Saluting our Sisters: Stories of inspiration

Staff members pay homage to the inspirational women who have blazed trails, shattered ceilings, and ignited change, not just during Black History Month but every day. 

Rutendo Ngwena

By Natalie Okpara-McFarlane

A social development champion and entrepreneur, Rutendo Ngwena creates positive change for women and uses entrepreneurship to advance economic wellbeing.

Rutendo began her work as a social change maker when she was awarded the Resolution Fellowship at the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2018. The fellowship was awarded for her outstanding leadership and commitment for social change and justice, giving her the seed grant from which she founded her non-profit “The Flow Initiative” in Zimbabwe (active 2018-2023). The Flow Initiative tackled barriers to the access of equitable distribution of healthcare services for young girls and women in Zimbabwe, with 1500+ beneficiaries over its tenure.

In 2021, Rutendo was nominated to be a part of the inaugural cohort of the Resolution Fellow Council, a group of 16 outstanding fellows, representing 600+ fellows across the world.

Rutendo is now progressing her passion for women empowerment as a Programme Manager at The Smallwood Trust, working to tackle gendered poverty in the UK and build the financial resilience of women.

As an entrepreneur, Rutendo is the founder of a new creative and cultural enterprise: Izwi Art. Izwi Art is a multi-dimensional art house, with a mission is to create platforms which showcase the excellence found in contemporary African artistry. The business operates a dual model, featuring a travelling gallery and interior styling studio. Izwi will exhibit in different locations across the UK, spotlighting and promoting artists' work from Africa and the diaspora and amplifying their artistic voices and expressions.

The studio will focus on using the rare beauty of contemporary African art to elevate and style interiors with intentionality and meaning. Izwi wants the spaces where their art adorns to transcend beyond the surface of what is aesthetically pleasing to create an experience where the art can speak, allowing people to dig deeper within themselves. The studio will achieve this through a comprehensive range of services, i.e., art leasing, sourcing, and commissioning.

Having successfully launched in August 2023, Izwi’s travelling gallery begins their journey in Derby with their inaugural exhibition aptly titled: Mavambo (meaning “the beginning” in Shona, one of the official languages of Zimbabwe).

Mavambo will show from 13 October - 13 December 2023 at Msg., Derby. The exhibition will be the second major exhibition by the University of Derby Galleries Network, launched in March 2023. Mavambo is co-curated by Rutendo Ngwena and Naomi Edobor, coordinated by Elisha-Mai Gascoigne and facilitated by Natalie Okpara-McFarlane and Dr Gemma Marmalade.

Natalie Okpara McFarlane - Business Development Manager at Basecamp.
Rutendo Ngwena in a gallery setting.

Images are Natalie Okpara-McFarlane on the left and Rutendo Ngwena on the right. 

Olive John Baptiste

By Catherine John Baptiste

The term role model is a peculiar one. What does it actually mean? What does one have to do to earn such an accolade – fame, fortune, fulfilment?  Ultimately, it will mean different things for different individuals. For me, I have always known who my role models are.  It may be a cliché, but from such a very young age the people I admired and most wanted to be like, were my parents.  

My mother, in particular, was a feisty woman (my father affectionately referred to as the rottweiler – but of course, never within earshot), would never suffer fools gladly, had the sharpest tongue and an even sharper wit, but was one of the most generous people I know.  She really would give you her last penny if you needed it – she’d moan about it, but give it to you, nonetheless.

Part of that revered Windrush generation, she arrived in the UK a slip of a lass, 23 years of age. What has always amazed me is that if I had lived in a country where the temperature was a constant balmy 34 degrees and the Caribbean Sea, literally a stones throw away, was your play area, setting foot on Tilbury Docks in what would have probably been a damp overcast miserable day (stereotyping much!) I would have turned tail, and headed back onto the ship that bought me here without so much as a Rule Britannia!

But she didn’t. She made this sometimes-hostile environment her home for the next fifty-nine years.  Speaking to my childhood friends, we realised none of us were blessed financially, but what was provided by our parents who had come from all parts of Great Britain, Poland and the Caribbean to work in the coal mines of Nottinghamshire and its subsidiary industries was an abundance of comradeship, love (tough love) and a true sense of belonging; and my mother (and father) were at the very heart of it all.

A lioness who protected her young cubs at all costs, my siblings and I still guffaw at the story of a secondary school teacher who had racially abused my brother.  A complaint was made to the headmaster and the teacher was made to come to my mother’s house and apologise (different times).  Unfortunately for him, he had chosen the wrong child to mess with; my mother chased him down the road with a frying pan, my father running after her wailing ‘Stop Olive, you’ll end up in jail!’

