An eulogy to Willis Wilkie

February 22, 2013 in Blog, Speeches by Gus John

Every day in every community, ordinary working people do extraordinary acts of great selflessness and courage in the service of their community. We tend to hear and write about luminaries and celebrities and not about them.

I was privileged to be asked to join Fr Nigel Orchard at Christ the Redeemer C of E church in Hanwell, West London, on Friday 22 February 2013 to conduct a service to celebrate the life of one such active citizen, Willis Wilkie (3 Oct 1926 – 5 Feb 2013), who spent most of his life serving communities in the Borough of Ealing.

The eulogy I wrote and delivered at the service coincidentally cuts a swathe of social history through almost 60 years of Caribbean life in Britain. Here it is:

The Borough of Ealing, the education community in Ealing and the black education movement in London mourn the passing of a tireless comrade in the struggle for children’s education rights and for equity and justice.

Born in 1926, Willis Wilkie was one of that early group of post-War migrants recruited from Barbados to come and work on London Transport.  Arriving here in 1955 at the age of 28, he was to spend the following 58 years of his adult life in public service, first as a transport worker, then as a local government officer, social worker, teacher, community organiser, political activist and independent consultant.

Like so many others of his generation, his life was spent within the crucible of British racism, an experience that defined the trajectory of the life, fortunes, misfortunes and achievements against all odds of so many of us.

Never one to let anything or anyone render him less than he could be, Willis ensured that he was treated with respect and dignity as a worker on London Underground and gave his fellow workers the confidence to demand the same for themselves.  But, despite his long working hours, his work was not done once he signed off from London Underground.

He was deeply conscious of the challenges facing the black community in housing, in schooling, in the workplace and in our relations with the police, and even in that early period he came to be seen as someone who informed himself about the way the society and its institutions functioned, about the rights enjoyed by the majority of the population and about how communities could organise themselves to safeguard, demand and extend those rights.  As such, he soon became someone to whom individuals could go and seek help and guidance, for themselves and for their families and friends.

Not surprisingly, therefore, having left London Transport he trained as a social worker at a time when our community was experiencing major social and psychological upheavals caused, by among other things, the number of children coming from ‘home’ to join parents who had left them behind while they came to secure employment and accommodation before sending for them, and with whom they had no emotional bond.  Emotional, physical and sexual abuse was not uncommon, nor was it acknowledged as a potential time bomb within our community.

Willis and social workers of his generation worked assiduously to deal with such families without traumatising them further by placing them at the mercy of social services and the police.  Another dynamic was the British authorities’ response to the way our families imposed discipline in the home and demanded that children conducted themselves outside the home.  In that period, many a parent faced charges of child abuse as a result of physical punishment of children.

Willis gained employment with Kensington & Chelsea as a social worker.  He later took up a social work post with Ealing Borough Council where in time he became a Senior Social Worker, highly respected both among his colleagues and by the entire community, irrespective of ethnic background.

Although he was a senior employee of the council, doing a horrendously demanding job, he made the time to function as a one-man citizens advice bureaux, law centre, housing and welfare rights service and education advocacy service. He was frequently acting as advocate for children and parents in challenging the practices of the Ealing social work, housing and education services.

Indeed, so successful was he in empowering the community to hold the council to account, that he was often called up in front of senior managers to be told, in effect, that he needed to decide whose side he was on, because he could not be working for the Council and causing them such grief at the same time.  Fearless soul that he was, Willis faced them down each time, arguing passionately that he was on one side only, the side of justice and equality under the law.

But, he firmly believed in collective action in pursuit of change in society, and so he joined with others with whom he pooled his skills and expertise and applied his vision to achieve great things.  Many of those stalwarts are here today and many more who are not have sent messages of condolence and of gratitude for who he was and for what he did, for what they achieved, together; for the way he inspired them to self-belief and to have confidence that working together with a common purpose, they could combat prejudice and racial and class oppression, walk tall, and inspire a generation to claim, safeguard and extend rights and build a new Britain, together.

In 1975, he joined Clare Sobers, Mollie Hunte, Ingrid French, Colvin Fitt and John Campbell and founded the Caribbean Parents Group.  Clare Sobers was its first Chair.

The CPG was launched in August 1975 at the Southall Community Centre by Bruce Pitt (now Judge Pitt), standing in for his father, the late Dr David Pitt.  The group soon became a powerful voice and advocate for Caribbean parents and students, with a particular focus on the way the schooling system was failing African-Caribbean children.

With the incontrovertible message of Bernard Coard to the schooling system and to black parents still ringing in their ears, about how our children were being made educationally subnormal and treated as imbeciles, the CPG set out to inform parents about how the schooling system worked, how they could empower themselves to make sure it didn’t continue to work against the interests of their children and how children could be assisted with strategies for surviving schooling and getting the best out of it.

Before long, rather than dealing with the real issue, the authorities focused upon the name, claiming, totally without irony,  that to call the group the Caribbean Parents Group was discriminating against other parents who might feel excluded.  That was the same system that was excluding black children in droves and excluding their parents from the various circles in which decisions were made concerning the education of our children.

Willis and the CPG were ably guided by Mollie Hunte who was at the time one of the few black psychologists in the country and the only black educational psychologist in Ealing. The group was well served by the unwavering efforts of the pioneering Eric and Jessica Huntley and their bookshop and publishing house, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications.

In 1980, the CPG with a number of voluntary education workers and parents in the community established a Supplementary School as a natural development of its work. The late Edna Wilkie, Willis’ wife, played a major part in the creation and running of that school.  The school was run by a committed body of hard-working volunteers, teachers, parents and senior students.

