LOCAL PROFILE: “The key words for Erdington are ‘massive potential’ – John Hodgkiss, Erdington’s new Town Centre Manager

Words & pics by Ed King

Last month, John Hodgkiss became Erdington’s new Town Centre Manager – taking over from the longstanding Terry Guest. With nearly two decades of experience running Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and delivering commercial strategies across the country, John has ambitious plans to rejuvenate the once thriving High Street

Erdington Local caught up with him in his first few days, as he set about meeting local business owners and entrepreneurs.

“I was excited when I saw the opportunity for Erdington.

“I know Erdington, when I first moved back to Birmingham I spent time here as I have friends here, so I knew the potential.”

John Hodgkiss is not new to the game, having set up the UKs second ever Business Improvement District (BID) in 2007 – Argall Avenue, transforming a North East London industrial estate into a thriving hub of enterprise and commerce, housing over 400 businesses today.

“I started working with BIDs in 2005, when the first ballots were going through,” every BID is voted in by a majority of business operators and rateable value in the selected area, “and at the time I was working for Business Link who had most of the national contacts for regeneration projects.

“It was an industrial estate that I found called Argyll Avenue, just outside Walthamstow. I took that to ballot and it was successful. I still check in every now and again, and it’s still in operation. It’s always been voted for and it still exists today.”

But Birmingham is not London, and Erdington has its own community and concerns – often forgotten or lost in the civic corridors of power. What makes John Hodgkiss the right man for this Midlands job?

“I’m from the Midlands, I grew up in Shropshire,” tells John. “But like a lot of twenty somethings I went and experienced London.

“Then I came back to Walsall in 2007 to set up a Town Centre Partnership – we had remit over establishing a new radio link in the town centre, street furniture, all the regeneration projects, supporting local businesses, marketing, and publicity to give a positive glow on Walsall. And to defend it if it is portrayed negatively, as most town centres sometimes are.

“Then I went to West Bromwich in 2013, as an employee of Sandwell Council – with a remit to take the BID to successful ballot within twelve months.

“We did it within eight months. It’s quite a big area, there was just in excess of 500 businesses.”

John Hodgkiss has also been a Marketing Manager for a Telford engineering company and understands the power of publicity, with a firm focus on making Erdington an attractive place to both visit and shop.

“When BIDs first came into being they were always set around the ‘cleaner projects’, making the place litter free, making the place look better.

“But on the economic side, how do we help businesses, which in 2022 is more essential than ever, there’s a role of the BID to help with advertising and marketing. To really shout about these local independent stores.”

And what would you shout about in Erdington?

“What I see to be the unique selling point of Erdington (Town Centre) is it’s a great place to get a bargain, to shop within your means,” explains John.

“You’ve got healthy greengrocers on the doorstep; you’ve got independents selling necessities at great prices… and the cost of living crisis isn’t going to be over in five minutes.”

But the word ‘bargain’ can be a blessing and a curse, as the lopsided balance on Erdington High Street is often cited as a weight dragging it down – with the old Maplin site and Central Square Shopping Centre standing as local epitaphs to the ghosts of national retail.

The week John Hodgkiss became the new Town Centre Manager, Boots shut down its Erdington store.

“We’re not moving away from the High Street brands at all,” continues John. “I would passionately argue and liaise with any national retainer to bring them in (to Erdington) and I would feel confident we can put a case together as say ‘this is why you should be in Erdington’.

“The key words for Erdington are ‘massive potential’, and the BID is going to be here for the next five years at least.

“I feel passionate about making a change in the current economic climate, and I don’t see anywhere with the potential that Erdington has. It’s a great place to be, the community is great, there is a retail offer here already – particularly in making day to day living a lot easier.

“And there is scope to bring in new blood to the town, new retailers to the town, new small businesses, and really drive the local economy forward.”

For more on the Erdington Business Improvement District visit www.erdingtonhighstreet.co.uk or search for ‘Erdington BID’ on Facebook

LOCAL PROFILE: Jess Brown – Illustrator, Damsels Don’t Wear Glasses

Words and photos by Bianca Pirvuneanu

Born, bred, schooled, and fed in Erdington, Jess Brown is the fantastic mind behind the Damsels Don’t Wear Glasses website, as series of online graphic novels and digital comics with dark humour and kick ass protagonists.

