Today I’m so excited to share an interview with one of the most inspiring people I know, Seyi Akiwowo. I met Seyi several years ago, and have seen as she has worked for several years in social policy and sustainable development in the UK and abroad in places like Kuwait, Istanbul, UAE, Prague, Brussels, India and Bosnia. In 2014 Seyi became the youngest black female member of Newham Council in London, and she also writes and speaks on issues around diversity in politics, discrimination (particularly against women of colour from working class backgrounds), social and economic inclusion and methods to improve civic and political participation among women. Basically, she’s a badass.
2016 brought its fair share of political upheaval, with many left feeling somewhat helpless and frustrated in 2017. I spoke to Seyi to learn more about politics on a local level, and why it’s more important than ever to get involved.
What is your role in local government, and what does that entail?
When I was 22 I was elected as a Newham Councillor to represent and advocate for 30,000 diverse residents and local stakeholders on the council and when making local government decisions. Over the last two years and nine months I have had various roles, this includes being Deputy Chair of the Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Commission where I co-wrote the Newham Domestic Violence Report and wrote the Newham and Brexit Scrutiny Report.
I hold regular advice surgeries for my residents who have council related concerns or ideas this can range from issues with parking, planning permission, anti-social behaviour to fly-tipping, housing needs, libraries, youth provision, the administration of government welfare benefits, adult social care, children in care, adoption services and mental health support services.
Being a local Councillor is becoming increasingly important not only because more central government powers and oversight are being devolved to local government but because of the increasing need for local leadership and a local facilitatory role.
As a local Councillor I have a good overview of all local stakeholders in my ward such as the local police officers, school headteachers and small business owners, local activities such as Crossfit, career advice and temporary shelter and key community groups. This allows me connect communities, and particularly connect residents with a need, to local support and services.
How did you first get involved in politics?
Ever since my parents moved to Maryland, East London in the early 90s I’ve always been involved in my local community in some shape or form. I’m sure the local newspaper still have cringe-worthy photos of me in costumes dancing in Chatsworth Estate Fete with the local dance team.
My first engagement with representative positions was at Maryland Primary School where I was a school monitor, and then at my local secondary school in Forest Gate where I was a School Council Representative. Once I left school I decided to become a member of the local Labour Party and have been ever since. I am now Chair of both my Branch Labour Party and the Women’s Forum, as well as Executive Officer of West Ham CLP. As the Women’s Officer I’ve increased young female engagement in party politics, raised local women issues to the Council and has raised funds for charities such as Bring Back Our Girls.
There is an embarrassing Young Mayor video manifesto floating around the World Wide Web. This because I ran and was elected to be on Newham Youth Council and UK Youth Parliament in 2009. As an ex UK Youth Parliamentarian and Youth Councillor in my teens I found a real passion for youth rights and addressing social inequalities as a young activist.
What made you want to pursue it as a career?
Outside local politics I developed a strong passion for UK and international education and subsequently took a few courses as part of my BSc Social Policy degree at LSE. I knew I wanted to, and eventually did, work abroad for a season in Brussels where I had a fantastic experience working for the European Youth Forum, a European IYGO (international youth non-governmental organisation) advocating for youth rights as a Youth Policy Monitoring and Communications Officer. In this role I lobbied Members of the European Parliament on youth issues such as youth unemployment across Europe, informal education and increasing youth participation in democracy.
However, it soon became clear to me that I missed witnessing how policy can improve and impact lives, and so I came back to London to campaign in the hope of being elected as a Newham Councillor in May 2014.
Why do you think people should get involved in local politics?
Granted local politics isn’t as sexy as national or even international politics but it is so important. The closer something is to you the more impact and influence it will have on you right? That’s exactly the same for local politics.
If we look at how far right groups increase their political power they start of with gaining as many local council seats as possible, local politics is super important.
What are some of the best ways to get involved to see positive change in our communities?
I would encourage everyone reading this to:
1) Go on to their local council website,
2) Find out which ward you live in
3) Find out which councillors represent you
4) Follow your local councillors and Member of Parliament (MP) on social media, get clued up on what they are doing.
5) Email your local councillor and MP and introduce yourself – network, get on their radar and go meet them. Councillors have drop in surgeries or you can email them and ask to meet with them for coffee. I would ask them what they have been doing on the council over the last few years and what their priorities are.
6) What’s one local policy topic you are interested in or would like to know more about? If you’re a young person and you’re concerned about the closure of libraries and youth clubs ask your councillors what their opinion on this is and what they are going to do about it. If you’re concerned about the environment, ask your councillors what your council is doing to reduce fly-tipping and littering. If you’re concerned about health services such as mental health, ask your councillors how they are going to ensure the Conservative Government funding cuts will not impact on local mental health services.
Also ask your councillors about community forum meetings that you can attend so you can stay plugged into what’s happening locally, meet your neighbours and stay in the loop with what your representatives are doing.
7) Send this challenge to one friend to do.
8) Submit a question on a topic important to you to your council leader/ Mayor to be answered at a full council meeting.
9) Register to vote. As soon as you turn 18, register to vote. Encourage family members over the age of 18 to register to vote. If you don’t register to vote you’re not on local political parties’ radar so many political activists/ councillors/ MPs won’t bother to knock on your door to ask our things are going in your area.
10) Explore the top 3 political parties website, what their policy priorities, do you agree? Why? Be brave to share on your thoughts online.
Do you have any advice for others who may want to pursue a career in local government like yourself?
1) Confidently network, particularly outside your comfort zone. Meet new people and seek advice from experienced councillors. Then ensure you pay it forward. Provide that same support to those who are coming up behind you.
2) Find your interest, this may change as you get older and gain more experience, that is totally fine. There are a lot of interesting policy areas in local government, it is impossible to cover them all, pick no more then five and become an expert. Stay clued up with new developments opinion and key players. Try to pick a topic a bit out of your comfort zone, for me it was pensions and financial investment- boy did I learn a lot!
3) Politics is hard and requires resilience. Staying in politics requires even more resilience! Write down the main reason(s) why you want to get involved in local politics. Make a copy and give one to a close friend or family member and keep one on your fridge/ notice board/ bible or diary. When you need encouraging turn to that bit of paper/friend or family member and remind yourself why you are in politics for the long run.
And there you have it. I particularly love this:
‘The closer something is to you the more impact and influence it will have on you right? That’s exactly the same for local politics.’
Because it’s so true. If we look at any government as a whole it can seem overwhelming, and we feel powerless. But if you break it down, focusing on your local area and what matters to you, together we can see change happen. If you want to know more about Seyi, you can check her out online here.
Until next time, stay magic y’all.