as mentoring or training.  Giving opportunities can also one of ways that women in the workplace are not overlooked. Gender pay gaps, gender bias, greater pay transparency and inclusive policies are still work in progress. It would seem rather strange if organisations still have all-male boards in this 2020s decade, and let’s hope there are more deserving women in leadership roles and better equal representation.

It is important for leaders to communicate with their teams and understand that while the pandemic has affected everyone, it has not been the same for every employee. I think the last nine months have made certain qualities of leadership come to the fore. I think empathy is the strongest trait leaders have shown and understanding that everybody is dealing with professional stresses and strains.

Victoria Head – Legal at Football Association

One aspect where women are challenging the stereotypes and making their headway for themselves is by being entrepreneurial and starting their own businesses. Women have always been in great roles as entrepreneurs in the past, such as Madam C. J. Walker in the film ‘Self-Made’. I also recently attend a fabulous Sound Heritage workshop where I learnt of other remarkable women such as Mary Quaint, Audre Lorde and Rene Sawyer, who fought for greater rights and fairness.

As I work in the business information sector, I meet and admire women who are creating their own businesses. They are really passionate about starting up with their own ideas and visions, being their own bosses and having the freedom to follow their own paths to success. As reported by Hult International Business School, US women-owned businesses have increased by 74% over the past 20 years – 1.5 times the national average. They harness their own entrepreneurial talents and open up a world of opportunity, and in turn are in a position to hire other talented diverse persons for their teams.

Local Business Women

Sadly, I recently read that the pandemic will have a negative impact in gender pay and also entrench imbalances, as mentioned in Italy here in the FT’s Women in Business. Therefore, with high levels of inequalities and economic hardship brought on by one year in the pandemic, the next few years are going to be tough on all of us, especially women.  It has also been mentioned that the disparities for ethnic minorities are having the most negative economic and health impact with working in health and social care. Mckinsey have also reported in ‘Women in the workplace 2020’ that: ‘For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted’.

This is a clear message that all of this research is telling us – there is still a lot of work to do for greater equality, representation and diverse policies for business cultures.

Not all men discriminate against women, and some women also do not support other women. However, there are more inclusive practices in the workplace.  Women are also challenging barriers in various fields but they are generally under-represented in some sectors such as STEM, Tech, construction, emergency services, sports, etc.  The UN has created this great datagraphic which demonstrates the under-representation in all fields, and it is still very striking in the ratio between men and women, for example – directors at the Oscars, Nobel Peace prizes, chefs with Michelin three stars, etc. Our challenge is to continue to create structures, policies and supportive environment where young girls and women can fulfil their ambitions and careers. This may seem overwhelming at times but women do tend to support each other and this is the best way in actually working towards more equity for us all.

Sadly, I wanted to mentioned that this month has been a very sad time in my homeland with the murder of a young woman, Andrea Bharatt, who was making her work home in a taxi (falsely licensed when she boarded it). She was brutally murdered at the prime of her young life and leaves behind a lone parent. It is a terribly devastating story, and unfortunately there has been a high level of gender-based violence and murder in recent times in such a small country, as featured in this article by Brown Girl Magazine.  This has forced a national protest on these crimes and a call for a better justice system as a result of the fear and lack of confidence in personal safety felt by the general population in recent year.  It really is horrific – my contacts were sharing an outpouring of grief on social media and to say ‘enough is enough’!  This ‘femicide’ and other gender-based violence is prevalent in other parts of the world, such as I saw reported in Mexico and India recently. It is great to see that public displays of peaceful protest by women are still challenging for better policies, demanding personal safety, well-being services, general equality and…respect.

I wish you a great International Women’s Day month of understanding and finding out more stories and facts on women’s role in society.  I have always felt that there should be harmony with all genders and do believe that we need boys, young men and gentlemen to be our allies in understanding our roles in the world.  It could be my upbringing and because I went to an all-girls convent school! This is only the tip of the iceberg on the issues women encounter. However, I will continue to keep an eye on ideas, little tips and stories to help other women along the way. I also look forward to discovering new great female figures from the past and our present times this month. With this in mind, do stand up for and against the barriers in our way to greater equality, and remember to #ChoosetoChallenge for women everywhere.

