WHEN Bisi Osundeko first stepped foot in St Helens Town Hall three years ago she turned to her husband and said, ‘do you think I could become the first immigrant councillor in this town?’

Fast forward to May 2019 and Bisi was in the town hall again, only this time she was being elected to represent Parr on St Helens Council for the Labour Party.

It was an especially proud moment for Cllr Osundeko, who came to the UK from her home country of Nigeria 15 years ago to study at the University of Nottingham after being awarded a scholarship.

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Cllr Osundeko is married to her husband, Mayowa, whom she met at university and is a mother of two children with complex disabilities.

The Osundekos lived in a number of areas around the North West before settling in Parr, and in 2014 became UK citizens, where they attended a ceremony in St Helens Town Hall.

“That was the first time in the town hall,” Cllr Osundeko said.

“I have a sense of humour, so when I got into the ceremony I was walking past and I looked at all the past mayors, and I was like, ‘wow, there is no diversity here’.

“And I jokingly said to my husband, ‘do you think I could become the first immigrant councillor in this town?’

“I just said it jokingly, and then it happened.”

St Helens Star: Cllr Bisi Osundeko was elected to represent Parr in the 2019 local electionsCllr Bisi Osundeko was elected to represent Parr in the 2019 local elections

Prior to becoming a UK citizen, Cllr Osundeko was an active member of the Labour party in St Helens.

In 2016, she was appointed as Labour’s BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) officer for the St Helens South and Whiston CLP.

She is also the former secretary of the CLP.

When long-standing councillor Keith Roberts decided not to stand for re-election in Parr in 2019, Cllr Osundeko put herself forward and was selected by the local Labour branch as the Labour candidate.

After being elected, Cllr Osundeko was appointed as the chairman of the council’s environment, regeneration, housing, culture and leisure overview and scrutiny panel, and also sits on various committees.

Back in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold of the UK, Cllr Osundeko helped co-ordinate support for those affected by the crisis.

This included the distribution of food to vulnerable families, which she funded herself, saying at the time that she wanted to do more for those people in her ward experiencing hardship during the pandemic.

Recently, Cllr Osundeko has been speaking out about racial injustice, following the death of the unarmed African American George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt his knee on his neck for more the eight minutes.

“I am hoping that, being here I will be able to not just help my residents in Parr in St Helens but will always be able to give a voice to people of colour as well,” Cllr Osundeko said.

“I do have to be aware that being a councillor, I’m also an ambassador. I want to be progressive.

“This is the reason I haven’t spoken much about the kind of things I have experienced in the system.

“I would rather deal with it and make sure that nobody else after me suffers it.”

Outside of politics, Cllr Osundeko is a successful entrepreneur, having founded the babywearing brand, Joy and Joe baby wrap carriers.

Cllr Osundeko was named as one of the top 100 business mums in the UK by MumsClub in 2012, and in 2017 was voted best female entrepreneur at The Talk of Manchester Business Awards.

Together with her husband, Cllr Osundeko is also a real estate investor.

Cllr Osundeko has been involved in several charity works and previously set up a support group for parents of disabled children in Wigan.

The mum-of-two also recently co-authored ‘I Fly’, an anthology featuring the inspiring stories of 20 people who have overcome adversity in their lives.

Cllr Osundeko’s story focuses on her son and daughter, who were both diagnosed with complex disabilities at birth, and how she was able to overcome her doubts and fears as a young, immigrant mum.

“When you’re an immigrant you do have this feeling that there are some things you will never achieve,” Cllr Osundeko said.

“Believe me, what I have achieved today I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever achieve that.

“Honestly, I never thought.”

A big influence in her life, she said, is a British family she met through a befriending programme at the University of Nottingham.

Cllr Osundeko said Justine Schneider, a professor at Nottingham University, and her husband essentially “adopted” Cllr Osundeko and Mayowa.

St Helens Star: The Schneider family recently visited Bisi and her husband, Mayowa, to celebrate his 40th birthday The Schneider family recently visited Bisi and her husband, Mayowa, to celebrate his 40th birthday

The Schneider family also provided vital support when Cllr Osundeko’s children, Joy, 13, and Joseph, 11, were born.

“I really did feel that my life was over, I didn’t think I would be able to cope,” Cllr Osundeko said.

“I was in my 20s, far away from home, my family wasn’t there.

“There were times when Justine would actually help me babysit the kids and ask my husband to take me out.

“I did feel something when I started talking out about race recently.

“I did feel that, it would be nice for me to actually say, I’ve actually experienced the best of British hospitality because without the love I experienced from this family, I don’t think I would be here today.”

The two families still regularly keep in touch, and are treated like grandparents to Joy and Joseph.

Recently, they visited the Osundeko family for Mayowa’s 40th birthday.

“They were shocked,” Cllr Osundeko said.

“They were like, ‘we know it’s been gradual over the years, but we are so surprised to see how you’ve grown, and we are so proud of you’.

“It felt like a really proud mum and dad.”

Over the years, prof Schneider has also seen how much the Osundekos have had to fight the system.

“I think having to see things through her eyes has really, really touched her,” Cllr Osundeko said. 

“There’s been some things she’s said, ‘you need to speak up about this’.

“When something is structural, it’s something that over the years has been ingrained into the structure of the British society.”

St Helens Star: The Schneiders are treated like grandparents to Bisi's two children, Joy and JosephThe Schneiders are treated like grandparents to Bisi's two children, Joy and Joseph

Like black people around the world, Cllr Osundeko has experienced racism in many forms during her time in the UK.

She said it is microaggressions that really take their toll, such as making fun of someone’s name or accent.

“I’ve been to places where I’ve been asked if I’m the cleaner, when clearly I’m not the cleaner,” she said.

“Over time you just get used to these things. We need to enlighten everyone that racism affects mental health of the recipient.

“This is the reason why a lot of people are suffering.”

Structural racism is also something that Cllr Osundeko has seen in the UK.

Cllr Osundeko said her husband, Mayowa, has struggled over the years, facing numerous rejections of employment, despite being more than qualified and, in his eyes, doing everything that could be expected of him in the interviews.

Mayowa now works at the University of Chester, but Cllr Osundeko said it has not come easy for him.

“People are not aware that there is something called white privilege, when you talk about it, there is no education,” Cllr Osundeko said.

“People don’t understand that it’s really a thing. Some people think, well it’s not my fault.

“What they don’t understand it, just being born with a particular skin colour already puts you at an advantage over somebody else, automatically, even if you don’t have to do anything.

“People don’t actually understand that.”

In recent days, thousands of people have marched across the UK, as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd.

The 46-year-old’s death has sparked outrage across the globe, and has led to widespread rioting in the US.

St Helens Star: The death of George Floyd has sparked demonstrations around the world The death of George Floyd has sparked demonstrations around the world

Cllr Osundeko said she does not agree with any of the violence or destructive elements of the protests – which have mainly been peaceful.

But she understands the pain it has caused, and said now is the time to sit up and listen to what black voices are saying.

“We’re not saying all lives don’t matter, what we’re saying is black lives matter,” she said.

“Because that’s what’s happening right now because we are still going through oppression.

“What happened to George Floyd, it’s not a political issue it is a humanitarian issue. I think if you’re human you will feel something.

“I was crying for his momma. If you are human, irrespective of your colour, you feel something.

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“When I watched some of the protests that happened in Liverpool I realised that not all of them are black, the majority of them are white.

“This isn’t about politics, this is about being a human being, being a decent human being and I think people are saying now that, enough is enough.

“People have to realise that it is not time to lecture black communities. It’s time to listen and that listening is really, really important.”