Recently exhibiting her work at the Love Erdington Festival, as curated by Arts All Over the Place, Jess’s dark imaginings and strong characters were a bit hit throughout the weeklong showcase. Erdington Local caught up with Jess to learn more about her inspirations and ambitions.

You grew up in Erdington, going to school here – were you creative in the classroom too?

“I went to Yenton Primary School. From what I remember I didn’t do too well at a lot of classes, but I did manage to excel at things like art and poetry (even if my spelling was extremely bad).” 

What inspired you to get into illustration, and what were your first creations like?

“Honestly, I wanted to become a writer. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, but in a more visual way than just the written word. I love comics, animation, and games a lot. So drawing was always a way to convey the stories I wanted to tell.

“My first creations live in a long forgotten sketch book somewhere. I’d like to say they were baby’s first masterpieces, but honesty…? Probably a lot of Sailor Moon tracing.” 

Your stories are very evolved, with a ‘cast’ of characters living in their own new worlds; where did the inspiration for these come from?

“From my childhood, which consisted of a lot of VHS tapes (Disney, straight to home video animated movies), video games (J RPGs, Action Adventure games) and other comics (a lot of manga).

“I’d like to say I did a lot of reading as a kid to, but I didn’t. Though there are a number of authors that did inspire me in my teen and adult life – Terry Pratchett.

“I’ve always liked mix genres like urban fantasy, or horror sci-fi, stuff that’s hard to pin down but gives you a lot of creative room to explore stuff outside of general story conventions.

“I think a lot of creative people who ‘world build’ do it to explore things that don’t get explored in the stories they liked (or maybe stories they didn’t like). Especially when it comes to characters, at least that’s what got me started. Wanting to tell the story you’d want to read is cliché, but true.”

On your social media you talk about your ADHD, calling ‘your brain like soap that refuses to be gripped’. Is your artwork important to your health and wellbeing?

“Yes, I would say, art is important for me to stay in focused because ADHD makes me hard to keep focus at one thing in a time and it helps set a routine for me.

“It can be hard to start into something, like normal people can just stand up and say, ‘OK I’m going to do this right now,’ and for some reasons my brain is like ‘no you can’t do that.’ I do something for like 10 minutes and then I stop and then I do it again for 20 minutes or an hour and is important to taking many breaks for recharge.”

You mentioned you are working on a children’s story; can you tell us any more about that?

Ah yeah, it’s my next project. Working title is Knight’s Folly. It’s about a little girl who enters an enchanted forest to become a witch, with the help of a monstrous looking knight. It’s going to be aimed at kids and young adults.

“I’m a little hesitant to describe the story as traditional fantasy, but movies like The Dark Crystal and The Never Ending Story are big inspirations. It’s still bare bones at present but I’m developing the script and am hoping to maybe get it professionally published.”

You also mentioned you write narratives for phone games; can you tell us any more about that? 

“Not much to tell really, my job title is usually ‘Narrative Writer’ or ‘Narrative Director’. My role tends to be writing the stories and creating character scenarios for the games I’m brought in on.

“My last job involved writing a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative using a new app. There’s also the general writing that goes into some of these games, like item descriptions and so on. Someone’s got to write all those little blurbs, right? That’s usually me.”  

Where would you like your artwork to take you next?

“I want to be financially secure; and I am thinking of trying to do some 3D modelling, as a hobby.”

For more on Jess Brown and a full online archive of her graphic novels and comic visit www.damsels-dont-wear-glasses.com

LOCAL PROFILE: Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim

Words by Jobe Baker Sullivan

Rasaq Ibrahim is lead pastor at the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Erdington, which formed its first congregation 13 years ago last month. He is also vice chair of Erdington Churches Together, treasurer of Erdington Food Bank, and has recently launched the Street Pastors scheme in Erdington.

Erdington Local caught up with the prolific pastor to learn more about his life and community work across the constituency.

