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Saluting our Sisters: Carlene Bender

Saluting our Sisters is the theme of Black History Month 2023. During the month, we are meeting 5 local black women, to find out more about them and their achievements and what Black History Month means to them.

Carlene Bender is a local businesswoman. She is the powerhouse behind Ealing Business Expo, events that bring local businesses together, providing them with a platform to raise awareness of their work locally and across west London.

Meet Carlene

“I came to the UK in 2000 to do my masters degree at Goldsmiths, University of London,” she said. “I’d been teaching at the University of the West Indies and working as a freelance newspaper journalist. My plan was to get my MA done and then head back to the Caribbean to continue teaching there, but that changed. I met the love of my life, got married, and we went on to have 2 sons. My husband’s family is from Ukraine, mine from Trinidad and Tobago, and we settled down in Pitshanger in beautiful Ealing.

“I completed my degree and continued my journalistic work with the Financial Times and other national titles. But in 2011, things changed for me, when riots hit our borough. Inspired by the Ealing community’s response, I launched Contactus Ealing, a media and events startup, focused on promoting local shops and services.

“In 2015, I met Carol Sam from Ealing Council who suggested I lead on staging a borough-wide business show sponsored by the council, which was how the business expo came about. From 2015 to 2023 I put on nine different events, some independently and some sponsored by Ealing Council.

“They were naturally diverse events, with businesses participating from all the local communities, including Japanese, West African, South Asian, Sikh, Somali, Polish, Ukrainian, Caribbean and more, which really reflects the diversity of heritages that settle in Ealing.

“I also continued my lecturing, and in 2020 started teaching at the University of West London, focusing on how to use social media to promote online businesses. This is very much based on my business experience and is an ever-changing area of interest and learning – recently I attended seminars on using artificial intelligence (AI) in social media marketing, and I’m excited to share those ideas with my students.

“Another big change in my life happened at the end of 2020, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This led me to pause on business and concentrate on recovery. Ealing Business Expo won’t be happening in 2024, but I am continuing to engage with the next generation at UWL.”

Black History Month

Carlene said: “I’ve been thinking a lot about Black History Month and how we can celebrate the contributions of the black community by focusing on what black people have done to make the United Kingdom a better place to live. But one month is not enough – ideally, we should take the path of Wales and include more black history in the curriculum.

“This year, I’m particularly pleased that the theme is Saluting our Sisters. I’ve just finished reading Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, and I would recommend it to anyone wondering why saluting our sisters is so important. So often, black women find themselves at the bottom of everyone’s list of priorities – I know that I have felt invisible at times and have had to push my way into the picture to ensure I have a place, to show I exist, I am here, I am a black woman.

“There are important black women in the borough we don’t celebrate enough, like Brenda Edwards, (Jamal’s mother, singer-songwriter, and TV ‘Loose Women’ star); Jessica Huntley (activist and publisher – her photo graces the 2023 cover of the Black History Month magazine); Dame Elizabeth Anionwu (UWL professor of nursing), and Dr Bernadine Idowu (UWL professor of biomedical sciences) – a 2019 study showed that of 23,000 or so university professors in the UK, only 25 were black women, and we have a few in our borough, so let’s celebrate that.

“And it’s great that we’ve gone from zero black women councillors just a few years ago in Ealing, to 4 at present (Varlene Alexander, Hodan Haili, Faduma Mohamed, and Grace Akuba Quansah). It seems to have taken a long time but I’m proud we have black women with the courage to step up, represent their communities and be a councillor.

“But there’s a whole group of young women doing amazing things – let’s not just celebrate the long-time history, but those that are creating history today.”

Which 4 local black women would you invite to a dinner party?

“I’d invite Carol Sam, who is now assistant director of equalities and engagement at the council. She has been so supportive of my business for over 10 years, and I have a lot of regard for her. Akuba Quansah is such an impressive woman and we have a lot of things that overlap in our lives. I’m proud to have supported her when she ran for election as a local councillor. And Maddie Alemayehu, a good friend and fellow businesswoman who runs a local home care business, she would be fun; plus Rena Kydd-Williams, an Acton ‘Carnivalist’ who works on various Caribbean and Windrush projects.”

Who has been the most influential British black woman in your life?

“The British black woman who has most influenced me would be my Auntie Merl (Merlin Callender), who has now sadly passed away. When I first came to London I stayed with her for a few months. She worked in education and originally came here from Trinidad in the 1950s to attend teacher training college. She became a careers adviser and one of the people she guided was the designer Alexander McQueen, helping him to figure out his path to become a world-renowned designer.

“She opened her home to me and showed me how things work here; she introduced me to the UK and helped me see how I could fit in as a 29-year-old immigrant in 2000. Both she and her husband (Edward Callender MBE), who is Guyanese, helped me to manage the culture shock of coming to England. Now when I am on the bus, in the shop or at events and I hear newly-arrived women, missing the certainties of their old home, I try to encourage them, remembering the example of my dear Auntie Merl.”

Find out more

Find out about events happening locally during Black History Month.

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