Maya Angelou

A very great lady died last week. Despite all the many tributes to her from around the world, there is still so much to say. Maya Angelou was both an outstanding leader of her generation and a great author and poet who transcended race and gender.

Born into poverty and discrimination, she became a key influencer on the civil rights movement and a spokesperson for everyone who feels themselves held back from living a full and equal life with their fellow men and women. She famously knew why the caged bird sings and because of that she was able to voice the fears and raise the hopes of many.

I had the privilege of meeting her when she was the guest speaker at the NSPCC AGM in the early 1990s. She spoke to an audience of predominantly white middle-aged and middle class women about being raped at the age of 7. These things were rarely talked about at the time and never on a public stage in front of Princess Margaret and the great and good of the land.

The audience was captivated by her as she shared both her experiences and her learned wisdom. She made us all feel that it was perfectly natural to look disadvantage and discrimination right in the eye and to triumph over it.

More than anyone else I have ever met, she demonstrated the capacity for forgiveness whilst never conceding defeat or making any concessions to those who would deny her or any human being their basic rights.

The volunteers and staff of the NSPCC gave her a lengthy standing ovation and she became a lifelong supporter. We named a child protection centre in East London after her. Why is she so relevant today? Because she was unafraid and spoke out when it was unfashionable to do so. She took risks in the sure belief that she was speaking to and on behalf of many. She built credibility and trust across many audiences, academics, politicians, philanthropists, and ordinary citizens who loved her way with words. Her great gift for the English language and for communicating across cultural barriers was instrumental in changing attitudes, public policy and educational practices and concepts of family of community.

I still remember her speech to the NSPCC in which she invented her own terminology. She talked about heroes and the way powerful female role models had shaped her life. She made me realize that in the words of George Bernard Shaw “it is possible to be learned and light” and that you can’t trap the human spirit.

She would have been interested in the WEA’s unique vision of education for a social purpose and would have asked the question is there really any other kind? She would have loved to meet many of our students and tutors and would have understood the vital importance of the personal and equal relationship that needs to exist between them. She would have celebrated with us the fact that we live in a multicultural society which flourishes through its diversity and would have been frustrated by the continuing waste of human talent which still exists in our society today.

As we launch our manifesto for change and our campaign messaging on the theme of women overcoming disadvantage there could be no more compelling example. Her teaching and writing, speaking and performing will remain with us for many years to come.

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