Fun and frivolity carry the anti-racist message

Jefney Ashcroft

MANY further education colleges have an ethnically-diverse student body: the better ones celebrate that fact.

This month, Sandwell College, in the West Midlands, holds its 12th annual multi-cultural event on its Smethwick campus. The venue is significant. The college also has campuses in West Bromwich and Wednesbury and all the towns have strong African-Caribbean and Asian communities. But Smethwick has particular historic significance. It has a substantial Sikh community and the Guru Nanak temple, on Smethwick High Street, is one of the oldest and most important in Britain.

The borough is an (old) Labour stronghold, with an active and successful race equality unit. Sunnder Kaur Gill - who works for the unit and is a well-respected, member of the Sikh community - has been involved in all 12 events. The borough is also home to Lord Tarsem King, Britain's first Asian peer.

However, Sandwell is the ninth most disadvantaged area in England and Wales. For many of its residents - white as well as black - life is hard. The disaffection that springs from hardship is exploited by racists. British National Party candidates regularly stand at elections, and other "white power" elements occasionally surface. Smethwick itself used to be notorious for its infamous Sixties election campaign, where Tory supporters played the race card.

So what is the event about? I would argue that its very existence sends out a sorely-needed, anti-racist message. It could not function without co-operation and mutual respect.

Up to 300 guests - largely but not exclusively from ethnic-minority communities - are guests of the college and are served simple, free and excellent Asian and African-Caribbean food, and treated to an evening's entertainment.

Vital to the success of the event is the contribution of the various commmunities. All the acts are found by a working party of college staff and community workers. Many perform just for expenses - it's a showcase for amateurs. Even the professionals give their time for a fraction of what they normally command.

Students are used as performers only if they volunteer; there is no pressure to help out. However some performers such as Bhangra dance group Gurbroo Punjab De are ex-students who generousl come back to create exhilarating entertainment.

There is no alcohol or smoking. Things are not, however, dull. Many people dress up; the show ends with the DJ inviting the audience to boogie and there is a (very) freestyle dance competition with small prizes for children (who are welcome) and young adults.

Many acts are from Asian cultures but there is always an important group of African-Caribbean performers. Venda Daley, from West Bromwich's African-Caribbean resource centre, has helped for years both with food and as a talented amateur a cappella singer.

There are rap acts and, once, black poetry from Spicy Fingers a Birmingham writer.

More traditional stuff like steel bands and Gospel singing also gets a look-in - we try to provide for the varied tastes of our audience. No matter what their background however, the audience treats performers well, knowing everyone, particularly the inexperienced, deserves a warm reception. Daive Garcha, a gifted dancer who works for Smethwick probation service, is keen that things don't get too staid. A key event organiser, she has had young dancers working with her on fusion and disco-based dance performances.

So what use is all this in fighting racism? First it shows that the black and Asian communities are genuinely welcome in the college. Second, it shows Sandwell that the college is serious about its commitment to all parts of the community. The attendance of local MPs such as Sylvia Heal and Peter Snape, Sandwell's mayor, and Lord King bolsters this message.

Third, it gives a lead to staff. The principal attends and says a few words. This is much appreciated by guests. It is important that it is appreciated by staff as well.

FE colleges are vital public institutions and should challenge the forces of hatred and ignorance. This means being anti-racist in practice not just in theory. I am not convinced that college managers always understand this.

The initiative described is just one event, held once a year. But it is something. And, in a sector that has known much grim reality recently, it's a wonderful change to do something that involves enjoying yourself!

Jefny Ashcroft is the equal opportunities co-ordinator and NATFHE branch chair, Sandwell

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