Our Mel: Embracing Cultural Identity

In today’s society, it is all about promoting equality and that we are all the same – but are we losing sight of the fact that difference does matter?

There are two people in particular who are keen to empower others to discuss their cultural identity and be proud of it.

Annalisa Toccara, aged 30, originally from London but who now lives in Sheffield, is one of those people. As well as having a full time job in marketing, she also gives up her free time to help others through the social enterprise ‘Our Mel’.

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Photo of Annalisa © Tammie Beech

In July 2016 Annalisa and the Afro-Sheffield group on Facebook organised the Sheffield  Black Lives Matter peace rally, which nearly 1,000 people attended.

Gabriela Thompson Menanteaux (29) from Sheffield, wanted to celebrate current black talent during Black History Month, and decided to contact the group.

Annalisa and Gabriela met up, sharing ideas of hosting coffee sessions for black women and organising Black History Month events, eventually resulting in the MelaninFest®.

The first Black History Month festival in Sheffield, MelaninFest®, generated so much success, that Annalisa and Gabriela turned it into the social enterprise ‘Our Mel’, that celebrates Black History Month, all year round.

Events hosted by Our Mel aim to promote women empowerment, cultural identity and confidence through heritage, via regular workshops.

The empowering social enterprise is a place where the black and mixed-raced members of the Sheffield community can share their own experiences in a creative way through film, arts, music and education, which people may not want to talk about in society.

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Photo of Annalisa © Tammie Beech

Annalisa said: “When I was growing up I was in a white neighbourhood – there were only around five black children throughout the whole school.

“We weren’t taught about our heritage and where we came from as black history was, and still remains, excluded from the curriculum.

“Schools only tend to teach black history in October when it is Black History Month. It is so important for this to be in the curriculum, because education is how you grow and it’s who you become.”

As an adopted child, Annalisa felt it was important to understand her cultural heritage.

“Another aim with Our Mel is to provide a safe space for kids to explore who they are. We want to teach them about the broader spectrum of black history, rather than just the typical slavery issues and Martin Luther King.”

Influential black women certainly sparked a light in Annalisa. Examples are civil rights’ activists Coretta Scott King and Tarana Burke who was also the founder of the ‘Me Too’ movement – that aims to support those who have been sexually assaulted and harassed, as well as ending sexual violence.

Our Mel hosted an event on the 6th March, for women to share their stories in response to the ‘Me Too’ movement, which over 40 women attended, and the comments from the women that Annalisa and Gabriela received after were ‘so encouraging’.

If you are experiencing discrimination or racial abuse, Annalisa recommends to reach out at Ourmel.org.uk. and talk to someone you trust – don’t ‘bottle it up inside’.

With the hopes of having their own arts centre in the future where Annalisa aspires to host their events by continuing to create spaces of inclusion, open dialogue and cultivating community cohesion; she can ‘only see the social enterprise growing’.

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