Oct 16, 2023
Out of fire, The Phoenix is reborn.
At Beyond the Streets we are all too familiar with the impact that inequalities and multiple disadvantages can have on the women we journey alongside. In this black history month, we look at the inspirational life of social activist Sybil Phoenix, and her work with children and young black people in the London Borough of Lewisham.
Born in Guyana in 1927 and losing her mother at 9 years old, she lived with her aunt and trained as a seamstress. Using these skills, she ran a sportswear and leather goods business. While living at her aunts she was embraced by the Methodist Church, who helped her to train as a classical singer and she went on to sing with an international orchestra. Sybil’s involvement in the church extended beyond the choir. It was through youth work in the church’s Clubland youth club that she began her lifelong journey to serve others.
In 1956 she moved to London with her fiancé Joe, whom she married, and then settled in Lewisham. Shaped by her experiences of youth work in the former British Guiana (now Guyana), the racism and discrimination she had faced when arriving in the UK and a desire to support the vulnerable and voiceless, Sybil went on to become a social activist, particularly supporting children, and young black people in a number of ways.
Alongside bringing up their own family of 4 children, Sybil and Joe became foster parents in response to the chronic lack of support for black children in the care system, going on to foster 100’s of children over time. For a time, this work was unpaid, and she supported it through her work as a seamstress.
Sybil’s continued desire to tackle the lack of provision for young, black people, led her to set up the first black youth club in Britain. Eventually becoming the Moonshot centre in New Cross, Lewisham, providing a range of facilities including sports, a library, and educational classes. When it was burned down by the National Front in 1977, she raised the money to rebuild it with the stirring and determined announcement “My name is Phoenix and with the help of God I will build a new centre from the ashes.”
Around the same time, she opened a support housing project for 21 single homeless women aged 16-25, the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust (MPMT), named after her daughter who died in a car crash in 1973.
One cannot fail to be moved by Sybil Phoenix’s compassion and care for young people and determination to fight against discrimination, injustice, and inequality. Her community work was recognised in 1973, when she was the first black woman in Britain to receive and MBE, later going on to be awarded the OBE in 2008.
From our 25 years working alongside women who are involved in selling sex in east London and the wider UK, we have learnt how vital it is to have specialist services across intersectionality’s. We are motivated by Sybil’s work in carving out space for specialist support for black children and young people in Lewisham, despite many obstacles in her journey.
By Annie Burdfield, Beyond the Streets supporter.