Hannah Azieb Pool was just six months old when she was adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea by a white British academic, after her mother died in childbirth. Pool and her adopted family eventually relocated in Manchester and she went on study at University of Liverpool.
It was there, aged 19, that she received a letter with an Eritrean postage stamp. It was from a brother she never knew she had, telling her of a family she never knew existed. A decade later she returned home to meet her birth family – including her father, who she thought died long ago.
Her journey towards acceptance of her complex identity has influenced the woman she is today: a fearless journalist, thought leader and Senior Programmer Contemporary Culture at the Southbank Centre, working on Women Of The World Festival, which launched its 6th edition on 8 March, International Women’s Day.
As an adopted black child growing up in a white family and a white society, Pool says she “struggled” with who she was.
“I was bullied by white kids for being black and by black kids for being ‘not black enough’,” she said, adding that individuals who, like her, exist outside “tick boxes of identity” have a tough time fitting in.
After meeting her birth family, her relationship to her identity changed forever: “I never felt more British as when I was in Eritrea. It helped root me in the UK and recognise the things about me that are very, very British.”
Now, Pool describes herself as a British-Eritrean diaspora, but strongly believes that identity is fluid: “Where I say I’m from depends on who is asking me, but as we grow it changes, too.”
That’s why she has dedicated her life to helping others reclaim their identity, by ensuring greater diversity in media and the arts through her work as a journalist and senior programmer for WOW festival.
Pool has been involved in WOW since the beginning, when she chaired a panel for the first festival in 2010. Since then she has worked on the programme team to deliver the festival each year.
The programme is informed and curated through a series of ‘think-ins’ (or brainstorms) with past speakers and influencers, which run in October and November.
The talks are then developed and finalised by a small programming team, of which Pool is a part. While each member of the team has their own specialities and interests – Pool’s being how Africa is represented in the west in journalism and the arts – they work across all areas “to keep the programme and ideas fresh”.
This year she is particularly excited to welcome Kimberle Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum and professor of law at prestigious universities, who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. Today, Crenshaw is active in the Say Her Name campaign, about police brutality towards black women in the US.
Pool is particularly proud of WOW’s diversity, in terms of speakers and audience. All to often, she says, the media and arts are dominated by white, middle-class, male voices.
“If you open up a lot of mainstream newspapers, comment and analysis is often a white male voice – or a white female voice.”
Pool, who ran the first beauty column for women of colour in a national UK newspaper, says that the internet is key in driving change, but it is slow progress.
“I wrote The New Black for The Guardian long before the rise of beauty bloggers,” she says. “The internet has made it better. Now, black women are creating forums that include them, so we can be heard. But while it’s better in mainstream media, we still have a long way to go.”
“Brands have had to sit up and take notice of black women as loyal and dedicated customers,” she adds. “But many still have the cheek to come out with a latte coloured foundation and say it’s for all.”
But visibility is just one way she is helping the next generation, Pool is also a hands-on mentor helping black and ethnic minority students break into journalism and the arts.
“My story is an extreme version of a very common story,” she says.