Outsiders in London

All photographs:  copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK


Lord Herman George Ouseley

Age: 68

Born in Georgetown, British Guiana

Father & Mother both born in British Guiana

Ethnic heritage / Father: mixed race - Guyanese / Mother: Afro-Guyanese


Herman George Ouseley, Baron Ouseley of Peckham Rye in the London Borough of Southwark, is one of only 50 black and minority ethnic members of the House of Lords (around 7.5% of the total membership).   A lifelong campaigner and advocate for racial equality and human rights, Lord Ouseley is himself a shining example of how drive, determination and sheer force of character can overcome the most ingrained prejudice and lead to great professional success, very considerable personal standing and extensive influence in the corridors of power.   With thirteen honorary degrees, Lord Ouseley is undoubtedly now a distinguished black elder statesman.  

Herman Ouseley was born into a modest family in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana);  he has two sisters but sadly, his father died before he could know him.   His widowed mother, who was a nurse, determined to secure the best prospects she could for her children and became an economic migrant to Britain, moving here in 1956 (when Herman was 11) to settle and work in South London.   Initially, she found it hard to get the right job and had to surmount a number of the major obstacles that most new settlers have to encounter before they find their feet and create a home of their own in their adopted country.   In a recent interview, Herman recalls his mother’s departure for the UK:  “I found the separation from my mum almost unbearable;  I missed her dreadfully.   I kept staring at the sea, towards the horizon, for what seemed like hours at a time, looking longingly at the boats sailing away and the aeroplanes flying overhead and I longed to be with my mum again.   Of course, I had two sisters and we were all well looked after by our aunts but it just wasn’t the same.”   Herman’s enthusiasm for joining his mother in London was to become a reality, but only after he’d undertaken a most unnerving three-week journey, unaccompanied, on a liner across the seas, first to a Mediterranean port and then across most of Europe by train to England.   Not surprisingly, the memory of this momentous journey has always stayed in Herman’s mind.  

He arrived in London, a boy of 12, wide-eyed and imbued with all the fears that finding yourself amongst a strange people and in an unfamiliar landscape would give rise to.   But he was reunited with his mother, safe and loved again.   “I arrived not really knowing what to expect.   It was culture shock all the way, and 17 days’ travelling between continents was a completely new experience for me - it was almost traumatic.   Mind you, those 17 days certainly helped me develop some survival skills and, given my age at the time, I think it may also have fashioned me into being a bit of a loner too, keeping things to myself - I still do hold a lot in.   In a strange way, that journey was the making of me, lending me many of the characteristics that define me now.  When I arrived to London, to Peckham to be precise, it took me a while to figure out how to relate to the unfamiliar streets, to what seemed the strangeness of the people, and to our immediate neighbours.   From the outset, I remember being called all sort of names - ‘wog’, ‘coon’ and ‘sambo’ - though to begin with, I didn’t have a clue if people were intending to be offensive - I interpreted people’s smiles and grins as friendliness.   It took me some time to realise that there was real hostility and animosity behind those ‘friendly’ facial expressions and that the words uttered were verbal daggers, intended entirely to wound.   But in all fairness, while there was hostility, I also remember quite clearly that there was friendliness as well and, indeed, what was genuine curiosity in the exotic nature of this dark boy who was me.   I went straight into secondary school, to the William Penn School in Dulwich.”

“After concentrating all my efforts on trying to blend in, often imitating what other people did and conforming as much as I could, what really came as a shock to me, and what made me realise that I was an outsider in a very real sense, was when an adult, not another child, confronted me with these words:  ‘We didn’t win the War just for you people to come over, take our jobs and our homes, and fill up all our schools and hospitals.‘   Perhaps, in a strange way, I thought that he might have a point and I understood quite clearly that I was not welcome.   Only later on did I come to realise that people from all over the Commonwealth, including Africa and the Caribbean, took part in both World Wars, fought as allies alongside the British troops, and died on the battlefields just like them.   As for taking people’s jobs, the British Government deliberately sought to address a post-war labour shortage by inviting immigration from Commonwealth countries.”