Now in his late 50s, Rasaq Ibrahim is originally from Lagos, Nigeria – born into a Muslim family, he and his father converted in Rasaq’s early life. He trained as a chartered accountant, achieving a first from University of Lagos and a master’s in accountancy and finance at Birmingham City University.

Whilst successful in his studies, Rasaq worked hard at his education: “In Africa, you are either rich or poor – no middle class. I’m from a poor family. I really went through a lot. I struggled to come out of the woodwork, to become somebody.”

Moving to the UK in 2005 under the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, Rasaq Ibrahim came to Britain: “because of my children. I was doing work in Nigeria, I was okay. I became a Chief Inspector for banks, gained a senior career.

“But I wanted my family to have a better future and education. I didn’t want my two boys to go through what I went through.”

Helping to establish the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Erdington in 2008, Rasaq Ibrahim was ordained as a pastor the following year. Originally founded in 1952 in Lagos, RCCG now has over 5 million members worldwide – Pastor Rasaq explains the church’s humble Birmingham beginnings.

“We started at the old swimming baths. After about eight months, we moved to Six Ways Baptist Church and were based there for 10 years.

“We would be there praying, having our service in the afternoon, and then raised some funds for our own church building. The Christadelphian Hall in Erdington was closing down, so went to the housing market to bid for the building – and now we are based there, on Orphanage Road.”

With 100 adult members in Erdington, RCCG has also founded three further ‘Church plants’ across Birmingham – wherein other Christian churches in the same denomination are created thanks to the mother church.

“We are a friendly, family church where everyone is welcome,” explained Pastor Rasaq. “We’re a Pentecostal, evangelical church – we want to show the love of Christ. We show this through our lives, not just through the things that we say.

“We gave birth to RCCG Kingstanding, Sheldon, and our Bulgarian Church.”

With many churches relying on the gathering of people to one place, the coronavirus crisis and lockdowns have drastically affected how they reach their congregation.

The RCCG has continued to meet where it is safe and legal to do so, but also adopted online services to stay in touch with their community.

“We can only have 20 adults in the building on a Sunday for a ‘hybrid service’, livestreaming to Facebook and Zoom as well. We tend to leave two seats for first-time visitors. But we have services Tuesday and Thursday online.”

Outside of his own church, Pastor Rasaq is co-founder of Erdington Food Bank and remains its treasurer. From an initial investment of £1000, the Food Bank has become a breadbasket for Erdington, from its two outlets at Six Ways Baptist Church and George Road Baptist.

“The foodbank started with Churches Together,” told Pastor Rasaq. “Nine years ago, we started very small – 10 churches contributed £100 each. Now we feed 300 people every week in Everyone Erdington. This is a blessed project!”

Pastor Rasaq is also project manager for the RCCG BAME Project, which assists: “those affected by Covid – stress, out of work, troubled, worried, going through challenges.” It employs two external councillors running four sessions per week.

He explained that whilst the RCCG BAME Project has a particular calling to help Black and Asian minorities, it is for everyone: “We council Chinese, Caribbean, Indian, African, English… We’ve never turned anyone down. The project also gives food, separately from Erdington Food Bank.”

Through his role as vice chair of Churches Together, Rasaq has connected and launched many other projects – including most recently the Erdington Street Pastors scheme, covered in the community pages of this newspaper.

Asking him about his hopes for the future, Pastor Rasaq told Erdington Local: “I want to see Erdington come back to life. Everything used to be prosperous, when I came 13 years ago – now I see so many charity shops on the high street, and most businesses are closing.

“16 years ago, I would come to the UK on holiday. On Sundays, on the road, we could feel the presence of God on the street. I want the churches to be filled again.”

For more on the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Erdington visit: www.rccgcraerdington.org

LOCAL PROFILE: Vera Gilbert

Words by Jobe Baker Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

**Read our LOCAL PROFILE with Vera Gilbert in the March edition of the Erdington Local newspaper, out now**

Once viewed on television screens across the UK, Vera Gilbert is a former broadcast journalist and passionate Erdington activist. Previously working for newspapers and radio, alongside her career in TV, Vera has found a happy home supporting her local church and animating events and festivals in Erdington. Erdington Local took up the chance to relive some great moments with her.

