the right to feel at ease
Derek Bardowell is an author, award-winning philanthropic leader, park runner, reimaginer and devoted dad. Once a music journalist and for many years a disruptive funder, Derek works at the intersections of race, culture and philanthropy and believes everyone has the right to feel at ease in themselves, in their bodies and in the places that they live. His first book, No Win Race explores race and racism in modern Britain through the prism of sport and was a Sunday Times and FT Book of the Year. His new book, Giving Back, reimagines philanthropy through a reparative lens and will be released in August 2022.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews, Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.
Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
Maybe about two years ago, so lock down year, I did a talk. And as part of that prep, a young architect or trainee architect asked me about where was the place that I, you know, really felt a sense of belonging and I really couldn’t come up with a place I could come up with, you know, my Mum and Dad’s living room. And I could come up with wherever, not even the houses that I’ve lived in really, but yeah, it was really like my Mum and Dad’s living room. But if you’re talking about an area, a region, a part of London, there wasn’t really a place where I felt, you know, I guess the sense of belonging I get now, which is probably quite sad, comes through the places that resonate more with my kids, more so than myself. So Mayow Park for me, because it was the back garden for my kids when I lived in Sydenham. It feels so rooted in my kids’ early life experiences in London. This is where they went to play football, you know, this is when their cousins came round and, you know, we had a very small back garden when we lived in Sydenham. We all came to Mayow park, you know, when I took up joking, 10 years ago, 2012, I was jogging around Mayow Park every Saturday morning, you know, so this is pretty much it. It was like the one place where the different communities of Sydenham converged because it started to become really gentrified over the last few years. And you would see it’s, you know, there was a kind of segregation thing going on and Mayow Park kind of seemed like the one place, or one of the few places where all of the communities converged. So, you know, even just being in here again, just gives me very, very nice feelings. You know, I’ve been up since the morning, you know, thinking about work and I’ve actually turned off and tuned out coming into this park. So yeah, there’s something that resonates quite deeply being here.
You know, I’m a day removed from having this session with the team at 10 Years Time about, you know, vision statements and where we want to be and all of that stuff. And the only thing I couldn’t come up with anything hugely profound to say to anyone other than, god everyone just has the right to feel at ease in themselves, in their bodies and in the places that they live, in their environment and whatever that is and whatever that feels like should be the vision. Now, the steps to get there, you know, are complex, are different, and it’s the multitude of different things that will enable us to get there. But I still kind of come back to that. I still come back to that, that word ease
So I grew up in Newham and I grew up in Newham in the seventies and eighties, which if you knew Newham in the seventies and eighties wasn’t great for education, racism was rife, National Front, which was a racist political party at the time was, you know, leafleting outside of primary school gates, my local secondary school. I mean, I think at one point they had a mobile police van situated in the actual school because there was so many racist attacks, you know, I kind of grew up quite fearful. You know, when you’re young, I felt British. I was born in this country and then everything that I was experiencing from a really young age and from a young age that I wasn’t really old enough to understand pretty much rejected my sense of Britishness, you know, from being stopped and searched by the police, going into shops and people calling the police on me for no reason, it just felt like there was a spotlight on me all of the time.
And that spotlight was really negative. So I always felt slightly edgy, you know, also had poor experiences with teachers whose expectations of my ability was fairly low, or very low. Every time I left, like my Mum and Dad’s front room, every time I left that, it felt as if there was some level of hostility, rejection, being othered. And that was my experience. And that was from I can remember, you know, from primary school age.
It’s a bit like, you know, if you watch a race, a long distance race and you know, you’ve got the runner that’s at the front and the one that’s behind, the one that’s at front, will keep accelerating the speed or slowing down the speed or moving depending on how they want the tactics that they need to win the race. And ultimately, if you look at racism in a very similar way, ultimately what happens is that even if things have changed, particularly people’s attitudes towards it, it still means that the systems and structures that are in place that have the power still stay ahead of that. And they stay ahead of that in a way that if they need to accelerate things because we’re catching up, and when I say catching up, we saw this two to three years ago when you know the movements particularly around Black Lives Matter and climate justice / climate change were starting to converge and they were starting to merge to a point where, you know, people that would not talk about, you know, racism suddenly started talking about racism and suddenly people that were interested in climate, but divorced that from racism started to see where, you know, the two things were interconnected.
