While still a schoolboy he launched a major charity roller-skating event to raise money for starving children in Africa after being influenced by the work of * War on Want *. He was bullied at school and found it difficult coming of age as a gay man. He moved to Brixton and lived in a LGBT squat which was attacked weekly with petrol bombs and he eventually moved to the relative safety of the growing LGBT community in Earls Court.
The 70s and 80s were no easy time for the LGBT community but there was opportunity and fun to be had. Ray found himself running the London Roller Discos which took place at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town and at the Global Village nightclub, which was later better known as Heaven. When Pink Floyd wanted to put on a Roller Disco party, Ray, together with his partner at that time, Gordon Elsbury, who was the producer of Top of The Pops, launched the Roxy rollers dance troop that went onto become the boy band The London Boys that enjoyed a huge chart success. He also managed the girl group Body Machine, one of whose members was Andrea Arnold who went on to become an Oscar-winning filmmaker. This was Ray’s first real experience of how it is possible to turn young peoples’ lives around by giving them opportunities to work and express themselves.
When the bubble burst, Ray became homeless and lived on the streets, doing whatever he needed to survive. Eventually he became a council tenant in a studio flat in Vauxhall, Lambeth. Ray became active in the tenants’ association and was for many years the Chair of the association for one of the largest council estates in London, during which time he led his estate in their opposition to the poll tax, organizing demonstrations and marches, and turned the estate’s community centre into an emergency space for the homeless.
At the time of the Brixton riots, in a sensational by-election for the Angel ward in Brixton, Ray was elected as a Lib Dem Councillor Brixton. Ray’s anger at the council’s failure to look after the people most in need stimulated his activism further. Amongst other things he secured 17 tons of food for local residents from the so-called European food mountains that were so regularly reported in the media at the time. His high profile led to Ray being targeted by the far right organisation COMBAT 88 and, when a lone gun man shot at him in Kennington, he had to go into police protection. While all this was going on, Ray was battling to care for his partner who was slowly dying of cancer and whose family were totally opposed to this relationship and did their best to be as obstructive as possible. Towards the end, when his partner was no longer able to express his wishes, the family banned Ray from being in the hospital. Even though they had been a couple for six years, Ray had no rights as such a relationship still had no proper civil status.
As LGBT people found it difficult to find safe places to rent, Ray set up the country’s first LGBT estate agency, which he ran as a social enterprise and which won numerous awards. Ray became a director of the RLA and advised both Labour and Conservative governments on housing policy.
In 2008, he become an activist in Lewisham People Before Profit, standing for office at local elections and taking direct action on housing, austerity, cuts and closures and their impact on the least well-off in his community.
When he found 3 young men going through the bins outside his office looking for food, he opened the UK’s largest independent food bank, ‘We Care’ on New Cross Road in Deptford, and used it to highlight government policy failure and its impact on the poor.
As one of its projects, the food bank created a green energy project that signed up schools, community centres and churches to install solar panels on their roofs and to use the money generated through the government’s feed-in tariff used to reduce their own energy bills, to fight climate change, and tackle local fuel poverty as well as giving investors a 4% return on their investments.
Ray has so far written three books, a brief history of the area he calls home, Deptford, and Food Bank Britain, a book he wrote to help fund and tell the story of the ‘We Care’ charity and to challenge the ignorance and bigotry that surrounds the issue of food poverty. It also includes a guide on how to set up an ethical food bank, providing a model that is increasingly copied across the UK. In 2015 Ray was awarded a medal by the Russian government for his work to protect Deptford’s heritage and historic links to Russia via The Deptford Heritage Festival, which was designed to raise awareness of the area’s remarkable history at a time when so-called ‘regeneration’ seemed to be eradicating it.
In 2017 he began to write and broadcast for various media outlets, specializing in housing, poverty, social enterprise, and food waste and logistics, and is a regular contributor on Talk Radio Europe, LBC, RT, and the BBC. He also regularly speaks on these issues at a variety of institutions and events across the UK and advises companies and local councils.
Ray has been a regular contributor to this media group since January 2017 and is currently working on his fourth book, The Last Queen of Scotland, about the Communist leader Kath Duncan and the civil rights movement between the two world wars. He hopes to have completed it by December 2017.
Ray’s blog: Lewishamcampaignerblogspot
Twitter: Ray Woolford
Ray is also on Facebook and Instagram