Stafford Scott talks about taking a 'constructively awkward' approach to community activism, how the NHS can become a ‘national hearing service,’ and challenges the next generation of leaders to embed themselves in communities and bring people together.
Stafford is the Founder and Director of Tottenham Rights, a community-led initiative that addresses issues around social injustice and structural racial inequalities in Tottenham and beyond.
SW: Sally Warren
SS: Stafford Scott
SW: Welcome to The King’s Fund podcast where we explore the big issues and ideas in health and care. I’m Sally Warren, Director of Policy here at The King’s Fund and I’m delighted to be joined on this episode by Stafford Scott. Stafford is the Founder and Director of Tottenham Rights, a community-led initiative that addresses issues around social injustice and structural racial inequalities in Tottenham and beyond. This month, Stafford and his team have launched an expedition at the King’s Fund called “Open Wounds” that explores the connections between health, racism and inequalities in the UK. Stafford, welcome to The King’s Fund podcast.
SS: Glad to be here.
SW: Lovely, great to have you with us. So Stafford, as I said, you’ve created the “Open Wounds” exhibition which is currently on display here in our building in Central London in Cavendish Square, can you tell our listeners a bit about the exhibition and the impetus behind it, please?
SS: Open Wounds is an extension of the record-breaking “War Inna Babylon” exhibition that Tottenham Rights co-curated. And in that exhibition we examined the nature, the extent and the impact of structural racism on black people in the UK since the landing of the Windrush. Open Wounds is an extension of that exhibition, Open Wounds has now given us an opportunity to have a look at the relationship between black communities and the NHS and the healthcare system, especially post the COVID-19 pandemic. The impetus behind it was that we really wanted to send a message to the NHS from black communities that are often described as hard to reach, to key figures within the NHS. And the most significant message that we want to send is, there are many people in our community who lost faith with the leadership within the NHS as a result of the pandemic, the lockdown and the vaccine process. And that what we want the NHS to understand is that they owe it to our community and our community need them to invest in engagement that’s going to improve the relationships. Because if it doesn’t happen, in years to come we’re going to have a tsunami of unnecessary deaths in our community.
Open Wounds is trying to say to the NHS that we’ve been suffering for a long time and now’s the time, if any time, to start to address those needs.
SW: Thank you Stafford. Certainly we’re very honoured at the King’s Fund to be able to share our space with you and use our space to be able to give a voice to this community, which as you say have been really at the receiving end of an awful lot of structural racism over decades, but in particular the impact of the COVID pandemic.
SS: Ultimately I guess our message and the community message that we’re trying to portray here is to the leadership of the NHS. And what we’d like the NHS to do, they’ve always been a National Health Service, what we want them to become as a result of not just the exhibition, but as a result of COVID-19, because in there we hoped that there was a learning of who and what the keyworkers are. So what we ask the NHS to become in future is a National Hearing Service. We have, and I think it’s fair to say out of every public service provider, the NHS in particular has a habit of identifying our community as being hard to reach. We think that that’s a really dismissive attitude. We understand sometimes it’s because there are limited resources and when there are limited resources, service providers are forced to make some critical decisions. But we think that our needs are being almost dismissed with this term of being hard to reach. COVID-19 should have proven that those hard to reach communities are in fact the neighbourhoods where many of your keyworkers actually live and reside. We would have hoped that because of the sacrifice that many of them were forced to make during the pandemic, that our communities would be made to feel as if they had a greater value within the system. And that’s the message that we try to send out to everyone from within the healthcare system, that we really need to begin a process of engagement, developing relationships because they can’t be developed in times of crisis as we saw during the pandemic.
SW: Thank you, Stafford, and I think the exhibition is a really powerful impetus to shift that, as you say, hearing and listening and engaging that and building relationships, being part of an overall community of the NHS. It is really, really important and I would thoroughly recommend to our listeners, if you can get to our building in Central London, you are really very welcome to come and visit the exhibition. There’s more detail on our website and in the show notes about how you can come and experience the exhibition, which we would definitely recommend.
So Stafford, we’re going to move a little bit more on to you now, rather than focusing on the exhibition. As I mentioned in my introduction, you’re the Director and Founder of Tottenham Rights, but you’ve also had many other roles; as an engagement expert, a community activist, a race equality consultant, a writer, a curator, a campaigner and a facilitator. I think I could go on. That’s a long list, so how do you describe the work you do?