Vera was born in St Vincent and the Grenadines, her home country made her “very happy – I still retain that atmosphere as my little heaven. That sense of community… We were poor, but the people were very loving, very kind.”

Vera moved to Birmingham during her primary school years, first living in Washwood Heath. She attended Hodge Hill Girls School in the 1970s.

Vera’s interested in journalism stemmed from her love of engaging with people. “To this day, I enjoy telling people’s stories. They were always a focus – and because they were a focus for me, it was a real privilege. I loved it. All the quirkiness, the different accents, the peculiarities.”

She studied her undergraduate degree at Birmingham Polytechnic, with her thesis concerning ‘Community Newspapers’. She was prodigious and noticed for her talents early on.

“I remember always having offers. I had an offer from the Evening Mail – I even got a front cover scoop for a local newspaper in Luton! I ended up at BRMB. Ed Doolan was there at the time – Les Ros was there. I was a reporter, sent out with a tape recorder, the old style, and I remember covering the Fireman’s strike.”

Vera continued to work for broadcast companies, including ITV and BBC. She went on to become a much sought-after freelance journalist, presenting content for Nationwide, a news and current affairs programme that ran between 1969 and 1983.

“It was excellent, doing pieces to camera. I did a lot of main stories and many ‘and finally’s. I remember doing something on a nudist beech… and I had to report a piece to camera… I won’t tell you how I managed it!”

Travelling the country in search of stories, Vera visited many places and met many people, including celebrities. One such celebrity was the popular English comedian Rodd Hull, best known for his mischievous hand puppet named Emu. Vera notes being very confused when first meeting him, with Rodd Hull’s material today relying on the same celebrity-embarrassing energy seen in the characters of Sacha Baren Cohen.

She recalled: “He had the bird, which I really saw as a prop. Then I started noticing that this bird was moving. I don’t know why, but I took it was real. If ever the bird moved, I would jerk.

“The bird started to get what I thought as ‘aggressive’ and I backed away – the bird came forward, and I ran and I was screaming! This was all on live TV. I was shouting ‘control the bird! Somebody come to my help!’ I didn’t realize that the crew was filming it all. There are some people that remember that to this day.”

But life in broadcasting was not all glitz and glamour, and Vera lived through a dark times in British history. Black Britons were subject to waves of racism, with slogans such as ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ cemented in the national mindset as an example of such intolerance.

Black women were likely to be only seen in lower paid jobs, as Vera comments: “Back then, as a black woman, the best job you could hope for was nursing, and not even the highest echelons of that.” Vera felt that she had to be “a role model – not like people speak as it now – but, as a black person, you felt you were putting the community on show.”

Vera stopped working as a journalist some 20 years ago but turned instead to her local area. She writes the newsletter for the Erdington United Reformed Church where she takes great pride in finding interesting stories and putting people’s good deeds on higher pedestals.

“I love Erdington. I love the people. I want to do what I can to uphold the area.”

On March 26 at 7pm, Vera is organising an online event called ‘Truth to Tell’ which she says the purpose is “to have conversations where black people talk about their experience, for them to say why they feel supportive of Black Lives Matter and so that people know about racism.”

For more details on ‘Truth to Tell’ email: everyoneerd@gmail.com

LOCAL PROFILE: Saba Malik

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King & Saba Malik

Saba Malik moved to Erdington some two years ago with her husband Adeel Bajwa and three children. In normal circumstances she would be working as a secondary school science teacher. During lockdown, she took to volunteering to help the vulnerable in our community.

Saba is part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith – a movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, formed officially in Punjab in 1889 – and does community work through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA) in Erdington. Ahmadiyya Muslims are a unique and worldwide religious movement outside of the more well-known Sunni or Shia faiths, with 144 ‘branches’ across the UK alone.

Initially, the AMWA didn’t cope well with the monotony of lockdown: “they are used to having about 20 people over every weekend,” says Saba. Better at cooking potatoes rather than being couch potatoes, Saba galvanized the team of about 25 women into cooking up hot meals for vulnerable people around Birmingham, but especially in the Erdington Community. “Why not?”, explains Saba, “this is using skills, resources, something they can do, so we got in contact with those ladies and they’re more than happy – we got a bit of a rota going now.”

