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Ruth [and] the Giant

Ruth [and] the Giant

-Emmanuel Gotora, Assistant Director at Citizens UK

‘Every child, by the time they leave school, should have worked with others to craft, and win a campaign that has made their life, and that of their community, better.’ Sebastien Chapleau, Founding Headteacher, La Fontaine Academy

The end of the school year is always a hectic time, especially for primary schools. In Forest Gate, east London, the excitement reaches fever pitch as a group of energetic 10 and 11-year-olds at St. Antony’s Primary School put their finishing touches to letters to Newham Council. They are writing to the Planning Officer, objecting to plans for a development proposed for the Boleyn Ground, home of West Ham Football Club. The stadium is up for sale and a massive housing development is planned when the club moves to the Olympic Stadium. However, the developer has not made any provision for affordable homes in an area of greatest housing need in London.

The children chat excitedly as they prepare to march to the Upton Park stadium to protest about the lack of affordable housing planned for the development. However, don't let their age or size fool you. These pintsized citizens can pack a punch when it comes to creative action. Instead of simply posting the letters, the children are highly motivated to take action on the Local Authority, who up to now, have been largely silent on the issue. The children are angry about the lack of affordable housing for their families and friends. Theirs is a ‘cold anger’ which comes from personal stories of loss. In one term, seven families from their school have been moved from their homes overnight because they can no longer afford to live in the area.

One of the children, a girl called Ruth, tells a story of how her best friend’s family was moved out of the area. She is angry that she did not have a chance to say good-bye to her best friend. She has no idea where her best friend has gone, and she worries if they are alright. Until this point in the workshop, Ruth had been shy and had had listened patiently as others told their stories. Unable to contain her anger, she finally plucked up the courage to share her own story. Hers was the first story of palpable anger from the children sitting around the table that day.

Another girl, Frances, is concerned about her grandmother who lives near the proposed development. Since the sale of the stadium was announced, her grandmother has seen her rent increase sharply. Frances is also worried that her grandmother will be evicted if she cannot afford to pay her rent, and that she may be moved far away from the rest of the family she loves and depends on for support.

I first met the children at St Antony’s Primary School during a leadership training workshop I was delivering for their School Council. Their Head Teacher, Mrs Angela Moore, had a simple – yet powerful – vision for the school’s involvement in our community organising work: to give the children meaningful and real leadership experiences. In the workshop, we talked about what they liked about their homes. Their responses were thoughtful and positive, and faced with the harsh reality that other children in their school do not have the same safe, warm and secure homes, they instinctively wanted to do something about it. At the end of the workshop, the children were set a leadership assignment – a listening exercise which would see them speak to their classmates, parents, and grandparents, and extended families about their experiences of housing.

Mrs Moore is a formidable leader in her own right. An inspirational Jamaican woman who goes over and above the call of duty to educate young minds, she took on the helm at St Antony’s in 2011. At the time, the school was underperforming. In the seven years she’s been Head Teacher, the school is now totally transformed. Mrs Moore has been invited by the Department for Education to join a national task force focusing on school improvement, as well as a London-wide schools improvement board run by the Mayor of London. In 2019, St Antony’s was recognised as the top State Primary School in the country. As a Governor at the school, I am personally proud of this well-deserved recognition. This achievement levels the playing field and rewrites of a narrative of poverty and poor education for the children, staff, parents and guardians in the school who all work very hard.

However, in my many one-to-one meetings with Mrs Moore, she expressed deep dismay at the removal of seven children from the school and the disruption to their education caused by the housing crisis as families who could no longer afford to live in the area were forced to move away from their families, neighbourhoods, and support networks. However, instead of just complaining about this injustice, she and the children are ready to do something about it.

The children’s anger is shared by the wider community. Father Pat Mossop, Vicar in the nearby Anglican Parish of the Divine Compassion, was first to raise the issue. St Martin’s is one of the churches in his Parish and is just half a mile from the development. It is a tight community of Polish, Nigerian, Ugandan, and Irish congregants who face serious housing challenges and could benefit from affordable housing in the area.

Monsignor John Armitage, then Vicar General in the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood and Priest in the Catholic Parish of the Royal Docks (now Our Lady of Walsingham Parish) searched the church’s archives to see whether legal documents from the sale of the land by the Diocese to the football club in the 1950s contained legal clauses which would have given the church first refusal to buy back the land. We were prepared to fight for the land on all fronts but such clauses didn’t exist. So, we focussed on strengthening what was within our control: our relational power.

