Black History Month is a time to champion the black community. Join in and use this opportunity to make a difference to our sector

Thameslink’s Siggy Cragwell, pictured in June at the unveiling of the National Windrush Monument at Waterloo Station

BY Nafisa Nathani

Throughout October many of us have celebrated Black History Month, a time of national celebration to honour the achievements and contributions of black people.

Our people are our greatest assets

Throughout this month, it is important to reflect on how vast the contributions of our black colleagues across the transport sector have been. A large portion of black colleagues came into this industry, post-World War II to help rebuild the country, dubbed the Windrush generation. They came at a time when racial tolerance and understanding were still in their infancy, and many paid the price.

I very often think about the collective strength, sheer resilience and determination needed by trailblazers like Wilston Samuel Jackson (Britain’s first black train driver), Trudy Aarons, (Britain’s first black female train driver), Barrington Young (Britain’s first black train inspector) and Siggy Cragwell (GTR superstar who at 82 years old is still working on the railway).

Could you imagine doing this, while experiencing racist abuse, microaggressions, or feeling isolated and marginalised from your colleagues and/or passengers?

Our people are our greatest assets in this industry. In moments of crisis, they work tirelessly to keep the railway running, getting people to their jobs, goods to supermarket shelves and connecting friends and family. Could you imagine doing this, while experiencing racist abuse, microaggressions, or feeling isolated and marginalised from your colleagues and/or passengers?

The last two years have opened people’s eyes to racial injustice and intolerance across the world. The disproportionate death rates of Black people at the hands of Covid, the murder of George Floyd, and most recently Chris Kaba, remains a sobering reminder of this. Specifically, in the death of the railway frontline worker Belly Mujinga, who during the height of Covid was allegedly spat on by a passenger, frightens me to my very core.

Everyday heroes

Traditionally, Black History Month in October has quite rightly celebrated key figures and events in Black history. This year, I would love for the industry to go beyond that and recognise the achievements and contributions that black people make every day. It is those everyday heroes that need recognition.

For me, this is giving thanks to my first manager within GTR, Tina Owusu, who gave me unwavering confidence and belief in myself and showed me what it is like to be a true leader in the railway. She, through to Tonderai Matizha-Johnson, who most recently gave me a platform to speak to colleagues within GTR about race. An opportunity I was so incredibly grateful for, and something that would have otherwise been completely inconceivable to somebody like me, who struggles at times with their self-confidence. They both made me realise just how powerful my voice could be and how speaking my truth it can help others, as we all fight for a collective future in this industry.

I cannot forget my support network within Network Rail, my Cultural Fusion ladies: Judith Ibukunlayo, Sharon Salmon, Sonia Hazel and Ibtisam Saeed. Through their friendship, they have each shown me that I am enough. That I don’t need to seek permission or external validation from others, and that it is absolutely fine to be unapologetic, within reason, about who I am. They have each provided me with the tools I need to challenge certain behaviours with grace, dignity and respect. I will always use these ladies as my sounding board, and I very often feel I am completely undeserving of their friendship.

And not forgetting, my forever TSSA rep, Dwain Jones, who always answers my phone calls, never leaving me hanging, whatever time of day. He is someone who I rely on as a true veteran in this industry, to help explain things that might otherwise be completely alien to me. I value his levity and humour most of all. He is someone I know I have a bond with for life.

These are my everyday heroes!

Listen, learn, grow, and improve

After near enough a decade in the private sector, I’ve been lucky to have the experience of working for two great employers in the railway: GTR and Network Rail. I’m not saying that either is perfect or doesn’t have its blind spots (particularly around race), but whenever I have raised anything, individuals within these organisations have committed to setting things right.

I have felt supported in challenging non-inclusive behaviours or outdated processes. They both have listened, learnt, and grown from conversations and ultimately improved. This commitment, I believe is what sets employers apart from one another, particularly in today’s age of ultra-transparency.

Food for thought

Throughout this month at Network Rail, our race equality network, Cultural Fusion, has hosted a variety of events, for colleagues across the rail sector to join. This has included tea-break sessions on allyship, discussions around intersectionality with change-makers like Nimko Ali OBE, celebratory ‘one-pot’ parties for teams to break bread over lunch, as well as webinars with healthcare experts around mental health and safeguarding fears pertinent to the black community.

Did you know that black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than their white counterparts? This isn’t that well known, and more often than not, the mental health support required from those within the black community, particularly black men, desperately needs to move away from a crisis-driven response to a more compassionate dialogue through the building of trusted partnerships with figureheads within the community. Black Minds Matter is a wonderful charity that does a lot of great work in this area.

Why not, take Black History Month as an opportunity with colleagues and friends to try delicacies such as saltfish fritters, curry goat, rice n peas, yams or plantain? Discuss food and talk about your own lived experiences and perspectives. I’m personally addicted to Supermalt and Plantain crisps, a new obsession I developed after last year’s Black History Month celebrations.

Food has a wonderful ability to unite people, break down barriers and start conversations you might never have thought about.

Are you listening?

Now, what does it mean to listen to each other? I hear you tell me, that you listen to your colleagues all the time. Well, are you listening, actively listening?

Active listening means going beyond simply hearing the words that another person speaks, but also seeking to understand the meaning and intent behind them. This doesn’t mean, thinking about what you are going to say back in a quick-witted response or snarky rebuttal, but staying in the present moment. This is, remaining neutral and non-judgmental in your responses, helping the other person to feel comfortable with sharing their thoughts, reflecting on what they have said, as well as being patient and not trying to fill in silences with your thoughts or stories.

It takes trust and vulnerability for anyone to share their own stories and moments of vulnerability so openly, so please be mindful of that. From personal experience, I know it can be utterly exhausting. I have come out of conversations, in the past feeling exploited and not heard, as if my trauma was being weaponised for public consumption, and that doesn’t feel nice. If any of your colleagues choose not to partake in conversations or share their personal experiences, that is fine too. There are so many other ways to widen perspectives such as reading, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries.

Time to reflect

Black History Month is a time to take stock. To champion the black community, who for so many years have had their stories muted and rendered invisible. We need to shine a light on all those heroes, who have helped, supported, and guided us.

There is real strength in diversity and as an industry, we need to have more conversations (however difficult they may be) to shine a light on the everyday issues and hardships, some of our employees within the sector face

There is real strength in diversity and as an industry, we need to have more conversations (however difficult they may be) to shine a light on the everyday issues and hardships, some of our employees within the sector face.

We spend more time with our colleagues than we do sometimes, our friends and family, so come on let’s all sit down and talk. Our ability and need to listen to each other and learn are what makes us distinctly human, it truly is a mark of our humanity.

I would ask everybody to please think about what you have learnt throughout the month. Have you actively listened to your black colleagues about their lived experiences? Have you read any new books or podcasts that have changed your perspectives? Have you considered how the theme for this year – Time for Change: Action Not Words – might translate into your life day-to-day? Have your perspectives widened due to the talks or events you have attended? What does the pledge ‘see something, say something’ mean to you personally?

Black History Month is important, but so is the rest of the year, as we create new stories and shine a light on the strengths of real diversity in the railway.

It’s time to join in and use this opportunity to make a difference.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nafisa Nathani is Southern Region Lead for Cultural Fusion, Network Rail’s race equality network. Cultural Fusion is open to all those who work in the rail sector. To join, email

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!