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Olivier Tsemo "I am not a black man": SADACCA's Olivier Tsemo on overcoming inequality and the challenges facing civil society in Sheffield

The mathematician and CEO is hugely respected for turning the veteran organisation around – but believes our approach to tackling injustice is all wrong.

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Olivier Tsemo at SADACCA.

SADACCA.

A facilitator by trade, Olivier Tsemo was born in the city of Douala, Cameroon in 1972, and after a spell living in London, moved to Sheffield in 1998 where he has remained ever since. Three years later he started visiting the Sheffield And District African Caribbean Community Association, better known as SADACCA, and over time became more involved in the organisation.

In 2015 he was persuaded by fellow members to become CEO at a time when the association was facing major difficulties, including mounting debts and creaking infrastructure at their long-time home on The Wicker. Since then Tsemo and his team have transformed SADACCA, restoring the organisation to good financial health and opening up new spaces to host events ranging from late-night parties to pickle-making festivals.

We spoke to Tsemo to learn how he turned one of Sheffield’s most important civil society organisations around, what the future holds for SADACCA, and to discuss his highly unorthodox – and some would say controversial – views on racism and inequality that are inspired by the Ubuntu philosophy found in different forms across Africa.

We’re publishing this interview with something of a ‘health warning’. We know that many people reading this will disagree with Olivier’s perspective on structural racism, which runs counter to many of the pieces we’ve published in Now Then before. We've had extensive discussions as a team and our views are really mixed, so we present it here as a provocation and another way of looking at race and inequality. If you’d like to share your views on this piece, or write something for Now Then in response, please get in touch.


I'm really pleased to meet you today. I've been longing to have an interview with Opus!

I'm glad we could oblige! I thought I'd start by asking you about your work at SADACCA. What’s your role, and how long have you been there?

I joined SADACCA in May 2015. At the time it was a very critical situation, because SADACCA was nearly half a million in debt and facing eviction from its premises. In fact, a Section 146 was issued for the organisation. We had bailiffs coming here every single day, we had the police, we had all sorts of creditors coming in here asking for money.

We didn't have a satisfactory relationship with Sheffield City Council back then – overall, the outlook for SADACCA was really, really bad. Then I joined a board of three trustees and volunteered to become Chief Exec. I'm an educator, a mathematician and a problem solver. And I wanted to transfer some of the structure that I knew in education into the community. That's the reason why I gave up my job as a school improvement partner – with the aim of raising standards for my own community.

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Olivier with fellow members of SADACCA.

SADACCA.

It's been extremely challenging. I had to write a business plan, go to the council leadership and give them the direction of where myself, the team and the community would like SADACCA to be in five years. They agreed to give us a temporary notice: go ahead, and we're going to see what you are able to do. That's how we implemented all of what was written into the business plan. And slowly, we started to make progress. That progress has been exponential: from half a million in debt, we are now an organisation that is free of any debt.

That's amazing – in such a short period of time as well.

Yes, that's correct. That's the reason why we have become a case study for a lot of social entrepreneurs – how an outstanding community needs to be in terms of processes, in terms of raising funds, not relying on public funds, and so on. There is a lot of learning.

What are some of the things you've done to turn the organisation around?

For me, first of all, it’s a community mindset. Because at the top of anything that we do is the people. Then for me it was all about educating the community, making sure that your community is well aware of the state of play, all the organisational challenges. We presented it to the community in a more simple way, and said to them: this is the journey that we believe will take us into the light.

It's been extremely challenging. [SADACCA] is a community that was used to receiving, not looking inwards in terms of analysing their own weaknesses. At the front of anything that they do is embedded the word ‘charity’. And the word charity is not a word that we use. I prefer to use the term ‘social enterprise’. The mindset when you use ‘charity’ for a lot of people is “sit down, relax, and someone is going to give you money to use”. That's what the general public see. But as soon as you say ‘social enterprise’, the perception changes straight away. That journey has taken a long time. But now the community understands that this means we can create more business to generate more income.

I’ve definitely noticed a big increase in the number of organisations using SADACCA as a venue space.

It’s exponential – Sam, you’re completely right, it’s everybody. It’s the headquarters of the city! And I'm extremely pleased because I don't need to sell SADACCA. People ask me: what's your secret? How come everybody is coming to SADACCA? Even this year there's so many already, from Migration Matters opening and their last event to Pickle Fest.

Tchiyiwe [Chihana] mentioned that you’re looking to open a jazz club?!

Yes, yes! Our aim in the next two to three years is to turn the G-Mill room into a multi-use venue, but centred around jazz. We’re already well advanced into the feasibility – then hopefully this can be materialised. It’s to offer people variety.