Sr Una McCreesh, an Ursuline Sister and former Head Teacher at St Antony’s Catholic Primary School, also played a vital role, reaching out to St Edward’s Catholic Primary School and Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. The stadium is sandwiched between the two institutions, and through Sister Una, our team learned that the developer was already doing deals with them. Sister Una, Fr Pat and Fr John and the rest of our core campaign team met with other clergy in the area and build a broad alliance with the other groups campaigning for affordable housing on the same development.

Our core team met regularly to evaluate progress and plan. In one of the meetings we reflected that the development had become contested space with all the separate groups vying for political and media attention. We had an honest assessment about what makes us different and what our unique contribution could be. Fr John guided our team to reflect on how we could position our campaign to bring something different that could add pressure on the developer. It’s great to have someone on your team who is prepared to challenge and agitate everyone else. Fr John always asked really good probing questions: “Whose voice are we missing, and what else can we bring to the table?” Responding to Fr John’s agitation, our team recognised that only adults had publicly voiced their objections to the Boleyn Ground planning application. We realised that the children’s stories and creativity were missing and agreed that they would bring a unique voice to the campaign.

The children from St Antony’s were invited to speak at a Delegates Assembly of the local alliance, with members from institutions from across Newham meeting to discuss their collective priority for change. However, the assembly was in the evening, and the children needed to convince their parents to bring them to the event. Only Ruth managed to do so – she brought her mum, dad and younger sister to the Assembly and shared her story about the housing crisis and its impact on her friends and her school. She looked so tiny on stage as she shared her testimony about her friend being forced to move home, far from her family and friends. As she stood there, she had everyone’s attention. She didn’t let the crowd phase her. “I miss my friend, and I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. Please stand up if you are going to join me to make sure that no more families are forced out.” All three hundred people in the hall rose to their feet in agreement, clapping their hands. Ruth smiled shyly as she stepped nimbly off the stage, down to where her family were seated in the front row. Her mum and dad beamed with pride. Ruth felt powerful.

A few weeks later, Ruth and her friends used their Persuasive Writing lessons in school to write some powerful letters from their listening exercise. Just as well they were all written in pencil because we had to censor some of the words used to describe exactly what the children thought! Reading a few of their handwritten letters, it was clear that the children care about their community, and that they feel it is being torn apart by many challenges including crime, gangs, and parents not being able to provide for their families. The tone of their letters ranged from anger, to sarcasm, and disbelief. The children were also concerned about the impact of rising housing costs on their own education. Unselfishly, they also worried about disruption to other children's education in the school right next to the stadium.

10-year old Sefora’s letter is punctuated with a sense of indignation over the treatment of three groups of vulnerable people she feels have been badly let down by the situation on the Boleyn development – immigrants, single parents and parents with 3 children or more. She makes a persuasive argument for affordable housing and cheekily admonishes the council, saying, "I hope you have listened to my wise words and consider my statements. Please make hundreds of lives better by making houses affordable for all."

11-year old Daniel worries about the ability of families to make ends meet: "Furthermore, many in Newham cannot pay bills and while also looking after children, buying them important things such as school uniforms, stationery, books, and much more. Therefore, how could they ever be able to afford an expensive house and be able to pay bills?".

11-year-old Hermione’s letter displays a mature understanding of what is at stake: "Avaricious landlords will predictably purchase those properties and rent them for a ridiculously large price!". She also asks some searching questions: "Will I be able to live here? Will it be too expensive for my family? Will I have to move out of Newham and be forced to find a whole new life somewhere I've never been to?".

The sentiments in the 60 letters which were hand-delivered to Newham Council, are best captured by 11-year-old Maven: "Imagine a world where only the rich can afford houses!". Not if these young citizens have anything to do with it!

On this particular last day of term, the children gathered their props for a public action – bright red heartshaped balloons, a dozen roses, and a box of chocolates to present to Newham Council, along with a huge red envelope containing their 60 handwritten letters urging the Council to reject the planning application due to lack of affordable housing. BBC News jumped at the chance to cover the story and followed the children on the march from the school to the football stadium. The children were in fine voice as they marched through the streets of Forest Gate towards the stadium. One of the older boys led the children in a spontaneous chant. “Who are we?”. The children responded: “St Antony’s!”. “What do we want?”. “Affordable Housing!”. “When do we want it?”. “Now!”. This was unprompted and unplanned but the association between the chant and what you might expect to hear in a football stadium made sense. The children had real – and spontaneous – ownership of the issue.

