20(20) Women to Watch in Bristol: Politics

Our ‘2020: Women to Watch in Bristol’ collaboration with Epigram’s The Croft aims to platform women doing incredible work, either in Bristol or as a result of their experiences here. Our contributors have written short profiles on each of the women, and we asked them all to answer one simple question: “how has Bristol shaped you or the work you do?” This section turns the spotlight to women in politics. 

Helen Godwin

Helen Godwin is the Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Young People in Bristol City Council, making her the only council Cabinet Member dedicated to women’s issues across the UK. 

Speaking to Bristol Live on International Women’s Day last year, Helen outlined her priorities in the role. She considers childcare to be an economic issue and has therefore made affordable childcare a primary concern for the city, which is vital for reframing how we think about women’s labour and for furthering women’s workplace prospects. Moreover, she has committed to improving health outcomes for women, recognising that women’s health is not just an issue in itself, but that women need to be well-supported to enable them to contribute to wider society. 

Some of Helen’s most notable work has been around period poverty – a problem which means over 2/5 of women and girls in Bristol have been unable to afford menstrual products. In just one year since Helen led a pledge to tackle the issue, Bristol has become a UK trailblazer on destigmatising periods and introducing initiatives to overcome period poverty. Along with Annabel Smith, she founded the ‘Period Friendly Bristol’ initiative which created a new training programme for use in schools, to cater period education to all needs and ensure menstruating and non-menstruating people alike are aware of the difficulties associated with periods. In December, they launched a system of donation and distribution points for free menstrual products city-wide, which can be located using an online interactive map. All of these steps are helping to make Bristol a city of ‘period dignity,’ where menstruating isn’t something to be ashamed of, and everyone has access to the products they need at that time of the month.

How has Bristol shaped you or the work you do?

“Bristol shapes everything I do. I was born in the city, as were my parents and grandparents and I have chosen to raise my children here. There have always been rich and poor in Bristol, but this divide has become increasingly stark. Life expectancy and health years life expectancy between different areas is too high in Bristol, education opportunities are worlds apart – a child growing up in the South of the city only has an 8% chance of going to University, versus close to 90% if you grow up in Clifton. The work I have done as Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Families in Bristol has been geared towards reducing this inequality, including founding Period Friendly Bristol. We want Bristol to be a city where everyone can afford to have their period, and products are accessible to all.”

Thangam Debbonaire

Thangam Debbonaire is the current MP for Bristol West. From starting out as a professional cellist, her past five years have been spent lobbying for change on the Labour benches. Her current role as Shadow Brexit Secretary gives her not only a position on the front bench, but an opportunity for her to be on the frontline; fighting for causes she is passionate about in UK-EU negotiations while holding the Tory government to account. 

If we are talking about inspirational women, Debbonaire has to be up there, particularly in her sheer commitment to causes she cares about. Her push for refugee rights is second to none, chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and collaboration with Student Action for Refugees. Her campaigning has directly resulted in policy change, for example allowing refugees to open bank accounts. 

Further to this, she is a clear advocate for any and all key social issues. From setting up domestic violence interventions, to instructing drug law reform, Debbonaire has strong social and moral instincts which, coupled with her drive to ameliorate society, has allowed her to tackle issues both pragmatically and passionately.

How has Bristol shaped you or the work you do? 

“I first came to Bristol nearly 30 years ago to work for Women’s Aid national office. My work there and activities with Bristol’s feminist campaigners took my belief in women’s equality with men and turned it into successful political campaigns. I use these practical skills and experience every day, especially as an MP. I’m inspired by the way Bristolians turn progressive values into better ways of living and campaigning for change, from equal opportunities to foreign policy, from climate change to refugee rights. Bristol and Bristolians influence my progressive feminist politics every day.”

