This year we’re commemorating Black History Month by telling the story of the protagonists who have shaped or are connected with our history with our Black community.

We’re profiling key voices from the Arsenal family and beyond over the course of October – including iconic men’s and women’s players, supporters, employees, academics and many more.

Next up is Lola Young OBE, Baroness Young of Hornsey. A lifelong Arsenal fan, Lola is an independent cross-bench member of the House of Lords, working on legislation to eliminate modern slavery. Lola also co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion and on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights.

By Lola Young OBE

I discovered Arsenal during a difficult period of my life. I was around 15 years old and had had a disruptive couple of years living in different foster and children’s homes. When I moved to Elwood Street, just off Blackstock Road, I was actually child number eight, when the capacity was for seven children. To be honest, I felt like an outsider, an unwanted interloper.

I wanted to be invisible, because I hated my status as a kid from the children’s home. It was impossible though, given I was a tall scruffy Black girl. It’s very hard for people now to understand that there were very few young Black people around the area at the time.

There was a stigma – perhaps partly self-imposed – about being in a children’s home and when you’re an unconfident teenager you don’t want to stand out in that way, identified as someone with a troublesome childhood. But this one—the home in Elwood Street—had the Arsenal stadium at the end of the road. There it was – this symbol of something that wasn’t about being in the care system. It was something entirely different to that, something to show off about.

The home was opposite The Gunners pub and everyone would talk about Arsenal. My memories are a little bit hazy but I do remember that there was an annual Arsenal service at St John’s, the local church I attended. Looking back, that church felt like the hub of our social lives.

I went to an all-girls school, where nobody really exhibited any interest in football – but it made me feel more important and less invisible to be able to say I lived near the Arsenal stadium. That was how it all started.

Life in Islington was very different then to now. I moved to Drayton Park, right by what is now Emirates Stadium, around 1965 and experienced everyday racism. At the time, there weren’t many young Black people around. I remember there was a little corner shop on Ronalds Road. I’d go in and my heart would be full of dread. The racial insults would start flying. I can also remember very vividly being spat at on the street.

A happier memory involves Pat Rice – who worked at the greengrocers on Gillespie Road. In fact, he would often come and deliver all the food to the children’s home, he was very young and quite shy as I remember. I actually went back and worked at the Elwood Street home during the double-winning year of 1971. Let me tell you, when Arsenal did the double—well Islington knew how to celebrate such an achievement, and it was a great time to be around the area.

The club was very much in the community then as now. It manifests itself very differently today – the idea of community has expanded and transformed over the years but, while it’s very different in the here and now, the club is still at the heart of it.

I feel it’s important to have some form of continuity with what I do personally and socially. You can see with Arsenal that there is still intent to do things a little bit differently – and that resonates widely with many fans I know.

Arsenal have always responded positively to invitations to discuss issues such as equality and diversity.

I recently spoke to a good friend of mine, who sits in the lower tier of the North Bank. She travels around the country and has been to almost every stadium in England in her professional capacity. She says that Arsenal has by far the most diverse fanbase. That’s something that is really important, to be able to feel comfortable and secure amongst 60,000 fans.

There’s still a long way to go, however. She and I have both had to call people out for anti-Semitic comments. We have to be vigilant and we can’t be complacent. We have to make sure Emirates Stadium is a welcoming place for everyone. Offering free sanitary products in the women’s lavatories is great – and these little things do make a difference to people and send out the right signal. We need to continually do that.

That goes for watching matches in the stadium – and also for community projects too.

For example, I’ve been taking part in walking football sessions at the Arsenal Hub for a number of years – and we need to encourage more women of Black and south Asian descent to join those sessions. The diversity in the group has definitely improved over time but I think there’s always more to do to encourage more older local women to join in.

I was amazed and delighted when I found out that Arsenal in the Community offered walking football. I’d been looking for a sport to take part in and, to be honest, I’d found little that appealed and took place at the right time and venue. I’d tried a few things but then I read about it on a website encouraging older women to take part in sport.

So I turned up at the Arsenal Hub one Sunday. Don’t forget, I hadn’t kicked a ball since I was about eight. I was one of the lost generation of women who weren’t allowed to play in the playground – in fact I can still remember being badly told off when I once did.

I was the only woman there, so I toughed it out, even though I felt like I had three left feet. Over time, more and more women came along. There’s actually now a separate women’s team, due to how popular the programme became. There’s the sporting and health side of it – but there’s a really important social side too. After playing on Saturday mornings, we used to go and sit in Little Wonder and have a nice breakfast.

That first crop of women have been able to establish a very strong link with the club while also forging their own circuit.

It wasn’t long before we started playing in tournaments. In fact, we got a small grant from The Arsenal Foundation to travel to France to play over there, in a proper stadium during 2019, when the country held the Women’s World Cup. That was such good fun – and we won the fair play award to boot.

Walking into a room full of people when you’ve never kicked a ball in your life isn’t easy. What you need is a warm, welcoming sense that you can come along and have fun. That’s really what it’s all about.

Check out the rest of our Black History Month series:

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