SS: It does sound like a long list but it all relates to one theme and that theme is community activism based on the lived experience of my community, of which I’ve obviously shared. I have become an authentic voice of that experience and I try to use that voice in a positive way to challenge the system, to recognise that what the community is often saying is valid and to try and make steps to redress, rebalance the impact of policies that have failed to address community needs for many decades. I should say that as part of working with King’s Fund over the years, that Dr David Naylor, who was at The King’s Fund, he once did a PhD and described me as being someone who was constructively awkward. I found that definition really helpful, I get called lots of names by people within the system that previously I guess I was attacking. But his describing me as constructively awkward almost helped me to find a framework in which I could conduct my activism. I like to challenge institutions, push and prod them, and hold them to account where possible to try to get them to deliver services that are fit for our community need.
SW: Thanks Stafford, that makes your work sound absolutely fascinating and I’m pleased to report that although my colleague might have called you constructively awkward, I’ve not been finding you an awkward guest on the podcast so far. We will be talking much more about you and your leadership journey in a moment, but before we get to you, I’m interested to hear what do you think makes somebody a great leader?
SS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure that I know the answer, I’m not sure that I’ve met many great leaders in my time. In my personal life, one of my mentors was Bernie Grant. I thought that he was a great leader based on his decision-making, most of all his loyalty, but I think a great leader really needs to be someone who is visionary and who can share the vision with others, so that other people can also buy into that vision so it’s not just that person’s vision alone. Great leaders have to be able to get people to believe that the objectives that they set themselves are achievable and that they have the capacity somehow to get there. And I guess in this time when we understand that there’s a need for compassionate leadership, great leaders need to be able to support and empower individuals and support and empower others to be able to grow and then to be able to contribute to the vision that the leader initially had.
SW: What do you think your particular leadership skill or superpower is, a thing that you’re really good at? And I’m going to say now, if you think that there’s not just one thing, it’s a combination of a few, that’s allowed as well.
SS: I do have difficult talking about self because I’m a community leader and in that it’s about others, not necessarily about self. I do believe if people went into my community and asked them what it was that they saw in me that made them to come to me in times of need, I do believe that people would say that my leadership, my authority comes through my credibility, the fact that I’ve been in these spaces and in these places for decades supporting my community. I think people will say it’s about my loyalty and integrity, the terminology we use is “I come from the streets”, that means I’ve had a rough time. I certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth but I’ve carried myself and conducted myself in a way that has made people have trust and faith in my integrity. And also my willingness to take on the system and my willingness to support people in the most extreme times and in the most extreme situations to be able to not only hold the State to account, but to help those people to be able to hold themselves up and to be able to hold their heads up with pride and respect and integrity for self.
SW: You talked a little bit about your younger self, so talking about on the streets, so that kind of sense of you didn’t have a lot of the opportunities that others might well have benefited from, particularly at an earlier age. I’m interested in the young Stafford, was there always a glint of a leader in your eye, were there always those leadership traits, or have those come with the experience of working with and inside your community and kind of the formative experiences of that community? To what extent do you think you were always a coming leader?
SS: I’m not sure if I was always a leader, but as a young child I was told that I was bright. My life changed and I then got dumped into a class with other black kids who teachers in the school didn’t seem to have much expectation of. And I know I tried to resist being forced to know my place and in doing so, also found out that I had a knack of representing others to authority, so sometimes talking to teachers in the classroom about the impacts that they are having on other students. And I know that over the years in different guises, my community has looked to me to be able to represent them, not least after uprisings happened on Broadwater Farm in the 1980s. In many ways that’s when I became a kind of public facing role.
SW: You talked a little earlier about some of your mentors, I wondered what’s the best piece of leadership advice you’ve ever received that you think our listeners might be interested in hearing that advice?
SS: The transition for me that came from trying to be that leader that had a following to being a leader that listened and tried to respond to what I was hearing probably came from the likes of Darcus Howe, people may remember Darcus. He passed recently and Darcus was one of those who was very instrumental in organising the black people’s day of action following the New Cross fire in which 13 people died. What he taught me, because I always wanted to understand how it was that they were able to build this day of action where they brought 20,000 black people to the centre of London on a Monday afternoon, which everyone else previously would have said was impossible to do. And he’s the one who really said to me, “This isn’t about leading people and leading communities, it’s about listening to them, hearing their needs and expectation and then finding ways to facilitate and enable that to happen.” So the key thing I think is about how we listen and hear what’s happening in our communities more. And listening means really deep listening. Ambulance people when doing the triage, what I’ve heard them say is when they go to an emergency, they don’t rush to the people who are making the most noise, even though they’re in pain and in need, you sometimes have to go to those who are making the least noise because they’re the ones who are more likely to have a fatal crisis within that incident.
So deeper listening means not just listening to the voices that are screaming out, but also listening to those who are often not being heard.
SW: That sounds like a very powerful piece of advice to be given. So, if that was the best piece of advice that you’ve had, what was the toughest leadership lesson that you’ve had to learn yourself that you’re happy to share with me and our listeners?