Right to the very end – she would never describe herself as ‘black’, but ‘coloured’.  Did it matter what label she or others proscribed to herself – no!  What mattered to her and the three hundred people who, blessed to have had her in their lives and attended her funeral in a tiny church in the Midlands, was her true and endearing love for family and friends,  that little mining village which wholeheartedly embraced these two strangers into their bosom……… and bingo!

Sepia toned photograph of Olive John Baptiste.
Headshot of Catherine John Baptiste.

Images are Olive John Baptiste on the left and Catherine John Baptiste on the right. 

Linford and Irene Stevens

By Sharon Stevens

My parents were born in Jamaica and met after arriving in England. My father (Linford Stevens) was born in Trelawny and my mother (Irene Stevens) in Clarendon. Linford came to England in 1960 on the Orbita after spending time in America. Irene came to England on a flight in 1961. They both had reasons for venturing to the 'Mother Land, ' but like so many at that time, they came to work to make a better life for themselves and their families back home.

Also, like others, they had no intention of staying in England permanently.

My father found accommodation with friends, and my mother with family in Nottingham. They met via mutual friends. Shortly after, my sister was born in 1962, I was born in 1963 and my youngest sister in 1966. Our parents worked in the industries many emigrating from the Caribbean did: rail, health and on the buses.

Primary school was enjoyable, and I took part in a BBC School programme because of my ability in Maths. However, I found secondary challenging. Many black children could be found in the bottom sets, and it didn't matter whether you achieved good marks; that is where you were placed. Sadly, having little confidence, I proved my teachers right.

Spurred on by my results, I went to college and resat my Maths and English O'levels in one year, including other subjects. Then, on to study A'level in Maths and Dress.

Before having my children, I worked at EMEB, where I could indulge in my love of Maths in the Credit Control department. I was the only person who set up and monitored standing orders and direct debits for Nottinghamshire's domestic and commercial accounts. Later, I trained others to do the same.

After marrying and having three children, I decided to continue my studies. I qualified as a primary school teacher in 2000 with Hons at the University of Derby. I have always loved working with children, which started with helping in the creche at my church. Later, I became a Sunday school teacher, after-school club leader, and parent helper at my children's school.

I successfully ran a social enterprise (Model Behaviour) with nearly 100 volunteers. I worked tirelessly to engage children to see the value and joy in education while building their self-esteem.

I continued doing this until my father died in 2014, after which I enrolled on a short creative writing course. I loved it and wanted more. I have always enjoyed reading and writing, but as a dyslexic, I faced some challenges with writing. However, I decided not to let it stop me.

As a result, in 2018 I enrolled on the MA Creative Writing course, which completely changed my writing and confidence. I met lovely people and was supported by my tutors and course leaders to complete it despite many personal obstacles. I graduated in 2021 with an MA in Creative Writing (with Publication).

I continue to write in various genres, freelance and as a ghostwriter. I have five grandchildren; both parents have passed, and I teach in mainstream and alternative provision.

Sharon at her University of Derby graduation
Sharon Stevens parents

Images are Sharon Stevens on the left and Linford and Irene Stevens on the right. 

Angela Davis

By Cleveland Thompson

At the early age of 18-20 years old, I was intrigued by the Civil Rights and the Pan-African movements, the freedom fighters in the US, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I saw how these movements galvanised Black communities around the world, and gave a sense of a shared struggle, upliftment, and pride to Black families and young Black people in the UK who were facing similar barriers and exclusionary practices.

I was inspired by the likes of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey (from Jamaica), Kwame Nkrumah (from Ghana), Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Carter G. Woodson, the Black Panther Party, W. E. B Du Bois, Nelson Mandela (from South Africa), Kwame Ture (formerly from Trinidad), and Bob Marley (from Jamaica). This led me to become involved in community activism and fighting for self-determination, self-empowerment, and social justice within the Black Community.

There was one female civil rights activist at that time who stood out amongst all others and had an impact on me, and that was Angela Davis. Angela Davis was an academic, a political activist in the Black Liberation Movement, and an active member of the Black Panther Party. She was also a strong advocate of non-violence and ridding the world of all kinds of violence and oppression against groups of people. She also called for the abolition of the police force and the prisons in the US as a way of confronting police brutality and systemic racism.

Angela Davis continually fought against the subordination of women in the civil rights movement and worked closely with other Black female academics such as Kimberle Crenshaw who first coined the term, intersectionality, which has its roots in Black Feminist Activism. Kimberle Crenshaw is also a distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California and Columbia Law School.

Angela Davis was also a distinguished Professor at the University of California. Although now retired, she still writes and guest speaks, and she is still very vocal on issues such as race, class, and gender.

Angela Davis portrait photograph
Cleveland Thompson in front of a bookcase

Images are Angela Davis on the left and Cleveland Thompson on the right.