We have now almost forgotten that the Second World War itself had brought large numbers of people to Britain from the Caribbean.   Mostly members of the armed forces, but with medics and nurses amongst them too, they mainly settled in the big cities, throwing themselves enthusiastically into working in factories and the new NHS-run hospitals.   Of course, their experience of discrimination and racism was intense but, even in spite of it, many gained wide experience in the British world of work and familiarity with the country’s social life too.   Post-war reconstruction and renewal created substantial demands for labour across the whole of Western Europe and many people from the Commonwealth came to help Britain in these tasks.  Though there were plenty of jobs available, the new arrivals were largely excluded from the higher-paid, skilled jobs, regardless of experience or qualifications.   Caribbeans were mainly employed on the transport system, as cleaners, nurses, in catering and as casual labourers on building sites.  Without them, some key public services - the hospitals, the buses and railways, and the Post Office - would hardly have been able to function.   Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, immigrants faced general, widespread hostility and discrimination, including from some of the trade unions who feared for the loss of their members’ jobs.

The young Herman was a quick learner, intelligent and ambitious and, following his secondary education at William Penn, he went on to Catford College to gain the Diploma in Local Government Management.   His formal education complete and armed with his vocational qualification, Herman began what turned out to be a thirty-year career in local government.   During that time, he progressed from clerical and junior administration roles to become involved with some of the early work on community development in the 1970s.   In the 1980s, he was engaged in policy development work within local government, including some of the early challenges to institutional racism and the opening up of opportunities for people from a variety of disadvantaged backgrounds, people who had in the past been normally excluded.   He also assisted the GLC in setting up and running what was the first Ethnic Minorities Unit of its kind in any public authority.

Having gained a broad experience of public administration in an urban context, Herman Ouseley became, in 1986, the Director of Education for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) from whence he swiftly advanced to become the ILEA’s Chief Executive in 1988, the first black CEO of a local authority in England.   Two years later, with Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of both the GLC and the ILEA, Herman became Chief Executive of the London Borough of Lambeth, one of the inner-London boroughs that became a new education authority at that time.

With a successful and distinguished local government career behind him, Herman was appointed Chair and CEO of the Commission for Racial Equality in 1993, the CRE’s first black Chair, a position he held until the year 2000.   Though it represented a natural progression, in the context of many of Herman Ouseley’s particular interests in public policy, this appointment undoubtedly shaped the later stages of his career and focussed his interests even more in the areas of racial equality and human rights.   He was knighted in 1997 for his services to local government and community relations and, having stood down from his chairmanship of the CRE, was ennobled in June 2001;  he sits on the cross-benches as an independent peer, allowing him to take on the challenges of discrimination and abuse wherever he finds them, without fear or favour.

Since 2000, when Lord Ouseley set up his own business consultancy, the ‘Different Realities Partnership’, principally to undertake reviews of organisations’ assignments and performance in pursuit of equality and diversity outcomes, he has been largely engaged in the pioneering of equality and the elimination of discrimination across a very broad front.   Consequently, he has been involved in numerous campaigns and charitable organisations:  most notably, Lord Ouseley is Chairman of Kick It Out, aimed at eliminating the abuse received by black professional footballers across the entirety of football in England;  he is Chair of the Chandran Foundation whose Mission is to ‘provide opportunities for young people who face disadvantage, particularly, but not exclusively, those from the ethnic minorities living in inner cities, to fulfil their educational potential and to provide the guidance that will help them to obtain meaningful and sustainable employment’;  he is also a Council Member of the Institute of Race Relations, a Trustee of the Manchester United Foundation and Vice-President of the Local Government Association.   In addition, Lord Ouseley is the patron of a great many charitable organisations and in a great many different guises, he has been energetic in an endeavour to help educate young people about difference.   In a recent interview for BBC Wales, Lord Ouseley expressed his belief that:  “It’s about how we get all young people to see that they are very special themselves, to understand how they want to be treated, to be made to feel special, and therefore to see others as special.   Then we can start to understand more about the bigger differences, about race, colour, nationality, ethnicity, and how we respect those things.   It’s not about having to like someone because they’re black, or because they’re white, but it’s having respect for the individual.   I think it’s a learning process.   If we can get people to start to feel good about themselves at a very early stage, and therefore feel good about other people, I think that’s the way to do it.”  

