Experiencing racial abuse at the age of 8, from a teacher you should be able to trust, might send any child off the rails. And seeing your mother publicly reduced to tears by her inability to get justice for you, the abused daughter, might paralyse you with rage. But not Cordell Pillay! This painful experience made her determined to prove that she was more than just another stereotyped black girl. She vowed that in everything she did she would be successful, which might explain why she is now the only black woman assistant general secretary in a British trade union.
So how did she do it? Despite her primary school trauma, Cordell Pillay got 4 A levels and went on to university to read medicine. Then began her journey to clarify her own ambitions: she got married, started a family, left the course and had a brief but successful stint as a financial consultant. She then returned to university and with BA Hons in Sociology and Politics she took up a research post in Child Care & Social Policy at Abo Akademi (University) in Finland – all done alongside the demands of raising 2 children. Cordell Pillay was clearly a risk taker, being the only black woman she was starting to develop a key role tackling inequality. This included appearing on Finnish TV and radio and lecturing in Black history.
Cordell Pillay’s development continued. In 1992, with a diploma in social work and masters in criminology, she became a probation officer and rose rapidly up the organisational ladder to acting assistant chief probation officer in just 5 years. She was appointed Assistant General Secretary (AGS) for the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) in 1998, after 3 years as vice-chair.
Her AGS role involves representing members at tribunals, mentoring women and Black and Minority Ethnic members. She has been a member of various influential bodies, such as the Greater London Magistrate Courts Authority and the British Consulates hate crimes delegation to Washington in 2007 & Toronto and Quebec in 2008. Again, as the only woman and the only black member of Napo’s officers group, Cordell Pillay experiences the typical devaluing behaviours many members face. However, her determination still burns brightly: a sustained enemy of oppression, she may not win every battle but she will always be a fighter and leader of the equality and diversity agenda in Napo.
She believes her greatest achievements as AGS to date are concerned with broadening and making more accessible Napo’s Learning and Development strategy, ensuring its Equality and Diversity policy effectively affects practice and influencing the development of the Probation Qualifying training.
So who inspired her? Her mother and grandmother modelled self belief, conviction, courage – persistent women, who taught much by insisting little, making it easy for Cordell Pillay to absorb their values.
And the future? Cordell’s determination to make a difference is undiminished. ‘Operation Future Proof’ a project close to her heart, was set up in partnership with Race 4 Justice and the West Midlands Fire Service. It aims ‘to build an energy efficient, sustainable and disaster resistant children’s centre in Haiti’ and provide education and trauma counselling for earthquake victims alongside activities to develop their confidence and skills. They have already raised £10,000 towards the £1.5m required. No doubt, Cordell Pillay will succeed in this. The 8 year old girl who resisted her teacher’s racism will always remind her.
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