Macclesfield’s first Black Alderman and Mayor. Cllr Alift Harewood MBE on her ambition, achievements and role models

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A Windrush survivor, Councillor Alift Harewood MBE, 86, was born in Anna Catherina a sugar planting village in Guyana, where she trained as a nurse and midwife before coming to the UK and settling in Macclesfield more than fifty years ago in December 1966. Alift subsequently reinforced her qualifications becoming a registered nurse, midwife and occupational health nurse.

 Councillor Harewood has been deputy mayor for Macclesfield Town Council and became the town’s first black alderman and its first black mayor in 2012/13. She became mayor again in 2016/17. She is married and lives in Macclesfield. Still a school governor, Alift is now working with people she actually helped to deliver at birth – at least three she knows of!

What is your earliest memory?

I was doubly orphaned before I was three and rescued by a kind lady who had a schoolroom in her home. I learned to read when I was very young and eventually gained a scholarship with the highest marks in the country.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? 

I was very poor. I didn’t want to stay in my village, but be just like my teacher – Irad Dolphin. I went back to my hometown in 2009 to thank Irad for my journey, which was great. He set me on the path of education.

What can we all do to help others understand in today’s society what it means to be black?

It is difficult to change a mindset that has existed for centuries. It’s not just black lives that matter – all lives matter, but historically we can see that black lives mattered less.

I’m ashamed of the continuing position where our parents just kept their heads down and overlooked so many of the difficulties they experienced. When I was studying for my MA in international politics, I could see this racist behaviour so many experienced was not exclusive, but worked on a platform of power, protection, inability to change and competition. With hindsight, my parents were just getting on with survival.

Despite all my qualifications, I never really rose to anything and qualifications, as I once thought, have not been the key. But education is so important today and to highlight those projects that place black people in a positive light. So often I have seen in books and art, black people painted as either the clown or the crook.

The acknowledgment by so many people today that black people are their friends, part of families and colleagues is beginning to change that landscape. I am one with the people I serve and having come from a colony of six different ethnicities where each of the cultures has seeped into each other, so we have all become part of a new culture.

I brought that culture with me in my head when I first came to Macclesfield and when we were the only black family. I never thought I shouldn’t be a councillor because I was a black person. One day I just said: ‘I will do that!’.

The new Black Lives Matter movement has made a new awareness and out of some of the demonstrations, positive things will come out of that awareness. This movement has been joined by many different ethnicities – not just black people.

There are still many, many hurdles to overcome, but because we have seeped into each other’s cultures, people of goodwill are willing to take on these new challenges.

What makes you unhappy?

 The deep realisation that people are consumed by things and do not see the value in other people. Also, there is still a blind spot in acceptance when it comes to the colour of a person’s skin.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Value and worth.

How do you relax?

Singing and dancing at home.

Who or what has been your greatest influence?

My teacher, who chose me when I was interviewed to be a nurse. On that day I only had the bus fare for a one-way ticket and had to walk 10 miles back home.

Which black role model or mentor has influenced or inspired you the most?

American civil rights activist Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery on 1 December 1955. She fought when fighting was not the done thing, she fought against the odds and she fought when she did not think she would win.

More recently, I have nothing but admiration for the Premier League footballer, Marcus Rashford who succeeded in calling on the government to reverse a decision not to provide free school meals over the summer. As a young person he had survived so much and spoke so passionately about his own experience of using the food voucher scheme as a child.

What is the worst job you’ve had?

When colleagues told me at a hospital that the residents being cared for would not want me.

I also remember as a trainee nurse and when I started to question authority. I felt I had nothing to lose as I was already at the bottom of the pile. I still remember the day we were taught about social class and it was pointed out to me by the tutor that I was in the ‘underclass’. I didn’t know this and that I wasn’t even classified as a black trainee nurse.

What can we do to make workplaces more diverse?

We need policies in place that will re-make on a far wider front, access for those people who have been unable to secure employment. We need to be consciously inclusive and have meaningful conversations and ask searching questions as to why certain groups of society don’t apply.

I always remember when I was younger, answering just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as I didn’t understand the questions!

Alift Harewood 3What has been your greatest achievement?

I had worked for 59 years as a nurse, and I am also the holder of three degrees. They are a BA (Hons) Social Sciences; MA (Master’s Degree) in International Politics at MMU and the last had been in 2016 – Contemporary Theatre (a Foundation Degree at the Arden School of Theatre) in Manchester.

What advice would you now give to your younger self?

I should have spoken up more. My 16 year old self is still pleased that I didn’t listen to my grandmother who told me on a regular basis, “My ambition is more than my position!”

I wished I had learned the language of debate sooner and to bring other people who don’t look like you – with you. And ‘No’, means not now but you can do it!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

I believe that in giving you will receive. If those I give to are blessed, then I am blessed also.

In your opinion, what more needs to be done to ensure that health and care services are fully accessible and tailored for the black community?

One of the things that must happen in health and care is a different mindset, because in my experience, those actions are always permanently temporary. Usually we are not asked for our opinions in the health service and being in a position of strong decision making is alright, as long as you just tag along. And my experience in nursing over almost six decades is that I was never treated in that equal position.

What are some cultural resources that you’d recommend people take a look at during Black History Month?

I would urge everyone to look at the American poet – Maya Angelou. Especially ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’. Her way of dealing with so many issues was not far from my time also. I also love the annual carnivals and a good steel band – makes you want to wind up your ways and jump up and down and dance! And I still do!

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