A Better 2021 – Looking on the Bright Side

As we look back at the year, there are a roller-coaster of emotions and moods that have engulfed us due to coronavirus COVID-19.  The year started off normal except for the dreaded Brexit plans for cutting ties, isolating, restricting, control our access, freedom and creating havoc in our everyday lives, work and ambitions with our closest and oldest continental neighbours.  Hearing the news on Brexit was one of the worst things you can listen to in the last four years in the United Kingdom – understandably unbearable, bored stiff or semi-engaged after 4-5 years.  January was intentionally decided as the month that we left the EU with Brexiteers gathered in a cold miserable winter night in Parliament Square – good luck to them I thought! It was cringeworthy and anger inducing in great measures. Let them get what they have coming to them. It took Covid-19 to change the mood and tone a little.

Little did we know that the next few months (year in fact!) will bring about more blight, chaos, devastation and thousands of deaths would ensue. For January was also the month that coronavirus news from Wuhan started getting on our major news network in the West.  There has since been disputed evidence when and where the virus actually started. But it has dominated and curtailed our lives and world since early 2020.

In February, there were signs that things were about to change gradually.  The most significant for me was an Economist Intelligence Unit Breakfast Briefing in 13th February with first class experts give a clear understanding and forecast for the disruption and devastation to the global economy in months to come.  I honestly thought that it would affect supply chains but not the enormous negative it would have on lives and the global economy with countries increasingly having cases of infections.  Around late February, there were signs for using sanitizers in public and the office areas began to have signs asking you to use hand sanitizers in buildings. Italy was reporting ‘draconian’ measures to prevent the spread of the virus. There were more persons on the London Underground starting to wear face mask – it was then such a rare and novel feature considering that mainly travellers from the Far East usually wear them prior to Covid-19.  Little did we know that it would be compulsory in public places indoors by the end of 2020.  Even today at the end of December, I am still seeing tweets pleading with people to abide by the rules as the infection rates are still very high.  

March is usually a happy month for me as I like the beginning of Spring and so it was a time for me to go out and about where I was able to go to the theatre and meal with relatives and friends.  However by the second week in March, there was talk and signs that we needed to change the way we were socialising as the number of deaths by Covid-19 started to rapidly increase daily.  We were observing Italy’s response to the pandemicbut didn’t realise that the UK death figures would eventually be worse! It was also the time of stockpiling and shortages with supermarkets struggling with normal online orders slot.  By the 16th March, my colleagues and family were working and studying from home.  I did go into the library on 18th March to tie up some loose ends as I was on leave a few days before then. I wouldn’t return to the building until September.  

My team and I were able to thankfully transfer to working-from-home but some needed technological equipment and support to set up with working completely as a virtual library.  We all remember getting very familiar with Zoom! I have used Skype and Go-To-Meeting but Zoom seemed to be the preferred options for most work related, professional and social meetings. Soon, I would be meeting my local book club on Zoom, lots of learning opportunities I took, and other work-related meetings and events.  Zoom has been one of the biggest winners in this pandemic and I have heard that it was an enabler in allowing those with access to the tech to communicate with each other.  I have held many meeting and webinars in this year and will try to tally it one day soon. 

It was really freaky being in the first lockdown with the streets and roads all quiet.  My biggest challenge to this day is the busy supermarkets and the social distancing queues.  I am still trying my hardest to keep at a distance and to avoid crowds.  It was nice, relaxing and admittedly a pleasure to spend time outside for daily exercise routines in local areas such as neighbourhoods, parks, local forest and wetlands. Nature has a magical way of reassuring and restoring.  Someone said recently that the only real songs were sirens and birdsong in Spring in a pandemic.  It is a little but like this again in December with the eventual ‘Second Wave’.

One aspect I remember is the availability of data and information on the pandemic.  I am sure when we get to the end of the virus, we will have archives and memorabilia of what it meant for us. I still try to think of what life was like in previous plagues and pandemics such as the Spanish Flu.  I was initially obsessed with the daily of cases and death and it was truly sad throughout the Spring.  The virus was under control with fewer deaths by the end of August but as I write, we are back in the second wave with a higher peak than that in April 2020!  It is truly sad and heart-breaking.  I do know of people who have lost loved ones and it is a very sad time to leave this earth with little human contact and celebration.  One of the best aspects of this Spring was the Clap for Carers where we saw our neighbours and clapped all the key workers for their hard work.  The rainbow and messages of support in Walthamstow was great to see and even now in the winter months there has been school and homes initiatives in windows to help cheer us up.