The AMWA joined up with Birmingham Community Solidarity group, which was set up very quickly in response to the announcement of lockdown on March 23rd – the group acts as sign posting for people with free time wanting to help those in need, with Saba becoming a key part in their delivery work in North Birmingham.

Always humble, she notes that “there’s amazing charities out there and organisations. We have a really good COVID-19 response as well in Erdington with the food deliveries.”

Helping those in need is a family affair for the Malik-Bajwas. Saba has created more than 50 protective masks at home using her sewing machine, and explains how her son, Yousuf, “wanted to learn to sow after he saw me on the machine for two days – and I thought, ‘good these are the things you learn!… I’m grateful we can share this with our children.”

But the Malik-Bajwa’s family approach didn’t stop there. “The littlest one has got a fan base of her own,” explains Saba – referring to Ayla, her youngest daughter, who has been writing letters and creating artwork for those people receiving regular food packages.

She can’t write completely! When I give deliveries, she comes with me. She just makes cards. She’ll write ‘I love you’ to whoever it is, and draw a picture, she puts it in an envelope, goes into the study, finds an envelope herself and decorates it.”

These simple acts of kindness can go a long way. As a proud mother, Saba recounts that “there are some who are completely on their own and they’re isolating, and it really makes their day. It breaks my heart when they tell me that they stare at her cards all day and it makes them feel happy, or they’ve got them on their fridge. If it makes them feel happy it’s good. I tell her ‘it’s so nice that you’re sharing your talent. It’s the cycle of wellbeing.”

But whilst volunteering efforts can be noble, they aren’t always appreciated. Not at first, anyway, as Saba recalls a situation where one of the women she met became suspicious of her appearance – noticeably the headscarf she was wearing at the time.

You know you are right,” explains Saba, “because one of the women I met first…. she spoke to me after and said ‘when you turned up… I don’t wanna be offensive, I don’t wanna get anything wrong. But you had this a scarf on your head, you had this mask on your face… and I just thought, who is this person who’s come to me’?”

Headscarf,” Saba laughed, politely correcting the mistake. And after talking some more, the woman admitted: “I never felt like I’ve ever discriminated, but without realising that’s what I felt when I saw you… she felt bad about it after, and we’re really good friends now. But that’s how you break down barriers sometimes, and it works both ways.”

But it’s not all about the hearts and minds when it comes to community action, someone has to do the paperwork – and admin queen Saba Malik keeps a keen record of all that the ladies group do. To date the Birmingham North branch of Ahmadiyya Muslims have distributed 200 meals, delivered 340 PPE masks, and are in constant contact with families across the constituency: “who have been 100% supported through donations and cooked food.”  

Now the lockdown pressures easing, Saba reflects on her time over the past couple of months. “It’s been long weeks of lockdown. I don’t want to open my diary,” she jokes. Always comparing her family to those less fortunate, Saba continues, “we’re just incredibly grateful it’s not been as challenging for us.”

Volunteer efforts, like Saba’s and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association, have been integral to helping people cope during the coronavirus pandemic – with faith and community groups working together to help their friends and neighbours. This phenomenal show of strength and community action has alleviated the anguish of lockdown for thousands across Erdington, much of which is unseen and unreported.

But the message that runs though many of the groups who are out there serving the community, is inclusivity – regardless of faith, age, status, or standing, now is the time to help. And as the web address and strap line for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association declares, ‘Love for all, hatred for none.’

Words Saba Malik underlines, clearly and confidently, when asked about the people her group want to reach out to and help: “…any religion, it’s irrelevant.”

To find out more about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, visit www.loveforallhatredfornone.org/

LOCAL PROFILE: Reverend Gerard Goshawk

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

Reverend Gerard Goshawk has been a Baptist minister for “probably about 18 years.” Working first as a lay pastor, he became a full time pastor 13 years ago – finding his way to Six Ways Baptist Church after coming “from Nottingham, and it’s been brilliant. I love Erdington.”

