No-one is one
thing; we are really
Alison Lowe was appointed Deputy Mayor for West Yorkshire for Policing and Crime in 2021. She works with Mayor Tracy Brabin to oversee policing across the county.
Alison has a particular focus on strengthening links between the police and local communities.
Alison was born and raised in Seacroft and is “proud to be from East Leeds.” For many years, Alison was the
chief executive of Touchstone, a mental health charity in Leeds. She was also the first black woman councillor elected to Leeds City Council. In the 1980s Alison studied for a BA in History and MA in Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds– her thesis was about Edward II and homosexuality.
Many years later she won Stonewall’s Senior Champion of the Year, to recognise her work to support and include people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT+).
After decades of fighting for equality and inclusion, Alison was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2022 New Year’s Honours. The appointment came in recognition for services to
mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic.
The older we get, the more
we need to be aware of our mental health.
How does it feel to get an OBE?
I’m really pleased! You get a letter – and you’re not supposed to tell anyone about it. I got mine on the 1st
December and I just felt really overwhelmed with pride. I was definitely surprised. I wanted to tell everybody
but I couldn’t. There’s a dichotomy for some people about Empire. I have had a few emails about it. But
for me, integration in communities is really important. I’m black and British. My dad came from the
Caribbean and he saw himself as British – and I see myself as very British. I do not forget what has
happened. Empire was an evil thing and we can’t forget the negative history. And as black people, we
can’t forget our journeys across the world as a result of empire. But I live in this country and I’m part of this
country. I want to be part of the infrastructure of the country so I can be part of changing how this country
works for black people and others who are marginalised – who don’t get equal access to services, who
face discrimination. For me, you’ve got to be in it to change it. I’m all about being positive about how we
contribute to the country we’ve chosen to live in.
Why did you get the OBE?
I’ve been really lucky to have been the chief exec of the most amazing, brilliant, inclusive organisation called Touchstone. The staff are all leaders – I get the credit for all their hard work! A group of staff and volunteers saw the despair and distress the citizens of Leeds were experiencing at the start of lockdown [in 2020]. We asked people what they wanted, what they needed – and then created Touchstone Loves Food, which was a food bank. We provided over 300,000 meals to vulnerable people across the city. As well as that, there was a really strong mental health element. You got your food but you also got a personal phone call and 1:1 support. We kept a lot of people safe, sane, and here. Not just to survive, but to thrive. I get the credit but all I said was “yes”. The staff and volunteers did the work.
The OBE recognised your work in mental health. Why is it important to address mental health issues?
Mental health affects us all equally, irrespective of background, ethnicity, or religion. But the older we
get, the more we need to be aware of our mental health. Our identity as workers, as people who are productive,
can change once we retire. We’re not getting up every morning and going out to work – that can have an
effect. That transition from one part of our lives to the next can be challenging. Also there’s physical things.
I’m 57 now and I recognise there’s a physical effect to getting older. Your back goes, your knee goes! That
could lead to things like depression. But there’s lots of positive things too: a lot of research says mental
health amongst older people is actually better. We have contributed and we can now have a rest. We can
look after our grandchildren and look after the next generation. But that transition can be difficult. Losing
loved ones can be difficult. When I lost my dad – I was 49 – I entered a really long period of distress and depression. It lasted around 18 months. I had a lot of support, but maybe if I was in my 70s or 80s
that might not have been there. Covid restrictions have had an effect. Particularly in older black communities
– it’s been a double whammy. Not only do you lose a loved one, but there are a lot of rituals around
death that can’t take place. For black communities, saying goodbye is a very important part of grieving.
All the family coming together – food and storytelling – it’s a massive part of our identity.
Tell us about your new role as Deputy Mayor.
My role is to make sure we have an effective and efficient police force; that resources are being utilised
effectively; and that we take account of the public voice. It’s really important that the community engagement bit that I do. Going out to meet people and understand what their concerns are – it’s a golden thread that runs through the police and crime planning process. But also the work of holding the police to account. The main thing that we want for West Yorkshire Police is to make them relevant to the communities they serve. There’s a huge trust deficit with some communities and policing. People talk about the Sarah Everard case leading to a massive breach of trust, but for some people that trust was never there. If you look at gypsy and traveller communities, at refugees and asylums seekers, black Caribbean communities – for years and years there
has been little or no trust of the police. The job the mayor has given me to do is to bridge that gap, between communities and the police. I’ve been happily surprised that the police want that too. They realise there’s got to be a reckoning – when we come together sit down and recognise the history of abuse, different treatment and discrimination that has been perpetrated by the police over the generations. I talk about David Oluwale. It’s 50 years since his death at the hands of two Leeds city police officers. That’s still relevant to black African Caribbean people. We need the police understand that they’re part of the solution and they are really open to those conversations. The biggest change to culture is around violence towards women and girls. West Yorkshire Police are now recording instances of misogyny and misandry. So, if there’s a crime and you think your gender is a factor that will be marked. It’s very exciting. When you’re working with a partner with the power that
West Yorkshire Police have got. They are so up for the challenge. They know that there’s a huge amount of work to be done – it’s a culture change. You feel you’re on the cusp of something very special.
