Members of Middlesbrough Soroptimists recently put together a list of outstanding local women to shed further light on their achievements. Jan Hunter has been speaking to some of those nominated, and in the second of a series of features, she caught up with anti-racist researcher, educator and lecturer, Marsha Garratt

"WHAT is it about my skin colour that makes people hate me so much?" seven-year-old Marsha Garratt asked her father.

While playing with her brother outside her house in Middlesbrough, she'd had her first racist experience – making her question both her identity and her safety. A man had just approached her, saying with real hatred: "Why don't you monkeys go back to Africa?"

At that point, she could have no way of knowing that this experience would shape her life forever.

Marsha and her brother Martin are black mixed race, born in Northallerton to a Jamaican father and a white English mother. After the tragic sudden death of their mother from a brain aneurysm when Marsha was eight-months-old, everything changed. Their father was in prison, and their maternal grandmother, who had little money and a large family to feed, wanted them to have a better life with opportunities – but she was worried they would miss out on family love. After talking to her local vicar, who told her he had adopted his own children, who very much were loved, she made a very difficult decision to give them up for adoption. The brother and sister were adopted by English white parents, who gave them what Marsha describes as a blessed childhood.

To answer Marsha's initial question about the cruel words directed her way, her adoptive father bought her a book on strong black leaders, and so began her long journey into research. Eventually she became a passionate and committed anti-racism campaigner.

Marsha oversees projects, and delivers youth activities, including her popular dance group. She works with schools, and teachers on the curriculum to identify periods of history where black presence is omitted. She is a well-known and highly respected public speaker on colonialism, which she believes underpins modern racism, and her research and reading is endless.

"I was born to do this," she says. "I sincerely believe that my life experiences, both the positive and more difficult aspects have prepared me to be a youth and community worker."

And this journey began with those hurtful, unkind words said to a little girl.

Martin and Marsha settled with their new family. Their adoptive father worked for Shell, and the children spent the first years of their life travelling the world. The family settled in the North-East when Marsha was five, and their parents divorced soon after. They lived with their mother in Middlesbrough, and saw their dad every weekend. He loved the outdoors, so each weekend they were taken to Scotland or the Lakes to remote areas where they explored the countryside, running, orienteering, canoeing and rock climbing. Martin and Marsha were best friends and both became good at sport.

"I did well at school," says Marsha, "but I experienced racism from some teachers. I was intelligent and this was questioned and I was sometimes accused of cheating. However, because of my research, and as my understanding of the origins of racism grew, the less it affected me."

Her brother Martin was also doing well. He had had brushes with racism when growing up and a police officer once said that he would either end up in prison or be a professional footballer. Martin did the latter and successfully played for York, but his mental health declined and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 23, and sectioned.

"We were thrown into a world we had never faced before," says Marsha. "It was so hard and I want people to know from my experience that there is no pattern or rules to deal with mental health, you just have to do the best you can. It is a difficult world, and people should never feel that they have let anyone down."

Martin died in 2014, and Marsha describes the pain as indescribable. She suffered from depression, functioning on the outside but feeling that her whole world had collapsed.

"Even though at that time I was working and raising children I would wake up thinking, 'Martin is dead, what is the point?'" she says.

A chance encounter at a work meeting in the Breckon Hill Community Centre with Amanda Buck turned her life around. "I saw this lady there who looked so well, she was glowing," says Marsha. "We got into conversation and I told her how I was feeling. She suggested I attend a course led by an amazing woman called Sue Anderson on thought, mind and consciousness. In six weeks she gave me the tools to understand my own mind, and the power of choice. She gave me the confidence to start again, and this power gave me opportunities."

Marsha began doing talks for schools and universities. "Many schools use resources that focus on European history," she says. "My work in schools involves de-colonising the curriculum, as black presence is often omitted from history. Black Romans were part of society, as were black Tudors. The state treated soldiers in World War One and World War Two very badly. They were not allowed to get medals for bravery, they weren't allowed to be officers or march in victory parades. I teach about where the concept of race comes from and how the past influences our thinking today."

She adds: "Generally people find it hard to talk about racism openly and I felt the same. I have had to work really hard on communication. At first I struggled. I made mistakes and I was uncomfortable and apologetic, but I now talk without fear."

Marsha is the project manager for All in Youth, in Middlesbrough, a voluntary youth organisation providing positive activities for Black, Asian, mixed race, asylum seeker and refugee young people, giving them the support they need to increase their confidence.

One of the many projects she oversees is her dance group, where she teaches dance to music from around the world including the West Indies, the African continent, South Asia and South America, which she says is a joy. When the pandemic began she worked in partnership with Justice First, One Community Link, the Mary Thompson Fund, and Middlesbrough Football Club in the Community, who, with many staff and volunteers buy, pack and deliver food to food banks and 150 vulnerable people each week.

"I was humbled to be able to give back," she says. "I have worked with hundreds of young people and am proud to be a positive role model in their lives. Challenging racism to bring positive change for all in Teesside is something I will continue to do throughout my career."

Marsha recently received an award during a Taste of Africa event for her hard work promoting dance and challenging racism in all its forms. Using research and the experiences of her life she is in the process of writing a book called: The Not So Acceptable Black: A History of Black Mixed People, which is dedicated to her brother.