SS: That even when you do the right thing, there may be a personal price to pay and an impact. If I can quickly tell a story?
SW: Please do.
SS: So in 2011 I was one of those who took a leading role in the demonstration that took place outside Tottenham Police Station before the riots happened. I had led the demonstration there on behalf of the Duggan family to find out from police why their son had been slain, well not why he had been slain, but why the police had not come and engaged with the family to inform them of what had happened. It was a very difficult space and place to be in because the police were not really responding in the way that I had hoped that they would. Long story short, the police were not very responsive and we know that there was a riot and we know that that riot spread all over England for five days. And we obviously cut all engagement with the police as a result of that. But I felt a personal impact that the demonstration I had led to this space, had led to my community being burnt down and by my community, I mean the physical locality of Tottenham. It impacted me the next day in my mother couldn’t get up and go to the shop and buy bread and the next week she couldn’t go to the Post Office and get her pension. And it wasn’t just my mother, it was the whole town. It bothered me that people died in those riots even though the riots happened because we were protesting about someone’s death. So, there was lots of contradictions there.
Fast forward a couple of years and the police shot and killed somebody called Jermaine Baker in Tottenham in very similar circumstances to Duggan. As a result of what I had learnt in 2011, I called a meeting in Tottenham and I called the police to be on the platform because in 2011 part of the problem was the lack of engagement and the lack of information being put into the community is what led the community to follow certain beliefs and make certain decisions. So here I put the police on the platform for them to address, not just the community, but mainly the media who were putting out misinformation into the community. As a result of that meeting, I lost some credibility in my community members who said that I should never have brought the Police Force into a community setting. But the truth is, as a result of that meeting, the pressure that was building up in our community that was making it more likely that there was going to be serious public disorder, that pressure was dispersed. So I achieved what I felt was needed to be achieved for the greater good of the community, whilst at the same time I was heavily criticised by many in the community for doing so because they believed that maybe I was engaging with the enemy at a time that we shouldn’t have.
Most people now do agree that it was the right thing to do because our community didn’t end up having significant public disorder take place within it. I’m not sure if that actually answers your question because that may have been some of the best work that I did, as opposed to the wrong work. But some people believe that I shouldn’t have done what I did or taken the course of action that I did.
SW: I wanted to move on to the final few questions around your leadership experience. One is really to understand what’s your proudest moment as a leader to date?
SS: I recently, I don’t know if anyone at The King’s Fund would be aware of recent controversy within Government and within policing, and it’s about a racist database that the police have called the “Gangs Matrix.” I exposed the Gangs Matrix in 2019 and as a result got Amnesty International involved and we did a complaint to the Information Commissioners Office and the Information Commissioners Office found that the Metropolitan Police had been guilty of breaking, there’s about 3000 young people on this database, 80% of them happen to be young black kids, 30 odd percent of them had never committed a violent crime in their life, yet this was what the database was supposed to be about. And they were policed in the most Draconian manner as a result of being on that database, so having the ICO say that in creating the database the police had broken all those young people’s privacy, data and equality rights, broken all legislation and broken those young people’s rights, and then having the Metropolitan Police Force put in special measures because of that, and then having 1350 of those young people’s names removed from that racist database, that was very significant as well because I understand the impact on those people’s lives and their families’ lives.
But more recently I was, with my daughter, we’ve become guest Professors of Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths University. And as I didn’t even make it to Sixth Form at school, I think that that’s a significant milestone and suggests that I must have made up for whatever inadequacies I had during my schooling life. So yes, I’m very proud that I can now say that I’m lecturing in a real university, radical black education.
SW: Congratulations to you and your daughter, it’s a huge achievement for you to be in that position, so well done. The last question for me about leadership and it’s particularly because at The King’s Fund we support the leaders of today across the health and care system, but we’re also wanting to support future generations of leaders as well. So what’s your advice to the younger generation, to the people who are coming up and biting at your ankles to be the next generation of leaders? What’s your main piece of advice to them?
SS: When I see incidents of police brutality that leads to death and such, then I see in our community some young people starting to step up to the plate. At the moment I see them doing that and I hope it’s not because they’re following a trend that was started in America. I hope that they’re doing it because they understand that for us to have a place in this society here, then all the services need to deal with us in the same way that they deal with our white counterparts. So what I’ll say to the next generation of leaders is that you need to be embedded in communities and not just talking for self, about self, and just about the things that you have been involved in. We need the next generation of leaders to buy into some of the principles of the original leaders and that’s people like Marcus Garvey, whose principle was that each one should teach one. And those who knew better were supposed to do better. So rather than being leaders on social media platforms talking outwardly, be leaders within communities helping to build and be the glue that kind of binds our communities together.
