Baroness Floella Benjamin is a national icon. From her time as one of the UK’s best-loved children’s TV presenters to her current role as campaigner, activist and political figure. It was an honour to welcome her as our guest, and share with her our celebrations for Black History Month. Below, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Ms Jacqueline Austin, reflects on the day.
“Introducing Floella to the pupils in Chapel, Mr Nick Russell, Assistant Head: Senior School, who worked relentlessly to help get Floella to visit, shared the following words: ‘Childhood, for many of us, was a special time – a magical time, a kind of dreamtime. You look out on the world with a kind of wonderment when you are very young. There were only three television channels back in the 1970s and very, very few of the programmes were aimed at children. However, there was one. One programme especially created for children: Play School. The most famous presenter on that programme with the most beautiful name was Floella Benjamin.’
As Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion I spoke about some of Floella’s accomplishments over the years. A much-loved national icon who has had an extraordinary life. An incredible performer: a singer, a dancer and actor. She has been a television producer, an entrepreneur, a mother, a campaigner, a Chancellor of Exeter University and now a Baroness. Underlying everything she does has been a love of humanity, a desire to reduce cruelty and unnecessary suffering, and an extraordinary capacity for joy.
In her inspiring address to the pupils in St Luke’s Chapel, Baroness Benjamin showed herself to be a visionary and an inspiration to the Epsom College community. Following her talk, staff and students alike were effusive in their praise, with many stopping her as she spent time looking around the College. They expressed their thanks, and told her how she had made a difference to their lives.
In her address she emphasised that Black History Month focuses the mind and helps us to understand other people’s thoughts and cultures. She urged pupils to look in the mirror and say: “I am worthy, I am worthy, I am worthy.”
Her speech contained many similar insights. She implored pupils to build their ‘houses’ on solid foundations so the bullies of this world would not be able to “blow their houses down”. Inspirational phrases such as: “Love is all you need”, “It’s winners that smile”, “If you can forgive, you free your soul” resonated throughout the talk and kept pupils fully engaged.
A number of pupils joined Floella for lunch to continue the conversation. They asked many searching questions, took photographs, and listened as she encouraged them to make a difference in the world. Students Nyla-Obeng-John, Heeta Vijaykumar and Charlie Wells then accompanied Floella on a tour of the College, alongside Mrs Roshie Watkins.
“It was a triumph from beginning to end,” said Sir Anthony Seldon.
“My tutees in Lower Fourth came rushing to tell me how they were in tears at her story and how they are determined to be kinder and stop any racism,” said Ms Hadjer Boumazouna, Lower Fourth Tutor.
“The Baroness’ speech was extremely engaging and touching. She described to us her childhood and many experiences with racism. Emerging from Chapel, wiping tears from my eyes, her closing advice about how to approach life still filled my mind,” said Charlotte Chang, Upper Fourth.
“Every teenager needs to hear her speak; to hear first-hand what she has had to tolerate and understand how she has dealt with it and continues to rationalise life. Her messages are so important and so clear,” added Upper Sixth Parent, Rachel Busby.