Asher Craig 

Asher Craig’s relationship with Bristol runs deep. The St. George’s West councillor and Deputy Mayor grew up in Redland and spent her teens visiting the now-defunct Revolver Records on the Triangle. She was one of the first girls (and one of few black students) to attend Cotham Grammar School, an experience that informed her deep-rooted passion for social justice. Craig has worked to empower disenfranchised communities for years – first as an activist at the Malcolm X Centre in St. Paul’s and later at the Black Development Agency and other third sector organisations. 

In 2016, she ran as a councillor with the encouragement of Mayor Marvin Rees, determined to tackle vast social exclusion among the BAME community and other disadvantaged groups. In an interview with Bristol 247, Craig spoke of Bristol as a ‘city of contradictions’, an issue we as University of Bristol students should recognise our part in.

In her current role as cabinet member for Communities, Events and Equalities, Craig has spoken out on issues as diverse as refugee & asylum seeker policy, safer drug strategy and improved access to apprenticeships. She is currently supporting the city’s bid for a gold Sustainable Food City award, bringing together environmental and social stakeholders in recognition of the broader impact our nutritional choices have

How has Bristol shaped you or the work you do? 

“I am Bristolian.  I was born in this city to Windrush parents who travelled to the UK in the late 1950’s.  Growing up, my friends and family would have labelled me “privileged” as my parents bought their first and only home in the suburbs of Redland and sent me to the local Grammar School.  But as I always say, “don’t watch the postcode” – I was brought up by Jamaican parents and the values they brought with them from the Caribbean were very much instilled in myself and my siblings.  “Work hard and you will succeed, don’t let anything or anyone tell you you can’t (which was often the case)”, something I have passed onto my three daughters. But I never felt the privilege, I was the victim of racism at an early age and as I grew up in this great city, I could see for myself the inequalities that faced people who looked like me.  It was following the St Pauls Uprising, 40 years ago this year, that I made a decision that I was going to stand up for those who had no voice, who felt oppressed, forgotten and left behind – I became a community activist fighting for social and racial justice in a City whose past betrayed its future. Don’t get me wrong I love my city but the inequality persists and I now find myself in a position to bring about much needed change in a city that is striving to be inclusive.” 

Carla Denyer  

Carla Denyer is a Green party politician, and councillor in the Bristol ward of Clifton Down. Denyer has interest in fossil-fuel divestment, having been a leading figure in the campaign to make the University of Bristol divest – this motion was initially defeated, but succeeded in March 2017. She is perhaps most noted for her lead role in bringing about Bristol City Council’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2018, something that prompted similar declarations across the UK. BBC News credited Denyer with initialising “the idea of a local area declaring a climate emergency”, and The Independent described it as “the historic first motion” which by July 2019 had been “copied by more than 400 local authorities and parliaments.” Denyer has also shown interest in improving conditions for people renting their homes, opposes council tax increases for poorer taxpayers, and overall staunchly opposes austerity. Her direct association with the current global climate emergency cannot be understated, given how pertinent issues regarding climate are increasingly becoming, and how engaged the University of Bristol student body is in matters of environmental concern and activism. 

How has Bristol shaped you or the work you do? 

“Bristol has shaped me significantly, in my personal and work life, since I moved to the city 11 years ago.

I moved here age 23, straight after graduating from Durham University. I came to work in the city’s renewable energy industry, and I was already an activist on environmental, peace and social justice issues. But I wasn’t yet the person I am now.

One of the first big changes that Bristol can take credit for was on my diet. I became vegan and joined a local veg box scheme (Sims Hill Shared Harvest). I had already been reducing the amount of meat in my diet, but Bristol made it so easy to eat sustainable and local, with so many brilliant shops, restaurants and local food projects.

The next big change was politics. Before moving to Bristol I had never cared about party politics at all – I simply didn’t believe it was the route to positive change. My first big taste of activism was the Stop the War campaign against Blair’s war in Iraq, so I would not dream of joining the Labour Party. Then in 2010 the Lib Dems let down a generation by going into coalition with the Conservatives. But in Bristol (unlike most of the rest of the country at the time) the Green Party were a growing force. At a house party in Easton in 2011 I met 3 lovely people who happened to be Green Party members. I still believed that party politics was not the route for me, but those 3 friends gently convinced me, through their actions as much as their words, and by late 2011 I had joined the party.