The heart of the Summer was also a time for organisations and allies to support the Black Lives Movement as well as anti-racism in organisations.  I had some of the most honest conversations with colleagues, professionals, family and friends. It is uncomfortable and requires courage to discuss these topics but it was an opportunity to finally make these deep feelings known and to work towards a more diverse, inclusive and equitable world.  The world is not perfect but reminding us that social justice, equality and fairness are the true balancers of good people is a win-win situation in my books. 

At the beginning of 2020, I was due to travel to the SLA Conference in Charlotte, USA and also to Trinidad and Tobago.  Obviously, I had to postpone both of these trips and look forward to the day when I can go to my first SLA Conference as well as visit family and friends again.  One think that was truly special about 2020 for me was being President of SLA Europe throughout this time and actually programming a different set of events and engagement than what we planned in the beginning. I have blogged about the challenges and achievements of this year here on SLA Europe’s blog. I also look forward to continuing our great work and supporting the new President Amy, our board and volunteers. 

In Autumn, we were ready for returning to the Library physical rooms with reduced hours and less staff in the office.  The most eerie was the journey there and back on the train as your try to maintain social distancing.  Remember these trains are usually packed like sardines so it is a relief that less people are using them for work journeys – however there are some annoying persons who still don’t wear masks on the underground and also in shops. I guess they are arrogant, ignorant and don’t feel they are spreaders. There is little policing going on in London anyway so you really have to think if you want to put yourself in trouble’s way. 

The Second Wave really started picking up in October with vast parts of North of England being affected and put into the new tier systems.  It was possibly due to schools and universities opening up again. I also needed to get two Covid-19 tests in September to ensure that I hadn’t contacted it.  There is the balancing of the economy with infection rates and so too pub, restaurants and hospitality were also closed again for the second wave in most of November. We were now back to working from home full time. I know I am fortunate as it is very testing for many people. I really do feel the anxiety, fear, sadness and uncertainties of those who are not working – it has been a very difficult year.  The winter months are certainly different with less daylight and therefore if I am busy, I tend to go out at dusk.  I miss plants and birdsong.  The beginning of Christmas with decorations, lights and positive messages have been God sent (pardon the pun!). 

December seasonal celebrations are certainly different, just as New Year’s Eve will be, but it really is a necessity for us all to be apart.  I usually do make the most of things and so still see this as a special year to have that quality time with family.  My neighbours are all here too as there is nowhere to go! It is strange and apocalyptic walking around in the dull coldness with closed shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and non-essential shops and venues.  There are so many woes that I see on Twitter, and rightly so, on lack of ‘Track and Trace’, schools reopening and testing, loss of jobs, dependency on food banks, propaganda, distrust of government policies, and the NHS being overwhelmed with the virus rampant in the community. We are really deep into a difficult year. 

As we end the year, both Brexit and Covid-19 are in the news headlines with one of the darkest and saddest day with 941 deaths. I am not taking any responsibility for the fallouts of Brexit! But I will certainly try to do my part and think of how we can continue to prevent loss of life and control the virus to a point to some normality. There are still problems and challenges we need to sort out…collectively.  Vaccines do offer some hope, and so does every new year. Keep well, safe and healthy. Things are not going to be normal for a while but hopefully it will be better in 2021.

Every Cloud has a Silver Lining – seven rays of positivity in a dark time

This month we have entered into a second period of lockdown restrictions as we are definitely in the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, as is seemingly happening in many places on Earth.  I was half expecting this due to the colder winter months when infections spread more easily but I was hoping this wouldn’t happen. However in the last few weeks just as the US elections closed, the world was relieved and informed that Pfizer has created a vaccine that is has been shown to stop more than 90% of people developing Covid-19 symptoms in it’s preliminary trials. There are also other vaccines that are also due to come into the market, and therefore we are hoping that this will be widely administered with inoculation programmes hopefully by this time next year! Undoubtedly, the high number of 1000s of death is the darkest cloud in recent weeks but the roll out of the vaccine is certainly one reason to be positive, especially in the long term. There will be much needed research and organising in the meanwhile but hopefully this will be a success over the pandemic for all of us across this world.

