Jenna Arrindell-Carty interviews mixed race, Marvin Rees – the first elected Mayor of Bristol.

How has being mixed-raced/mixed-heritage impacted your journey to becoming the first elected mayor of Bristol?

To the extent that my background kind of planted in me the desire to see the world become fairer has been a huge part of it. As I’ve shared many times, my mum, white woman, no money, unmarried, 1972, brown baby on the way, was not the done thing and she was advised to have me aborted and then encouraged to have me adopted. We lived in a refuge for a while, we grew up and it was a challenge.

I had a loving family and fantastic cousins and aunts and so forth but life was still a real challenge, and I grew up knowing the fullness of racism, with the things I could be called even as a kid and an infant when I was just five years old. I was aware that I was a different colour when I was living in a very white area on the housing estate and, in Devon, I was very aware I was different colour to the other kids. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what my difference was, but I was conscious of being different. Yeah, so I experienced all of that. When a black friend said to me “so Marvin a war between black and white whose side are you going to be on” in 1980s Bristol, I had sense of limbo, I’m black but I’m also somewhat not. I’ve not always felt fully accepted by some people so my experiences, and watching my mum’s [experiences], stitched in me that desire to fight racism, deal with poverty, inequality, exploitation and indignity. But my mixed-ness also plays a part in that my identity is multi-dimensional and it moves, doesn’t mean I’m not solid in who I am, but I am black, I am mixed race, and I do come from a poor background. We weren’t even working class in many ways. So, I am all those things at the same time, they’re not a zero sum. Being more Welsh does not make me less Jamaican and being more Jamaican doesn’t make me less English. When I found that my great grandmother was Irish it didn’t take away anything from me. I’m all of those things at the same time and, depending on where I am or what’s going on, I feel more of one than the other. So that’s fed into my politics and I just don’t really engage in factionalism. I just want to get stuff done. And it’s got to be stuff done around tackling poverty, exclusion, inequality and fairness and justice and me having real aspiration for lives, particularly for people who come from backgrounds like mine.

It appears as though your background and maybe the adversity and things that you have gone through up until this point and, unfortunately, maybe going forward as well, has made you more resilient and more determined to push things through in the position you are in now. Would you say that any of your priorities have had to change or you’ve maybe had to go about things in a different way since you’ve become mayor?

I use a proverb a lot, that says “We don’t despise our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope.” I like the idea of hope more than optimism because hope grapples with suffering.

I was actually talking to one of our interns the other day, a young black man, and saying all the adverse experiences you have when you’re young, they’re never nice to go through. But if you do go through them and you can make sense of them, they will become your source of strength and power. So, I go into meetings now and share the table with billionaires. Why do I not feel inferior to them? Because we’re at the same table. But pound for pound, hour for hour, skill for skill, who’s come furthest? So, if you can turn your suffering into perseverance, you’ll find it will become your source of strength and power. My change in approach, I’m not sure. I’m not sure because my approach is in constant development. So, I have found for example, if I think about my mixedness, I talk about race and racism in all its fullness.

And we’ve made that [the conversation] a priority. I’m working with my deputy mayor, Asher Craig, who’s the first Rasta cabinet member in Europe, as I understand, she’s an amazing politician and a ground-breaking example to black women. But what’s been interesting is that, particularly in the current moment, I’ve talked about white privilege, but also made it clear that my mum did not lead a life of privilege. And so, what it’s done is perhaps enabled me to stand in the space of a complicated and contradictory world. So how do we hold those two truths together as difficult bedfellows that they are? That’s the space that I’ve tried to occupy. So, I would say it [mixedness] has been quite helpful, I suppose.

It’s a really interesting point you raise because it is quite a complex situation, because like you say it’s not just about white privilege, it’s a very multifaceted argument. There is class and race, and a whole wealth of other situational factors that people can find themselves in that can push them forward and give them the extra privilege, or maybe put them a step behind. And you have to work that bit more to succeed or get to the same place as your peer.

Is the intern leadership programme that you run still ongoing?

It’s still going on, but we haven’t been able to run it [this year] because of COVID.

