When Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey speaks out during question period in the UK’s House of Lords, you can be sure that her fellow Members of Parliament listen. It wasn’t, however, she says looking back on her twelve-year career in politics, always that way.
“Men often shout the loudest and longest so it was hard to make an intervention, but I learned to choose my moments,” she says laughing. Getting heard in what she calls the “free for all” question period, took more than a loud voice. It also took getting her fellow parliamentarians’ respect. She got that too. “The longer you are there the more they know what you do, so they listen.” And Baroness Young, a life peer in the British Parliament, has a lot to say about social justice, diversity and equality.
At almost six feet tall in a colorful head wrap and dreadlocks, she is an imposing figure. She has an imposing agenda as well. Baroness Young has introduced her colleagues to issues such as forced domestic servitude, sexual violence in conflict and criminal justice as it relates to black and Muslim male offenders. What she is probably most known for is her fierce commitment to issues of ethics in the fashion industry. She was the first person in Parliament to bring up ethics and sustainability in the manufacture of clothing imported to Great Britain. This, like her other campaigns for change, took patience, diplomacy and most of all tenacity. She had to convince her fellow members one by one of its importance. “There was a level at which I just was not taken seriously.”
Motivated by a belief that her fellow citizens simply wouldn’t want to wear, for example, clothing made from cotton harvested by children in Uzbekistan or sewn by workers in factories that are fire hazards, she has worked to make sure the government has a role in helping the British garment and retail industry improve conditions. “This is my job. To use my privileged position to do things that matter.”
Doing “things that matter” has taken her around the world. She has traveled to South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia to visit projects such as Cotton Made in Africa (an initiative to help cotton farmers improve their working and living conditions). Speaking engagements and conferences have taken her to Europe and the U.S. Wherever she travels, she says, she tries to make time to connect with local people and learn more about the area’s cultural and creative sectors. “Travel is always full of surprises!” For example, she points to the ubiquity of mobile phones in the most remote areas of Zambia where there is barely a transportation infrastructure, and tells the story of a walking safari that turned out to be not only exciting but also equally terrifying!
Cape Town, her most recent travel discovery, is a new favorite. She loves the beaches and the cultural scene. “It’s a very creative city with lots excellent art and design.” Baroness Young may be short on time to loll on beaches, but she does make the most of the solitude of her many long distance flights. “I’m often glad to be able to think without pressure, to work on specific problems or, she says, “simply catch up on sleep.”
Even with the exciting travel, there is considerably less glamour and more sweat in politics than one imagines, she explains. It is a slog. Sometimes disappointed by the results, she admits she just has to take a breath and then regroup. Then it’s back to work, talking with one senior politician after another about a bill she wants to see enacted. “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘I’m not going to be able to change the world on this one.’”
By now her work and persona are woven into the fabric of Parliament. Her journey to leadership, however, to the “imposing chamber”, red robes and ceremonial atmosphere, was an unusual and perhaps unexpected one. She speaks freely about a childhood in foster care and poverty so difficult that she had few clothes of her own. She remembers her excitement when she learned to make her own clothing. A lover of “funky and elegant” fashion today, she says, “When I finally had outfits to choose from it was fantastic!” But her childhood was also, she explains, the experience that laid the groundwork for her political life. “As a young child I saw stories on TV about apartheid and the civil rights movement.” Those events resonated with her own search for identity as a black child in England, and would remain a backdrop for later political work in diversity and equality.
She excelled as a student and in college and university studied drama, education and cultural studies. It was after her education, while working as an actor (quite successfully), and getting involved in an actors’ union committee about equity and diversity in hiring that she found her calling. “Those meetings were my introduction to politics,” she says. “I am a natural committee person,” she says of a role most people accept reluctantly. “All the ingredients were there,” she says of what was her first foray into politics.
Leaving acting, she continued graduate work (earning a PhD), taught cultural studies at a university wrote prolifically and took on the role of Project Director of the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage. Her talent was quickly noticed and she was asked to chair of a national committee on the arts where she looked at diversity and equality. Her hard work led to other appointments and she became a leading figure in the world of Great Britain’s cultural and creative industries, always an advocate for diversity and equality of opportunity.
Entering the House of Lords, she says, was an entirely new experience. It wasn’t a committee room with a long table; this was the Parliament “crammed with hundreds of people”. Reminiscing about her first day, she says, “It’s not your imagination. They are all looking at you as you read out your oath to the Queen.” And of course, no time to waste, her maiden speech was about equality. Being in Parliament, she says, was from the beginning a huge opportunity to use her position to better those with less privilege.
The long days, endless meetings, speaking engagements and events seem to energize Baroness Young. “Some of the work is such fun,” she says. “I think it is great when I have a new project.” Although the notion of her taking time from her whirlwind life to relax seems like heresy, she says she still finds time to go for long walks, cook (a passion) and go to dinner, films and theater with her husband of thirty-two years and their adult son. But nothing, she admits, thrills her more than going to see her favorite football (soccer) team, Arsenal, play. “I go to all the home games and that’s where I get out my shouts and screams,” she says with a laugh.
It is clear that Baroness Lola Young is too busy and too focused on others to see herself as a trailblazer or anyone special (she describes her life as “Not very posh”). She gets up in the morning, does her work, stumps for her causes and, she says, asks herself every day, “How can I make a difference in that wider world and challenge the status quo?”