Interview with Lewis Wedlock
Lewis Wedlock is a mental health activist and social psychologist from Bristol. He works for Project Zazi, a project by OTR Bristol that deals with young BAME people’s mental health experience through therapy and activism. He is also the creator of Pinpoint Academia, a university facing a personal development project that helps students locate and work towards their versions of success.
He was named on Bristol’s BME powerlist in 2019 and was inducted into The University of The West of England’s Black Hall of Fame in January.
In what way has the online world affected the social experiences of BAME people – both positively and negatively?
In terms of positive impact, I think the online world has allowed people to come together and share experiences, ideas and values with each other. It has provided a global context for what we may class here in Britain as “BAME” populations away from the negative media construction that we so often see.
The recent events surrounding BLM and the Middle East provide a stark reminder though that the online world can also negatively impact BAME people socially. For example, I have become the spokesperson for white people I know about what they “should and shouldn’t do”. It is exhausting and adds a level of responsibility to an emotional experience that impacts me and others directly. This is perhaps the biggest negative that I can draw on based on the current socio-political climate we find ourselves in.
How, in your view, can companies and organisations make an authentic and tangible effort to show solidarity with BAME communities and actively demonstrate anti-racism online, rather than being tokenistic?
Get uncomfortable. Be honest and take responsibility. Be in it for the long run. This is not something that will simply vanish because people decided to make an effort for a couple of months. A black square or saying “we’re inclusive” (vomit) is not solidarity unless it is backed with deep, existential work within your organization. For example, what have your team learned about the struggles that people of colour face daily? Not just in the workplace, but in the wider culture. What have you got to say about the probable, overpowering whiteness present within your specific sector/organisation? How will you, as an organization, attempt to do your part in addressing wider systemic shortcomings over the next few years? How will you directly call out racism when you see it? These are some questions that I feel are pertinent when it comes to authentic “anti-racist” practice within an organization’s online activity. If you are not considering questions like this, your work is tokenistic.
We’ve seen some amazing campaigning, particularly recently, in support of BAME communities. Do you have any examples of really impactful and change-making Black Lives Matter online campaigns and messages?
I think the “All Black Lives Matter” team here in Bristol are doing a phenomenal job of raising awareness and facilitating a conversation about exactly what justice and change should mean for communities in Bristol. They are unapologetically supportive of all black people and really go out of their way to ensure that their message of inclusivity is clear. Their online presence has rallied thousands of people who are interested in challenging and changing the system. I appreciate the team greatly and send nothing but love and light to them.
Similarly, the Black Minds Matter campaign has been phenomenal! As a mental health professional, seeing the online community chip in and support the mental health experience of young black people, in particular, is amazing.
There is also Black Pound Day. It was founded on the idea that buying and supporting solely black businesses for one day a month will inject some cash and digital footfall into black businesses. This has not only created a greater awareness of local Black-owned businesses, it has created a nationwide network for people to invest in and support black businesses all over the UK.
Do you think – and if so to what extent – that digital companies and platform providers have a responsibility when it comes to our collective cultural literacy?
Absolutely! We live in a capitalist society and whichever way we look at it, capitalism was accelerated by the enslavement of black and brown people across time and space. If your business or company makes money off of the framework that has and continues to perpetuate mass exploitation and discrimination, it is your responsibility to ensure that this system better represents the interests of those who continue to suffer within this framework. For any business, your platform is an extension of your worldview. By staying silent and impartial, you reveal to your audience what you truly believe. In this age, silence is ultimately violence.
Do you think the online narratives can sometimes demonstrate a generational divide in attitudes towards movements like BLM?
