Equality for all is a value that Penny River’s lives by, having grown up in Jamaica and seen extreme poverty. Born in Kingston, she witnessed the black community around her struggling. While Penny was gaining an education, the black children would be collecting water and supporting their parents. Penny knew that those children were just like her; they just didn’t have the same opportunities. It was this early years experience that spurred Penny on to encourage equality.
Living in Jamaica also taught Penny the importance of family. The eldest of five children, Penny would always look out for the little ones. Her family moved around the country many times, but Penny wasn’t unsettled. She believed you can move to a new house, leave bricks and mortar behind, but take your family with you. Penny values people more than anything.
Penny traces her interest in politics to these roots in Jamaica, where, when she was 11, she met Sir Alexander Bustamante who was the first Prime Minister of independent Jamaica and Leader of the Jamaica Labour Party. She remembers sitting beside him and listening to him for what seemed to her like hours. She had the great privilege to be a guest at his state funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1977 accompanying the then Minister for Tourism, Dr H. A. A. (Marco) Brown.
Her family relocated to the UK when Penny was 18 and they settled in Godalming, Surrey, where Penny still lives today. However, her experience of life in Jamaica has helped her to bring about positive change in her own community and promote equality. Penny met her husband Paul in 1977 and they married in 1979. Through their local church, St Peter and St Paul, they supported the Church Urban Fund to help communities most in need across the UK.
They went on to have four children and when their youngest started school, a friend asked Penny how she would spend her free time and suggested she got involved in politics. Motivated to give it a try, Penny wrote a letter to a local newspaper for assistance and she was contacted by a councillor who invited her to stand for election as Town Councillor for Godalming.
To her amazement, Penny was quickly elected as a town councillor in 1995 and her passion for community work grew from there. Today she enjoys serving her community as Mayor – a role which she has enjoyed several times since 2001. However, this year has proved the most rewarding and the most challenging for Penny.
During her first year as Mayor, with Paul by her side as Consort, everything was hugely exciting and during that time she set up the Town Carol Service. It has become a firm favourite on the calendar, involving local schools and organisations and raising money for Bethlehem..
Her greatest achievement with the backing of Godalming Town Council was to show a united support for Black Lives Matter. As part of the movement they helped to donate educational books to schools during black history month.
Penny reflects: “I was born in Kingston Jamaica but on relocating to the UK I was quickly accepted as a British national as I am white. Having spoken with many black people born in the UK – they feel they are foreigners because they are treated differently. That is why we must always be inclusive to all and this is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.”
Penny has four children, and they share her passion for equality. They have all taken part in peaceful Black Lives Matter Demonstrations. As a family they have all visited Jamaica and seen the communities that touched Penny’s life.
As part of Penny’s drive for equality, Godalming flies the flag for Gay Pride. A move which was happily approved by her fellow councillors in 2019. As Mayor, Penny is determined to make it as easy as possible for people to feel comfortable in their own skin and she is passionate that the town should be welcoming to absolutely everyone.
When Staycation Live kicked off in the town a decade ago, providing a variety of bandstand concerts, it proved a phenomenal success. With great enthusiasm Penny explains how the now annual event attracts people all ages, from all backgrounds, with a love of different music genres.
Penny isn’t afraid of change and firmly believes that it will happen whether you resist it or not. A belief that has carried her and the community around her through Covid-19. In her role as Mayor, Penny has developed the strapline ‘together we can do so much more’ and she has been busy connecting those who need help with those who can help.
By all accounts the Godalming community has stood up and helped, with Broadwater Secondary School pupils and teachers making visors for those working at The Meath Epilepsy Charity, Ladywell Convent, and local care homes. Penny also praises the work of the popular Farncombe Day Centre where volunteers make hot meals for those in need. She also speaks proudly of the local Community Store and St Marks Food bank, where volunteers have provided a vital service.
Penny is also very aware of the impact Covid-19 is having on the mental health of young people. She recently featured in a podcast to help raise awareness and encourage young people not to suffer alone or in silence. She highlights the importance of sharing your feelings.
Thanks to Penny and the support of the town councillors the Godalming community is resilient and all inclusive. Throughout Covid-19 they are working together, supporting each other, and riding the storm.
You Will Never Walk Alone is a song that Penny has chosen for her end of term Civic Dinner, due to take place in May 2021. She imagines the community post-Covid coming together and celebrating all that has been achieved in the face of adversity.