Interview with Nicholas Okwulu, People Empowering People in South London

| Azad Sharma

We went to the People Empowering People (Pem People) pop up shop in Peckham to catch up with their founder Nicholas Okwulu. Nicholas told us about his life, spoke passionately about the recent success of the #SouthwarkUnTold exhibition at the Tate Modern and his future plans.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you’ve done?

I was born 50+ years ago here in Vauxhall. My Dad was a paint technologist and my Mum was a trainee nurse. My Dad went back to Nigeria to set up a future for us and my Mum, my siblings and I stayed here.

Around 1978/9, I got arrested by the police during the school dinner breaks when I was on my way home. I had a gun pulled on me by the police at that time. My Mum said ‘look this isn’t going to be the country’ for me to be in. It was a good decision. I’m glad they sent me to stay with my Dad in Nigeria. I had a much harder life and realised you can’t take things for granted. It taught me what it really means when people say ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I think here in the UK we use that proverb quite loosely. But at PemPeople that’s what we do. The community has become the village. You know everybody, you know what people do, you know people’s parents.

I think it’s important for people to understand it’s about how we empower each other to do things. At times, people have come here and say ‘Oh but I thought you’re a charity. You’re meant to help us.’ I’m not a charity. I’m not funded. I do this off my own and others backs.

My days are varied. I could be helping people fix their screens to fixing bikes to doing all kinds of things. I use whatever resources I have. If it means doing it by myself I have to do it by myself. Also, it’s not just about ‘what is it that Nicholas is doing?’ It’s also about recognising all the people who are doing great work in the community.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

People! I live in the most deprived ward in Southwark and I love it. I love the people that live here. I love the creativity here because you’re looking at people that don’t have nothing but yet make something out of nothing. For example, I’ve know a young gentleman who built an electric bike with no help! That’s what is coming out of Peckham.

What obstacles have you encountered?

Take the young gentleman and the electric bike. You won’t see him on a procurement system finding out how to get funding for it. Something like a business innovation website that says: ‘We’re looking for entrepreneurs who want to reduce our carbon footprint.’ As far as people like him are concerned even if they ‘do it’ they feel it won’t be given to them. People are becoming more hesitant to give information because they’re worried it would be stolen. I’m sceptical about handing over information. When people come to us and say they’re doing ‘consultations’ they end up taking our intellectual property. Then they put it out for tender and you that gave them the idea can’t deliver it. That’s one of the things I find very frustrating. And many of us feel this way.

What would be the best thing that People Empowering People has done?

I think Prince Charles visiting us in 2013. That was an epic moment because people were just surprised that they were in a room with him. That’s because we organised it that way. There was no Council control in terms of who could come and who couldn’t. We picked the people for whom it would be the best opportunity for them to come to be recognised for the great work that they do. That’s one of the thing people in the community always remember, seeing Prince Charles and not from miles away with great big cordons, but actually being in a room with him.

Also, the Tate project we’ve just delivered. I think it’s been one of the most successful things that’s happened in the borough so far. People have felt that it’s their project, there’s no one from the Council or a great big funder saying ‘you have to do it this way because I need to put this in my evaluation report.’ We didn’t get it funded which was a blessing. We stuck to what we wanted to do. We had young people actually curating part of the exhibition. If I’d gone to a funder for money I would have spent a lot more time writing risk assessments and in the end, I would have gone ‘do you know what, let’s just leave it’.

Just seeing nursery school children curating their own exhibition at the Tate! They’re going to be able to come back to school, see the pictures we took, and say ‘Wow that’s me!’ Or I could look at Leila, a young shy girl who came in here to work with me and I kind of had to toughen her up. I now hear she’s off to De Montfort University! Those are the things I want to see. Equality for all. As this borough says ‘A fairer future for all’.

What would you describe as the best mistake you’ve made?

Starting the bike project. I like cycling but I was never going to be a bike mechanic. I’m now a qualified bike mechanic and I’ve trained eight to ten people to be bike mechanics. We’ve probably fixed a few thousand bikes.  If it wasn’t for the bikes I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I think sometimes we wait for our calling and I thought the bike wasn’t my calling. The funny thing is when someone actually asked me to do a bike project I said no. I wasn’t interested. Then went back about six to nine months later and said okay you know what I’ll do it. When I was working in the pharmaceutical industry I was always driving, so, to de-stress I would jump on my bike and go for a ride. It allowed me to let go a little bit.

Is there something that has surprised you the most?

Not really. In the community, there’s always somebody that can do something. It’s just about that person and then about how you and them work together, how you build that relationship. That’s one of the things I think a lot of people have taken from the project we did at the Tate.

I’ve started calling myself the farmer. I go around planting seeds and it’s for me to find someone to do the rest of it, watering, fertilising, harvesting. It’s for that plant to grow and say ‘you know what I’m here and I’m ready.’ Seeing people do what they’ve already said that they can’t do and they’ve told other people they can’t do. They know that they can come to me and I’ll help them to help themselves. When I see people succeeding that’s the biggest joy out of everything but I’m not surprised by it. I believe that they can succeed.

What’s next for People Empowering People?

We’re going back to our Livesey Exchange project on the Old Kent Road. The Livesey exchange is about having something for and by the people that is always going to be there for them, with Livesey I want local people to run it and getting local people with experience to support those who don’t have the resources. One of the things we want at the Livesey Exchange is an IT Hub.

Are there any stories about the people you’re working with that you’d like to share?

Today I’m going to introduce you to Sani whose an artist at Peckham Levels. I met Sani originally through another group who were starting a TV channel here in Peckham. I let them use the space here and Sani showed me some of his work which is amazing and I could see being positioned in here. He symbolised the people who grew up in Peckham. He was part of a group of young people who saw what was going to happen in Peckham as ‘social cleansing’ rather than ‘regeneration’ or ‘gentrification.’ It’s nice seeing Sani have is own studio and exhibit his work at our gallery, the Tenpoint5ive gallery at Peckham Levels.

What’ your favourite quote?

I think it’s my most ironic quote: ‘Build it and they will come’. Just because you’ve built it doesn’t mean people will come swanning in. You have to shout about it!

Afterwards, Nicholas took us to check out Sani’s exhibition at Peckham Levels. You can check out his art here. Standing in that space we were only too aware that this is what empowerment looks like.

Photo by Ian Schneider

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