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Pride as Ja-born Althea Smith takes office as mayor of Southwark

BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor -- Special Assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, July 27, 2012    

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LONDON, England — On August 6 when the Jamaican flag is hoisted at a number of town halls across the United Kingdom, Jamaicans here will have one more thing to celebrate — that of the recent election of Jamaican-born Althea Smith as mayor of Southwark.

Smith, who attended Adelphi Primary in St James, emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1973 at age 13 and was immediately faced with a culture shock.

"When I came to join my parents here, I cried for two weeks because everything was so different and I just wanted to go back home to my grandmother," she recalled.

However, Smith, who became a councillor in 2006, was not daunted as she vowed to become involved in her community and make changes where possible.

A trained nurse, Smith said the urge to enter politics was driven by the need to bridge the divide that had been created between young black men and the police in her borough.

She became a part of Southwark Police Community Consulting Group — whose mandate was to bring the community and police together — and began inviting officers to tea at her house.

"Here the police saw me as a critical link to break down these barriers and to help build a relationship which would encourage the young people to see the police as the protector," she told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.

Her involvement in the community saw her being the first to be called to the police station when young men were picked up. "Anything went wrong, the Jamaicans would get blamed, so I would end up going to the police station to get them. They trusted me and I gave them my full support once I can account for them," she explained.

It was this trust which saw the people electing Smith to office eight weeks ago.

Smith gained further recognition during the London riots last year when she was said to have personally defended the Pekham community from looting and property damage.

She said one of her main goals is to have more young people gainfully employed. As such, she has set up an apprenticeship scheme, where she liaises with small businesses in the area and persuades them to help in developing the skills of the young people for permanent employment.

"My legacy is to make sure I get a number of these young people into full-time employment," she said.

In the meantime, Smith said she always wanted to be mayor in this Olympic year and is grateful that her wish has come through.

She believes Jamaica has a lot to celebrate 50 years after it gained Independence from Britain, not only in Jamaica but also in the UK where many Jamaicans have made significant contributions.

Her wish, however, is to see Jamaicans bonding instead of working against each other.

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