We who believe in freedom cannot rest – Ella’s Song, Bernice Johnson Reagon
Private employers such as Byron are rounding up their workers for immigration enforcement checks. Hate crime has surged since the EU referendum. Solitary confinement is introduced in immigration detention.
August 2016 started with a spate of negative stories. It would be easy to be depressed, apathetic, afraid. At Migrants Organise, we always seek out the positives and celebrate – yet that feels increasingly hard.
Migrants Organise prioritises relationships. Knowing people – what drives them, what challenges they face and what they are most proud of – is central to ensuring our training and mentoring programmes remain uniquely useful and genuinely grow power for migrant communities, building their capacity to act for change. And so, for the last three months, we have been listening to hundreds of community leaders around the UK. We’re travelling from Leeds to Luton, Cardiff to Coventry, Nottingham to Newcastle, Sheffield to Southwark, Belfast to Birmingham, and beyond, to listen to migrants and refugees working at the grassroots.
After the murder of Jo Cox MP I wrote, ‘I’ve never felt worse’. All around the country, we have heard how the aftermath of EU referendum saw spikes in hate crime – and we have also heard the hate that many communities faced well before the referendum. We have heard how pressures on wages, uncertainty over citizenship and poor employment conditions have made life even more precarious for workers. We have seen how everyday borders are deepening divisions between landlords and their tenants, bank managers and their customers, charities and their volunteers, politicians and those they represent in their constituencies.
Yet – in the face of these challenges and more – we have met exceptional leaders. We have met hundreds of ordinary people who came to this country seeking sanctuary or a better life, and who have stepped up to provide support and guidance to their communities. We’ve have met individuals who have set up dynamic projects and organisations, and young people working to heal divisions in their neighbourhoods. And, truly, I’ve never felt better.
I couldn’t list all the inspiring conversations we have had in one blog, so these are just a sample:
In Swansea, the Ethnic Youth Support Team is using the power of stories to challenge racism and xenophobia.
In Keighley, the West Yorkshire Racial Justice Network is building common ground between different migrant, refugee and minority communities facing discrimination and hatred, to grow a broad coalition for change.
In Coventry, the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre is celebrating the contributions of the refugees who use their services, whilst organising a warm welcome and a comprehensive resettlement package for newly arrived Syrian families in local neighbourhoods.
In Peterborough, Compas is creating spaces and opportunities for Roma children to learn English whilst celebrating their culture, and are building relationships of trust and understanding between the community and the local police.
In Nottingham, the Women’s Cultural Exchange is nurturing a group of asylum-seeking women who support each other to develop their confidence, skills and power, in the fact of personal setbacks and challenges.
These are examples – there are many more. What connects these organisations is the dynamic, inspiring individuals who lead them. They have experienced what it means to come to the UK, many as refugees; all contribute so much, not just for migrants and refugees, but for everyone in their neighbourhoods.
What has struck me has been the tirelessness of their efforts. Many work without pay or well beyond the hours they are paid. Many are on constant call, ready to help anyone who contacts them in need. It reminds me of the great civil rights anthem Ella’s Song, written in honour of Ella Baker: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”.
For three years, as policies got more hostile and public attitudes more threatening – and whilst helping over 300 people each year through casework support, providing capacity building support for over 150 migrant and refugee organisations, organising mentoring matches for more than a hundred migrants and refugees, and training over 100 community leaders in community organising approaches; and whilst (alongside other colleagues) winning changes to immigration detention, the further resettlement of Syrian refugees and community sponsorship – Migrants Organise has listened to our members and reflected on our contribution. We realised that four actions helped the migrant leaders who we were inspired by to make impact.
We understood that effective migrant and refugee leaders:
Speak out. Sharing stories of struggle, whether to move a room to action or to promote a spirit of mutual support, is central to organising. The Black Lives Matter movement articulates the rage of inequality so powerfully. But effective leaders also speak out about the positive contribution that individuals and communities have made. Our Women on the Move Awards provide examples of exception women who are continuing to build stronger, more welcoming communities across the UK.
Connect. Whether you have just arrived in the UK or are an established community leader, connection provide strength, support and opportunities. Recently, our Roma Community Organising programme brought leaders from the Luton Roma Trust and Amare to share experiences of what it means to be Roma whilst encouraging the community to develop – and came away nourished. In Luton, the Luton Roma Trust has connected Roma community members with local police and with health services in a safe context that strengthens relationships and people’s ability to access services. Connecting with colleagues at Right to Remain, Hope Not Hate and Citizens UK has similarly inspired us with new ways of working and new collaborations.
Grow power. Our power as people comes from our numbers. Never is this more obvious than in the run up to elections. Voter registration drives have put migrant communities on the map, enabling them to meet their elected representatives from a position of strength and to negotiate for concrete changes. Above all, successful leaders build the capacities and strength of their organisations for the future, inspiring new generations to come forward. Just for Kids Law has been the seedbed for Let Us Learn, an extraordinary collection of the next generation of leaders, founded by Award-winning Chrisann Jarrett. Our youth group works with younger people seeking asylum or settled in this country to grow their confidence, their reach, and their influence.
Build common ground. As we have had to be reminded, there is much more in common between us than that which divides us. Migrants Organise’s vision for the future is an alliance of different groups with shared interests, which is powerful enough to win a better life for all communities. Across Yorkshire, as in many place, Roma and Eastern European, African and Afro-Caribbean, Muslim and Asian people, and those fleeing war, persecution or poverty, are facing discrimination and sometimes racism. By bringing together key leaders we can share perspectives, and build a common ground on which to stand and from which to organise.
As we move towards September, I’m excited to meet our new cohort of trainees for Migrants Organise’s Community Leadership Academy. This 9-month training programme weaves actions with peer mentoring, theoretical learning with practical skills. Now in its third year, it is our chance to support migrants and refugees to strengthen their leadership capabilities – and to speak out, grow power, build common ground and connect with other allies.
Together we will sow the seeds for a national movement that is powerful enough to change policies, practices and attitudes on immigration for the better. The problems are there – we cannot rest until change comes.
Want to learn more about Migrants Organise’s approach and tools?
Individuals and organisations based in London can apply for Migrants Organise’s flagship Community Leadership Academy. Applications are due by 30th August, contact Ffion (Ffion@migrantsorganise.org) for more information or to book a 121 meeting.
Our organising programme outside London is being developed. To help shape our listening, join as a founder leader or find out more about what it means to join Migrants Organise, please contact Jessica (Jessica@migrantsorganise.org)