Guyanese is first Black woman in British House of Lords

By Wendella Davidson
Guyana Chronicle
November 30, 1999

"YOU have made my day. Don't you realise the historical significance of this? You are the first Black woman to stand up as a member of the British Government and answer questions on behalf of the Government in the House of Lords."

It was autumn last year, but the words uttered by a male colleague in the House of Lords on that memorable day, still ring clear in ears of 45-year-old Guyanese, Baroness Valarie Amos, who created history in Britain on October 23, 1997, when she became the first Black woman to be introduced into the House of Lords.

"I had just completed my maiden speech on Human Rights and my colleague rushed over to congratulate me. I thought it was because of the content of the speech, but he reminded me that I had just created history," the Baroness recalled.

For Valarie Ann Amos who was born in the Cinderella County of Essequibo, in a tiny village called Dry Shore, her climb to such high office was quite an achievement, not only for herself, but for Black women in general.

She recently spoke with the Guyana Chronicle at Cara Lodge, Quamina Street, shortly before she departed these shores after visiting relatives and friends. She had travelled here after delivering the closing address at the `Vital Voices Women of the Caribbean Conference' on October 1. She had earlier headed a British delegation to a special United Nations session of the Small Island Developing States held in New York.

Baroness Amos who grew up on the island of Wakenaam with her parents - Michael and Eunice Amos, both teachers, - migrated with the rest of her family to London in 1963, when she was only nine years old.

She studied at the Universities of Warwick, Birmingham and East Anglia and was awarded an Honorary Professorship at Thames Valley University in 1995 in recognition of her work on equality and social justice.

After working in Equal Opportunities, Training and Management Services in Local Government in the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Camden and Hackney, she became Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission 1989-94.

And, in 1995, was an adviser to the South African Government on public service reform, human rights and employment equity.

She recalled being contacted by Prime Minister Blair's residence and office, with the offer to enter House of Lords.

And on October 23, 1997, she received the Title, Baroness of Brondesbury in the London Borough of Brent.

"I had very little time to think about it. It is not the kind of honour which someone would turn down," she said, adding that she had become recognised in the UK as someone who had campaigned "hard and long" for issues of equality, social justice and human rights not only in a British context, but internationally.

Remembering the special day as the first Black Baroness in British history to enter the House of Lords, Baroness Amos said: "It was much of a pomp and ceremony and excitement. My family and friends were all excited for me. They travelled from Guyana, Trinidad, the United States, as a matter of fact, from all over the world, to be part of the occasion."

Dressed in a red robe like her supporters - Baroness Blackstone and the Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, already members of the House of Lords - Baroness Amos also recalled the ceremonial `Life Peer' function which lasted for about seven minutes.

And speaking of the public acceptance following the occasion, Baroness Amos remarked: "It is impossible to describe the number of cards, phone calls, letters, flowers, e-mails and faxes I received from all over the world. What was even more remarkable is that Guyanese from far-flung countries the world over have written to me!"

The Guyanese community in London was and still is supportive, she added.

Ten days after that ceremony, on November 3, she delivered her maiden speech.

Baroness Amos, who holds the position of Government Whip in the House of Lords, an appointment she received in July 1998, was also spokesperson on Social Security and Women's Issues and a co-opted member of the Select Committee on European Communities Sub-Committee for Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs 1997-98.

Prior to being inducted in the House, Baroness Amos was also Deputy Chair of the Runnymede Trust 1990-98, a Trustee of the Institute of Public Policy Research, a non-executive Director of the University College London Hospitals Trust, a Trustee of Voluntary Services Overseas, Chair of the Afiya Trust, and a Director of Hampstead Theatre and Chair of the Board of Governors of the Royal College of Nursing Institute.

She recalled that between 1994 and 1998, she did a lot of work with the South African Government and was on the ministerial taskforce of that Government. She advised the then Minister of Labour on putting together an employment equity bill for South Africa.