At the centre of all this is that SADACCA has been able to put people first. And when I say people, it's been colourless, it's been genderless. It's just to put people at the centre of everything we do regardless of who they are. ‘I am because we are’ – that’s the Ubuntu philosophy.

I want to ask you about your work on inequality in the city, and how that fed into what later became the Race Equality Commission.

I’ve lived in Sheffield for nearly 26 years. In April 2020 I was extremely sad that a city that I've lived in for a long time was also one of the most unequal cities in England. What the data shows, the Index of Multiple Deprivation, is that we’ve got areas in Sheffield that compare to some of the wealthiest areas in our country – even compared to London. But you’ve also got areas in Sheffield that are the most deprived, not just in the UK, but in the whole of Europe. Can you see the apartheid society that we live in? It's not good.

That means Sheffield is very divided into poverty lines. Myself and many academics and members of the community drafted a letter to [then council leader] Julie Dore. The letter was mainly about tackling inequality – we wanted an open discussion on tackling inequality in Sheffield. She responded to the letter in September 2020, setting up what she then called the Sheffield Race Equality Commission.

But for me, the original topic wasn't about race. And the reason why I've never wanted to talk about race is because it's always a distraction. As soon as you use words like ‘black’ and ‘white’, you're not bringing people together. I'm then making people who look like you feel like ‘did he say everything is down to me? I'm not gonna engage with it’. But if I say “Sam, let's talk about inequality”, you’re more likely to sit down.

Then we can talk about inequality because you strongly believe as well that we want to raise outcomes for everyone, because inequality is everywhere. But as a politician she turned it into the Race Equality Commission. Then we accepted and I was one of the commissioners, and it was chaired by Professor Kevin Hylton. Then we had 24 months of talking to people, but it was a very painful exercise for me, because it was pitched into having ‘white against black’, ‘black against white’. It wasn't a collective effort to tackle the core issue, which is inequality. When you solve the inequality problem, you improve outcomes for everyone. This is where I now want to reframe the debate – not on colourism, because I'm not a black man. I don't identify as a black man.

Why did Julie Dore interpret what you were saying about inequality as being just about race?

My background is education, and in education we say every single child matters. As a classroom teacher, if you want to be an outstanding practitioner you need to demonstrate that all your students have made the required progress – not a few or most of them. If you want to call yourself an outstanding leader in our city, you need to demonstrate that the whole city has made progress. That means we need to know the baseline data for the whole city, and see if year after year we are making progress.

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SADACCA.

For me, she was just following the trend in our society. We are a society that's in love with colour. Because we have a very colonial mindset that only sees colour: “I am a white woman/man”, “I am a black woman/man”. You’re gonna hear this language a lot in our society. As soon as you use colourism you’re talking about slavery, because that's the caste management tool, that is colourism: where you rank humanity. Not a lot of people understand that you cannot talk about being inclusive, talk about EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion], and then at the same time talk about colourism.

You use this term ‘colourism’. What’s the difference as you see it between colourism and racism?

Both are terms that I won’t use because they're socially constructed terms. Remember racism is the idea that we believe that we see different races, which scientifically is not possible. There is only one race and that's the human race. Science says that we share 99.99999% of our DNA, but we refuse to follow the science. We live with social constructs, because we believe in inequality. We are a society that believes in inequality – it’s in our DNA as a society. That's our schooling for more than 500 years, where we call ourselves ‘white’, ‘brown’, ‘black’ – we are in love with those terms. We don't want to move away from them.

For me, I'm saying no, I'm seeing society as one – I’m a humanist. We use here at SADACCA the word ‘Bantu’. I only exist if you exist, Sam. I can only achieve if we achieve together. This is central to our work, that’s our philosophy here. And that's why we welcome everybody. With colourism, as soon as you identify as white, as black, as brown, you're putting yourself into a box. It is fair to say " Those who identified as white or black have extreme fear of the opposite group that must be confronted". Colourism runs deep in the veins of black people and it is simply internalised white supremacy. Colourism was carefully forged as a caste management tool in the hand of white colonialist. How then can you build EDI into colourism? It's not possible.

You can't be identifying me as black, and you as white, and at the same time push for you and me to be together – mathematically it’s not possible. Because how can you bring parallel lines to intersect? That's what we're doing. You’ve got parallel lines – white, black – you’re telling them “you’re different” at the same time you want them to intersect. In mathematics, that’s not possible.

It sounds like the philosophy underpinning this and of SADACCA in general is one of interdependence. That's opposed to what you call colourism.