What about crimes that particularly target older people – like online scams?
Yes, older people are targeted and that’s a huge problem. It’s a big issue. The mayor did a press release about this. It needs to be a focus for all our police forces. We were funding a small team to look at fraud and scamming of older people. But last year I said, “We need to make sure this is embedded into all 5 local authorities. West Yorkshire Police need to pick this up.” The brilliant news that all 5 authorities have agreed to fund it in perpetuity. The previous Police and Crime Commissioner (Mark Burns-Williamson) set up the pilot, we tested that way of working, and showed it was a good way of working. It’s a way of supporting older people around the
issues and to offer them help and advice.
You say being British is really important to you – tell us a bit more about your background.
My dad comes from the Caribbean, my mum is of Irish heritage – but I come from Seacroft! Actually I’ve just done a DNA test and discovered I’m a third Nigerian! So I’m delighted to be Nigerian as well as
British. We’re Heinz 57 Varieties in our family. I’m proud of being from East Leeds. I was forged in East Leeds. It’s made me the person I am today – I’m a strong advocate for women. A lot of tragic things happened to me, as they did for a lot of women and girls. I experienced sexual abuse, I experienced domestic abuse. I saw violence, I experienced racism – but I also experienced joy and hope. I went to a brilliant inner-city school where my talents were identified. I was clever – I didn’t know I was clever – they told me I was! They allowed me to fly! There were those naysayers who said I’d never amount to anything. But at Parklands High School there were a
lot of teachers who helped me to fly. That’s why I try to give that back; I mentor a lot of women and girls and try to bring all that hope that was embedded in me when I was in East Leeds to them. I went to the University of Leeds in the 1980s. I was a mature student. My daughter (who is now 34) was 3 weeks old when I started. My son was 21 months. I was living in a domestic violence situation and I knew I needed to get out. I didn’t want my kids to be in that environment any longer. I was living in poverty in an estate in Chapeltown and I saw education as my pathway out of poverty, out of domestic abuse and victimisation. It ended up being 5 years at university. I did a master’s degree. That was my escape route out of the situation I was living in. I got heavily involved in politics when I was living in Chapeltown. I chaired the community centre board; I chaired the management committee of the local nursery. That was my apprenticeship really – chairing meetings, understanding the change that grassroots organisations can make if you are passionate enough and you put the work in.
Why is inclusion important to you?
No-one is one thing; we are really complex as people. We need to honour and celebrate the whole person.
Inclusion isn’t just about our “protected characteristics” – being black, or being a lesbian, or trans or
being older or younger. It’s about your whole person. We learned at Touchstone to recognise the journey
people were on and we celebrated everything about them. Difference was something to honour. Someone
can have mental health issues but talk about them, thrive and have success. It’s about finding our assets.
My mental health journey is an asset because I can talk to other people who’ve had mental health difficulties
and hopefully help them. “I’ve been there so I can walk beside you hopefully and find a way out of it together – so you’re never alone.” I talk about my childhood sexual abuse and use it to help other people on a different stage to move on. We’re survivors. We can’t be victims. If we’re victims that feeds our poor mental health, our feelings of lack of worth. Being a victim stops us being the people we need to be. The perpetrator wins. But I want us to win. I want to be part of that journey. So I see what happened to me as an asset. Yes, it would have been great if it hadn’t have happened, but it did. How can I use it positively, for good? So it’s about recognising that we all have different starting points in life, that sometimes the world isn’t fair. Discrimination and hate exist, but so do joy and love. We are all heroes, we are all people of value. Let’s find out about all of our stories
and ensure that victims become survivors and people who are different see their worth.
How do you feel about getting older?
I’m so glad I’m 57! There are downsides. I’ve got my aches and pains. But I also feel calm. When I was 17, I
was full of energy, but I was so angry. Which is not to say I’m not angry now, but I use my anger much more
positively now. I use it to drive me towards good. I’ve got clarity about my purpose and about the journey
I’m on to achieve inclusion and fairness for all. When I was 17, I just felt. I didn’t have that pathway or
clarity. I didn’t have a sense of what my role was. That led to distress and not always making the right choices.
I welcome the maturity; I welcome the wisdom and time that age has given me. But I also welcome the fact that I can use the experiences of my youth to inform the decisions I make today. As a grandparent I can help my daughter with her children. I do think I’m a better grandparent than I ever was as a parent – because of the wisdom and maturity I’ve developed over 57 years.