Is there a contingency plan for the programme?

There isn’t at the moment because it was also interrupted by the fact that I was facing election. I’ve tried to make it part of the way the City runs so, if I’d lost the election, would the incoming mayor have picked it up? So, there was a bit of attention around that and what would happen with the programme. But just in terms of description of what it was, we identify high ability, high aspiring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or groups that are under-represented in leadership, and we invest in them intensely over two weeks. Then we try and find opportunities for them. It is based on, my experiences and probably my best friend Tyrone from school. Two mixed race kids, a degree of intelligence and a degree of aspiration, but we didn’t know how to do anything or how to turn that into a life plan. It’s based on my sense that amongst some of the most under-served children in the country are smart kids from poor backgrounds. If the kids who have done so much with so little in the face of such adversity, what the heck would happen if we put something positive into their lives? There are young people who’ve been homeless, who have no parents or support, who are in a hospital somewhere, or 14-year-old migrants with no English language and they’re still doing their A-levels. Look at the resilience these guys are showing. Look at their tenacity. Why don’t you take them on invest in them and make them your assets? These are people who have done stuff in spite of all the challenges they face and that’s what we’re trying to do. And to be intentional about the British leadership. At the moment, we wait for our leaders to come about by happenstance. Those that went to the right school and are on this conveyor belt, we know we are one of the most socially immobile countries in the OECD. But every now and again you hear about someone from a disadvantaged background, or an unlikely background, who became a leader because they happened to have had a good teacher, good youth workers or stumbled across an opportunity. We need to do that leadership much more intentionally, not just in the cities and companies but as a country or otherwise will continue to get leaders who are leaders because of their background, rather than because of their talent.

It’s a really good point that you’ve made, and I mean in terms of tenacity I would wholeheartedly agree. The ability that young people have to succeed, regardless of what they’re going through, does make a great leader. People who can find solutions to the multitude of different problems we have, and are not just going to sit there and wait for a solution to happen, are the people that you want to push forward and put them into leadership positions, or give them the chance to take up those positions.

We put their talent in touch with the opportunities it deserves. We don’t make anyone smart on that leadership programme. But, too often, talent never gets put in touch with the opportunities to grow and to flourish. And so, it remains undeveloped and that’s one of our major failings as a country.

It’s a great opportunity for people. I wanted to pivot slightly and ask you about the Bristol music venue. This has recently been renamed the Bristol Beacon. Was that well received, and do you see this as kind of a marker for hope, inclusivity and change going forward?

It was a big day in 2017, when it was announced that the name [The Colston Hall] was going to change. And I think it is huge because the name Colston has hung over the City for a long time. And it’s only in the last few decades that really people on a larger level began to engage in a debate. And then there’s been an increase and a ramping up of intensity around the prominence of his name within the City without properly engaging with what he did. So, it’s big and that music venue is right in the middle of the City. He didn’t build it anyway, by the way, I mean there are a lot of myths around Colston and that somehow, he put money into it. He didn’t, the City

just started to name things after him as a way of, in part, building civic pride. Interestingly, whereas the Colston memorabilia across Bristol today is associated with slavery, when it [the Colston statue] was being put in place it was not about justifying slavery because that wasn’t in debate back then, it was actually about creating a kind of a myth or a founding father of civic pride and a City narrative to control the working classes, to control the white working class, right, so this is this is an operation in class management. That, interestingly, has in some quarters today been seen as a dividing point between a working class who kind of associate themselves with Colston and all the good he did, and black people who came over through slavery. But actually it’s a point of solidarity and removing that name of someone who wasn’t necessarily interested in social mobility, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the City, but yeah that venue now will be much more open and much more inclusive. And what’s been important is the process that achieved the name change.  It was incredibly inclusive and stands up to the test. It was a legitimate process and thousands of people participated in discussions.

So, over those three years you had multiple people from the community and all different locations, giving their opinion and contributing to the decision to rename it the Bristol beacon.

Yeah, they set out to do that on purpose which was incredibly important. In fact, today it’s been confirmed that the Colston Girls’ School is going to be changing its name too. And the students were obviously involved in that, with parents too.

