John Oke, who has died after a long illness aged 85, is remembered for dedicating himself to the frontline of grassroots politics in Camden for almost 40 years. The two pioneering organisations he founded, Camden Black Parents and Teachers Association (CBPTA) and Odu Dua Housing Association, emerged out of the black self-help movement of the 1980s and from his own determination to make a difference.
Born in Oyo State, western Nigeria, in 1934, John Oluwole Oke arrived in Britain as a teenager in search of opportunity. After training as a civil engineer, he returned to Nigeria to work before making his way back to the UK during the 1970s and settling in Kentish Town in London where he happily remained for the rest of his life.
As the father of four children, he realised that too many black youngsters were being failed by the schools system and leaving education without any qualifications but with a damaged sense of self.
In response he set up the CBPTA in 1980, running it from the front room of his home before acquiring office premises. The organisation spawned the Winnie Mandela supplementary school and Kuumba play centre, two Kentish Town-based schemes that emphasised African-centred education and activities through which hundreds of children passed.
In 1986, John established the Odu Dua Housing Association – named after a Yoruba deity – to initially tackle the high rate of homelessness among young single black men in the borough before widening its remit to black and ethnic minority people living in Camden, Brent and Barnet. Using short life properties as its founding stock, at its peak it had a 300- strong portfolio, including flats and houses on the Lithos Road estate in West Hampstead. John served as Odu Dua’s first chief executive and later its chair, preventing it from being swallowed up by bigger housing associations and losing sight of its charitable roots. He parted company with the organisation in 2015 but regarded it as his proudest achievement, say his family.
Gifted with great reserves of energy as well as a selfless determination to improve the lives of those around him, over the years John was a parent governor at Acland Burleigh School and a governor at Edith Neville and St Michael’s CoE primary schools, and also an active member of the Labour Party.
“Our father was a 100 per cent people person and was uninterested in accolades,” said his youngest daughter Alicia. “His work inspired so many lives and he was still in touch with young people he’d mentored along the way and who’d gone on to do well. They would always address him as Uncle John.”
A convert to Buddhism, John was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago but continued to be as active as possible, only stepping down as a trustee of the Camden Community Law Centre last year following more than three decades of service.
John peacefully died at his home of 35 years in Leighton Road on September 13 surrounded by his family. He is survived by four children and two grandchildren.
His funeral took place on October 2 at Golders Green Crematorium.
This article appeared in the Camden New Journal on October 3 2019