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“We stand on the shoulders of giants”

Alexander Olive

If you had asked me a month ago if I expected a statue of a slave trader to fall head-first into the Floating Harbour in Bristol, I would have said, “Aren’t we all supposed to be in lockdown?”

The lockdown has forced society to reflect on the nature and impact of inequality. Who was going to work on packed buses while we were cocooned at home, sat over our laptops? Who was eligible for government support to help pay the rent and feed their families, and who was left to fend for themselves? Who was more susceptible to losing their lives before their time, either by a novel virus, or at the hands of the people employed to protect them?

Anyone who believes in a fairer society can no longer deny that things must change. But what form will that change take? It is wonderful that the removal of statues led to a six-fold increase in the number of Google searches for the phrase “slave trade” within the space of a week. But what about the future? Will we want to say to our sons and daughters that the only things we got were a few empty plinths, while the foundations of inequality, and its structures, were left untouched?

The task before all of us is daunting. But take solace in this: we all stand on the shoulders of giants. The tolerance of overt racial discrimination in the workplace was made that bit harder thanks to Paul Stephenson, who told Bristolians to stay off the buses in protest, helping to force the bus company to employ Black and Asian drivers and conductors. It was his action that also contributed to the passing of the first Race Relations Act in 1965, which made it illegal to deny someone a job on the basis of skin colour. With his refusal to accept blatant discrimination, we are now able to question the covert, subtler discrimination that pervades parts of public life. To Paul Stephenson, we, with the city of Bristol, give thanks.

Indeed, all of us should never forget to say ‘thank you’ for any leg-up we are given. In the spirit of reflection and renewal, I am confident that our past Rising Stars have provided countless other talented young people with help on their journey, or have directed them to someone who can. Sometimes, you do not even know that you have inspired someone to take that leap, and turn a passion project into a business, or bring about change based on a strongly held cause of believe. Indeed, it is sometimes only at the moment when someone thanks you, that we gain a sense of our own impact on others.

Making that impact is key to everyone’s ethos and role at Rare. However, I might be so bold to say that my role in Target Oxbridge, talking to people as young as 16 years old, exemplifies my point best. I have attended 6 residential trips to Oxford and Cambridge so far. The best thing about them is not the freshly cut grass in the college quads, eating in the different halls, or walking past old haunts without worrying about an essay due the next day. Instead, it is seeing the Target Oxbridge students speak to former students on the programme, who are now helping out as undergraduates on those trips, and giving back. It is seeing the moment the students realise that, if people who look like them, interested in the same things as them, made it to Oxford and Cambridge, they can do it too.

The best among us thrive in adversity. The economic and social contributions of Black people in the United States and Europe, and of the entire African continent, are testament to this. At this moment, no one has the slightest clue of how the rest of the decade is going to turn out. However, I am certain that for the one hundred Rare Rising Stars of past and present, this is just a blank canvas waiting for their indelible mark. For them, the current economic, social and ecological climate will be a time for them to grab those new opportunities for change and innovation with both hands.

Follow the examples of your forebears; seize the day.

Written by Alexander Olive
Alexander Olive is a Schools and Universities Associate at Rare. He joined Rare in February 2018, and is one of the coordinators of Target Oxbridge