I was inspired to write about upsides and positivity as a topic this month as I felt that going into the festive period, it would be a unique time in this dreadful year for to do things differently to what we are used to.  In addition it has been a time of great hardship, challenges, fear, loss and anxiety in most of our living memories.  As one of our darkest times, families and loved ones have died, people have suffered, work has changed, businesses regardless of size has been affected, some industry sectors are devastated and people have lost their jobs or at the risk of redundancy since the pandemic took hold of our lives in early 2020.  The level of loss is exacerbated by us not being able to freely (and legally) meeting the ones we usually meet for comfort outside our households, socialise with or to enjoy simple things such as meeting friends, going to cinemas, going out for a meal, travelling on overseas holidays without quarantine, meeting with a festival etcetera – the no-go list is long.  This is the necessary life of social distancing and public health safety measure in 2020.  There are more fallouts and negatives of the pandemic but as we go into the holiday period (and I am looking forward to a well-earned break), I want to reflect on the positives that we can take back from 2020.  Believe it or not, I was able to find like-minded content on the web whereby people are also finding ‘silver linings’ and I will share some of these, and my own, with you here.

Seven rays silver linings for:

You might find your company’s silver lining by looking internally:  fundamentally re-thinking your strategy, innovating, taking out cost, improving processes, curating talent, or leapfrogging a change initiative. Source: Forbes ‘Finding the Silver Lining in the Covid Crisis’ by Mark Nevins May 2020.

(1) Flexible Working Patterns

The landscape for businesses has changed significantly this year with as much as 26% of business affected negatively by COVID-19 – we are working from home so buildings are mainly empty or have been improved with hygiene, indoor cleaner air, improved cleaning, rubbish removals and also with people having greater appreciation of working in an ‘office environment’ when they do (or can return), as mentioned in this article on FM during a pandemic.  Undoubtedly, one of the biggest shifts and possibly long term ‘silver lining’ is the benefits and acceleration of digital transformation for people working from home.  I have seen some news about improved gender equality for women, as traditionally they were not encouraged to work from home as it ‘may interfere’ with their availability of looking after young children. This flexibility has now been tested and in most cases seems to be a success. 

The last year has definitely given us an opportunity to test these scenarios and decide our preferences for working in and outside the office.  I certainly know ways I can use my time effectively whilst in the office and physical library as well as what tasks I can do from home.  There will never be a perfect solution in my field as we need both physical and digital spaces but it certainly has brought us real life and learning experiences on how we can make most effective use of our time with these restrictions. Remote working has opened up the next normal. And our greatest appreciation to key workers and other worker who have continued to go to the workplace throughout this period of great change.

(2) Gains in Business Transformations

The economic consequences are a major concern that there are lots of people who are not working, have been furloughed or are made redundant. The hardship must be terrible and the uncertainty is soul destroying.  High street retailers, hospitality, events, arts and cultural organisations are closed…or there is only ‘so much’ that we can do online.  These business types are obviously going through one of the most difficult periods in the modern era! The prediction for the next few years is also scary quite frankly with the economy panning and borrowing levels skyrocketing.  I thought austerity was a curse-word but the current situation is worse.  However, I attended a recently EIU event with predictions on how things may change as we come out of the pandemic in the next 10 years.  It is interesting to hear how business models will change, for example with greater automation and AI.  We know there have been great strides taken with digital changes as mentioned in this article on tech ‘silver linings’ in Tech Republic – such as greater digital interactions, cyber security and greater understanding of technology with these new ways of living.

In my local area, I have seen local shops that have remained opened in the second lockdown but they have transformed the way we interact, placed and fulfil orders and services with them.  There is actually a term I saw in the following article in My Total Retail which call it ‘BOPIS’ – Buy Online Pickup In Store! Get it. This is what is better known as ‘click and collect’ in the UK but I imagine it is happening wherever we can make use of online ordering and in-store pickup.  I do think there are still some services we can never ‘click and collect’ such as hair and beauty treatments, dental services, gym, arts and leisure services etc.  However, I have decided that I would like to support some local businesses, such as this new Italian restaurant which only opened in early 2020 by order their pannettones for my friends this Christmas.  I have also noticed that a few of the shops on my high street are closed but are still being used due to the studio space that makers and designers still need for their creative businesses.

