Rob Berkeley is buzzing with energy. The self-confessed ‘award-winning busybody, recovering academic and reforming social reformer’ is immersed in plans for Pride month – including a collaboration with Budweiser and a new film project – but his mind is already racing forward, assembling ideas for the future. This level of multitasking is not unusual for him, he admits. His “short attention span” has served him well through a career that’s seen him shape British culture through pivotal roles such as Director of the racial justice think-tank The Runnymede Trust, strategic advisor to the BBC, and now as Founder and Managing Editor of BlackOut UK, a not-for-profit social enterprise run and owned by black gay men.
Despite a career that’s as illustrious as it is impactful – including royal recognition, when he was awarded an MBE in 2015 for services to equality – it took years of studying for Rob to feel confident using his voice. “Like all of us, I face that classic imposter syndrome around ‘Is my voice legitimate in this space?’”, he says. “The PhD helps!”. It’s clear, however, that a passion for social justice has been a driving force since long before his immersion in academia. “I’ve always been of the thought that you should do what you can where you are. In a comprehensive school in South London, there’s a massive gap in terms of class and race, and I was alive to that when I was very young. Then, I hadn’t even finished my first year of university before I decided to leave and start a charity, so I took a student sabbatical in my second year to do that.”
This urgency to act on his convictions would lead him from the spires of Oxford to The Runnymede Trust where he was Deputy Director from 2004-2008, before becoming Director in 2009. What did he learn from the experience? “I was focused on young people’s voices, always trying to look ahead at how changing social dynamics were shifting political debates – what will this look like in ten years’ time?”. The decision to step down from the role in 2014 came from a feeling that “after 12 years there, I was starting to be less effective. I think their work is crucial, but there are only so many stories of racism you can hear before you start to feel like you’re not solving them.”
After leaving Runnymede, he took a year out to reflect on what he was for – “a nice question to be able to ask yourself ” – during which time, he had a personal revelation. “I was looking around going, here’s a group of which I’m part, that I don’t feel has a voice on policy: black queer men. We’re used systemically to discuss fundamental issues such as the failure of multiculturalism, intersectionality, migration, asylum and health, but we’re never in charge of the narrative. There’s a real failure to actually engage with us as people. I thought, is there an opportunity here to skip the stages of development you might expect in launching a company or charity and instead create something that’s new and relevant?” The seeds of BlackOut UK were born.
Attempting to pin down BlackOut UK to a pithy elevator pitch can be challenging, Rob admits, but in the process, one word comes up repeatedly: space. What is it about the idea of creating space that specifically appeals to him? He considers the question. “What we’re trying to do is to help black queer men to imagine a different kind of future and work together to plot steps to create it – but that can be quite a difficult sell. The idea of space kept coming up from our community; after our events, people would say things like “this an amazing space that I’m so happy I’m a part of ” and “you’ve really created a space for me to think differently”. It felt like the best way to link it all together and answer questions about ownership, who controls the narrative and what it means to hold space for each other, both in person and online. Everything followed from that.”
One of the core ways in which BlackOut UK holds space for its community is through the arts – celebrating and championing black, gay, male creators across music, dance, art, fashion and film. Storytelling, in all its forms, is the beating heart of the movement. “Humans respond well to stories”, Rob says, “but when stories get stuck, they become oppressive. A story that says, ‘black queer men are more likely to struggle with identity and be victims of homophobia’ is not inherently harmful, but it can very quickly become reinforced, made static, by well-meaning people. So, I would come out to people and they’d say, “You’re black and you’re gay – that must be terrible!”. With BlackOut, I was finding a way to challenge those stories, to say, ‘We’ve made communities, we’ve made connections and we’re still here – and we’re planning to be here for a while’. We focus on what’s strong rather than what’s wrong; rather than spending time listing all the problems, it’s much better for the soul to spend time listing what you’ve already got.”
It’s not just contemporary icons that BlackOut UK celebrates; history also has a key part to play. Rob reels off stories of black, gay men from the twentieth century whose stories deserve to be brought into the mainstream consciousness. One such man is Ivor Cummings, the ‘father of the Windrush generation’ who, as a senior official at the Colonial Office, and the only black official in the department, took on responsibility for receiving, housing and directing black migration to the UK during the 40s and 50s including, most famously, the migrants arriving from the British West Indies in 1948. “As someone who grew up near Brixton, it really struck me that the whole reason black people are there is because of this man”, Rob explains, “yet it’s a story that gets left out or seen as unimportant. Black queer men are there throughout British history but we’re not cognisant of what they’ve done.”
BlackOut UK’s work is ambitious, wide-reaching and community-driven (“I’m trying not to insert myself too much into the narrative”, says Rob), taking in everything from research funded by the Mayor of London, to a weekend-long hackathon to design life-saving interventions, to a Citizens Jury on mental health, which will bring representatives from South London councils in front of a panel of black queer men. The London initiatives are being run by a collective of 25 men, while the team are already in discussions with volunteers from other UK cities to start their own BlackOut cells. They’re even speaking to a group of South Asian men in London who are interested in starting a similar movement – “I think there’s an interesting model here”, Rob points out, hinting at much broader ambitions.
And now, back to those Pride celebrations. What exactly has BlackOut got planned? “We’re launching a film!”, says Rob, radiating excitement. “We’ve invited fifty black queer men in Britain to make a documentary with us collaboratively over the Pride season. We’re bringing innovative comms tools designed for the corporate arena over to civic tech and putting control of it directly in the hands of a group who have been excluded from controlling mainstream media. They’ll be prompted at particular times over the summer to record what Pride means to them. Then, five emerging editors will turn that content into five different films, and we’ll run a competition to vote for which film best represents the community.” It’s a typical Rob Berkeley idea – creative, bold and story-focused – but he’s realistic about how it will play out. “This project is an experiment and may go horribly wrong but we’re here for the long haul. I’m going to be black and gay forever, as far as I can tell! We can come back to it next year, and the year after that, and keep honing it until it works.”
With the vast array of projects, exhibitions and initiatives under the BlackOut UK banner, which achievement is Rob most proud of? “I’m proud of it all!”, he emphasises, “Because none of this is ‘supposed’ to happen. It’s rare to see black men organising together – there are systemic reasons why that doesn’t happen very often. And then, similarly with LGBT people, it’s a real challenge to form a community. Often, it feels like to unite every LGBTQ person across a range of genders, localities and contexts is an impossible challenge we’re given to obscure us from getting on with the work. Creating something together is the best way of breaking down those barriers – creating the new rather than focusing on the past.”
About Rob Berkeley
Award-winning busybody, recovering academic and reforming social reformer, Rob is currently leading development ot BlackOutUK. Until recently he was a strategic advisor to the BBC on accountability and audience engagement. Impatient with injustice and exasperated by wasted potential, he volunteers on the boards of Baring Foundation, Doc Society, and the Collaborate Foundation, has previously served on the boards of LGBT rights charity Stonewall, the Equality and Diversity Forum, and been Chair of Naz Project (NPL). He was Director of the racial justice think-tank Runnymede Trust 2009-14. Alongside his academic writing on education, social justice and community organizing, a recently appointed Simon Industrial Fellow at the University of Manchester, he has presented and co-produced short form documentaries, lectured across the UK and beyond, and written for The Guardian and The Independent on social justice and movement-building. His current fixation on forms of collaborative ownership, innovations in media technology and their potential for social justice means that he spends a lot of time staring at his phone and calls it ‘research’. Dr Berkeley was awarded an MBE in 2015 for services to equality.