The Merchant Venturers Society (the society established during the Colston era tasked with perpetuating his memory), who were kind of synonymous with that Bristol history, were also supportive of these conversations within the City as well, which is also a really big thing. Because they are seen as a kind of establishment organisation and it’s good to see that they are all supporting the City as it begins to grapple confront and grapple with its history and the complexity of that history.

So that’s a really major thing in terms of Bristol as a city, we’ve got the Colston statue which has been toppled over; the renaming of the Bristol beacon and the renaming of the girls school as you say. These are quite big key events, in light of what we’re currently going through with the Black Lives Matter movement. These are statements for Bristol on inclusivity and moving forward from its history.

It’s good and it’s important, but it’s also incredibly dangerous. I’ll tell you why, because I’ve shared with people the day after the Colston statue was pulled down, which was on a Sunday. I didn’t get a memo on my desk the next day telling me, ‘Hey look, we’ve had dramatic differences in the rates of mental ill-health amongst black men’, or, you know, ‘our housing inequalities have started to disappear’ or ‘educational outcomes and school exclusions have fallen’. So, symbolic acts are important, the statues and naming’sare important because they constantly send a message on what kind of city we are and who we choose to remember. And that is important. But taking them away in itself does not change racism. And I don’t mean race, whatever you’d like to call it, but the structure there, the balance of wealth and power and the mechanisms used to distribute that wealth and power. So, we’ve got to be really careful that we don’t end up substituting symbolic acts for a substantial political change. Otherwise we end up with what’s been done historically. People, who support the status quo, have historically wanted to engage in symbolic acts and it’s more often been about the emotional experience of members of privileged groups, dare I say white people, than it has been about the socio economic status of black people.

So now is a really precarious time. If real policy and substantial change does not follow hard on the footsteps of symbolic acts, then it actually leads to a cynicism that leads us further from a sense that there is any hope that we will ever get to the end of racism.

I’ve seen that happen time and time again. Even in the Church. When churches have joint prayer services, they’ve sung together and prayed together. But at the end, the white church is still on top of the hill and the black churchgoers walk back down the hill to a second-tier education system and increased likelihood of prison for their kids.  And so what did the prayer and the singing do? Well, not much. And it leaves people quite sore.

You are pushing forward for a lot of changes that you want to see. And I think maybe historically where people can be appeased with seeing the inclusion and diversity like your drummer and your entertainers, you are pushing past that and making sure that we have real change. We are looking at the mental health of mixed-race people, Black people, Asian people, and the effects that society and social immobility is having on people as a whole. Do you feel that for the different people in Bristol and all around you have pushed forward and made a lot of change whilst being in your position as mayor?

It’s difficult for me to say. I think we focused on the right things. My approach to it has been this is our understanding of the world and this is what we’re going to focus on. So, we’ve made economic inclusion a key part of what we want to do. That’s why we focused on building affordable homes; we’ve focused on getting food out to hungry kids;  we’ve had a mental health initiative ‘Bristol Thrive’ that Asher’s worked on; we’ve had a programme called ‘Stepping up’ where we’ve taken a large number of Black and Asian people, in the first instance, and put them on a year-long programme of personal and professional development. That’s across the public and the private sector and 60% went on to get promotions, so it’s not all about us it’s about really leadership. That programme is now in its third iteration, and it includes women and disabled people as well to get supported. On the face of it doesn’t necessarily come across as a race equality issue, but who are the people most likely to be poor and the young women least likely to be able to afford sanitary products or deciding between buying sanitary products and food and eating? So, I think we’re focused on the right thing. We’ve driven aspiration.

And I think we have done well, you know, 55,000 meals to hungry kids last summer holiday, we have done well. But I think the point we make to the City is that, we’ve done everything we possibly can to achieve the things we set out to do, and circumstances come along, Brexit, COVID, and those core challenges. It’s up to you then to decide on whether you think we have the right priorities and we did everything possible to achieve those priorities, and that’s how you make the judgement.