Two weeks ago, a photograph of a woman wearing red mayoral robes and an even brighter smile kept popping up on my WhatsApp. Everyone I knew seems to be sending the same un-captioned photo with the words, St Lucian Mayor. No name, no citation, no date. Then the telephone calls started with even faster regularity. “JD do you know who she is? What part of St. Lucia is she from.” Endless questions, requiring elucidation. When a few editor friends got in touch each demanding to have the exclusive, it was time for action.
In April 2021 the London Borough of Waltham Forest elected a new Mayor, full title: The Worshipful the Mayor, Cllr Elizabeth Baptiste. Armed with a film crew and with bridled curiosity, I sat with the new lady in town for her first interview in her new role.
Situated north east of the capital, the London Borough of Waltham Forest (population 276,983) is known less for its geography and more for its many famous residents, past and present. Harry Kane, one of the best strikers in the world, 3 times Premier League golden boots winner. The current England football team captain was born and raised in the borough. World football icon David Beckham is another born and raised local boy.
From the world of popular culture; the roll call includes, jazz great, Sir Johnny Dankworth, husband of Cleo Lane, Ian Dury, (0f Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick Fame) and Brian Harvey and his internationally known boy band, East 17 all of them Waltham Forest born.
Political heavyweights include Baroness Patricia Scotland, whose family settled locally when her family emigrated from Dominica. Baroness Scotland lived and went to school locally and considers herself “made in Waltham Forest,” She is England’s first female Attorney General and the sixth Secretary – General of the Commonwealth of Nations. Both Winston Churchill (Conservative) and Clement Attlee (Labour) were local Members of Parliament when they were Prime Minister.
In 1892 a local resident, Frederick Bremer built the first motor car in a workshop in his garden at Connaught Road. That car is housed in the Vestry House Museum, on display for all to see. A world pioneer indeed.
However, the title of most famous “Waltham Forest” person falls to William Morris, the 19th century socialist and cultural activist, poet, designer and acclaimed genius. Immortalised by his most famous quotation “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, ”
Over refreshments and with the aid of her attendant, the very helpful Matthew More, I asked questions that had been fired at me by friends and colleagues and the many I myself wanted to know; who is Elizabeth Baptiste? With the poise of a seasoned public figure her replies to my questions, came with effortless, honesty and candour.
“My mother’s name is Angela Baptiste and she comes from the beautiful village of Micoud in St. Lucia. She is also known as Meonette. My father is Alstead Baptiste, he is Grenadian. I was born in London, a product of the Windrush Generation. I also spent time and went to school in Grenada”
You worked for the University of Westminster before you became a councillor, (which we will get to) but first tell me about University of Westminster?
I worked in the Quality and Standards Office as part of a team. We were responsible for the development and implementation of the University’s quality assurances and enhancement process. I was the link officer for the Facility of Social Services and Humanities. I worked on a range of quality and standards tasks in relation to the validation and re-validation of internal and externally delivered courses, (UG, PG and PhD) with partners at the University and abroad. I also worked as a senior Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) specialist with proven results working in Higher Education (HE) departments and trade unions. I have particular expertise in developing initiatives and interventions to change the culture across HE departments to promote EDI and prospective students and staff.
When you ran as a Labour Councillor in 2018, in what is considered to be very Conservative area, many questioned your sanity believing you were walking into the lion’s den. Why did you decide to become a councillor?
I ran the Valley Ward seat in May 2018, I fought a fair and hard campaign. A Councillor’s term is for four years. I was elected as Deputy Group Leader immediately after my winning the seat in 2018. The following year, in May 2019, I was elected as Chair of the Labour Group. This year I was elected Mayor, by my peers and councillors from both political groups. I am delighted to be working on behalf of all the people in the borough, regardless of their religious backgrounds or political alliance. I see my role as being there for all our communities and residents.
For those not acquainted with the role of Mayor of the London Borough of Waltham Forest, please explain the role?
The Mayor is the borough’s civic and ceremonial head, with responsibility of attending all full council meetings. My daughter, April Sampson is my Consort. My Spiritual Adviser is Revd Cannon Ade Ademola of Emmanuel Parish Church Leyton. Another interesting part of the job is receiving members of the Royal Family, in conjunction with the Queen’s representative, the Deputy Lieutenant. Since being appointed I have devoted time to all parts of the job. I find it rewarding when I am engaging with anyone living in the borough especially supporting the various community groups.
Can you give me examples of such work?
Of course, since taking office, I have attended the launch of the faith Art Exhibition, the re-opening of the refurbished Boots store in Walthamstow and spent time meeting the members of the Gnome House Community Centre…..and this interview, (she smiled).
The Mayor spoke of her vision for the coming year, which includes empowering and capacity building among the various religious, voluntary and community groups. The Mayor also spoke about her chosen charity appeal. She will be supporting the Sickle Cell Society as well as Age UK, Waltham Forest and the Alzheimer’s Society (Dementia Friends).
Given her engagements in less than a month in office, a busy year lies ahead. I wanted to know more about her association with St. Lucia.
I have visited the island many times over the years. Many years ago, I was part of a St Lucia Labour Party support group based in London. We campaigned and raised funds for the elections under Dr Kenny Anthony. Please give him my regards. He was kind enough to invite me to the first Labour conference after he was elected. So, I do have a toe in St Lucia Labour Party politics. (She laughs). Yes part of where I am today is informed by my association with the St Lucia Labour Party.
The interview ended with The Worshipful the Mayor, Cllr Elizabeth Baptiste promising to be accessible to her constituents. Anyone can go on her website page and fill in a form requesting a meeting.
Interviewees don’t come more affable and honest than Mayor, Cllr Elizabeth Baptiste. Pre-interview, she made me feel at ease with small talk of the people we knew in common. But that is for another day.
My special thanks to Eddie Townsend, and Matthew More of Waltham Forest Council.
JD Douglas, is a Cultural ,Political, Social Commentator, Writer, Theatre Producer & Director.