Lord Ouseley continues:  “There is always a self-consciousness within me, that I am not really one of you, but that I am allowed temporarily to share space with you;  this  self-consciousness is always with me.   I am an insider as well, of course, and I have access to people in power, to networks and institutions that hold power, and I can potentially influence things in decision-making bodies, things an outsider would find more difficult to achieve.   But all these things have their limitations.   In my case, I feel that these limitations are enhanced by my self-consciousness, by my knowing that I am different.  The way I perceive myself and the way others perceive me affects everything I do.   Therefore, while I know that by now I am very much regarded as the insider, I often feel like an outsider too.   Although I should like to have no hesitation in saying to someone, ‘I am as good as you, I am equal to you’, I am always conscious that the other person might not see things quite that way.”

If racism equates to ‘prejudice plus power’, Lord Ouseley is asked how often, as a member of the establishment, he faces racism now.   “I would say that racism is frequently something that is not always necessarily ‘in your face’, but you know that it is there nevertheless.   There are, I think, two sides to racism and they are not unlike the ways people manifest sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.   One is real, ‘in your face’ racism, when you clearly know that someone is racist:  they call you a ‘black bastard’ or whatever other insult they think will hurt you most.   That might be painful but one can recognise it for the sheer prejudice it is, deal with it, ignore it, perhaps even deflect it.   What is much more difficult to deal with is the racism that emanates from people who smile at you, who seem friendly towards you, who behave as if they had the upmost respect for you yet, deep down, you know very well that this is just dissimulation, a cynical and hypocritical façade;  such people are not with you at all and what they really want is for you to get out of their way, to disappear from their world, ideally, to cease to exist altogether.   Such racism is always much harder to deal with.”

“One way I have tried to address racism in my life is by changing institutions.   I was first fired up by my growing awareness that so many institutions just don’t seem to work for people, by the way organisations appear to place stumbling blocks in front of ordinary people to stop them gaining access to the services and opportunities that should, by rights, be available to them.   Back in the early 1960s, I was working in Town Planning and I saw how obstacles were almost systematically placed in front of people, ordinary working-class, white people, for example, who simply wanted to install an inside lavatory in their home and yet the archaic planning laws seemed to make it almost impossible for them to obtain this modest enhancement of day-to-day living.   I have learned that you can find ways to get around the regulations and so make it possible to help people - my enthusiasm simply for circumventing the problems in people’s way almost made me a rebel in the face of authority but I still feel passionate about these issues now.   You can transform an organisation by understanding the constraints that are in place and then finding ways to overcome them and to implement change for the good.”

Interview Date: 17th November 2013

Updated:  19th December 2013

Kick It Out works throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge  discrimination, encourage inclusive practices, and work for positive change:


To learn more about the work of The Chandran Foundation, go to:


The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is at the cutting edge of the research and analysis that inform the struggle for racial justice in Britain, Europe and internationally:


Herman George Ouseley, Baron Ouseley of Peckham Rye, is one of only 50 black and minority ethnic members of the House of Lords.   From arriving to Peckham as a 12 year-old ‘black outsider’ from British Guiana, to running the ILEA, heading the CRE, and entering the Lords, is a progress that well demonstrates how drive, determination and sheer force of character can overcome the most ingrained prejudice and lead to great professional success and very considerable personal standing.   But, while knowing that he is now very much regarded as an insider, Lord Ouseley still feels like an outsider too:  though he has every reason to think himself equal to anyone else, as a black man, he always carries with him the consciousness that other people might not think so.

Photography: London 27th November 2013