Social entrepreneur Ryan Dube is inviting young Black people in Teesside to learn more about their histories and confidently build a better world.
When a wave of protests, initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement, spread from the USA across the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, many young people, including several Partners of the Challenge and Change Fund, were prompted to reexamine their roles in their communities. Among them was Ryan Dube, the Founder of Living While Black.
“During the lockdown, everybody was trapped when the Black Lives Matter protests happened,” recalls Ryan, who had been volunteering with underrepresented children in low income housing before the pandemic. “It was weird because you were witnessing history but felt powerless. I felt like I was watching a situation which I’d seen happen in my life and which was happening more and more. I was seeing stories of Black people being shot on TV and on the internet. I thought I could personally escape it. I always thought, yes, I know this affects some people but I don’t have to deal with this to the same extent that I always see people in America deal with it. As you mature into an adult, especially me having to accept that I’m a Black man and that has a certain mental image or gives people certain feelings when they see me, I realised very quickly, in an instant, that I can’t escape this. It was deeply traumatic and I had to figure out my place in this world.”
Ryan committed himself to a period of learning about the history of racism and transatlantic slavery, the British empire and its legacies, and the school-to-prison pipeline. What he read confirmed what he’d been feeling for a long time but did not always have the words to articulate. He says that, though he still felt some fear, this period of learning and reflection awoke a desire to take action and to write a different future for Black people in his local area, Teesside.
“After I healed a little bit from the trauma, a volunteer opportunity came up in my local area to facilitate a youth conference for a group from London who came to Teesside to share the history of Black people in Britain. I spoke to loads of people and it went really well. After that, I started doing more of these projects and I started hearing from people over and over that I was a good leader. People asked if I’d consider being a community leader. From my perspective, I was just taking part but it was clear that people saw something in me. I don’t usually pay attention to other people’s perspectives in regards to the direction of my life, but it sounded like a responsibility and, obviously, it scared me but I explored it.
I know that change happens when you don’t accept the way things are. So, first of all, I had to look at who I am. I’m Ryan Dube. I’m a Zimbabwean born social entrepreneur and music artist who thinks kids are awesome and far more capable than what we give them the opportunity to show. A month after the event, I saw the opportunity to apply to the Challenge and Change Fund. I got the funding and I couldn’t believe it because all I did was just tell my story. It really empowered me because there was trust between us: a big organisation has given you funding and they trust you to complete this project because they think you’re the right person for it.”
“If you teach people the truth about where they’re from…they realise that they have a place in this world.”
With support from Challenge and Change, Ryan founded the project Living While Black, which began as a series of public events featuring talks from scholars, historians and writers about the history of racism, particularly in England.
“We held a talk with Kehinde Andrews, for example, who is the only Black professor of Black Studies in Europe. The way he articulates himself is the real deal. We invited young people, the community, everybody to talk to him and ask him questions.
The thing you have to know about Teesside and the Black community here is that Teesside has one of the fastest growing populations of ethnic minorities in the country, so the community is fairly new but is growing really quickly, as are the number of refugees and asylum seekers. The Northeast is the poorest part of the country and, with the kind of political conversations going on, refugees really get less than the worst of what’s available. That’s why I think the population is growing at a rapid rate. Teesside is also historically working class.
As a community, we need to recognise that the challenges we’re facing have happened in other areas and take that knowledge and learn from it. That’s what Living While Black is all about: redistributing knowledge about the history of colonial and transatlantic racism within the British Empire. Most people, whether you’re African born and live here or you’re British born and Black, don’t know that history. Colonial structures only teach certain things. Trade, sanctions, disease, political influence from the West all still have a tight grip in Africa. When you don’t know your history and society treats you like you’re worth less, you internalise that. If you teach people something alternative like the truth about where they’re from, where civilisation really started, what Africa was before transatlantic slavery, they realise that they have a place in this world.”
“Trusting and empowering young people is really important. They are absolutely up to the task.”
The events have had a greater impact on local young people than Ryan had imagined possible. He works regularly with around forty young people and is distributing short video clips of the talks online to an audience of thousands. He says that several young people have stepped into leadership roles in their communities and friendship groups, inspired by what they learned at the events. Ryan says that, in an environment in which they often feel judged or perceived as a threat, activities that boost the confidence of young Black people can have a significant positive impact on their mental health.
“The best thing I’ve seen is young Black people being able to be themselves and relax. You’ve got to realise that this almost never happens. We live in Teesside where the majority population is white. They go to white schools and restaurants. When they walk into a room they probably feel like people think they’ve ‘come over here’ to take resources and, to be honest, they might feel that way about themselves. When you teach people that resources were stolen from Africa and that’s the reason why Britain is a prosperous, first world country, then comments like ‘you’re coming here to steal our jobs’ aren’t going to have as much impact. It’s just awesome to see young Black people be themselves, start their own projects and podcasts, talk about their hair and feel comfortable to put things out on the internet.