One final business silver lining, which is bittersweet, is that people who have loss their jobs due to detrimental business performances due to Covid-19, there are new businesses or persons trying to start their new ventures now.  There have been shops that have sadly closed, but also some going ahead with opening in my local area. This is good for the work I do in my current professional role and department – I know there is a lot of support if you put your heart and mind to it. Not everyone is able to be successful entrepreneurs or make their idea a success but the best silver lining is that we have the time now to research, plan and test ideas. That is a big boost for anyone who eventually wants to work for him or herself and succeed in business.

One silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic has been a rethink of the need for certain business travel; many who used to travel extensively across the country are welcoming videoconferencing. Source: Practice Management 17 August 2020

(3) Better Environment

Video conferencing has changed the way we work and also the way we are communicating with colleagues, communities, friends and family.  We have no choice but to avoid socialising in the pandemic. There is also very little to do but to enjoy the great outdoors.  The new tier system in the UK has meant that we do not want to travel anywhere far and we are also not allowed (this really is the current situation that no one ever predicted a year ago).  The best silver lining has been literally the benefits for the environment with less vehicle and air travel. We are also encouraged to shop, work and play locally within reason – the streets are a little bit busier now but looking back to the first lockdown earlier this year, there were pigeons walking around my street as there were hardly any cars.  The busy urban area where I live is definitely quieter and people are taking advance of the green spaces and places to explore nature close by.  I know once we get back to the ‘next normal’ with optimum vaccine efficacy stage, there may be a return to the hustle and bustle that we had pre-Covid-19.  I am hoping that some of these clean environmental gains, behaviours and ‘magic purification dust’ will stick around for a long time. An appreciation of our green spaces and better environment are essential for our wellbeing, physical and mental health.

(4) Social and Cultural Appreciation

Cinemas, theatres, festivals, churches, museums, art galleries, gyms, entertainment venues, bars, pubs, restaurants and sporting areas are all closed.  They have been the hardest hit in all of the pandemic restrictions.  People’s livelihoods have suffered gravely and there is still no end to the challenges they will have to face in the next few months as we get back to full confidence of being able to ‘go as we pleased’. We are drinking, socialising and eating more at home.  KPMG puts this shift as the ‘home is the new hub’ and the centre of operations. There might still be some who are getting food take-aways all the time, but I also understand we are just spending time indoors cooking, with old fashion home entertainment and leisure activities.  We can to some extent still use the television, books, music, gaming and any other entertainment, which has seen a boost in sales and consumption. I am looking at Netflix more than I ever did in these last few months.

The main silver lining is that people will gain the appreciation of new and old entertainment mediums. Perhaps when we are able to take advantage and experience these simple pleasures in life, we can financial, socially and emotionally give more support to these basic human activities that make us connected and feel good about ourselves as well as being somewhere with others outside our normal bubbles.

(5) Healthcare and Well-being Improvements

As you know, there are great improvements and support for our health services across this world in this mad time of Covid-19.  There would be many gains made from the insights and business practices for countries that haven’t had to deal with such a grave disease. Processes, information sharing and patient care had been one of the upmost benefits of the lessons learned in this pandemic.  Normal routine check-ups have also seen a transformation with video-conferencing with patients invited for online consultations.  I have spoken to a few people and this is now common practice compared to earlier this year when you had to physical make your way to the doctor’s office/surgery even though you may be really unwell.  Perhaps in future we would automatically be given the choice of an online consultation.  I do know that we still have to see medical staff face-to-face for certain ailments and treatments but this new way of consultation has been a shift that would have taken ages to go head if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Medical staff can also get the credit and praise the rightly deserved after many years of lack of investment and appreciation. Let’s hold governments to this!