That's correct, yes. We see SADACCA as the place to be for Sheffield. That means a place that welcomes everyone regardless of who they are. And we’ve got the data to back it up – it's the place for all of us to be in. Not because we are the poshest venue in the city, no, but "SADACCA is, because we are” – it's the Ubuntu philosophy.

I want to go back to colourism. Here in SADACCA we did a piece, even the BBC reported on it, saying we don’t want to call ourselves ‘BAME’. If you go on Google and type SADACCA you're gonna see “Community organisation refuse to identify as black” and so on. It’s because we use a word like ‘Bantu’ that just means human being – we are not a colour. You can’t see us as a colour and want to talk about inclusion. That's why we talk about decolonisation, which is about removing all this slavery term language. The language of slavery is still used today, like ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘brown’ – no human being is white, black or brown. That doesn't exist. Because human being hasn't got a colour, but our society is in love with it. We need to rectify the language – that's the starting point.

For a lot of mainstream media organisations, terms like ‘Bantu’ are going to be so far outside their comfort zone.

We even go to them and ask them to identify us as Bantu. But I know the reason why they’re in love with ‘black’. It’s buying into the system, because they want to perpetuate that ranking. And that’s slavery, that's colonisation. That means you’ve given me an identity that I'm telling you is not my identity. I’ve even written a post for SADACCA saying ‘stop calling me a black man’, because I am not. And that's the reason why we’ve created in Sheffield the African Heritage Culture Forum – we could have called it the Black Culture Forum but no, because anybody who looks like me is of African heritage.

They may be born in the Caribbean, in America or anywhere, but they are of African heritage. That’s science, you can't deny the science – no matter where you are, the starting point in your journey was in Africa. But society doesn't want to push for this identity, because it means people will follow the science and recognise who they are. They want to give people a false sense of identity, because a lot of them don't know their identity. How many people that you know who look like me will say to you that they're not African?

It's an incredibly complicated area isn't it, the way language defines identity. And how so much of that language is bound up in colonial ideas, a colonial mindset. And how that still perpetuates through the national conversation and the mainstream media.

Yes – and they don't want to change. Remember, these people are extremely clever. They just don't want to change because the narrative is all about inequality. The more I identify as black they’re very happy, because they know very well that while white is in that ranking, I am not at the top – I am at the bottom. Because that's the ranking, and all this came about during slavery period.

I said to James [Lock]: I'm dreaming of being on the cover of Now Then. And put there: “I am not a black man.” Just for people to say this is controversial! But why is it controversial? But by reading what we’re now discussing they’d then understand why the title says “I am not a black man.” It pushes people to think about the impact of colourism in our society – it’s thought-provoking. My aim for Sheffielders to tell it like it is and help change our society poisoned to its soul by systemic racism. EDI for the last 15 years hasn't made any visible progress. The main reason is because at the same time we are partitioning the community. You can’t be partitioning the community and at the same time talk about inclusion, that won't happen. You need to rectify the language.

Going back to the idea of inequality in Sheffield more widely, what do you think could be done to address inequality in the city?

That's a brilliant question Sam – one word I will say to you is investment. A transparent methodology of investment. But to get to that point those who are well-off and those who are living in poverty need to sit together – we need this active learning. You need to be able to visit those areas and ask yourself a simple question: do you want to swap and live in the area that someone who looks just like you is also living? Where they have got absolutely nothing – no good school, no good surgery, the outcome for them is completely dire.

Then we need investment. One way of solving it is what we call ‘levelling up’, but levelling up hasn’t worked very well so far. For a mathematician it’s a balancing exercise. An area that's doing very, very well, we just slow the progress. But then we accelerate the development of an area that's not doing very well. That's what levelling up means. They won't be equal, but at least you will close the inequality gap. And closing the inequality gap just means investing in under-served areas. Sheffield for me is divided into well-served areas and under-served areas.

When the government talk about levelling up, which just seems to be an empty slogan, they're never saying what you're saying which is to get that balance the richest areas actually need to be slowed down.

Right now in this country we're creating more inequality, we're actually increasing the inequality gap. We’re investing more money into areas that are already doing very well. And we're not spending enough in areas that need investment, and then the inequality gap is increasing and increasing. This is Sheffield.

Returning to colourism, when you speak to other people of African heritage about these ideas, what are some of the responses?

That's a brilliant question. We have even done a survey here. They’ve got first of all a very negative image of Africa. Then I have to say this to them: follow the science, because what the media has done is remove them from their true identity by saying that someone who looks like me isn’t African because you were born here. That gives you a false sense of your identity. If you want to talk about slavery compensation it starts with admitting that your heritage is African.

How do you further this thinking through SADACCA?

