The Circle of Life – From a council estate in Hackney to the House of Lords

Dayo Okewale, Chief of Staff, UK House of Lords

In ninth grade when a teacher asked the class, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” around the classroom, my classmates erupted into chatter, speaking about various professions: doctor, firefighter, astronaut. But I struggled to answer this question. I was raised in a council estate in Hackney East London, England (pre-gentrification), and I had a difficult time finding role models who looked like me, inspired me, or sparked curiosity in me. 

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to make a difference – like superheroes did – but I just didn’t exactly know what that meant for me. 

I grew up on a street that was commonly referred to as “murder mile.” Someone was killed there every week; guns, drugs, and gangs were prominent. But fortunately for me, one day, I experienced a moment of destiny when my best friend at the time challenged me to play basketball with him, an active player for a local club. Needless to say, he wiped the floor with me, but the competitor in me so badly wanted to beat him. I dedicated weeks to the sport, became good enough to beat him, joined the local club, played for England U18, and got a scholarship to university where I obtained a business degree. I went on to play professional basketball for 5 years in three different countries. 

Basketball taught me many life skills, like discipline and hard work, but more importantly, the sport taught me great employability and business skills, such as teamwork, time management, conflict resolution, how to perform under pressure, and much more. 

It was important to me to give back and create paths of opportunity for young people like myself, so I started a foundation called Who’s Got Game Sport. Who’s Got Game Sport uses basketball as a tool for social change and the development of young leaders. To date, we have worked with over 70,000 young people in 300 schools around the UK, along with other programs around Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. We also host a flagship annual celebrity basketball game at London’s Olympic Park each year. 

Last year, I was fortunate enough to interview arguably one of the greatest basketball players in the world, LeBron James. He spoke about how sport has played a pivotal role in his life and helped him overcome adversity like nothing else, a powerful narrative that is so commonly shared by those who indulge in sport all around the world. 

 

The late Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” My journey into advocacy and politics began when I started writing articles about sports as an underutilized educational tool and the value of the government investing more in youth sports. I co-wrote a manual on education through sport for the European Commission and joined a UNESCO board on integration leadership, eventually becoming an Ambassador and Associate Fellow for the Commonwealth. As my influence grew, I found myself in the room where decisions were being made. I couldn’t help but notice the lack of community stakeholders involved in these conversations, and overall the lack of representation of those in the lowest places at the highest levels. In the words of German theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions.” This quote sticks with me wherever I go.

Six years ago, I became the Chief of Staff for the House of Lords (UK government), providing political, diplomatic, and strategic insights to Crossbench Peers, giving a voice to the voiceless, and employing my valuable life experiences all through the unique lens of someone who grew up in a marginalized and forgotten community. My experiences drive me to put the needs of underserved communities in front of the most powerful policymakers in arguably the most powerful government house in the world — from a council estate in Hackney to the House of Lords!

I’ve been honored to meet the Queen, speak before presidents and prime ministers from all over the world, and work on policy and legislation that tackles some of the hardest issues that particularly affect black, minority ethnic, and marginalized communities in our nation. From criminal justice reform to climate change to modern-day slavery, I’ve been able to lend my voice to some of the toughest issues still dividing us today.

I was fortunate to meet and have breakfast with former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015, and he shared a quote with me from one of his campaign speeches: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And never has that quote been more relevant than today! We are at a crucial point in history where we must change the narrative from our past experiences to create a more equal world for the next generation. The key to this goal is getting more passionate leaders into positions of power — namely, more political positions. 

Every day, I recognize the importance of my position in the House of Lords, as well as the importance of younger generations seeing representation at the highest level. We must provide opportunities, role models, and pathways for progress to all young people. Just as sport opened my eyes to a world of endless possibilities, early intervention is key to empowering and shaping young minds into effective contributors to society who empower their communities. We need more young political leaders. We need more young people writing to their members of Parliament about issues plaguing their communities and environment. We need young people running for local and national government, assembly, and council seats. We need a wave of young, empathetic, courageous leadership that is going to radically change the world. 

Are you ready to answer that call? We are the ones we have been waiting for; we are the change we seek.

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

Driving Change

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