Trusting and empowering young people is really important. They are absolutely up to the task. Some of the world’s biggest revolutionaries were young people. Fred Hampton was the deputy Chairman of the Black Panther Party (before he was assassinated) when he was twenty-one. They were one of the biggest political movements in the country and really well organised, to the point that the government was having trouble destabilising them.”
Everything that we’ve put on has exceeded expectations. Seeing people turn up and ask a good scholar a question, listen and have their world view morph and change. Seeing that they’ve really learned something. The biggest thing for me is having a space for our own community where we can freely express ourselves because there’s a lot of fear, to be honest, which stops people from coming along. Some of those fears include people worrying about how their involvement will affect their residency applications to the Home Office. For some people, saying the wrong thing is a matter of stability or life and death, especially for the political refugees.”
“I’m helping to building a better infrastructure for me to create change.”
Since launching the project, Ryan has embarked on the Virgin Money Foundation Young Change Makers Fellowship programme to develop his critical leadership skills and transform his project into an organisation. He works in a community centre and does social action focused videography as a means of building a local network and sustaining Living While Black.
“I’m building a better infrastructure for me to create change,” says Ryan. “Through the Blagrave Trust’s Partner Development Fund, I’m also able to empower other people by doing things like sign language training and working on financial and safeguarding policies. I’m also thinking about what it means for us to be self-sustainable so that we don’t always have to depend on funding and I want to create a for-profit structure so that we can be self funded.
I’ve learned that I’m good at creating charitable organisations that don’t disregard people’s emotions and how they function. I’ve got every symptom of adult ADHD and a lot of symptoms of being on the autism spectrum, so I can see patterns and I can create structures, but I’m also empathetic to people.”
Currently, Ryan is fundraising for a new project, Know Your Rights, a direct intervention against widespread and systematic rights violations experienced by Black people in Teesside.
“You can know your history but illegal police stops and searches will still happen. Know Your Rights will be a project we run at a local community centre where people can learn how to deal with the stop and search situation. It’s about knowing how to get home safe because if you’re Black, you’re probably going to get stopped and searched for no reason because Teesside has one of the highest rates of stop and search of ethnic minorities in the country.
After that, I want to set up a women’s health caucus focusing on Black women’s health because women’s healthcare is already poor regardless of what race you are but it becomes worse when you look from a position of intersectionality and look at eugenicist beliefs that still exist in medicine. It’s something my friends have experienced. I’m giving control over that project to my friend who is a Black woman because it doesn’t make sense for me to lead it. Just because I’m building my organisation, it doesn’t mean I have to be the one delivering everything. You’ve got to know when it’s your time to talk. In a women’s space, I’m there to listen. I might not even agree with everything that’s been said but I’m not going to desecrate the sanctity of that space. People deserve to be able to shape their own destinies and my mission is to give Black people the practical tools to address these things.”
“If funders give more money to Teesside, then more people will end up having the qualities and experiences that people like about me.”
Ryan believes that his lived experience, while largely anomalous, has equipped him to create a world in which the opportunities he has enjoyed are accessible to everyone. Despite being a young person, he is already thinking about his legacy.
“I’m a statistical anomaly so there’s a responsibility on me,” he explains. “Yes, I am from Teesside and I’ve had the quintessential working class experience, but I was born in Zimbabwe. I came to England but then I went to school in Australia a couple of times and also stopped in Dubai on the way there. At nine years old, I’d had a taste of what the world had to offer.
Yes, I’m neurodivergent but, if I’m completely honest, that’s been more of a superpower in my education. Yes, I face racism but I had a really good mother who provided for me. Yes, I went into care when I was sixteen but I had a damn good PA and I met some amazing people who nurtured the best in me. It wasn’t a good experience but it was good by care standards. It’s really important to reiterate how anomalous my experience is. Even the fact that I have a university degree when around 50% of young people in contact with the criminal justice system have been in care and only around 6% of care experienced people attend university. Add that to having asylum seeker status in England. It would be unfair to expect any young Black person in Teesside facing the structural inequalities of racism to achieve the kind of success that I have had. Part of the reason I do this work I’m now realising is because I’m not sure there are many people in my position who can.
My ultimate mission is that when I reach the age at which I’m not considered a young person, I can hand this work to somebody else. If funders give more money to Teesside and the projects that we’re doing, then more people will end up having the qualities and experiences that people like about me.
If you asked me what the most pivotal thing is that I could do to bring about change, it would be redistributing wealth in an even manner, tackling racism, looking at reparations but, practically speaking, that’d be really hard. I’m not saying I couldn’t do that but it’s not going to happen tomorrow.
I’m starting with Teesside by talking about the Pan-African world but I know this is really just the first brick in the building. I want to make an impact on a bigger scale. The world is bigger than Teesside.”
The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.