People are now also opening being mindful and talking about mental health issues as the lockdown periods become more prolonged.  I read another great blog about finding that ‘silver lining’ in Today (Singapore) which mentioned ‘slow living’ and hygge – which was exactly we have been doing in the last few months.  The hustle and bustle, the diary packed with work, events and things to do – these have all been curtailed for time spent inside to keep us safe.  There is a brilliant explanation that we should enjoy the hygge and simple pleasures in life.   This is what the Danes do and there is no wonder that they are ranked as one of the happiness people in the world.  Perhaps we can put this label on our activities and try to remember to do this always to ensure that we have that level of happiness balance in our busy lives.

(6) Innovations in Research and Science

This virus has thought us many things about ourselves and therefore there are many innovations that have come as a result of the changes we have had to make.  We are already learning new ways to improve hygiene in public places, research, medical, digital and scientific innovations and new insights have been on of the brightest silver linings in the race to find new treatments and a prevention of the disease as mentioned in this map by Medcity.  

Telehealth is Improving Access to Health Care: Digital care interactions emerge as a silver lining to pandemic’s dark cloud.

Source – Irish Times

(7) Quality Family Time

There have been some great stories on using this time for greater connection with family and close one who live in the same household.  I know that has been a very negative experience for some families where they are not getting on or able to have the basic needs in a time of great stress, anxiety and hardships. 

Personally, there is really no choice but to make the best of the situation that we are in and some families have thoroughly love the slower pace as mentioned in this Elle article, the no commuting time and the quality time spent together.  This has mainly been my ‘silver lining’ in the last few months and I loved the spring and summer months when I was able to enjoy the outdoor spaces a bit longer.  I have also love the ability to see nature, sunlight and all the elements of the day working mainly from home and at the weekends. 

Going in the last festive month of the year 2020, I wanted to end on this high note after a year that has taken us over in urgent changes and various twists in the basic necessities of life.  I am tired from working harder in lots of new ways in a year that has been overwhelming with the pandemic, fighting for social justice and basic empathy to get through this pandemic.  However, as we go into the festive and traditionally happy month of December…even though it is dark, cold and grey, I will think and be grateful for these little gifts of hope and silver linings that are shining. 

Hold Tight! Autumnal Tenacity for the perilous Second Wave

Often it is Tenacity, Not Talent that Rules the Day. – Julia Cameron

As we move into the winter months in the pandemic, there is a personal concern that we have left the bright sunny and warmer months in what will be a very tough year for all of us.  Autumn is not my favourite time of year but I do usually cope and settle in by the end of October for Diwali, Halloween cheer and November Bonfire night.  I do remember arriving in the UK in late September 1980s and not minding my first autumn, which was a huge change from a tropical climate I knew. One thing is for sure – the temperature is going to get colder, the physical landscape, flora and fauna will change with autumnal colours, with the nights getting longer.  If like me, you have been working from home and actually making the most of the outdoors in the Spring and Summer… things are going to be different with the possible double whammy facts of a second wave in the pandemic and Brexit unpreparedness.

Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

September has already brought new changes with schools reopening fully.  The last week has been dominated with university students who are having to self-isolate in their student halls to protect themselves, and stop the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19. The news does not stop there – there is also the economic fallout in all spheres of life.  Businesses are facing further necessary restrictions with some of my friends not planning to return to the office until January 2021.  The redundancy and insolvency levels are also increasing daily with people having to bear all the hardship that comes with losing their jobs.  There are many reasons to be pessimistic.  The optimistic vibes are scarce but if you know me – I am a trouper. I do have the unbelievable capacity to be tenacious despite the negative aspects I have faced in my life (mainly professional). I do tend to focus on the important issues and despite my happy-go-lucky demeanour with a smile, I can be determined, knuckle down and get on with it! Call it what you like but it might just be tenacity.

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. – Amelia Earhart

I haven’t been into the Central of London since March 14th but have returned to the office and library for one day a week since 3rd September.  It is an odd feeling getting the Tube again knowing that you have to be very careful and conscious of other passengers, the public surfaces, social distancing etc. It is quite natural to look around the carriages to see who is wearing a mask  – and who is wearing it like a dodgy condom! I haven’t had to move away or tell anyone off as yet but there are a few cases of annoying mask non-conformity on the Tube, but generally it is good to go (pardon the pun) and people are being great. 