I think it is more cultural than generational. The divide we see in my eyes is the conflict between unchecked imperialist cognition and what many are calling “new wave” intersectional thinking. Regarding the latter, we have people that are approaching the black experience as a multi-layered, socio-political experience. Within this approach, “black” is accounting for ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, class and so forth. The experience is intersectional, it is fluid, it is complex – it is black. This is informed through the engagement with social media channels and resources that can pierce dogma and offer different vantage points on the BLM movement – both globally and locally. As a result, the attitudes both online and offline towards BLM is to challenge systems that facilitate the discrimination and oppression of black people – from hospitals to police forces to education systems. There is also an element of fearlessness and assertiveness against the system in general within this approach. You saw what happened with Colston. There is a clear awareness that understands that to bring change, sometimes we must do whatever is necessary.
Diametrically opposed to this is in my eyes is the imperialist cognition. The online narratives I have seen pertinent to this culture, in particular, is the notion of younger people being irresponsible or unaware that actions yield consequences. There is an institutionalized, dogmatic acceptance of place and position. There is the idea that things must be done, but not “this way”. There is an attachment to ideas and history that are historically and contextually skewed. Their online engagement with BLM is consequently often very surface level, and in conjunction with the way they see the world. It is often an echo chamber of denial and ignorance.
I think that is the difference regarding online narratives surrounding BLM. There are those that are willing to identify and re-route their understanding of race and exploitation and there are those who see the issue through the eyes of their own bias and take the moral high ground instead of confronting their own lack of understanding.
On a personal level, in your work have you experienced changes in the way BAME people are represented in online spaces?
I am very fortunate to work for a charity that has always prized young people and their experience first; we don’t represent young people online, they represent themselves through us. I will say this though; generally speaking, I am seeing more of a focus towards providing platforms or spaces for BAME people to express themselves and their experiences. In essence, the narrative is theirs as opposed to it being constructed to fit a particular ideal. I think with this ownership comes an awareness of the BAME experience that can be quite shocking to people who haven’t engaged with this stuff before. This is good. It shows that there is not a shying away from talking about the uncomfortable, which as I said earlier, is essential to bring about change. Time will tell if this change can be sustained. It goes back to the idea of being tokenistic and doing something because it is trending, or because you are actually invested in the cause…
For many people, recent events have been a real eye-opening, learning experience around unconscious bias, systemic racism and cultural literacy. What’s the best way we can keep this conversation constructive and positive?
Keep visiting the privilege cave. Look around it. What are you holding in this cave? Does that really need to be there? Who can help you get rid of that particular belief?
These are some questions I implore all people to continually visit and explore. Social change starts from within, and we all have a responsibility to do our part in creating a better future.
Who are some of your favourite BAME leaders and influencers who you’d recommend following online?
In no particular order!
Melanin and The Mind – I really appreciate the work that is going into this project. Psychology as a discipline can be very, very white. It is inspiring to see how Chloe is going about initiating conversations around topics like race, colourism and how this links to psychology.
Black People Talk – I have the utmost respect and admiration for Yannick Yalipende, the founder of BPT. His own journey is inspiring, and the work he is doing in creating a space for black people to discuss their mental health experience is truly beautiful work.
Rising Arts Agency have just done a city-wide campaign in Bristol that included various different art projects from Black creatives. I have huge respect and admiration for them.
Harvey Watt (@harveywot) – I have had the pleasure of watching this man grow into an activist and use his platform to spread knowledge and awareness of the black experience through his own life story as well as through the sharing of resources from other black activists. He never fails to amaze me with his work ethic and genuine desire to impact as many people as possible.
Nasra Ayub – A legend in every sense of the word. Her work resume and awards list is ever-growing and will continue to grow because she epitomizes the term “activist”.
Project Zazi – this is the team I work for at OTR. We specialise in the BAME experience and approach the notion of BAME through history, identity and activism. Our team is incredible and it is an honour to work amongst so many talented, selfless individuals. You are my family and I have nothing but love for you.
Kiki Bristol – An amazing project providing space for QTIPOC and their friends to meet. They champion diversity and representation with Bristol’s LGBT+ community.
If you haven’t checked out the likes of Akala, Afua Hirsch, Nikesh Shukla, Alya Mooro, Paul Gilroy, Malcolm X and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw then I would definitely give their work a visit too!
You can follow Lewis on LinkedIn here for more brilliant insights.