A first among equals

Sukhvinder Stubbs started school late and couldn't speak English. Now she is director of the Runnymede Trust and a main player in multicultural Britain. Emma Brooker met her

Emma Brooker
Tuesday 11 June 1996 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Until the age of nine, Sukhvinder Stubbs was what she describes as the "Bubble Girl". Growing up in a Punjabi family in Birmingham, she didn't speak and rarely heard English, apart from the insults people sometimes shouted at her parents in the street. "You don't have to be able to understand English to know that those aren't very nice names," she says now.

It was only when Sukhvinder's younger brother started school that the local authority learnt of her existence and her own education began. At 10, she was putting together her first sentences in English. By 18, she had started a degree course at Oxford, where she won the prize for the top geography exam result of her year. This week, Sukhvinder became director of the Runnymede Trust, the independent think-tank on race relations. At 33, she is a main player in shaping the future of multicultural Britain.

Sukhvinder is a woman of many guises, but when I first arrive at the trust's new premises in a disused NatWest bank opposite London's Barbican, she is not visible at all. Her office is vast, with a heavy marble fireplace and a huge desk which looks more like a Masonic banqueting table. Sunlight streams in through the tall windows and it takes Sukhvinder a few moments to emerge, smiling from the shadows.

Her firm handshake co-ordinates perfectly with her executive suit, silky blouse and pearls, and power hairdo. Brummy accent kept carefully in check ("It only comes out when I'm angry"), she seems a little prim and serious at first. While clearly chuffed at her prestigious appointment, Sukhvinder seems to be walking on eggshells. A newcomer to the race relations industry - she was chosen for her background in social policy and headhunted from a job with a government inner-city regeneration agency - she hasn't yet acquired a glib PC-speak.

And at every turn there is somebody to offend. It is easy to see why she is tentative as she talks about herself and what she plans to do at the trust; a top job in race relations could so easily turn out to be a poisoned chalice for any young black high-flier. Confront the white establishment about institutional racism and the next thing you know, you've totally alienated it. Keep in with liberal whites and, whoops, everyone else is calling you a sell-out.

When Kamlesh Bahl took over as head of the Commission for Racial Equality, within weeks she was threatening to sue a black woman journalist for accusing her, in a liberal newspaper, of being too conservative. How is Sukhvinder, the former Bubble Girl, going to handle this volatile cocktail of potentially conflicting interests?

"I'm not really interested in pleasing people," she says, calmly. "I'm interested in making a difference to the people that are unemployed, that live in inner-city areas and don't have full access to all the facilities. Some of the statistics are so scary. Black kids are twice as likely to be suspended at school. Young black men are twice as likely to be unemployed. Those are the sort of statistics I hope to make a difference to and I'm not really bothered whether that offends or not."

Sukhvinder, who was acutely aware of tensions between different ethnic communities around her when she was growing up in Birmingham, now talks about improving relations between ethnic minorities. "For a long time - at an organisational and a street level - there's been a lot of divisiveness and competition for resources. The time has come to build bridges and work together." What she in particular has to offer is, she says, her ability to manage budgets, and put management structures in place.

Even in sober, executive mode there is a playfulness about Sukhvinder, a sense that this is just one of many possible images at her disposal. She describes, with affection, her days as an eager pig-tailed swot in Birmingham. "As soon as I learnt to speak English, the whole world started to come alive for me. All of a sudden I wanted to know about everything and I found that my parents couldn't answer those questions for me. I read practically everything that was in the local library. Books on Cleopatra, science fiction, Greek mythology."

Her father allowed her to stay on in the sixth form on the basis that she studied to be a doctor, but she got into Oxford to study geography with the encouragement of several teachers at Broadway Comprehensive in Handsworth, with whom she still keeps in touch.

Rebellion of sorts from what was a very traditional, protective Sikh background came at Oxford where she met David, now a staff writer with NME, the pop-music paper and her husband of the past 11 years. Sukhvinder became a purple-haired goth and the couple set up and deejayed several Oxford clubs. "I was experimenting with everything; my own sense of identity. I was just allowed to be myself, find out who that was."

Her marriage to a white man was, initially, a great disappointment to her parents, who had hoped for an arranged marriage to a Sikh. "Mixed marriages aren't easy," she says, though they did have a traditional Sikh wedding and her parents have since accepted David.

Joining BT as a management trainee after graduation, Sukhvinder has since worked in management, budgeting, marketing and PR in the public, private and voluntary sectors. While she laughs at the suggestion that she is one of Thatcher's Babies, she talks about improving race relations and multiculturalism in management terms. Her role models are the Body Shop's Anita Roddick and management guru Charles Handy.

She describes herself as one of a group of young black professionals who are "less visibly indignant about racism. Yes, they continue to be exposed to it, but really you just have to ignore that and try and get on with what it is you're trying to do. All young people are struggling with issues of identity and it's the same for young white people as it is for young black people..."

"I went through a phase where I ignored racism and, as far as I was concerned, I was just a young British person, and everything was fine; Oxbridge, and all that sort of stuff. But over the past few years, especially working on various boards, I've become aware of more institutional, established attitudes that aren't racist as such. It's more to do with not understanding the dimension of diversity, the integrationalist idea that everybody should be the same."

Sukhvinder is a negotiator rather than a rebel or firebrand, and a pragmatist rather than an idealist. When she talks about her own parents it becomes apparent how deftly she has manoeuvred her way across what could have been great cultural chasms. While her three younger brothers are pursuing careers in law, medicine and computing, her mother is only now starting to learn English. "She's actually very isolated at the moment and I do worry about her," Sukhvinder says.

Her father came to Britain in the early Sixties with about pounds 50, and began working as a joiner doing shopfitting. He still has trouble finding work. "He's a grafter - that's where I get my grafting from. I think life for them is very tough. The expectations aren't there any more. I think they may go back to India."

"I have certainly benefited from my parents' labour. All their efforts have been directed at their children and trying to get the best for them, so myself and my three brothers, now we don't have to worry. We were British- born and we just wanted to be treated as such."

"I'm a doer rather than an ideologue," she says. "I'm not interested in sitting in some protected environment and hypothesising about the policy framework for race relations, although that is important. At the end of the day, I want people like my mother to be able to walk down the street and not worry what people are going to say to her. I want my father to go for a job and feel that he's going to be treated on equal terms."

For the first time in the interview, she sounds fired up. A bit of Brummy accent is seeping through.

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