Black History Month 2023

October is Black History Month, a time for recognition and reflection.

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Published on 19 October 2023

We celebrate the work and exceptional achievements of black women at West Midlands Fire Service.

October 31 2023

An update and reflection, from Chief Fire Officer, Wayne Brown

I want to thank those colleagues for sharing their stories below and explaining what the month means to them, why it is important and how black culture contributes to the West Midlands and to the UK as a whole.

I am pleased by the progress our service has made in becoming more reflective of the communities we serve. There is more to do, but we are making positive progress.

We were delighted to be named the UK’s Most Inclusive Employer late last year.

However, a subsequent report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services showed there is still further workrequired, here at WMFS and across the fire and rescue sector.

I am determined that my focus on people, professionalism and pride reaches every part of our organisation and that we do not become complacent. A stronger fire service, reflective of its communities and cultures, will make our communities safer, stronger and healthier.

The theme of this year’s Black History Month has been ‘Saluting Our Sisters’. Throughout October, I have spoken across the country – in Merseyside, Oxfordshire, South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester – on a range of related topics.

We have a range of staff networks and initiatives at WMFS that ensure we are creating the best environment for all of our staff, details of which I was proud to share as good practice.

Black History Month is about our colleagues, friends, families and selves – listening, learning, understanding and growing. Only as we learn more about each other can we ensure we take pride in how the heritage of our staff diversifies our thinking and, as a result, improves the service we give to our communities.

WMFS staff Sonia Stoney and Natalie Gilead.

What Black History Month means to our staff

October 19 2023

West Midlands Fire Service is a diverse organisation, and we want to be representative of the communities that we serve. Being a diverse service means we can develop and grow an already talented workforce. By working together, we can be even more representative of our communities across the region.

The theme of Black History Month this year is ‘Saluting our Sisters’. It pays homage to black women who had their contributions ignored. Despite countless contributions to society, the achievements of black women have been frequently overlooked. This year, we celebrate their work and exceptional achievements at West Midlands Fire Service.

Our Diversity, Inclusion, Cohesion and Equality (DICE) Team has asked members of staff across the Brigade to share their experiences of working at WMFS, and what the celebration means to them.

In their own words, read the stories behind the careers of some of our black firefighters and staff:

Sonia Stoney | Trainee Firefighter Development Instructor

My parents were born in Jamaica. My Mom came to England when she was about 16 years old and my Dad when he was in his 20’s.

I joined West Midlands Fire Service 17 years ago. I was the only female at training school on my course. When I went to station, I was the only female. It was different – getting used to being around a lot of males, getting used to people from different backgrounds to me.

Sonia Stoney | Trainee Firefighter Development Instructor
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When I first got to station, everyone had a different history to me. The television people watched, the music they listened to - it was all very different. Initially it was difficult trying to build conversations.
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I remember making curried mutton for my watch. Initially, they were a little bit apprehensive about eating goat but they enjoyed it. That was my dish I made when it was my turn to cook. They tried jerk dishes and I got to show people the food I would traditionally eat.

I remember when my Dad heard I’d joined the Fire Service, he was really proud. I was lucky enough to work on the patch where he lived. I remember asking my watch if we could drive the truck to his house and knocking on his door in my uniform. He had the biggest smile on his face and walked out with his walking stick – he was so proud his daughter was in the fire service.

There are more women in the Fire Service now and it’s definitely more multicultural. People are more used to seeing female firefighters now as well. Back when I started, people couldn’t believe there was a female firefighter. Back then, it was celebrated. Now, there are more females and people are used to it and that’s a good thing.

Candy Woods | Administration

Black History Month means love to me. It means peace, happiness and finding friends and empathy in one another.

It’s a beautiful time for people to come together and to learn about stuff. I am from the Caribbean and the island of Montserrat. In my culture, we grew up learning to be independent and making whatever little we had work. Some of the things I had to do when I was going to school was to regularly wash my uniform school shirt because I only had one. I had to go to school looking clean and tidy.

Candy Woods
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I grew up the hard way, using candles to do my homework but I was determined to make something of myself.
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I couldn’t afford to go to university because my grandmother, who I grew up with, couldn’t afford to send me to further my education. So, I had to go and work. Fortunately for me, the volcano started when I just finished my secondary education. Life became really hard as I had to leave my home and live in a shelter with different people. I coped, but it was hard. Then the British government offered us the opportunity to come to the UK.

I didn’t know where I was coming to stay but I got on that plane and migrated to the UK. I was offered the opportunity to go back to college and I excelled in my studies. I then got a permanent job with the West Midlands Fire Service, where I have spent 21 years working with the most amazing people.

They learn to understand my culture and they embrace me. When I ask for any support, people are always willing to help me and for that, I am so grateful. I thoroughly enjoy working for West Midlands Fire Service. Let us continue to love and care for each other.

Natalie Gilead | Firefighter, Brierley Hill

I was brought up in Wolverhampton. My parents were both born in the UK but my grandparents are from Jamaica. My family were really supportive and excited about me joining the fire service.

When I started at station, at first it was a big change from training school. I felt a bit out of place. There was a lot of cultural differences. For example, I ate different food to people working with me.

Natalie Gilead | Firefighter, Brierley Hill
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Now, it feels like there's a lot more awareness around that sort of thing. On station, women have integrated really well.
"

There are more black, female firefighters now but still not that many. It means when I attend jobs in predominantly black areas and communities, people say ‘well done!’ and that sort of thing. But on station, there are lots of women working there now.

Joshua Deakin | Firefighter, Ward End

Firefighter Joshua Deakin
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Black History Month is there to recognize, educate, and inspire. It’s there to promote positive dialogue about a history many may not know a lot about.
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To me, Black History Month is about celebrating the uncelebrated. Remembering the forgotten achievements and bringing to light those figures whose memory has faded into the shadows.

Those men and women who came on the Empire Windrush to help rebuild our country. The overlooked contribution of the nurses such as Mary Seacole during the Crimean War. The Black British soldiers who were denied the opportunity to serve their country on the Western Front. Black History has intertwined with British History creating music, fashion and language amongst others.

From the Ska music that influenced the Specials in Coventry to the uniquely Black British-originated grime genre pioneered by artists like Kano and Skepta. Fashion inspired Birmingham start-ups, including the Hoodrich brand and language. Much of our language has Caribbean or African roots.

Black History is not the history of slavery, Black History is so much more than that from the poems of Maya Angelou and the achievements of Muhammad Ali to the construction of legendary cities such as Timbuktu.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said:

‘People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.’

This is a month we can all go out of our way to learn something new!