For Black History Month 2022, Observe catches up with Brookes alumnus, Nathan John (pictured above) to tell his powerful and inspiring story.
In October 1987, Orville Blackwood was admitted to Broadmoor Hospital, a high-security psychiatric hospital. He was serving a prison sentence for attempting to rob a betting shop with a toy gun. In August 1991, hospital staff injected him with three times the maximum dose of promazine, a tranquiliser, and twice the recommended dose of anti-psychosis drug, fluphenazine. Orville died as a result.
Racism was clearly an underlying cause of Orville’s death. An independent report 1 found that hospital staff regularly used the phrase “big, black and dangerous” to describe black patients and treated Orville as if he were a violent and dangerous offender rather than an unwell man who had only ever committed relatively minor offences.
But racism was also a significant factor leading to Orville ending up in Broadmoor. He had struggled at school and, denied role models or opportunities, drifted into petty crime and situations where others exploited him. His mental health issues went untreated and became worse.
Orville’s son, Nathan John (pictured as a baby with his father), was eight years old when his dad died and as a child did his best not to let it affect him too much. And when he did address the issue, he was determined to do so on his own terms.
“It was big news at the time,” Nathan explains, “but I was young so didn’t see a lot of that and I didn’t feel a lot of the impact until later. I remember feeling ashamed that my dad had mental issues. That wasn’t something I wanted to talk about at that age so I kept it as a sort of secret from most of my friends. Also, I was scared I would go down the same path as my dad.
“But as an adult, I looked into things again. I mourned him, really for the first time. I was nearly the same age as he had been when he died and I was thinking about what he might have been like if he was still here, what conversations we could have, what we have in common.
“And I was angry. Not just about how my dad died, but also about his life, how mental health prevented him reaching his potential and being the father he should have been to me. He was physically strong but vulnerable, and people exploited him – he fell in with the wrong crowd, smoked weed, did crimes.
“That drove me to say I need to play a role in finding a solution to help other young black males not follow the same path as my dad – not doing well in school, being left out of society and suffering mental health issues.”
Although he lost his father, young Nathan did find a role model who would hugely influence his future.
“I was ten or eleven when Leslie, a friend of the family, first came round to cut my hair. And when he was cutting my hair, he also gave me advice – it was like a mentoring session. He was an accountant and the first person I knew who worked in a professional role where you needed qualifications.
“One time he came round in a convertible BMW Z3, and that was the moment I thought ‘I want to do what you do’.”
Sure enough Nathan became an accountant, before going into banking, and bought himself a convertible BMW Z4. And he makes no apology for wanting material wealth, in fact he argues that it is something that positively drives career aspirations.
“If you grew up in an environment where you didn’t have much, like I did, then you want more than that going forward. You want nice things, to be able to treat yourself and eat well. And you need money for that, which means getting a good job because I definitely didn’t want to go down the path of selling drugs like some of my friends.”
Nathan’s career has taken him to Bank One, later taken over by American finance giant JP Morgan, Ernst and Young, Barclay’s Bank and now he works as Corporate Banker at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. Whilst at Bank One, he enrolled with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, whose course is run in collaboration with Brookes. Graduating with a BSc Hons in Applied Accounting was a proud moment for Nathan.
“This was fantastic for me,” says Nathan, “I didn’t think I could get a degree, no one in my close family had one. It was a great opportunity and great experience. And it was a validation that I should continue on the path I was on – I’d avoided the path my dad had gone down – and also see what I can do to help others avoid the traps that unfortunately so many young black men fall into.”
With his career in banking underway, in 2007 Nathan founded Youth Enlightenment – a social enterprise with the aim of empowering and inspiring young people. It runs workshops for students to identify goals, and how to plan to achieve them, a mentoring scheme with Barclay’s that has now helped around 1,000 students, and a vodcast where Nathan interviews people about their journeys and achievements in a range of areas including business, performing arts and social enterprise.
At one point, Nathan gave up banking to work full-time for Youth Enlightenment. But this caused him financial difficulties and he realised that he needed to learn from what he himself was telling others.
“I gave up on banking because I wasn’t getting the roles I wanted. But I would say to students, ‘If there’s something you want to achieve, find a way to make it happen. If there’s a door closed, go through the window; if the window’s closed, go down the chimney.’ And this applied to me just as much as them, and I really wanted to get back into banking.
“So I joined Barclay’s. I was helped by Kirsty Rutter 2 who I had bumped into at a tube station! She became a sort of mentor, helping me adapt to the corporate world which my South London upbringing hadn’t prepared me for.”
Just as Nathan benefited from having a role model and a mentor, so he has now taken on those roles for others. Although the corporate world still has a way to go to achieve full equality, diversity and inclusion, particularly at senior levels, Nathan feels things are moving in the right direction.
“When I was a kid, the only successful black people I saw in the media were sports stars or rappers. My mum worked as a cleaner in offices so I thought ‘maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do’ and when then as a banker, I used to go to a lot of meetings where mine was the only black face in the room. Things have improved, and I am working alongside more people who look like me.”
By becoming a role model to young black men, Nathan is raising expectations, aspirations and feelings of self-worth. He is actively setting a path for others to follow in their own way, to realise their own dreams. Through understanding his own family history, he has shown that he will not be constrained by it and instead has channeled his anger at the treatment of his father to drive himself forward and build a life to be proud of.
- Report of the committee of inquiry into the death in Broadmoor Hospital of Orville Blackwood, and a review of the deaths of two other Afro-Caribbean patients: “big, black and dangerous?” (1993), by Prins, T Backer-Holst, E Francis and I Keitch.
- Kirsty Rutter has held senior roles at Barclay’s Bank, Credit Suisse and Lloyds Banking Group. She is currently Group Strategic investment Director at Lloyds.