But the ‘new normal’ created by the coronavirus crisis has established new ways of working, socialising, and even worshipping – as everywhere from classrooms to congregations have been subject to physical and social distancing restrictions.

Reverend Goshawk’s working week before lockdown “was a different rhythm. It was more based with things happening up at Six Ways Baptist Church. The different groups, activities we had there, being around for those, and visiting people – and lots of meetings, meetings, meetings! Lots of worship based at the church, and (the Erdington) foodbank based at the church.”

An important part of the community, the Erdington Foodbank is based at Six Ways Baptist Church – providing ‘three days nutritionally balanced emergency food and support to local people who are referred to us in crisis.’

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Trussell Trust – who support the Erdington Foodbank – have seen usage across their UK network increase by 89% from April 2019 to April 2020. For Reverend Goshawk, his active role helping the people who need access to food has become even more pertinent.

Although reaching his congregation was also a concern, as places of worship across the country were completely closed during the coronavirus lockdown. “It’s been a big learning process,” explains Reverend Goshawk, as social media became the most viable method of communication with people in self-isolation.

We have a service on YouTube that we pre-record for each Sunday, that goes out… I do some Daily devotions on Facebook live each day and I send them out on a WhatsApp list as well. That’s Monday to Friday.

Then, we also have a zoom fellowship – a service on a Sunday where most people that can do that get together. That’s been really great and we’ve kinda adapted to how we do that.”

Excited by the prospect of this new normal, Reverend Goshawk notes that “there’s statistics out there about people who have not done church before but are watching church services online. There’s a whole new field of people out there who are being reached, and in our small way, Erdington is part of that.”

But while he can’t yet meet his congregation at church, Reverend Goshawk still goes out to members where they live – spending a lot of his time “cycling round Erdington, delivering news sheets, written information for people as well… because we have… 25 people in our church not connected on the Internet.”

There’s even a chance for prayer, as Reverend Goshawk finds himself “sometimes praying with people on their doorstep… 2 meters away.”

Places of worship are now set to open for private prayer in England from the 15th June, and Reverend Goshawk is preparing for “coming out of lockdown, as of next week. We’ll be able to open up for people to come in just for quiet prayer, socially distanced and everything.”

But like many businesses and social groups in the UK, Six Ways Baptist Church has seen how some engagements are actually better off being at least partly conducted online.

We wouldn’t want to be losing all the new things that we’ve done,” tells Reverend Goshawk, “because we are reaching different people in different ways, you know.

Sometimes I used to do a bible study for a very small number of people who would turn up on a Sunday evening at the church – on a cold winter’s evening, about four faithful people perhaps sometimes just turning up. And now we’re in double figures every time and growing with the number of people that will come to bible study [via zoom].

I believe we’re made by God to connect with each other and to be alongside each other. I think we will still do lots of things online. It would be a shame to lose that experience and that benefit that we had. It just means a bit more work!”

Outside of the coronavirus crisis, and the changes Reverend Goshawk has made to stay in touch with his immediate community, Six Ways Baptist Church has received recognition for its hard work helping migrants and asylum seekers.

Reverend Goshawk is also the chair of the group Everyone Erdington, which celebrates diversity, and in the past has organised “get togethers”, lunches, and festivals specifically inviting people from different backgrounds. And whilst institutionalised racism is a constant concern, affecting communities worldwide, following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota people and protest have risen up across the globe in solidarity.

Our church at six ways is a black majority church,” explains Reverend Goshawk. “I don’t really feel equipped to speak on behalf of people that would identify themselves as black. But the response has been deep… actually looking at the practical ways that we as a church can make a difference for ourselves and for this community to actually be part of that transformation.

That exciting change that seems to be out there as a possibility at the moment. There’s a whole range of feelings about it. One of those, the more positive thing about it, there’s a move that’s happening. It does feel like there’s potential for real change.”

Reverend Gerard Goshawk is pastor at Six Ways Baptist Church. To find out more about the church, visit: www.sixwayserdington.org.uk

For more on the Everyone Erdington Facebook group, visit: www.facebook.com/EveryoneErdington

For more on the Erdington Foodbank, including information on how to access provision or to make a donation, visit: www.erdington.foodbank.org.uk