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Culture Edinburgh International Book Festival

EIBF 2022: Simon Woolley: Shaking Up the Establishment Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Simon Woolley’s 2022 book, SOAR: My Journey from Council Estate to the House of Lords tells the success story of Lord Simon Woolley, Baron of Woodford. SOAR is more than a “rags to riches” story, his determination to not only benefit himself but also encourage the achievements of other black people from deprived areas. Chaired by Lola Young, Baroness Young of Hornsey, Shaking Up the Establishment at the Edinburgh Book Festival explored Woolley’s life journey from council estate to the principal of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.

Simon Woolley grew up on a council estate in Leicester. When reflecting on his behaviour as a child, Woolley recalls his want to make money. As a young boy under the age of ten, Woolley had already begun to make a small profit from his independent business as a ticket re-seller.

Realising how popular and important football was to the people in Leicester, Woolley would re-sell game tickets for double and triple the price he bought them. This entertaining story obviously gained a laugh from the audience as it is hard to believe that a member of the House of Lords and such an influential figure was once cheating other children at football games.

In my opinion, Woolley’s life journey can be divided up into three parts: searching, seeking, and achieving.

The Operation Black Vote founder was adopted into a white family, he was close to his adopted mother but still had a need to know his birth mother. Woolley described growing up in the north in the ‘70s as ‘racist’, despite his adoptive parents’ sensitivity to race issues at the time, his noticeably racial difference from his family could not protect him from the racial tension that arguably existed more prevalently in the UK at the time.

However, when Woolley finally found his birth mother, after being introduced by mutual friends, he left their interaction feeling unsatisfied. He explained how he found it difficult to hug his Jamaican birth mother as he did not know her, yet felt guilty for his reaction to her want for an innocent moment between a mother and son. Despite their awkward first interaction, right now Simon and his birth mother are as close as he is to his adopted mother.

After searching and finding his birth mother, Woolley turned toward education in hopes of moving up the ladder that has been formed in our capitalist society. No one from his secondary school went or even dreamed of going to university, but Woolley saw higher education as the next step toward success.

He left his career in marketing, a job he was excelling at and went to Middlesex University to read Spanish. Woolley was thrilled to talk about his study year abroad in Columbia and criticised Brexit for eradicating the Erasmus scheme, the very scheme that gave him the opportunity to study in South America.

His experience witnessing political protests in resistance to Columbia’s unjust state – protests that were, more often than not, extremely violent – which resulted in the murder of ordinary people fighting for their rights is what encouraged Woolley to make a change in the UK.

He said that after seeing first-hand how Columbian people were being killed for protesting, he saw no reason to protest in the UK where the outcome was not going to be as extreme.

And so he founded ‘Operation Black Vote’, a non-profit organisation that encouraged Black-British people to vote in elections and in particular the 1997 general election. OBV also provided political parties with research tools and information on how to gain the votes of more Black-British people. Woolley’s work with ‘Operation Black Vote’ was ground-breaking and has changed voting behaviour amongst Black-British people. Today, ‘Operation Black Vote’ offers mentorship programmes for young black people living in the UK interested in politics.

Now, Simon Woolley looks towards achieving an ethically ambitious generation. By instilling the idea that it is alright to aim for the highest paid job in the highest paid city at the highest paid company, so long as you are having a positive impact on something. This is being ethically ambitious, seeking ambition for yourself whilst being ethical with the benefits you receive. It’s a term that I think everyone should adopt and needs to learn to practice.

After their thirty-minute discussion surrounding SOAR, Young and Woolley opened up questions to the floor. I asked Woolley how young black people today are supposed to thrive in corporate environments when we are often used as tokens for their diversity quotas. Woolley said to be strong but resolute, in a way that does not make you diminish yourself or your beliefs, but one that makes your views heard as you resist being labelled as “angry” or “aggressive”, terms that are used to falsely stereotype black people.

Shaking Up the Establishment is a talk I will keep with me for life, the advice Woolley gave is unmatched and his determination to encourage ethical ambition is a step closer to a better world.

Image courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival, provided to The Student as press material.