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Grass-fields International Women's Day : Wisdom from Zita Holbourne

Grass-fields International Women's Day : Wisdom from Zita Holbourne

Grass-fields International Women's Day: Zita Holbourne

Grass-fields in support of International Women's month would like to introduce Zita Holbourne. Zita is a woman striving for equality, freedom, and justice, an award-winning, author, poet, writer, visual artist, curator and community, and trade union activist.She is national vice president of PCS Union, and National Chair and co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) the UK.

We chose to talk to Zita for International Women’s Day (IWD). IWD is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. We got talking to Zita for IWD because of the work she is doing for her community and nation from social to political.

What is your heritage?

‘Caribbean & English /Welsh.'

What makes you get up in morning?

‘I have responsibilities to myself, my family, my colleagues, and communities. Like everyone else, I have to earn a living, pay bills etc. I usually have a very busy schedule so if I didn't get up I would soon get behind which would make life far more difficult. There's a lot to do, achieve and look forward to each day.’

What empowers you?

‘Many things, self belief, the strength I have gained over years, the struggles I have been through, those who went before us whose shoulders we stand on, all of the unsung SHEroes and heroes around us, the strength of unity, my sisters and brothers who share the same or similar visions who I work with every day to effect positive change, also faith, hope and love empower me.’

What personal struggles have you had related to entering womanhood?

‘I guess the same ones many of us have, standing on our own two feet, being independent, holding our own in the face of misogyny, sexism, and racism, whilst living in a patriarchal society. There were plenty of challenges. Dealing with loss. Struggling to make ends meet. Lack of affordable and safe, adequate housing. Not being able to lay down roots of have stability because of this. I had to look after myself from a young age so had to grow up fast.’

How did you find your voice as an artist and activist?

‘I don't think it was a matter of finding my voice, I always had it, it was more about growing the confidence to use it, to be bold enough to follow my dreams whilst standing up for what I believe in. I always had a strong sense of justice and grew up fighting for my rights so my voice grew louder gradually and I discovered my artistry, whether that was as a dancer, singer/songwriter, poet, writer, visual artist or designer was not just a method of healing for me but a medium through which I could channel my feelings, thoughts, and ideas, a tool to communicate and a method of raising awareness to wider and different audiences. The more I did the more confidence I grew but it took time to grow in confidence. I was always creative and always striving for equality and justice so those things were a part of me.’

How accurate are black women portrayed in the media?

‘Depends when, where, which media, this is a very general question and it depends what you mean by accurate. If I was to turn the question on its head and ask are black women frequently negatively represented and portrayed in the media my answer would be yes.

Black women face double disadvantage and discrimination in all aspects of society because of their gender and race. They are often demonized, labeled and blamed, sometimes scapegoated. We are expected to conform to fake norms and standards of beauty and behaviors and be silent in the face of adversity. When we speak out and stand up for our rights we are labeled “the angry black woman”. When we are vocal, on social media we are attacked more than any other group, experiencing misogyny, threats and trolling. It's an attempt to intimidate us and shut us down.’

What does the term image mean to you?

‘It means multiple things. It could be self-image, how others see me, how I want to be seen or could refer to my work as an artist, my artwork is described as images.’

What is your biggest fear?

'Fear itself.'

Is the way you look important to you? Why?

‘Yes. Because how I look, dress and style myself is an extension of my identity, it links to my creativity, it is like a unique brand, it's how I feel secure and comfortable within myself but sometimes it's about having fun, a reflection on my mood.’

With the Hollywood #MeToo movement and calls for equal pay all over the world escalating recently, being female has it affected you or your career?

‘Myself and other women have been campaigning on these issues for years and decades as were women before us. Yes, gender discrimination and disadvantage have definitely impacted.

As a mother, when I took maternity leave, you only got paid for three months, to extend it, meant zero wages and whilst it impacted on living standards and career it was worth every second to spend more time with a newborn child. But also I worked part-time to strike a balance between work and caring responsibilities and part-time working impacted on career development.

Discrimination in appraisal, promotion, and progression linked to gender and race have also impacted as does being an activist and campaigner on these issues. You get labelled more than applauded for standing up for your and others rights.’

What responsibility do you have in your position to be a good role model to women?