Less than a year later I was volunteering as the Membership Secretary for the local party, and three years after that I was an elected councillor who had given up my day job in engineering to work in politics full-time!

While local politics can sometimes be frustratingly slow and bureaucratic, I think I have made some tangible positive impacts, including:

·         Proposed the first Climate Emergency declaration in Europe, which led Bristol to set a target of going carbon neutral by 2030 and started a tidal wave of similar declarations across the continent, now numbering over 500;

·         Jointly led the successful campaign that persuaded University of Bristol to withdraw its investments from fossil fuels;

·         Ran for election as Green MP candidate for Bristol West, achieving the highest number of votes for a UK Green MP candidate anywhere outside of Brighton Pavilion.

I am thrilled to live in such a forward-thinking city where this kind of pioneering politics is possible. Bristol is absolutely my home now, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Cleo Lake 

Social justice activist and artist Cleo Lake was elected in 2016 as a Green Councillor for the ward of Cotham. In 2018, she took the historic step to become the first black female Lord Mayor in 800 years, and only the 11th woman to have ever held this position. As a proud Bristolian who has spent her last 10 years as a dance troupe leader at the Malcom X Elders Forum, her agenda championed inclusion and representation for the full spectrum of diverse groups who call Bristol home. Cleo exceeded expectations, and is regarded as kind, principled, and inclusionary in the wider community of elders. 

As Lord Mayor, Cleo took a central role in the struggle surrounding the Windrush Scandal, which threatened the very livelihoods of Bristol community elders in a manifestation of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. She further challenged structural racism with her passion for ‘decolonising Bristol.’ This passion can be seen through her position within the ‘Countering Colston’ movement; a movement that confronts the celebration of the former slave trader throughout Bristol. Cleo made headlines with her removal of a portrait of Edward Colston from her own office, citing that much modern Afrophobia, racism and inequality originated from this period of slavery. 

Whilst Cleo has stepped down from her role as Lord Mayor, she is continuing her role as Green Councillor for Cotham. We are excited to see her inspirational diversity and inclusion agenda continue to initiate positive changes throughout all of Bristol! 

How has Bristol shaped you or the work you do?

“I was born in Bristol and besides a short spell in Strasbourg and Ghana I have lived here all my life in either Easton or St Pauls. I grew up in diversity. My street had all kinds of everyone and there was always cohesion. I honestly believe that excellence comes from diversity of background and thought combined with nurturing talent. 

Bristol has a rebellious streak and a strong sense of social justice which has definitely grounded me on to that path. My mother took me on a variety of demonstrations as a child and my father did what he could to give me an understanding of my cultural history from an African Jamaican perspective. I was groomed to enquire, question, challenge and speak up to be counted. 

In terms of my creativity a lot of it stemmed from my formative years as a young teenager within the Jungle then drum and bass scene and at festivals such as Ashton Court. It was more than music it was a coming together of marginalised and other people – it was an outlet for frustrations, it was a pioneering movement that created unity and identity. 

As a Councillor I am on the Avon Fire and Rescue Authority, formerly Chairing the D.I.C.E Committee (Diversity Inclusion Cohesion Equality) which now forms the People and Culture Committee which I have gone on to Chair at an important period of cultural transformation within the service. 

I also have an arts practice which includes; empowering others through my project ‘Dance Riot’, being an actress with Sheba Soul Ensemble and being a co founder and Director of international arts agency Black* Artists On The Move. I was the former Chair of St Pauls Carnival and taught dance to elders including the Malcolm X Elders for over 10 years.” 

Profiles By: Iona Holmes, Kavya Sharma, Tash Walker, Ellie Spenceley and Jasmine Kaur Ark

Artwork by Maegan Farrow

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