No government wants to see those movements come together or those connections being made. So the way that these things have accelerated, and we’ve seen this from the government rhetoric over the last couple of years, we’ve seen it from the laws that have been trying to pass the fake reports that they keep putting out, is really just created to divide and rule, you know, nothing, nothing new, but to stop people who have got similar experiences and let’s face it, you know, while some communities experience harm way more than others, there are still quite significant levels of similarities in terms of people in this country that cannot mobilise because the structures do not allow that, they do not allow that mobility.
I had a Nike app or Nike app that would measure your distance. So I used to do 10K, so I used to go round and round and round and round. I can’t remember how many times round it was and I’m a lousy jogger, right? So when I say I’m a lousy jogger, I have this really silly thing where I will listen to like, ‘Welcome’ what is it, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns and Roses. And I will run the first four minutes to the pace of that tune really quickly. And then I’m like panting for the next 20 minutes or half an hour. So I’m not any demonstration of decent jogging whatsoever, but I always judge my moves by the way that I jog. And if the longer I jog and the less disturbed I feel by thoughts, worries, anxieties, generally that gives me a good gauge of what my mood is. And I think at the time when I was jogging around Mayow park at the night, again, it’s probably between 2012 – 2015, around that two, three year period, it just felt really peaceful. It felt like I could run and go round in circles and circles and not have a thought or an anxiety that would disturb, you know, my jog or make me stop or anything like that, you know. So yeah, but as I said, Guns and Roses, not a great soundtrack to start off with, if you want to pace yourself a 10K run.
You know, we work in social purpose organisations trying to make change and it’s our business to think about these things and to, you know, try to promote good, but ultimately to what degree does the social purpose organisations actually just recognise that on a very practical level, people don’t have time to be able to engage in, time or resource, to really be able to engage in anything beyond survival, beyond the next two to three months, or the bill that’s coming in. And that’s where it feels like there is a huge divorce between what we call social purpose in this country and the experiences and lives of ordinary people. Because if you’re not creating stuff that can speak to that experience or speak through that experience, it’s really difficult to get any level of mobility that is going to counteract some of the perverse government laws and rhetoric and things that are being passed daily without us really knowing.
Most of the ills of this world are socially constructed and socially constructed through a capitalist system where very few people who have lots of wealth and privilege have the power to dictate the lives of 98% of the population. If there’s one thing that I try to do is I try to break things down really simply and try to say it as simply as possible. If that’s the case, then the faith comes from the fact that a recognition of that and being able to counteract that is something that you can do through social purpose, through activism, mobility, common ground, all of those things or a combination of those things, as opposed to something that is in our DNA, you know, so we can change some of this stuff. So the faith comes from that, but the systems that operate are so complex and interconnected between, you know, how politics work and how our parliamentary system works right through to, you know, regulation or lack of regulation, right through to tax breaks, right through to who gets to make the decisions in my field, how money is allocated, you know, these are systems that are created through a layer of complexity. And in this country, we do bureaucracy incredibly well as a way of hiding, you know, I always used to see this around when George Floyd happened in the, you know, that was a very American way of doing things in terms of just the blatantness of that and the fact that that happens on such a frequent basis for black women and black men in America. Britain’s very slick in that it harms through policy and bureaucracy and does its level best not to create martyrs of those that it kills. So it kills people softly and that ambiguity, the abstract nature of racism in this country, which happens through bureaucracy and policy, is the way that it happens. But it also means that it prevents that level of mobilisation that people would have when a George Floyd incident happens. This country will do its level best to prevent that from ever happening. And if it does happen, it will be absolutely a mistake. Everything happens through bureaucracy and policy, and that’s very difficult for people to grasp and understand, even for those that are caught in the system, trying to change those things.
So I, you know, I recognise my limitations and I recognise I do some things well, I do some things not very well. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to be close to or see the work of people like Farzana Khan, or Amahra Spence and others, Carlene Firmin, they embody their work, the separation between what they do in their lives and their values and how they live their lives is closer than, than mine in terms of the work that I do. And the sense of humility for me comes from the fact that when I’ve seen that and when I’ve been able to recognise that is to try and do work that serves their visions and serves the work that they do. Ao for me, it’s around my purpose, I don’t know what that is, but it’s more to be able to resource the work that they do because I recognise in what they do, I couldn’t do 5% of what they’re capable of doing. And, you know, it’s like, you know, why are you going to be dragging your tired arse around trying to do things? When actually you can hand that resource to other people who can show a different way. I think what they also do is they show a way of what is possible and it’s built on a combination of vision, being visionary and imaginative, but it’s tangible, it’s doable, it’s achievable. And so when I see that, I sort of think, okay, I can spend a lot of time in my murky way trying to do things and trying to create this and trying to create that. Or I can try and get resourced support. Whatever it might be to support people that really have those visions and are living those visions and are able to push that forward.
And so for me, humility comes into that of sort of understanding your limitations, your restraints, but also just being able to see these visions that are amazing and trying to find ways to either resource it, support it, or just plough whatever level of allyship you can.
The way that they do it is they do it through a lens that is gendered. That is, you know, intersectional. That’s not going to leave anyone behind, that’s the bit that is important. They centre and ground their work in the experiences, the voices, the knowledge, the joy, the innovation, everything of people that are most harmed by our systems and the fact that they do that means that they’re not creating these visions that’s going to leave anyone in this world behind and that, that gives me faith, but having the humility to see that, to understand that also when I look at my privileges, I won’t be the first in line for what they create, you also have to recognise that. So that’s where the sacrifice comes from the sacrifice, so yeah, there’s humility and sacrifice and recognising that for our world to work and for our world to be grounded in the way that say a Farzana or Amahra grounds their work that, you know, you, you have to wait in line. That is the right way, because if those communities are determining their own destinies, then trust me, people that experience levels of real acute marginalisation and harm, to be honest, I haven’t met people who have experienced that, that have turned around and wanted anyone else to experience that in that way. If your world is built through that lens, then the type of extraction that we are experiencing today, I just don’t perceive that, that that will happen.
Yeah. I mean, the big worry for me is that this park is amazing and the people that have looked out for this park have, I think when I moved here many years ago, which would have been 2005, 2006, something around that, you know, the tennis courts that you see here, which are immaculate, they used to have massive holes in them. I mean, I used to play tennis with my kids’ here and you’d hit the ball and it’d almost be like, the ball wouldn’t bounce, it would just drop into a hole and she couldn’t do anything, you know, and there wasn’t, there’s like a wooden park bit at the other end, there’s now a cricket pitch in the middle, so much of this stuff that was here, wasn’t here 15 years ago. And so the beauty of this park and just the different layers of how it’s used is just amazing. But again, I always come back to, you know, who’s using it who’s benefiting from it, has this development of it displaced those, and my maybe slightly romantic notion of how the different communities would come into this park, has that changed, has the demographics of it changed. And I, you know, look at the tennis court and I think this is amazing, but you now have to pay and have a key to be able to get into it, you know, who’s using it now? So I think that thing of displacement still just, you know, it just gnaws at me that why couldn’t this stuff be here for the communities that have been here traditionally for years and years? Yeah, that always kind of sits in the back of my head.
Our government messes up, all of the time on a daily basis. And the response in the UK is not one to overthrow the government or change the government, it tends to be well it’s got to be someone else’s fault, it’s got to, we have this real hierarchy. So what you have is a wave of things that are changing, that is not often about the level of mobilisation of people and masses in the way that you would have in other countries to overthrow it. So it means that at the moment, a lot of the change mechanisms in this country are still based on bureaucracy and policy, more so than mobilisation. Now I’m not saying that’s not always going to be the case, I would love that the transition point that we’re in sort of post COVID and people starting to recognise the ills of the UK and the world and you know, some of these other arguments that, sorry, not arguments but conversations we’re now having around reparations, around Black lives matter, around climate justice, around fossil fuel companies. These things are starting to become the norm. So it means that opportunity for us to have the level of grassroots mobilisations that’s required to really change things might happen. The people that control and make the decisions around that are still the ones that are making decisions on what we see and what we don’t see: what’s erased, what’s visiblised, what is resourced comprehensively and thoroughly for a number of years, and what’s not. If you’re operating in that world, then it often means that you could have the brightest and biggest ideas possible, and we’ve seen this, I’ve worked in this for years and years, you know, this work that should be funded for 20 years for millions of pounds to be visiblised, realised to be able to have all of the privileges and power and resource that’s required, that has a number of these big charities have had historically, they’re not getting that level of resource. And part of it is for me and this is a personal opinion, like one, if you’re in a position of power, particularly working in philanthropy in order to do this work well, at some point you have to invalidate some of your own truths and some of your own work experiences You will have to, at some point, acknowledge that the way that you have done things has been complicit in an extractive system and that you’ve made mistakes. And for a lot of people, you’re either going to be very ignorant to doing that or being able to recognise that or two, you will continually try to create frameworks, this is what you see now, that keeps you in the frame and enables you to understand what a Farzana is doing as opposed to really being able to let go and legitimately let go so that work can flourish or three, you are so concerned with your status, that you do not want anything that is going to harm that. And on a very deeply human level, you can understand why people will find this work hard. If you have spent 30 years building up your career to a particular point where you’ve become a CEO and you now have Derek saying, you need to invalidate some of that, you need to, you know, this might harm your status, you might not get your OBE at the end of this and all of that. You know, the ones that are ignorant to it, I don’t know what the change mechanism is for that. But I think for those that are, and I think there were a lot of people who are incredibly thoughtful, but as I said, that invalidation of their truths or what they thought was the truth and their status and the fact that that might be harmed is a really difficult and personal and deeply human conversation to have, because that means that you need to give up power and no one, ultimately there are very, very few people that I have seen that legitimately will give up power in that way. As I said, all of these things that are created, the IC, are creating these various frameworks for those people in power to keep themselves in that frame, co-opt our language of reparations, reparatory justice, whatever you want, but it’s all done through a way that preserves power and that you could say is a very liberal way of preserving power, it’s a very liberal way of preserving power because ultimately you create a different level of language and frameworks, but what sits underneath that is that ultimately you will still be the one that takes credit for it, you still will not be transferring power and you will still be in a position to be taking credit for other people’s innovations even if more black and brown folks get a little bit more money as a result of this, more so than a right-wing way of doing things. And I think that is a fundamental problem in the notion of charity, it’s a fundamental problem in philanthropy, and it’s a fundamental problem in why we do not see the work that certainly I value, but certainly the communities that I work to benefit value, why that doesn’t get the resource that it should get..
I don’t say this thing about invalidating truths lightly because I was completely complicit being part of the system, I still am because I still operate in a philanthropic system that is colonial in nature that is extractive in nature. And even though the role that I play might be in terms of trying to mobilise resources into black and brown communities, it’s still having to play part of this complicit game.
And I have been playing that game in systems for years and years and years. I talk very openly and honestly, about being complicit in the charity system, in the philanthropic system, things I got wrong, things that I continue to not do as well as I would like to. And again, I come back to where humility comes into that is what does this all mean? Ultimately, what do you want to say your role has been if you’re in a position of power during a point of COVID-19 and the biggest public health crisis since world war two, George Floyd and Black Lives mMatter, what do you want to say as a charity or philanthropy in terms of your legacy, in terms of the changes that are required, do you want to say, oh, okay we gave, you know, some more money to more services or do we, do you want to say oh actually the real problem lies in, in some of the structural issues, which might be our government, it might be our policing and these fundamental issues, do you want to really say that you are contributing to some of the root causes of the problem?
It takes huge levels of humility, but it does mean that you haven’t turned away from a lens, which says, okay, we’re doing good cause we’re helping 500 I don’t know, young people at risk with this particular programme and actually in two to three years time, because those young people might get employment or, you know, have good benefits at the end of the next two to three years then as a CEO, I’ve done my job or we’ve done, you know, great. You move on two, three years. The hard work comes from the fact that we’re not going to see the changes of the deep work that’s required for these fundamental changes to happen so you have to look at legacy really differently. If you’re in a job for three to four years as a CEO, your metrics of success are going to look really different and your metrics of success, means that you’re not necessarily going to be able to in this current world elevate to the next job that you want to, because if you’re a charity you don’t have on your CV, the income of this organisation was 10 million when I started and now it’s 15 million afterwards, or, you know, we worked with a thousand kids in 2022 and by 2025, it’s 25,000 kids. These are all the metrics that we work with at the moment that says I have been a success. We’re now saying to people as a CEO and you want to carry the, do the root causes, this might harm your income, you might be working with less young people and you might not get your OBE or your next job at the end of it. So the way that our systems operate, and as I said, the metrics of success or traditional success will look really different in terms of what real change looks like. And again, coming back to what I said earlier around status and invalidating truths, that’s a really difficult transition for people to make, particularly if they will not see in their lifetime, the significance of their change.
But as I said, having to unpick 20 or 30 years of your work to be able to do it is really, really difficult, it’s scary to try and convince trustees or a whole team that you have, have kids and all of that, there is a whole system at play that needs to be changed. But my point here is philanthropy more than most industries has the independence and the wealth to be able to do that. And that is why I do the work that I do. And, sorry, it’s a long-winded way of getting there. There are just not many institutions or industries that has that level of independence and that level of wealth to be able to, and that level of privilege, to be able to demonstrate change in that way. Philanthropy or the institutional notion of that philanthropy, not philanthropy in terms of its purest terms, has that, that is the place where it can really, really happen. And because of its independence ultimately the choice not to do it is a human choice, it’s not about regulation, it’s not about the systems and bureaucracy, although that is at play. Most of these things can be changed because human behaviour can change as opposed to all of the systems. There is greater levels of control of those in power: the governors, the CEOs, the senior management teams, to be able to change this and demonstrate change, than in a lot of the other industries that I’ve worked in that is so tied to government and government funding, that’s where the change can really happen. So it’s human choice, why it doesn’t happen..
I can still see the day when, you know, my daughter was cycling around this park and I dunno what happened, but her bike just tipped over and she sort of fell headfirst into the concrete ground and I was on the other side of the park when it happened and saw it playing out and saw her on the floor. So I was, you know, grabbed my son and we ran across the park. And I just remember there was a group of guys playing football at that side of the park and as soon as they saw that happen, the way that they just stopped their game and ran over to help her. And they had a medical kit and they came over and helped her. And then when I got over there sort of panicked and she had all blood on her face, but it wasn’t as bad as, you know, I think she had a chipped tooth, but fundamentally she was okay, but she just looked horrific with all the blood on her face. And then these guys, not only helping her with this medical kit, but also it was just the way that they were instructing me about, oh, what I should do when I go back home and all of it. It’s just some of those moments that for me are just really beautiful.
You know, for all of the negativity that I might feel about how this is being gentrified and all of that, there’s just so many memories of being in this park that just slightly trumps that and kind of makes me pause. And even just being here today, it’s just really nice cause it’s made me pause from my very busy head that I normally have. And it’s because of those memories, it’s because it is such a wonderful park. And even though it’s not a huge park, I don’t know, just walking around it, I always feel like there’s just so many little nooks and bits to it, you know, and I’m, I’m looking around at the moment largely because there used to be a bit round the back I’m not sure that you were meant to go into, but it’s like this little forest bit that my kids used to go into that I think backs on to the local school here. And so there’s just all of these nice little nooks and different bits that are in here that makes this just a real pleasure to be around.
I think if you feel that sense of, you know, you’re just kind of being held by your environment, by your society or by the world that you live in then I can’t think of a more sort of beautiful place for us to get to. And my faith comes from the fact that I kind of think a lot of people want that, feel it, but all of the barriers and systems that are around that, are the things that we kind of need to break, but as we’re breaking it, we also need to have clear visions of what that ease and that vision looks like. And again, when I, you know, hang out with Amahra Spence and speak to her and other people, because they present a vision of what that is, I think that is so important for people. There’s just lots of people that have a gift, work ethic, whatever it is, the experience, being able to apply experiences to visions, whatever it is, that are creating these real tangible spaces, moments, environments that enable people to feel that. And as much as we try to dismantle harmful systems is as much as we need to resource those that have got the visions of what that ease would really look like.
I guess the feeling of being in the park or being in a place like this, I hope that my kids will have a greater sense of belonging, and ease, and feel that ease that I haven’t kind of felt and that they would have more spaces and places that they will feel that ownership over because, you know, as I said, how I feel now, it’s generally through the lens of my kids, that I feel that sense of ease and belonging less so what’s rooted in my own experience of England.