As part of our occasional series of discussions with notable Fellows, poet and diversity advocate Zita Holbourne tells us about her inspiring work, the fight to achieve equality and representation, what success looks like, and her advice to aspiring activists.
Zita Holbourne is a British artist, activist, and campaigner for human rights and justice. Her work is multidisciplinary – she has founded organisations such as Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts, is part of the UNESCO Coalition of Artists for the General History of Africa, and has worked in a legal capacity to prevent unjust deportations.
A published poet and an award-winning diversity advocate, Zita dedicates herself to helping others attain equality and justice. In this latest edition of our Featured Fellow series, she discusses her activism, her art and poetry, and what being an RSA Fellow means to her.
The RSA is a community of changemakers. What inspires you to be a changemaker?
I have a passion for people, lives, the planet and the future, and I cannot stand by when I witness discrimination, injustice or human rights breaches. We all have a responsibility to make life better for ourselves, our communities and society in our lifetime, but also to pass on a positive legacy to future generations.
My lived experience of first-hand discrimination, marginalisation and injustice means that I had no choice but to fight for my rights to survive. This built resilience, determination and strength, which, combined with my lived experience, I recognised I could use to provide practical solidarity to others, especially those facing the most barriers and marginalisation.
We all have a responsibility to make life better for ourselves, our communities and society in our lifetime, but also to pass on a positive legacy to future generations.
Can you describe a project or achievement that you are most proud of?
I think it is difficult to single out one thing. I am proud of my role in raising awareness of and campaigning against the Windrush scandal and supporting individuals directly impacted to prevent them from being deported and separated from loved ones. Linked to this, I am proud of my role in working with others to stop hundreds of people being deported on charter flight deportations.
Often this has involved working through the night with those impacted, families and lawyers and other activists. But it is worth doing this to prevent the devastating impacts on whole families separated potentially forever. I am proud of all the cases I have won, representing union members facing discrimination, harassment and bullying.
I am proud of publishing my book Striving for Equality, Freedom and Justice (Embracing Roots Culture and Identity), published by Hansib, one of the oldest Caribbean publishers in the UK. The book includes my poetry written over several years. It covers my personal story of overcoming barriers, race and gender discrimination. It also documents the struggle against discrimination and injustice globally and black history from the Haitian Revolution to Black Lives Matter, combining the poetical, personal and political. It includes my art on the front cover and illustrations within.
I am also proud of establishing and curating the TUC's Roots, Culture, Identity art exhibition for ten years and providing a platform for black and brown artists with a focus on young people to showcase their creative talents. Last year, I was selected as one of The World Reimagined globe artists, reimagining how we view the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people and its legacies. My globe has been displayed around the UK, from Leicester city centre to Leicester Museum to Trafalgar Square and currently at Rhodes House, Oxford.
In July 2023, I was made a fellow of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. One of my proudest days was seeing my son graduate from university a few years ago, so it was very special to have him attend my graduation. It meant a lot to receive this fellowship because doing what I do on the issues I campaign on attracts abuse, trolling, misogyny, racist abuse and misogynoir so to have my work recognised in an academic space and to be celebrated meant a lot to me.
By having an interdisciplinary approach, I can bring arts to activism and vice versa. All of my work is interconnected and at the core of it all is my quest for equality, freedom, justice and rights.
You work across the arts, law, and activism. How do you think an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary issues can maximise social impact?
I know that through these different platforms, I can reach different people, and engage a broader range of people and that combined they can have a powerful collective impact. People respond to situations in different ways and the power of a painting, poem or written story should not be underestimated.
By having an interdisciplinary approach, I can bring arts to activism and vice versa. For me, all of my work is interconnected and at the core of it all is my quest for equality, freedom, justice and rights. It also means that I can engage audiences that might not typically be in the same spaces at the same time and that this can open the doors to conversations, engagements and collaborations, not just for me but for others too. Working collectively is essential to have an impact.
You’ve previously won diversity awards and are shortlisted for the prestigious Lifetime Achiever Award at the National Diversity Awards. What do you think is the biggest challenge society is currently facing in terms of equality and representation?
We have been through over ten years of austerity, a global pandemic and now a cost-of-living crisis – this has amplified existing discrimination and injustice and, in times of economic crisis, those who already face poverty are disproportionately those who face discrimination. In addition, fascism increases.
There is an ongoing hostile environment concerning immigration policies and laws that target those most impacted by climate displacement. With regards to racism in society, we have had report upon report telling us what we already know, that racism exists in all aspects of life – what we need is action to address it, not reports about it.
We deserve equality in our lifetimes, not just as a future aspiration. The harder life becomes, the more chance that divide and rule tactics are successful. The challenge is to ensure that hard-fought gains on equality are not undone once achieved, which we have seen happen over the past two decades, and that we build a society where respect, humanity, equity, and dignity for all are at the core.
We have had report upon report telling us what we already know, that racism exists in all aspects of life – what we need is action to address it, not reports about it.
Here at the RSA, we like to ask what could go right. What do you think success looks like for your work?
Success for my work on a personal level would mean that I do not face discrimination and barriers myself but that the core things that I strive for through my work of equality, freedom, justice and human rights are not things that I and others have to dedicate our lives fighting for. We shouldn’t have to raise another generation and another after it that has to fight for these things – that we can all live, and not just survive.
What do you think is the best way for young and/or aspiring activists to get involved with meaningful causes?
I think that young people are building strong movements and safe spaces to organise every day – but I would say that for any young/aspiring activists who wish to get involved in meaningful causes, the best way is to focus on the things you care most about or are passionate about. Try to seek out like-minded people with whom you can work in a safe environment. Activism can be exhausting and traumatising, so it is essential that you avoid burnout, that you practise self-care and that the spaces you organise in practise collective care.
If there isn’t a group that fits for you, then consider creating your own, doing a call-out, and getting a group of friends together. You can organise on a small scale but still dream big. You don’t have to carry the whole world on your shoulders. But also think about the skills, knowledge and experience you can bring to the table and use those to contribute. You don’t have to do it all – pooling our resources and expertise is what brings collective power. Be kind to yourself in the process.
What does being an RSA Fellow mean to you?
Being invited to be a Fellow means that what I do is valued and that is important when you organise in hostile spaces and are targeted for abuse for standing up for justice, rights and equality. It means that I am part of a collective and not alone, and that there is a global family I can engage with and work with to make the world a better place.
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