I don't think anybody should be forced to be a good role model just because of the positions they hold and sometimes there are higher expectations of us and a harsher response and backlash when we make mistakes even minor ones. There is often an expectation of us as black women to be twice or more as good as others which is unreasonable, and the more we accept this the more hidden we place on the shoulders of the next generation of Black women.

I do recognise that we are watched and looked up too and I think it's important to be the best I can be, to treat others as I would expect for myself to be treated, to act with integrity and accountability and as I stand on the shoulders of those who went before, to pave the way for others and give back as well as paying it forward.

I did win a positive role model award at the National Diversity Awards which I am proud of and pleased that the work I have done is acknowledged. However it's not all about awards, it's about living the best life you can, achieving what you can, working hard, respecting others and being the inspiration you seek. We must also ensure self-care.’

What does International women’s day mean to you?

‘It's about remembering those who went before, acknowledging our history, celebrating women, celebrating ourselves, creating safe spaces, using the day to raise awareness of current and historical campaigns for women's rights. It's telling our story, taking stock of where we are now and where we need to get to. It's a reminder to men, of the fact that women do not have Equality and an opportunity for them to think about the role they can play. It's about healing, remembering and celebrating.’

What is your personal style? (In fashion terms)

‘It's very unique, very me, I think it's an extension of my personality. People often say they know I'm an artist just by looking at me, I like the color and African prints & I like to stand out from the crowd not follow it. I've always designed and made my own clothes although I have less time now to do this but still make a few items when I can. I also make my own headwraps, they are like my signature where attire is concerned as I always wear one. I design & make jewelry also. Over the past couple of years, I've been making ceramic jewelry. But I also like to feel comfortable in what I'm wearing so good fabrics and cuts are important too.’

Do you wear African print? If so how does it make you feel?

‘Yes I do, every day, at least as a headwrap and sometimes jewelry. I also make clothing with African print. As an artist and someone who cares about heritage and culture African print makes me feel positive inside and vibrant on the outside, I feel ready to take on the world in the right attire. My dad is a textile designer so I grew up with a passion for textiles and design. As well as being a visual artist and qualified graphic designer I studied textiles also. I love the colors, prints, patterns and the rich culture, history & stories woven into those designs and often my whole outfit is coordinated to work with the item of African print I'm wearing.’

Signature Poem by Zita Holbourne.

They're blocking me from progression
Trying to cause my regression
They can't abide
That I preside
Adept and articulate
Thinking 'how ridiculous'
She's a woman, sole parent, and black
We can't let her progress
Not someone like that

I don't fit into their Oxbridge ideal
I come from the streets, I'm real
I grew up in South London, Peckham
Raised by my Caribbean mum
I rate myself second to none

Not afraid to speak my mind
About discrimination I find
I know my rights and represent
All those people that they resent

They call me an ethnic minority
But not with my consent
I define myself as majority
And that term they use I resent

Only have to look at the world to see we make the majority
That term is just mental slavery to undermine the likes of you and me

So they're blocking me from progression
Call it a permanent recession
Don't want someone of my gender or race
To honour their executive boards with my grace

But when I tell them how I feel
Give it to them straight, remember I'm real
They tell me they find me
Aggressive, confrontational and excessive
But you know if I was educated at Oxford, Cambridge or even Yale
They'd tell me they find me
Assertive, sensational and progressive

But I'm an ethnic majority
My ancestors fought slavery
And like a suffragette
It's not over yet
Because I'll rise above them one day soon
Despite their secret chants of the 'N' word and coon

You see, I'm fired with a flame
That will burn out all their shame
I may not rise to fame
But I can play them at their own game

And though they won't give me a level playing field
To disseminate all I yield
Just remember I've combated
Racism, sexism, and oppression
Simultaneously, not in succession
And I'm still standing, still achieving
And there's no way I'm leaving

The may block my progression in the workplace
But see this face?
They may spit at it
Shut doors in it
Look down at it
Or disregard it

But still, I shine in the face of adversity
And I didn't need to go to university
To figure out what they're about

I may be a woman and I may be black
But no something I'm proud of that
Life isn't a concession
And I've got a confession
I overcame multiple oppression
So I sure as hell don't need permission
To achieve promotion or progression
And that's the end of this lesson.

Written by Zita Holbourne, COPYRIGHT JUNE 2004

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