Hackney Changemakers: Toyin Agbetu

Ligalia logo and Toyim head shot

I met Toyin and heard about Ligali through the free festival of learning Antiuniversity. This 1968 Hackney phenomenon was recently revived – as education becomes more expensive and institutions become ever more business-like – and still has strong links to the borough. Toyin was researching local activism and is another character whose upbeat demeanour contrasts with the seriousness of his work and his willingness to tackle heavy issues head-on.

The history of Hackney Changemakers tells us they are often ahead of their time; that means upsetting the status quo and shining a light on things that some may not want to be seen. To make change, we must be brave enough to hear stories which are troubling, stories which ask questions of us and our world, stories which may make us uncomfortable. There is much to be learned, even when we think we know Hackney. Over to Toyin..

“I wish I had a superhero origin story to explain why I chose the ‘Hackney Changemaker’ path I did, but I don’t. For many years I was a carefree musician, a video game loving nerd, who overindulged in comics, books, music, films and sci-fi. I grew up believing the words of my father, Ligali Agbetu – he used to say to me: “Nothing is impossible, some things are just more difficult to achieve than others.”

His words motivated me to always find solutions to difficult challenges by being strategic, aiming high and always reaching for my dreams. To balance out my transgressive, anarchistic personality, I live a straight edge, vegan-ish life. This means alongside not eating flesh, I don’t do alcohol, nicotine or any kind of drugs.

Instead I embrace nature and hard work to help me live life to the fullest. Yet, despite doing my best to pay attention to detail, to always do the right thing, to always be kind, to always help others where possible, I found out that my progress was often blocked not by what I did, but what I am – an African.

Throughout school I had been taught about the importance of merit, but not of the inbuilt structural injustice caused by competition. I did not know that meritocracy was a myth until I saw others around me who worked far less, who were selfish and uncharitable still be rewarded not because of what they did, but because of what they were not – an African. At this point other than being called the N-word by strangers, I still didn’t understand ‘real life’ racism, let alone Afriphobia and white supremacy.

That changed when I went through that rites of passage that at some point, affects people of African heritage in the UK. For over two decades of my life I was stopped, searched, assaulted, arrested, imprisoned and prosecuted by the police and their criminalising justice system for various incidents of which I was innocent – and in
some instances the victim of a crime.

It took years for me to stop my good name and reputation from being criminalised following the persistent struggle against police officers, detectives, lawyers, QC’s, magistrates, politicians, judges and even a jury of my peers (not). Perhaps that is my origin story, you see by violating my rights, assaulting me, manufacturing fake evidence and treating me as if I were guilty, they took away my innocence.

Fighting back against incredible odds and winning was no longer a theory or an episode in a sitcom where everyone lives happily ever after when the bad person says sorry. My changemaking superpower came from knowing that that the state – this malignant Wizard of Oz, that had sought every opportunity, utilised every trick to paint me as some kind of domestic terrorist for simply telling the Truth – could be defeated.

So why Hackney? Well I was born in Hackney, schooled and lived the majority of my life here. When I eventually was blessed to become a father of three beautiful children, I had an epiphany. None of them had asked to be born into this world where unnecessary injustices continues to thrive, therefore before I became an Ancestor; I had a moral duty to do my best to leave this world in a better state for them than it was when they arrived.

As an activist there is an important code that I adhere to, that reads ‘think global, act local’. Residing in Hackney, I have been fortunate to see the borough transform from one of the poorest in the UK to one of the best when it comes to quality of life. However, the
same is not true for life opportunities, especially if you are poor, worse if you are African or of a vulnerable minority ethnic background.

Over the years I have lived here I have seen the ills of gentrification, violent policing, disproportionate school exclusions, exorbitant rents, poor housing, education, healthcare and youth provision all contribute to there being a dearth of economic opportunities for young people of African heritage.

I’ve seen entrepreneurial energy diverted into some old, some innovative and sadly, some violent criminal enterprises. Not because all of those engaged in these activities are somehow innately immoral, but out of a desire to survive, to live, to ensure their families mostly existing on precarious employment terms or ridiculously low incomes can afford to stay living in uber-expensive Hackney.

Throughout my life, I have used many words linked to social justice to describe my actions and intentions – Pan Africanist, community educator, scholar-activist, artist, freedom fighter, anthropologist, anti-capitalist, professional bigmouth, womanist, Ogun spirit. None alone tell the whole story but together they combine to creatively map the fact that I am a people-centred person dedicated to being an avowed “peacekeeper” in the same way the Black Panthers were in the 1960s against imperialism and my Ancestors were against their enslavement.

So, I am happy to include the term “changemaker” to the list and regard it a polite way of saying I am a mischievous maker of trouble dedicated to working collaboratively with all those willing to disrupt, dismantle and replace any representation or manifestation of power that is politically and spiritually unjust.

Peace, Love and Justice

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