BBC News interviewed Sephora and Julina, and children had a lot of fun that morning. The story was aired briefly on the lunchtime news, but the coup was that it was on the early evening news too, watched by tens of thousands of Londoners. A longer version of the story featured the most powerful reaction we could have hoped for. The Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, was asked to respond to the lack of affordable homes on the development from the children’s action earlier in the day. For the first time, he publicly condemned the developer, demanding that they provide the minimum of 300 homes our campaign is calling for - a massive victory for the campaign!

The work of community organising is often a race between hope and fear. When fear wins, people withdraw, lash out, or freeze. All three are reactions of powerlessness. When hope wins, people are open to new possibilities as they collectively imagine an alternative future. However, hope isn’t just an intellectual abstraction but is more like a muscle that you need to exercise. It is not something you talk yourself into but something you have to act your way into because hope is something you do. In this way, it is not hope that leads to action; it is action that inspires hope. Action builds public life, and it is important to develop the political muscle of ordinary citizens, especially those on the margins of society – migrants, homeless people, low-paid workers, and other disadvantaged communities – to act more often and more effectively on issues which impact their lives. By taking action and learning how to do it better next time, ordinary folk can develop social courage to act together in ‘the world as it is’ to bring it closer to ‘the world as it should be’.

Following the action outside the football stadium, residents from Caritas Anchor House (CAH) joined the campaign and our team doubled in number. CAH is a homeless shelter in the heart of another new housing development in Canning Town. Run by Keith Fernett, an impressive leader with over 30 years’ senior management experience, CAH is a cutting-edge, national award-winning organisation that provides accommodation and employment support for residents who would otherwise be unable to access them. Residents are trusted with an electronic card system which they use for entry and to run electricity in each room. Every room is equipped with Internet and television. So high are the standards at CAH that one may be forgiven for initially mistaking it for a mini Holiday Inn.

Residents range from refugees, people with substance misuse problems, women fleeing domestic violence, and others who have become homeless through financial difficulty. However, you will not find residents loitering on the streets, and you will not see them drinking publicly as at many other places which run similar services. In fact, residents get a notice to quit on the day they arrive! They either stick by the rules which will help them recover and regain control of their lives or go back to social services. It is a quid pro quo arrangement – supported heavily by professional workers – that has only seen a couple of drop-outs from the service. In the first year, residents share communal kitchens and living space. As they make progress in addressing their issues they are given more independence. Those who recover enough to return to work move up to the top of the building, into ‘penthouse’ suites before they move on from Anchor House. Monsignor John Armitage also happens to be the Chair of Trustees. Alongside him, Keith Fernett, Fr. Pat Mossop, Revd. Paul Regan, and Sr. Una McCreesh, and Julina Johnrose lead our various delegations to meet with Senior Council Officers. This goes on for the next two years, and we use every given opportunity for our team to act on the Council. We show up at the Council offices every time there is a consultation.

Our campaign set out to win 300 permanently affordable homes which local people could afford to buy or rent based on local median income. After an epic two-year campaign, the developer finally conceded 25% of the site for affordable housing and the Council somehow found £18m to fund another 10%, seeing our campaign win 35% of the 842 homes for affordable rent at 50%-80% of market rent for residents!

A campaign initiated by primary school children from St Antony’s Primary School and residents from Anchor House won 300 homes worth over £100m to the developer. Ruth stood on stage once again to share the victory at another Assembly – the London Citizens Mayoral Accountability Assembly – with the two front-runners for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan and Zak Goldsmith, at the Copper Box Arena on the Olympic Park. This time, Ruth spoke in front of six and a half thousand people. Among them, were over one hundred children from her school. It was another proud moment for Ruth and her school. One she stills says she’ll never forget. Ruth will forever feel powerful.

Schools in their Communities

Schools in their Communities

This is an extract from Schools in their Communities; Taking action and developing civic life by Sebastien Chapleau.
Click below to download your free e-book and read more case studies on schools involved in Community Organising

Person speaks at Citizens Birmingham podium

Citizens UK is made up of hundreds of member organisations that are committed to taking action together for social justice and the common good.

We believe that faith, education, trade union and community organisations play a vital role as civil society institutions with deep and long-standing roots in their local areas. Through voluntary participation in these organisations, people build relationships, trust, vision and hope - and learn how to work constructively with those they might disagree with, to focus on what they have in common.

Posted by Lauren Del Fabbro on 13 Mar, 2023