We’re delighted to bring you the thoughts of Cabinet Member for Housing at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Anthony Okereke, as he sat down with Urbanist Platform Founder, CJ Obi.
Anthony explains what made him choose a role connected to the Built Environment and what can be done to get more young Black people involved in shaping their community. CJ: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
Anthony: The best advice I have been given is to develop the habit of holding individual meetings with people. In a culture where we have quick encounters, multiple contacts and instant access, we see that there are fewer personal and public relationships of depth and quality. When you develop the habit of meeting people and taking time out to understand them, challenge, probe to recognise what compels them, you stop thinking of people as ‘terms’ like, the poor, the rich, the establishment, the left, the right. You soon realise that people often bear almost no resemblance to the image others have of them.
CJ: What made you choose a career connected to the built environment?
Anthony: The main thing that attracted me to the built environment is that wherever you go, everything around us is designed and built with such accuracy and precision for our usage. During people’s day to day activities, most don’t usually pay attention to that but I have always been intrigued by that process. Let’s take for instance Islamabad Brunel, his bridges have stood the test of time, they are beautiful, practical and they serve our transportation needs. The multiple disciplines that come together to make a structure or building fascinates me. So that, and the fact that I love the muddy and early morning smell of a construction site that comes before the equally captivating scent of a new build.
CJ: How do you think we can attract more young Black people to actively take part in shaping their community?
Anthony: I feel representation and role models are an important way to engage more young black people. Being able to see someone who looks like you gives you a real sense of confidence that you can achieve the things you set out to do. I think coming from a Nigerian household, the more traditional professions were promoted, but there is such a variety out there other than engineering. We as an industry need to engage with schools, colleges and higher education institutions on what kind of careers are out there. Rarely do we see people who want to be BIM Managers, Revit/CAD coordinators or technicians.
CJ: Some argue against tokenism, but do you think we can do more as an industry to promote and empower Black people in leadership positions?
Anthony: Firstly, I think we can always be doing more as an industry, but I think the starting ground is to first create work environments where all black and ethnic minorities feel they belong.
Secondly, the industry needs to move towards blind recruitment as much as possible. But I recognise there are biases even in the interview process. You can have an affinity bias and with such things, there will always need to be a process of continuous learning and unlearning to uproot discrimination and prejudice.
Finally, post-COVID-19 we will need to be intentional about how the industry adapts the learning and development process. With everyone working from home, the challenge is that practical, on the job learning experience will be lost, and learning inevitably becomes theoretical. We need to establish ways to improve our skills, shadow people in this new era that we are in because real-life situations allow us to develop a better understanding.
CJ: What have you found are the pros and cons of being labelled "BAME" and part of a minority in the sector?
Anthony: Some would argue that the term BAME makes it simple to raise issues of those who are disproportionately marginalised under their ethnicity. Personally, I think we need to move away from language that is ‘easy to use’ and focus on drilling down and having a true understanding of how people of different ethnicities are subjugated. People and the structures in our institutions need to recognise the differences we all have. Using the term BAME fails to interrogate the discrepancies between different minority groups. I also feel we need to better work to reshape the conversation. Institutions focus on the term BAME but fail to address the structural racism that causes institutional disproportionality. We need to address the causes of institutional racism, as opposed to performatively talking about ‘diversity’.
CJ: Who would you say inspires you? (property or non-property related).
Anthony: I have to be very honest there is no person of notoriety that inspires me or that I look up to. Rather, I find that people's individual stories and experiences inspire me and compel me to undertake the work I do both as a politician and built environment professionals. I am someone who has had to overcome several challenges by being disabled with sickle cell disease. I overcome it daily and I have become very resilient, so I can very much identify with the suffering and challenges people face. It is these experiences that compel me to want to do better and bring about change.
CJ: What impact do you hope to make in your role as Cabinet Member for Housing at Greenwich
Anthony: When I reflect on my life the one thing that was stable and consistent was my family home. You can go through a whirlwind, but at the end of it all, when you have a place to go home to, that sanctuary is your comfortable healing place. When we look at the theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see at the bottom of that pyramid those fundamental psychological needs, one of them being shelter. So, for people to thrive, everyone needs a home and I want to help prepare, organise and shape these needs in the right way so that it can have a positive impact on people’s lives.
CJ: What other long-term goals do you have in the built environment?
Anthony: If we take into account the Government's Build Build Build agenda, we can see how the policy of permitted development will impact people's welfare in the longer term. Policies have a huge bearing on a person's life. As someone who is a politician, I want to be able to impact policy so that communities can progress. I want to do this in the right way that will transform people's lives and that is the ambition.