"The reality is that I was based in London, but spent a considerable amount of time in South Africa, travelling twice per month ...

"There was a three-year period when I was actually juggling my life between the two countries and I actually felt as if I was living in both as I had close friends in both countries."

And, with a great sense of humour she recalled that there were times when she would wake up and not know which country she was in.

"It was quite exciting working in South Africa right after the first democratic elections, as there were many people who were committed to making South Africa work, there was a real openness on the part of new ministers of Government to work with people from other countries who have had experience of a variety of issues," she noted.

Baroness Amos remembers helping to put together an Employment Equity Act and how she worked with both the South African and Australian Human Rights Commissions to forge a different perspective so that the commitment in the South African constitution to equality and social justice could become a reality.

As a result, a number of commissions such as the Commission on Gender Equality and Human Rights Commission were established.

"But at the end of the day, it was the South Africans who decided which direction they wanted to go, what was most appropriate for their culture and state of development," she pointed out.

"It was all about bringing expertise, experience and learning together after which there would be a forging of new and different perspectives, it was all about learning between the north and the south, and vice versa," she added.

Speaking of her job in Britain as the British Government's spokesperson on International Development in the House, Baroness Amos said it is important for her to get a feel of how the development projects are received in the various countries.

"As you know, Britain has quite a big (interest in) Guyana - a lot of resources are going into education and ensuring access to secondary education, in particular, for children from poorer families.

"We also have some projects in the area of water, sanitation and forestry, and are looking at ways of working with government on the privatisation agenda," she said.

Baroness Amos, who, on account of her appointment visits Guyana regularly for brief periods, disclosed that she has been pleased over the years with the growth and development and the whole idea of ecotourism.

She feels that tourism is the link to the whole notion of sustainability and its development is very important in a country like Guyana which is so beautiful and has so many natural resources.

She cautioned though that it is important that the resources are protected.

Speaking about herself, Baroness Amos said her position does not, in any way overshadow her roots.

"What one has to understand is that when you are a minority in a majority culture, my being born in Guyana, growing up in Britain and the relationship I feel for what goes on in Africa, all help to forge my identity. In a slightly different way, Black people who are born in the UK also have a whole variety of reference points.

"For me, my ascension to the positions is one of achievement for Black women like myself and seeks to tell others that anything one perceives you can achieve".

"I think one of the most important things is to understand who you are, the nature of your identity, be proud of it and have confidence, be proud of oneself and your heritage," she advised those aspiring to top level positions.

Despite her packed work programme, Baroness Amos says she still finds time to speak with groups of women whenever she can.

"I keep telling them never to allow themselves to be constricted by the notion that you can't do this or that ... Part of what helped me to be successful is that I always have a positive outlook to things. A lot of women, because they have not done something before, limit their potential even before they have tried," she noted.

"Another thing that limits the potential of women is that we live in a world where there are a whole number of areas such as engineering in which women have to be pioneers. So girls who might want to experience that feel constrained because of the feelings of society. Don't limit yourself in terms of what you want to do and where you want to go. You need too to be supportive of each other, have mentors. Women need to look at the range of opportunities available to them not to be scared of entrepreneurship and business development. These may be areas which are difficult to enter at first, but (they) can have just rewards," she asserted.

The unmarried Baroness said her parents and siblings, Michael and Coleen, are very supportive of her.

Baroness Amos fondly remembers the freedom of growing up in the countryside of Guyana and has vivid memories of a very disciplined school environment.

She remembers the freedom after school when "a whole group of children would run along to one of the little shops nearby, and a decision had to be made as to whether on that day it would be `mauby' or `ginger beer', `salara' or `buns'. Also the holidays when you were allowed to run all over the place."

"There was too that community bond among residents, we lived as a community, every adult looked after the children and it didn't matter whether it was a member of the family or not, so there was that discipline if they ever saw you doing something wrong."

It is that strong sense of family and community that she carries everywhere she goes that has been responsible for her successes in Britain

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