September 28, 2020

We Stand Together

Local business owner and mum-of-three, Dee Besant, 42, explains candidly about why her campaign, We Stand Together - an anti-racist awareness initiative, backed by Epsom & Ewell Borough Council – had to happen.

“I just couldn’t NOT do it”, Dee explains as we chat after morning drop-off over at All Things Nice café in Ewell village. “I held one of my first networking events here,” she says, parking her laptop to one side, already well into the swing of work-mode while most are just on their first cup of coffee. 

Running the popular Facebook community group Epsom & Ewell Families is just one arm of Dee’s local business portfolio which she successfully now runs after a long corporate career in the city. After becoming a parent with her third child, like many mums, she sought out new ways of getting that all important work-life balance in check. 

Dee says, “We Stand Together came about organically from the Facebook community group after George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

“Conversations were happening online, in the group, that weren’t very nice to see. In fact, some were absolutely horrendous and I’ve never actually felt so down.”

“They came from our community! My phone didn’t stop pinging with alerts – with some clearly breaking the community guidelines of the group so it was easy for me to just go ‘Delete/Off/Bye’ – but they just kept coming. 

“So, I switched off comments to calm things down but then people started messaging me with their personal experiences of racism in this area. Some even said they were scared to go out into town and I couldn’t believe it! I was like, really? I’ve never thought twice about going into town! And then, I started to find out a little bit more and it transpired that while I’ve not had experiences like these, people in the community, people that I knew, were.

“I began to see a world, that in my naivety, I never really knew existed.”

“And I couldn’t just sit back and go ‘Oh well, it’s not happened to me’. On the contrary, despite never having experienced racism like this ever, I felt like a bubble had burst and after hearing these accounts, I started to think, well hang on, do my friends think like that, is my neighbour thinking like this? 

“I became so much more aware of myself and how I could be perceived by others. To hear that POC (People of Colour) wouldn’t put their picture on their website for fear of prejudice, I was like, WHAT? And the fact that this behavior and understanding of ‘how it is’, was normal, that was the lightbulb moment I guess because this should not be and is not normal behavior.”

“Just because it hasn’t happened to you, if it is happening to people in our community, we as a community need to care and do something about it.”

“And so, We Stand Together was born and it’s here to keep opening up these conversations. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but we need to have them. Which is why I set up the poster campaign and awareness day where businesses locally could pledge their support and as a community, we could share on social media and create an awareness that this was happening and being recognized in Epsom and Ewell as a way of people starting to have these conversations, reflect on their thoughts, learn and unlearn; pick up a book they wouldn’t think of reading and so forth.

“The feedback was great. Someone said that their Dad can say some horrible things sometimes but now they feel better equipped to push back and challenge these racist views. Sadly, there have been a couple of local businesses that made their excuses but the majority have supported us and we have the full backing of the council too who’ve been great.

“I also brought the campaign to the attention of Chris Grayling MP. I could see people in the community group were getting annoyed and frustrated with meaningless statements, so I reached out to him because he’s a white middle class man, why would he understand? So, I retold the stories and the reality of what some people in the community face daily. 

“That’s what it’s all about – being sensible and having safe and open discussions.”

“Obviously, we are still in a pandemic so there will be limitations as to what we can do with events going forward but of course this campaign is here to stay; it’s constantly evolving, so watch this space!”

As we round up our chat, I ask Dee her hopes for the future, for her family and there’s a huge pause. 

“I think for me, the reason why this has got me in my heart, is the children. So, it’s about seeing the schools get on board. After watching the C4 documentary ‘The School that Tried to End Racism’ and seeing how children of colour and different backgrounds struggled to talk about their identity and where they belonged in society; how they’re seen…” her voice trails off in visible despair, her hands grip the edge of the old farmhouse table that we’re sat at and then she says,

“It feels like a big job. But I just thought, if I don’t do this…no. I just can’t not do this! It’s small steps but we must take them, together.”

Photography by Nathalia Anzola

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