Campaigner Julz Davis was in Jamaica with his father looking over the land where generations of their family have lived and been buried. He felt it was an opportunity to collect and commune with his ancestors. “I was completely in awe, coming back to my roots,” Julz tells Belong. “My parents left for a better world, for a better living, which they achieved with me and my siblings. Now I’ve gone back and I’m thinking, what’s my contribution to all this?”
Julz, a campaigner and activist, has dedicated his life to promoting racial justice and equality in his home city of Bristol and across businesses. He’s now working at diversity and inclusion organisation BeOnBoard, and earlier this year founded Race for Power, a major campaign to tackle representation issues in the city and preserve the memory of Bristol’s history of activism.
He traces his inspiration back to Jamaica, while standing on his family’s land in between the mango and banana trees. He suddenly thought of “the dream” – referring to Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech calling for civil and economic rights and racial justice. Julz hadn’t connected the dots at that moment, but he comes from a city steeped in the history of the UK’s own civil rights movement. When he returned home to Bristol, Julz learnt the leaders of the Bristol Bus Boycott – a protest that sparked a prominent civil rights movement in the UK the same year as King’s speech – were going to be awarded be awarded the highest civic honour, the Freedom of the City. “It was the call to action I needed to continue to honour their dreams.”
The Bristol Bus Boycott started out as a protest against the omnibus company’s racist recruitment policies that banned Black and Asian workers from applying. A group of activists bravely began a campaign to boycott the buses, forcing the Bristol Omnibus Company to end its “colour bar” in August 1963. This civil rights movement paved the way for the UK’s first Race Relations Act.
“I realise now that I was living that history,” Julz says. “Buses are really important to get in and out of the city, and growing up we had bus conductors and bus drivers who were always very protective of us on the buses. It’s only now that I realise those were the first bus drivers of colour.”
The Bristol Bus Boycott started out as a protest against the omnibus company’s racist recruitment policies that banned Black and Asian workers from applying.
Despite the memories of the civil rights movement, today Bristol is the UK’s seventh most unequal city for people of colour. Bristol has had a difficult and tumultuous history. Its foundations built on slavery are only really beginning to be addressed by officials after 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue.
“I felt that the call to action needed to be to find out what it is to live and honour the dream of the Bristol Bus Boycott, of Martin Luther King. The easiest way we can do that is to progress Bristol to be in the best city for people of colour to live in, not the seventh worst,” he says.
“Buses are really important to get in and out of the city, and growing up we had bus conductors and bus drivers who were always very protective of us on the buses. It’s only now that I realise those were the first bus drivers of colour.”
Bristol is embedded into Julz’s identity. He enjoyed his childhood but says it was very tough growing up in the deprived area of Knowle West the 70s. “The ignorance and arrogance that came from a lot of those that lived there was quite astounding,” he says. “But it made me the person I am today. And I very much embrace that part of me and I describe myself as a ‘Knowle West Indian’.”
His community has deeply influenced the person Julz is today, and the work he has dedicated his life to, from directing St Paul’s Carnival to running community radio stations giving a voice to the Black community.
“I wanted to be able to see my daughter enjoy the cultural heritage. Passing those oral stories was really important – through dance, through food, through culture, the procession. And so it was important for me to protect that.”
He’s been inspired by other activists he’s met throughout his life. “I spent a lot of time with Paul Stevenson [who led the bus boycott] when I was young and so it was really interesting that I could see him in his natural home environment and the people that would come around the tables to break bread. I just soaked it up,” he says. “I’ve been inspired by those around me that I grew up with and without knowing it soaking up their activism. And it’s driven me to make my contribution towards a bit of Bristol. But I fully recognise that I stand on the shoulders of giants, whose shoulders are really broad.”
Through the Race for Power campaign, he’s asking how Bristol as a community can better celebrate movements like the bus boycott, and “see ourselves reflected into the DNA of the city”. But ultimately, he aims to ask: “How could Bristol become and be transformed into the best city for people of colour to it by 2030? And how can Bristol become that city that unlocks all the true potential for all its sons and daughters?”
“I’ve been inspired by those around me that I grew up with and without knowing it soaking up their activism.”
The community are being asked questions to inform future work and projects. Responses will form “a grassroots blueprint to accelerate racial equity in Bristol, and we will present that at an event called Race in the City, a national symposium to be held in February 2024”.
“We certainly are inviting everybody who’s a changemaker who could sit and considers racial equality and equity to be important part an important part of Bristol’s ongoing story.”