Dr Sacha Powell, Chief Executive Officer of the Froebel Trust reflects on Baroness Floella Benjamin's inspiring autumn lecture.
What does it feel like as an eight-year-old to see your beloved parents sail away 4,000 miles, leaving you with your young siblings and foster families? How do you respond when you learn first-hand as a child that the ‘land of hope and glory’ is a place where racial slurs and discrimination are directed at you and your family; when you learn that people see only your colour? How does an early childhood that is filled with love, joy and pride influence the rest of your life; and what happens when early life is filled with fear and pain? Who are the ‘guardian angels’ and what can they do?
On Friday 2 October 2020, Baroness Floella Benjamin shared her story, her courage and her wisdom with over 200 guests at the Froebel Trust’s Annual Lecture, “Smiling in the Face of Adversity”. Chaired by Mark Neale, this was the first annual lecture to be broadcast online with the benefit of reaching audiences across the UK and in Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, South Africa, Tanzania, USA and Lebanon.
Leaving her native Trinidad at the age of ten, Floella told of her arrival in England and her outstanding career, which has touched the hearts and minds of millions of young children. Well-known for her work in children’s television, young viewers will have been unaware that Floella changed the nature of the imagery that was seen on screen. Thanks to her intervention, the illustrations of stories came to reflect the diversity of a multi-cultural Britain. Black and minority ethnic children would begin to see themselves reflected in the pictures on television and in books, thanks to Floella. Her own story, written first for older children and adults, and most recently recreated for younger children in her 2020 picture book, Coming to England, is a fine example.
Her campaigning for children’s rights and wellbeing reflects her view that childhood must be viewed holistically. Her work is wide-ranging and significant, including her influence which led to the decision by the New Labour Government to create a ministerial position in 2003: Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, a post first held by Dame Margaret Hodge and most recently assumed by Vicky Ford MP.
Floella’s work with Barnardo's, with schools, in theatre and her own children’s TV productions are just some of the ways that she has sought to lavish her expansive love on children and to assure every child that they are worthy. It is this untiring commitment to improve children’s lives that saw her become Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham (a tribute to her parents) in 2010; and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2020.
As Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham, she takes her seat in the House of Lords with pride to remind the peers that ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’. It is with painful irony she recognises that 400 years ago those same seats were occupied by men whose words and actions caused her African ancestors to be dragged from their villages and cruelly shipped to the Caribbean as slaves. ‘If they weren’t strong they were dead, they were gone’. Strength in the face of adversity characterises Floella’s notable achievements throughout her life, accompanied by songs and smiles - ‘because winners smile’ – which have brightened the lives of so many of ‘Floella’s children’.
Guests at the event could not help but be delighted and moved by Floella’s lively, emotive and inspiring lecture, including our four Froebelian respondents: Catriona Gill, Professor Carole Bloch, Dr Stella Louis and Dr Sandra El-Gemayel.
"Froebel changed the way we think about childhood - so has Floella Benjamin in the Froebel Trust Autumn Lecture and her insights into her childhood and being a child. Thank you Floella." Guest at the Froebel Trust Autumn Lecture response on Twitter
"Everyone working with children should listen to this lecture from Floella Benjamin. Such an inspiration." @JustTeaching on Twitter
"This was an inspiring talk. It was such an interesting, well constructed talk by Floella. I went and bought her new picture book, it made me even more aware of daily racism, it made me more determined to make sure there is diversity within children's books and grateful that Floella keeps smiling. Her life has not always been 'easy' but she's come through to be a shining beacon for the Early Years. I was so so pleased to have made the time to come to this talk. It has made a lasting impact on me." Feedback received from guest at the Froebel Trust Autumn Lecture
...learning should be fun... learning should stimulate minds and fire up the imagination...