Reflection during Black History Month

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By Damian Walters, BiKBBI CEO

As I'm sat on a train heading into London for a day of meetings, I overheard a conversation between two young lads about Black History Month (October). It got me thinking about the most influential people in my life and it sent me on a journey of reflection.

Growing up in South London in the eighties was a multicultural introduction to life for me. A vibrant, colourful and cultural part of the world, I was thankfully surrounded by a rich, diverse community and I would say that this was the foundation of a life that embraces difference.

My late father Don was big into Sunday football, so every week we'd travel around London watching the beautiful game... when I say beautiful, it was far from beautiful most weeks, but it was the way many chose to release the pressure of life and was my first real experience of people of different colours and faiths working together as a unit. Unlike many teams in South London, who at the time were either black or white, every club my dad ever managed was a real mix of talent and colour, many of whom seemed to follow dad from club-to-club. I remember forming some great relationships back then and having a brilliant time following my dad and the sport - but whilst it was my first taste of real cultural togetherness, I did experience many, many instances of racism – which, in the main was shrugged off by the recipient, but was a clear indicator that division was present.

From primary school and early friendships with Arsenal supporting Jamal Evans, who inadvertently led me to women’s football and an early career with Arsenal Ladies, to Marlon Stirling, who shared a love of music and encouraged me into DJ’ing (not that either would know their influence on me), to my later school years, I found some lasting friendships with black lads that really has shaped me as a person.

Whether I was young, naïve, sheltered or all three, I never really experienced cultural divide – as far as I was concerned, there was no differences within our community. But that changed in April 1993 as my school friends and I prepared for our GCSE’s. One day life was fine, the next it wasn’t and that day my outlook on life skewed. Stephen Lawrence, the brother of my good friend and fellow classmate Stuart, was murdered by a group of racist animals on the streets of Eltham in South London and the sheltered life I had led to that point ended abruptly. Life got very real, and I witnessed, at close range, the effects of hate. Hate not caused by anything meaningful, but by a misguided ignorance and inability to look beyond the very, very thin layer of human exterior. The horrors of that day and the subsequent gross injustice led me to a voluntary policing career, because ultimately, I wasn’t prepared to accept what I was seeing and again, perhaps naively, I thought I could make a difference.

Another school buddy, Calvin Bailey – now Wing Commander Calvin Bailey MBE of The Royal Air Force, piloted the last flight out of Kabul as allied forces retreated from Afghanistan. A hugely talented young man, who unbeknown to him, influenced my own son Alfie to join the RAF this month. My complete admiration of Calvin from a distance over the years has rubbed off on my own little family and opened up an exciting chapter for a young, eager 16-year-old Alfie.

As I moved into adult life and a career in the KBB industry, I began working for the furniture giant MFI. Those days were great fun and essentially where I learned my trade. Surrounded by an impressive pool of leadership, including Drew Carter, Billy Quinn and my then line manager Paul Smart, one of the people I gelled with was a lad on the south coast, Michael (Micky) Davis, pictured left. As a newbie to the industry, and not wanting to show my hand to my line manager, I’d often lean on Micky to guide me on all things installation – which he always did, with a huge smile, deep voiced chuckle and the words (which I now use today) “Good Skills”! He had a natural talent for supportive leadership and was a mentor that I can only be eternally grateful to. Sadly, Micky prematurely passed away in 2017, but his memory, teachings and catchphrase will live on forever… one of my sons, only last week, said “Good Skills” and it raised a smile. God bless you Micky.

More recently in life, I formed another lasting relationship with a fellow soldier when serving in the voluntary Armed Forces. I met Dwayne, affectionately known only by me as “Tiny” (pictured below), because, as you guessed, he is the opposite of Tiny (a HGV driving, part-time club bouncer, built like a Sherman Tank). Dug into a sleeping pit, in the middle of the night, in the middle of unfamiliar countryside, I volunteered for century duty just to get away from his giant-like snoring – a noise that would rattle the fillings out of your teeth! Not only a friend for life, but I have the honour of being his son’s godfather.

My life has been shaped by a diverse set of people and circumstances, each representing a stitch in my own tapestry. Like all good tapestries, it requires the coming together of beautiful colours and textures and I am truly blessed to have known and know some amazing, influential people – of all colours.

And 30 years later, I’m back with my old school pal Stuart Lawrence, who joined my business this year as our Diversity Ambassador. A true gent who, on the back of the most awful of circumstances, has dedicated his life to positive change. Together, we will make a difference in our amazing industry.


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