Through the University of Sheffield we created the Bantu Archive Programme. It’s a digital programme that describes the journey of people of African heritage into the city. Ella Barrett [who works for SADACCA stewarding the programme] has interviewed so many people. We could have called it the Black Archive Programme. But then that becomes a distraction. What the system wants us to do is to be in love with black, with colourism.

The aim of the programme is to digitalise the contribution of African heritage people in Sheffield. Let’s say you have the Windrush generation who came here in the early 1950s. They worked in the NHS, they are still involved pretty much everywhere, and their history is not recorded anywhere. Because people just haven't got the interest. What the Bantu Archive does is that even if they cannot write their own history, they can orally say it and then we can digitalise it.

We can record their voice so that their great-grandchildren in the next 50 years can come and listen to their great-granddad’s voice again, telling them their journey to Sheffield. It’s a great programme. The name is also a way for this current generation to move away from colourism and just understand the oneness of the community. And even refer back to the Caribbean and then Africa to understand that this is the starting point for me – that's just science. True holistic education.

The third thing I was going to ask is about civil society in Sheffield, and the crisis of leadership. What’s at the root of that?

For me, it's the lack of mentorship. Because in many places that I am involved with, I don't see young people being involved. My worry is, what will the next generation of leaders look like? We need to find a way to involve the 18-to-35 generation. And there isn't a voice for them currently in the city. But all this is a lot of learning – we need to design that sort of system. I don't know what it will look like but we need collectively as leaders in the city to think seriously about the 18-to-35.

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SADACCA.

It’s my challenge here in SADACCA as well. I'm already on a mentorship programme. It's about making sure they understand the challenges they're facing, they get the language right, they understand the methodology, how to solve community problems, because it's very complex and rich.

You’ve been very involved in pulling together the new City Goals. What are your hopes for the goals?

It's an outstanding starting point. For me it’s about how well do we apply the City Goals into anything that we do in this city? In the education system, including truly mapping the whole city and its communities. Then we just need the resources and the know-how.

We want to work collectively to achieve those goals. So far we're doing well, but we need to accelerate. I want to see more investment into the City Goals, into communities. Then we need to simplify the City Goals into language that's accessible, even if that means translating them into different languages. It's important that the City Goals is mapped into all the community organisations in the city, and that people see it.

My last question is incredibly open ended. What are the honest conversations that you think Sheffield needs to have but is not having?

For me probably the most important one I can summarise in one single line: are we really white or black? A lot of people won’t want to go there. But it’s a question that is linked to inequality, to our mindset, to the way we see each other.

You’ve got a lot of people who identify as black that won't accept that they’re African. It’s very deep rooted. But unless we deal with this issue, we can’t come together. And the science is there to help, but we refuse to follow the science.

You’re saying there’s a social construct that’s gone a different way from the science.

Correct. That's completely true. A good friend of mine who is a well respected academic says it's about normalising the abnormal. I don’t want to normalise what is abnormal. We know very well that it’s important to understand that when language obscures systemic causes, it impedes systemic solutions. Developing racial literacy is the starting point to solve systemic racism. As the clarity of a problem sharpens, so too does the vision of its solutions.

I guess the lack of racial literacy helps reinforce existing hierarchies, and colonial mindsets.

That's the bottom line. How do you deconstruct it to actually bring a society together? That's my aim, that's my passion. I do that well here in SADACCA. But can I have a ripple effect? Can we all do that as a city, and then this will become a place where everybody in the whole world wants to come? That's why I cherish this, and all my passion for the last 26 years in this city is always about creating this village – a village of Bantu, where we place people at the top of everything that we do.

That's why I said to you at the beginning that if I have to title this conversation, I want you to put my picture there and put: “I am not a black man.” A lot of people in the city will want to read why this guy says he's not a black man. That's provoking. But for people who know me, it won't surprise them. In fact, you will have more reaction from people in my own community who are truly in love with the word ‘black’. But to see someone like me that they respect so much saying “I am not a black man” – that will make them think. And by reading the rationale, I assume they will then say yes, I am not a black man as well.

People are afraid to engage in those sorts of conversations, because they want to maintain the hierarchy. They refuse to engage in this sort of debate. But if you refuse to engage, at least be honest and say that you want to maintain inequality.

I define leadership as telling people what they don't want to hear. One of my greatest mentors, Nelson Mandela, always said that to me: always tell people what they don't want to hear. That's leadership. That phrase stuck with me.

Learn more

If you’d like to share your views on this piece, or write something for Now Then in response, please get in touch.

This article was amended on 24 May 2024 to clarify that there were no 'lead' commissioners on the Race Equality Commission.

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