We need leadership through credibility, decision-making, that means people have to get it right, people have to set examples through their action, and most importantly they have to show loyalty and they have to show informed but also innovative thinking, because we’ve got to think differently so that we can do differently, so that the outcomes might be different.
SW: Brilliant advice for the next generation. I hope they all heed that. Before we go, is there anything else that you wanted to say to our listeners about the health and care system?
SS: When I was on Broadwater Farm and I told them, and it links to what I just said about leaders who suddenly lead the community, when I was on Broadwater Farm in the late 80s, early 90s, an opportunity came for me to go and hang out at the Department of Health as a Community Engagement Adviser. I’m helping them to talk to the NHS about how you engage with so‑called hard to reach communities. When I told my community that I was going to go and do this work, they said “No, Staff, you’re going to sell out, you’ll never come back, everyone who goes, no-one comes back.” Because the public sector pays pretty well in comparison to the voluntary sector, especially the black voluntary sector. But I said to them, “No, no, I’m not doing that, I’m actually going in to where the enemy’s at.” And this was Skipton House, the Department of Health, Elephant and Castle, I said, “I’m going to go and find the conspirators and I’m going to hold these people to account.” And when I spoke to them about the conspirators I didn’t have to explain what I meant. Everybody knew that I meant I was going to go and find those people that we knew exist within the public sector who are there specifically to deny black people resources and opportunities.
So when I told my community I was going to do that, they wished me well. When I came to Skipton House, and I was serious, I explained to the community that Skipton House was all glass, it was a glass ceiling, glass atrium, glass lifts, and that these conspirators would not be able to hide. I came back a few weeks later and people in the community said, “Staff, how did it go, did you find them?” And I said, “No”, and those people pointed fingers at me and said, “Look, we told you you were going to sell out, we told you you were going to let us down.” And I had to look at them and say, “You know what, I didn’t find them because those people didn’t exist.” And then they really thought I was selling out because we all know they exist or we all thought they existed. And I did.
But my experience in the Department of Health taught me that those people do not necessarily exist, I didn’t find or see anybody being overtly racist, far from it. What I saw and heard were lots of people, the majority of them happened to be white, who came to work in the morning wanting to do a professional day’s work for a professional’s day pay. And they had lots of professional pride. But what I saw also was that they were working on strategies and policies that were five years ahead of the date that I was there. They were working on things five years ahead of time and they were doing it without knowing or understanding my community’s needs. They were doing it whilst believing that my community was hard to reach and didn’t deserve extra consideration about how services could be delivered. But they were good people, so I learnt that McPherson was right, that some of the policies and procedures that we see as have an impact on us, a disproportionately negative impact on us, have not been developed with intent. So my leadership here in this role is to find and help those who absolutely do not want negative impact within the process, to help them to find those where those impactors lie, and help them consider ways – I think we call this now “co‑producing” how we might change and remove those things that impact on our community.
Yes, our community has some views and perspectives with institutions that may be unjust and unfair. And I think the most important thing and the best way that we overcome them, as well as helping institutions to overcome stereotypes that they may hold of us that might not be reasonable or unfair, is that coming together of both groups. That’s where I want to be for the next few years in terms of my leadership. I want to be at the cutting edge of getting these groups to speak to each other. Whilst at the Department of Health I wrote a guide and it was called “A Dialogue of Equals.” I would like now to be part of facilitating and enabling a dialogue of equals to take place that will mean that the NHS, the healthcare sector, and our communities can benefit in the long run going forward.
SW: Thanks Stafford and let’s see if we’re going to have a dialogue of equals. We’ve all got to change and take part in that dialogue, we’ve all got to talk, listen, understand, act on the dialogue we have, so I think that’s a really powerful place for us to end today’s podcast.
That is all that we have time for today unfortunately, we could carry on for hours, but I wanted to thank you, Stafford, for joining us today. I found it absolutely fascinating. I think a huge theme throughout what you’ve been talking about is that us as the community, we are the community, we need to get much better at listening and hearing each other and understanding. Thank you so much for spending your time with us and being so honest with your answers, today.
SS: Thank you.
SW: You can find the show notes for this episode and all of our previous episodes at www.kingsfund.org.uk/kfpodcast and you can get in touch with us via Twitter. Our account is @TheKingsFund. This episode was edited by The Spoken Media. Thank you also to our podcast team for this episode; Emma Sheffield, Dana James-Edward, Shilpa Ross, Ian Ford and Jen Thorley. Please don’t forget to subscribe, share, rate and review this episode wherever you get your podcast. And of course, thanks to you for listening, we hope you can join us next time. Goodbye.
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