Black History Makers: 'They said I profited from tokenism' – Kaya Comer-Schwartz

Kaya Comer-Schwartz. Picture: Islington Council

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, leader of Islington Council - Credit: Islington Council

Last year, we interviewed Kaya Comer-Schwartz, who at that point was the first Black deputy leader of Islington Council. Twelve months on, she has been promoted to the top job, replacing Richard Watts as the town hall's leader. We caught up with her again this month to ask about the challenges and opportunities facing Black people in Islington.  

What does it mean to be Black and British in 2021? 

“It has two sides to it. It feels like something to be exceptionally proud of, especially in Islington where we are such a diverse community and there are so many things to celebrate as part of the Black culture.  

“It feels like we are seeing so many achievements from the Black community. There is a lot of pride and strength in the discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and that comes from a real position of strength.  

“But of course, there are huge challenges in being Black and British. I am very aware that in this borough, under every metric you would be concerned about domestic violence, mental health, criminal youth justice, unemployment – there is a disproportionate amount of BAME people in those groups. Part of that is because of structural racism in this country, so that’s challenging.” 

As a councillor, how do you navigate that space between celebration and challenges?

“I think it is an opportunity to highlight the celebration and contribution. We recently unveiled a part-funded statue outside Whittington Hospital which celebrates the Windrush and Commonwealth community of nurses that had contributed masses to this country’s health. After the pandemic, it felt really important to do that.  

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“We also have to give space to the challenges. We did a race equality strategy which means we are committed to changing race inequality. It’s about creating space for the data, the policy and the challenge of creating a better Islington for everyone.  

“As a leader, it is an opportunity for empathy. I know when I speak to councillors just starting off on their journey or residents, that there is a shortcut of language.  

“There are things they don’t need to explain to me because they know I get it. They can speak to me in a different, an open way because they know there’s no stigma. They can see themselves somewhat reflected in me.”  

A stock image of Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz. Picture: Polly Hancock

Cllr Comer-Schwarz became leader in May - Credit: Archant

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?  

“As a Black person, you are aware that you are often going into rooms where you are the only one, and sometimes you have to motivate yourself to walk into a room and hold that space.  

“When I became deputy leader, I was told by some people that it was tokenism, regardless of how hard I had worked to get to that position. That was really disheartening since I was putting in all the work.  

“I am aware of the risks of putting myself out there on social media. Every time I say I’m the first Black leader of the council, I’m aware of the risk of racism directed to me. If I advocate for myself or other people, it can be perceived as being aggressive.  

“I keep myself motivated through knowing what it means to other people to see me here. Knowing that me and the other BAME councillors are bringing our knowledge and experience into policy-making is motivating. When I speak to residents from the Black community, there is a confidence that I will do right by them which is very motivating.”  

What advice would you give young Black people who are thinking of a career in politics?  

“Go for it with everything you’ve got. Go into with an open mind and your eyes wide open. It’s hard work and challenging at times but that shouldn’t stop you. It’s needed, and I see it in council staff and residents, it’s so important to them.  

“I have met with our youth councillors recently and they are so inspirational. The work that they have done on BLM, the conversations they are having on body image and mental health. If we don’t encourage that, that’s a detriment to us and us alone.” 

This article is part of our series Black History Makers. For more features, see the December 9 edition of the Islington and Hackney Gazettes.