'Suddenly, we were being believed' - Exeter BLM campaigner one year on from George Floyd

Credit: Maia Thomas

This week marks a year since the death of an unarmed black man in America sparked worldwide calls to end racism. 

George Floyd's murder in police custody led to protests across the South West supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

As part of our Black Voices In Conversation series, ITV News has spoken to those across the region who continue to lead the movement to see what impact the past 12 months have had.

ITV West Country reporter Alpha Ceesay caught up with Maia Thomas, one of Exeter's first Black Lives Matter demonstration organisers, about her continuing fight for equality.

  • Black Voices In Conversation: Watch Maia Thomas' full interview with ITV

Maia moved to Exeter from London when she was around 10 years old.

"It's when I moved here that I first realised I was different, I didn't see anyone that looked like me anymore," she said.

"Once in a school I was in, in the junior school, a child threw food at me and they said 'feed the African, feed the slave' and comments along those lines."

Maia has long been campaigning to educate people about racism within the county but found many people were unwilling to listen.

She told ITV News: "People in Devon seemed to believe that racism didn't exist up until George Floyd's death and the movement that came with it. So it was previously like speaking on deaf ears.

"It was quite hard to keep speaking about our experiences but not being heard."

On June 6 last year, the challenges Devon's black community face were brought to the forefront.

Determined to be heard after George Floyd's death, Maia became one of the organisers of Exeter's first Black Lives Matter protest.

"It allowed black and other individuals from different races to speak their truth and speak about what's happening to them. It's almost like suddenly now, we were being believed."

Maia speaking to the crowd at the BLM protest in Exeter on 6 June 2020. Credit: Julian Jones

Since the protest, Maia has continued her racial equality work in the county in a bid to make sure that message is not forgotten.

Part of her work is educating and guiding the next generation.

"I've been working with more than 70 schools across the South West on equality, diversity and inclusion," she said.

Maia has been working with more than 70 schools across the region. Credit: Exeter School

"I've held a safe space in schools where students can just ask difficult questions which they may not have been able to before.

"And it's also allowed pupils who have faced racism and other experiences just because they're different, they've had a safe space where they can come forward."

Maia has also been working with local authorities including Devon and Cornwall Police and Devon County Council.

"They've been willing to listen, but I think it needs to be more than conversation with them - I need to see action.

"I need to see black and other minority individuals involved in the work and leading the change themselves. I've done a lot of work with the council as well who I'm doing a race audit for and I can see the work is being done but it's just important we keep going."

Meanwhile, a Devon County Council spokesman said its leadership wants to "deepen its understanding of the issues" to enable it "to become more effective anti-racism leaders".

They added: “We are conducting a Race Equality Audit. As part of this audit, we have invited Maia and two other local anti-racism leaders to review DCC’s organisational culture and practice.”

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