In the summer of 1997, five interpreters got together in north London. Those interpreters were Hetty May Bailey, the brain child, Loquessa Smart, Arusa Ghani, Zane Hema and Audrey Simmons. The aim was to create a network that would reach out to Black and Asian interpreters across the country. After much deliberation, we called this network BASLIN: Black and Asian Sign Language interpreters Network.
During the five years that the network was running, it became a source of support for not only Black and Asian interpreters but also the Black Deaf community. We held regular meetings across the country and produced a newsletter, edited by Grace Peddie, with articles written by members. The membership was small and we had no funding, but we did have a directory with the names, contact details and additional language skills of our members.
BASLIN worked with the London Ethnic Minority Deaf Association (LEMDA), which was a Black Deaf-led organisation supporting the cultural needs of the Black Deaf community. We also worked with the Asian Deaf Women Association (ADWA). We provided interpreting support for their training and events. We were in a unique position at the time. We were qualified interpreters with the extra language skills and cultural understanding that the Deaf community felt they needed.
In addition, we were lucky enough to be able to go to the USA to attend the National Association of Black interpreters (NAOBI) conferences that took place every year at different venues across the USA. We participated in training, met other Black interpreters and shared our story of what it was like to be a Black interpreter in the UK.
We also attended the National Deaf Advocates conference, which aimed to empower the Black Deaf community by offering peer support in a range of activities. We met Deaf educators, storytellers, Black Deaf professionals and Deaf elders, which we had never come across in the UK until then.
Fast-forward to July 2020 and the Interpreters of Colour Network has mushroomed in an incredibly short space of time. The catalyst was a two day performance theatre workshop set up by Jacqui Beckford in December 2019, aimed at non-White interpreters, exploring the under representation of black and brown interpreters working in the arts and performance domains. Many of the attendees felt that this workshop offered a safe space and prompted Azaria Francis to set up a WhatsApp group. The COVID-19 global pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, instigating the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, coalesced and gave the group traction.
The difference this time is that in the BASLIN days we didn’t have WhatsApp, Zoom and the Internet. Technology has allowed us to connect with interpreters of colour from across the UK and Europe. We have gone from a workshop of 12 people to the vibrant international network that we see growing before us. The difference this time is we are a catalyst for change, deploying the wealth of talents and knowledge that our members possess.