By Sian Drinkwater.
I come from a political family where there’s always been a lot of discussion about injustice and inequality in the world. Politics is usually the main topic during any family get together and growing up in the eighties under Thatcher had a profound effect on me, particularly as my Grandad had been a miner in South Wales.
After studying politics, I started working in elections, firstly running ballots and then in a more campaigning role, encouraging under-registered groups to engage with the democratic process. This work, in turn, provided a route into organising via the trade union movement. I first found out about organising when I helped to win a recognition agreement for the Electoral Commission branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union. We didn’t really know what we were doing when we started out, but the experience of building our membership through participation and asserting our rights was really empowering. It was only afterwards that someone pointed out that what we’d been doing was organising and suggested I put myself forward for the role of Branch Organiser.
I spent a couple of years as a lay organiser, before moving into the voluntary sector to work for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I enjoyed campaigning, but really missed grassroots organising, so I left to become an Organiser at the National Union of Teachers. Whilst there, I was a part of a team which developed the union’s organising strategy and worked with some fantastic teachers fighting against injustice in the workplace and beyond. I found that people often weren’t aware of their own power and what can be achieved when individuals work as a collective. Supporting local leaders through the process of understanding how they can affect change when they speak out and show solidarity is one of the best things about organising. As a feminist, it was also particularly rewarding to play a role in identifying and addressing some of the issues around the under-representation of women in certain union positions and activities. It is important to me that an organising approach necessitates building around members and their needs rather than insisting they fit into top-down, traditional structures.
What became increasingly apparent during my time working with teachers, was the overlap between community and union issues which was one of the reasons why I was so keen to branch out into more community focused organising. For example, when a teacher or pupil is racially abused in a school, it is an issue which impacts on the whole community. These experiences and the anger I feel at those who seek to divide us led me to my role at Migrants Organise.
Since starting as a Community Organiser, I have spent a lot of time listening to people from diverse communities and have found that, despite their differences, it is clear there is a lot of common ground. In Peterborough, for example, we’ve met with parents from a range of backgrounds, who’ve been in the UK for varying lengths of time, but share the experience of their children being targeted in hate incidents because of where they come from. Any form of discrimination is clearly unacceptable, but is particularly alarming when it involves children. As a result, we are working to support communities to develop effective ways of responding to hate and preventing incidents happening in the first place so that children from all backgrounds can live free from fear.
Initially, we are arranging meetings to bring together parents to share their stories and talk about what measures they would like to see brought in to tackle this issue. In addition, we are working with schools to identify where effective strategies are already in place and parents have been involved in this process.
I’m very aware that everyone’s experiences are different and I’m strong believer in not just doing something on someone else’s behalf. For me, organising isn’t about a quick fix, but about building powerful, sustainable structures through genuine engagement and participation which can help create a better society. All the people I work with each have their own stories to tell and issues to fight on and I will continue to try and help facilitate this process.
Sian Drinkwater works as a Migrants Organise Community Organiser for the South East and the Midlands. She is currently focusing on working with parents, schools, and community groups in Peterburgh to ensure that they have the skills, confidence, and knowledge to campaign for change, ultimately ensuring that schools are free from hate. To find out more about what’s happening in Peterborough, contact Sian Drinkwater by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org