The impact on London’s economy is obvious.  I think that TfL are going to be struggling financially this year because as an example, I have only spent £30.00 this month to travel when I would usually spend about £149.00 a month.  Of course I do not want staff to lose their jobs but it just a reminder to government that they should be more kind about raising their fares in future.  But who knows…we might still get some nasty price increases too compensate for us not using the tube in the pandemic.  You can never really win here with inflation! The fat cats executives at TfL must be a bit worried too – I know this from when I paid attention at City Hall. One positive is that the Poems on the Underground are out to entertain us, and also Dettol has partnered to remind us to maintain good hygiene. The saddest feeling is seeing how quiet the commute and shops are around St Pancras.

I have now also returned to the British Library one day a week and it has been good going so far.  There are lots of social-distancing measures in place, and the British Library has opened to a certified standard, which is great reassurance for our readers and staff.  There is a difference in the building as there are so few people in the office, public, networking and workshop areas. We are still serving people in the ‘Reading Room’ who have pre-booked, and we are very much providing digital services remotely. 

We are being cautious and it is good to be back but we also know that we are still in a pandemic and therefore most of my time is still spent working and volunteering from our little box room study at home.  It is a little more challenging as there is a family trying to study and work from home too.  I am finding this okay but I know I am fortunate to have the space and technical equipment to do this.  It is certainly not the case for many, and the digital and socio-economic divide has been discussed a lot in the last few months for most people everywhere.  This is another reason I have thinking of self-motivation and keeping up personal standards in this very challenging time.  Some things are going to lapse but demonstrating and being tenacious helps to get it done. I do look forward to return back to normal circumstances, but we just don’t know when that will be and it certainly ain’t looking like this year!

This month has been filled with several professional activities with my role as President of SLA Europe – I would be a liar if I said it has been easy.  It has been difficult especially this year as my day job is very busy and even more so in lockdown as it very intense with my digital activities and video conferencing, as well as one full day in the office.  I will have to tally the number of webinars and meetings I have had.  I do know it has been worth it still working and applying myself to helping customers and other professionals as much as can.  I do like having the flexibility to go for a walk and then catching up later, otherwise I just won’t be able to cope.  I usually catch up with volunteering later in the evening into the early morning.  I am really pleased that I am able to contribute to my professional network and take part in some really interesting events such as Reopening Specialized Libraries Roundtable Two, presented on Economic Data and Entrepreneurship, attended talks on Feminist Walk in Harlem and Veganism, Knowledge Management presentation by SLA Europe, as well as participate in a Gurteen KM Café as I had the time. The great aspect of working during this pandemic, is that it has made this year more global than I initially intended.  I will be presenting at two events at the virtual SLA Conference 2020 with the theme Driving Forward.

So what else is there to do that can demonstrate tenacity? 

My neighbourhood is still pulling together with the use of social media especially with a higher increase in Anti-social Behaviour (ASBOs) in the recent weeks.  There is no support on the street from local police and we have to rely on community activists. There is also pressure on community policing still due to non-existence presence in my area of a heavily populated borough plus they are under pressure which the current Covid-19 restrictions.

I haven’t been far away except for work this month but it is great to see signs of positivity in my neighbourhood.  These include businesses that are operating old and some new ones.  I also went out for tapas with my friends a few weeks ago for a socially distant dinner.  However the most comforting and strengthening is the London Mural Festival, which took place the last two weeks.  Some of these are exceptional as they pay tribute to local heroes, as well as the artists themselves.  The best one is the one dedicated to NHS staff, which was put up a few weeks ago (and perhaps not up specifically for the festival). It is the exemplary public display of positive roles models that anyone can see on their local walks.

TENACITY, n. A certain quality of the human hand in its relation to the coin of the realm. It attains its highest development in the hand of authority and is considered a serviceable equipment for a career in politics. – Ambrose Bierce

As I end on one of the dullest days of September, the level of deaths are rising rapidly again in the pandemic.  There are politicians trying to get a grip and scientists telling us that the data is predicting threats to our well-being with some more terrible news for public health and society…still.  My dearest wish to you is to keep well, safe, upbeat and obviously, tenacious. Hold tight.

It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi