“Black history month is a celebration of all that we are, all that we’ve done and all that we can become as black people”
October is Black History Month in the UK and it's been celebrated nationwide every year for nearly 40 years. This month was originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to this country over many generations. Now, Black History Month has expanded to include the history of not just Afro- Caribbean black people but all black people in our communities.
We will be sharing stories to celebrate the amazing people we have in the Solent community. Today we hear from Ophelia Matthias, Communications and Community Engagement officer at Solent NHS Trust who tells us what Black History Month means to her.
Ophelia says: “Black History Month for me is a celebration of all that we are, all that we’ve done and all that we can become as black people, because so often there can be negative portrayals of black people in the world, and most specifically in the media. Not just with the recent and tragic death of George Floyd, but closer to home, black people are disproportionately represented.
“For me, the issue of the portrayal of black people in the media is really close to my heart and as a former broadcast journalist and an influential voice within my community, both at work and at home, I am passionate about using positivity to drive change. All of us in society, need the opportunity to articulate ourselves, nobody should be made to feel like they cannot do something because they might be ‘different’.
“We also talk a lot about being our authentic selves, and that means different things for different people. It’s about understanding and accepting those differences, whether that be at work or in society in general. You might not always understand the way someone talks, their dialect, if they have an accent, the way they dress, or the food they might eat, but that’s ok – it’s ok to be different and it’s about celebrating that difference as black people, being comfortable in our own skin and with who we really are.
Ophelia adds: “In our BAME resource group meeting, I’ve heard a lot of people’s stories, some of them good but a lot of them are raw and painful. I feel privileged to be part of those conversations, but it also makes me think about myself and my experiences. Fortunately, as a black woman, I’ve not experienced a lot of racism, but as a child, it affected me - it wasn’t until I grew older, however, that I’d realised that those experiences were in fact racist and completely unjustified.
“I was six years old at primary school and I remember asking to go to the toilet in one of my classes. The teaching assistant at the time told me to wait a while longer, but I was desperate. Then, I noticed that she was letting everyone else who needed it, go and she was still telling me to wait. I had no clue at the time what was happening. I was a child, I did what I was told at school, but the teacher was someone I should have been able to look up to. Someone to safeguard me but instead, she used her power to almost belittle me.
“I also got a lot of ‘you’re quite pretty for a black girl’ or ‘you speak really well, you’re so articulate’ – I still get a lot of that now, like people have already got preconceptions that I wouldn’t have been well-spoken and that they were then surprised when they could understand what I was saying.
“These experiences really drive me now, and where my heart really lies is fighting against social injustice. Fighting against any of those nine protected characteristics is important to me, and in fact, I tick a few. However, in the BAME meetings, I am there representing the characteristic related to the fact that I am black. I hate to see people marginalised for who they are, and I want to make sure I fight for people who might not be able to use their own voice to stick up for themselves or for things that really matter to them.
“Thankfully, I’ve never been turned down jobs because of my colour, I feel like the careers I’ve chosen, I’ve done well in and I’ve not been held back because of who I am. I feel the same way in Solent. I’ve been offered a chance to be creative, be responsible for my own ideas, and there is so much opportunity to be yourself at work. I have an extremely supportive set of line managers and both my teams in communications, and community engagement are amazing.
“For matters close to my heart, being part of the BAME network is fabulous as it encourages growth and provides a platform where we can use our voices to push change forward, making sure we are portrayed, as black people, in the best possible light. Groups are part of who we are as social creatures. They provide a commonality, and sometimes, having someone that is of the same colour or has the same invested interests as you, can energise you when connecting because they understand some of the things other groups of people may not.
“I feel lucky to be part of an organization that offers us a space to create our network groups and celebrate each other. Going forward, I’m excited what the future can hold and the opportunities we have in Solent - to use my voice for influence. The more influence you have the more power you have to spearhead change, and that’s what I’m all about.”