Although operating on a shoestring, principally at St Anselm’s church hall in Southall and the Oaktree Centre in South Acton, the school raised its own funds, occasionally receiving small grants.  It helped parents across the borough of Ealing to set up parents groups; it organized important conferences and brought together eminent educationalists to engage with parents and young people, it organized cultural events and parents’ and young people’s social outings and educational trips.  Again, the success of the school was enhanced hugely by the involvement of Eric and Jessica and the curricular materials they organized and inputs they made for and in the school.

In keeping with their shared belief in the power of collective action, the CPG and the school were instrumental in helping to build a network of African-Caribbean supplementary schools.

But, Willis, the CPG and the school did not simply support the learning of school students.  Many an adult learner was encouraged and assisted to do postgraduate work by members of the CPG and the school who spent tireless hours with them, building their confidence and helping to remove those obstacles in their personal lives and in their learning environments that threatened their potential to succeed.  People such as Dr Sandra Richards and the author Grace Quansah are proud to call themselves protégés of Willis Wilkie and graduates of the supplementary school.

Willis ran small support groups for young people, using his counselling skills, and encouraged and assisted them to get training and pursue their careers.  He did not just challenge schools from the outside looking in.  He supported them with strategies for working with students who were at risk of exclusion; he worked with and in schools on projects concerned with Caribbean history and culture; he was part of a local authority consultative group on ethnic minority achievement and on producing and monitoring a race equality policy and action plan.

He worked on projects at Acton High School with Carmel Cameron. Most recently, he worked in schools as part of an oral history project, inspiring students and teachers alike with the story of his life experience with Britain in Barbados and in London.

Also in the 1980s, Willis Wilkie founded the Westphi Academy, an education and training consultancy, with Mollie Hunte (PRO), the late Daphne Stewart, Margaret Phillips, Heather Thomas and Winston Best (Chair). Willis was Treasurer.  They worked with close associates such as Dr Morgan Dalphinis, the Reverend Huey Andrew, Methodist minister and teacher, and Gus John, then Assistant Education Officer in the ILEA and Head of Community Education. Westphi Academy broke new ground by establishing itself as one of the first black national consultancy groups in the UK.

Willis was concerned not only about the social and educational wellbeing of the community. He was particularly troubled by our economic disempowerment and the perennial absence of sustainable economic institutions within our community. Concerned about the number of African heritage people who were being denied loans by banks and mortgage companies, Willis decided that the Caribbean Parents Group should establish a Credit Union.

A BBC Online personal finance reporter noted in July 2004 that ‘Southall, near Heathrow airport, with just 7% of its population falling into the excellent bracket, is the UK’s least creditworthy place. In fact, more than half of Southall’s inhabitants have a credit rating deemed to be poor or very poor’  Willis told the reporter at the time that ‘Western style credit scoring doesn’t take account of ethnic diversity’ and he agreed with the view that local residents were getting a raw deal from high street banks.

In 1990, Willis Wilkie and the CPG set up the Southall-based Caribbean Parents Group Credit Union.  The BBC report in 2004 stated that ‘the group now has 200 members and helps obtain credit for people who may have been considered a poor risk by some High Street lenders’.  Willis is quoted as saying:

“Time and again people I knew were turned down for loans to start their own business. These were honest people who had been here many years or all their life. Banks didn’t have to give a reason for refusal. I feel there was racism involved, a black name meant refusal”.

The Credit Union operated successfully from 1990–2012 and assisted many of its members to get a foot unto the housing ladder, pay for university courses, repair or build homes in the Caribbean, start businesses and much else besides. One of the factors that led to its recent winding up was Willis’ failing health.

In spite of all of the above, however, Willis was as selfless as ever.  He sought no gongs or commendations and derived total satisfaction from the knowledge that he had made a difference in people’s lives and served his community with honour and integrity.  Twice he was nominated for a gong from the Queen and each time he politely refused it.  He refused it not only because he thought it was totally devoid of meaning, but because he felt that his achievements were the result of collective effort, even when he was rendering a personal service or acting as an advocate.

Nevertheless, he cherished the recognition of his local borough and the communities of Ealing, recognition which he saw as organic, meaningful and homely.

In March 2004, he was given the top prize in the Ealing Gazette’s very first Pride in Our People award ‘for the massive difference he made to the lives of those around him’.  That, he accepted graciously.

‘Descendants’ established the Dr John Roberts CBE Q.C achievement awards in 2005.  Willis sat on the judging panel and brought his extensive educational experience to bear in selecting students for those awards. The annual achievement awards is the community’s way of recognising and celebrating the achievement of young people of African and Caribbean descent.

Willis was a dedicated supporter of ‘Descendants’ and of Margaret Noel’s excellent work. In recognition of his dedication and commitment to the education of our children, one of the awards is the Willis Wilkie award which he turned up to present in person even despite his recent health challenges.  ‘Descendants’ assures us that the Willis Wilkie award will continue to be offered annually in his memory.

In 2009, the community of Ealing came together to honour him and show their gratitude for his life of service…, and that was not one moment too soon.

Let us not forget, though, that none of all that would have been possible without the dedication, love, commitment and forbearance of his dear wife, Edna.  Love and forbearance because Willis was ever charming, but not what you would call ‘easy’.

Edna shared him with this community all these decades, even when she walked hand in hand with him through those many community struggles.  But she and Pier were also sustained by his caring disposition as husband and father and by the knowledge of the impact he had on so many lives and on the life chances of so many.  And that’s not to mention his love of good food and of cooking good food; and his sharp wit and keen mind, a sharpness he displayed to the last.

Willis left us to go and join the Ancestors on 5 February 2013.

I think we can safely say:  ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’! Don’t you?

Picture: ”Flower” by Andrew Gibson (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)