Journey to Justice: Tower Hamlets
We’ve been in Tower Hamlets since September 2015 developing partnerships with Rich Mix, the Humanities Education Centre, Idea Store, Swadhinata Trust, Girlz United, the V&A Museum of Childhood, Green Spring Academy and Bow School as well as many other groups and individuals; and with the generous support of Tower Hamlets Council. Thank you all for your interest and support.
Read about our Tower Hamlets work in the Newham Recorder
Girlz United is a local community group based in Shadwell, who have been working with a diverse group of teenage girls from London and Essex for several years. They host social events, interfaith discussions and residential weekends away, enabling young women to engage with issues of identity, discrimination, other cultures and traditions in a multi-faith community.
JtoJ invited Julie Begum, Chair of the Swadhinata Trust and a long time Tower Hamlets/Bengali resident, heritage expert, youth worker, community activist to meet members of Girlz United. She told them how in 1993, The British National Party won its first council seat in a by-election in Tower Hamlets, where their candidate Derek Beackon beat the standing Labour Party candidate by seven votes. The election triggered fear in the Asian community in Tower Hamlets and, as a response, Julie Begum and others set up Women Unite Against Racism (WUAR). WUAR was an organisation partially inspired by the U.S. Civil Rights Movement Voter Registration campaign. Avoiding the cult of leadership seen in other movements, they provided childcare services and made sure the voices of all women were heard. WUAR encouraged and supported women to register to vote and escorted them to polling stations, empowering them to be part of the anti-racist struggle in Tower Hamlets. As a consequence of the work of WUAR and others, the BNP candidate was defeated in the 1994 elections after a Labour landslide in the East End. 23 years later, Julie reflects:
“I think it changed us all and it left a really important legacy to show that it is possible to do things differently.’ “To remain silent and stand by, it’s just not a part of my nature I think.” (Quotes from an interview with Share UK, Women Activists of the East End, 31 March 2016).
Julie also told Girlz United about the racist murder of Altab Ali in 1978. He was a young Bangladeshi textile worker, who on the 4th May 1978, was stabbed to death while walking home from his workplace in Whitechapel. The murder was a random racially motivated attack, and was not the first of its kind. It was the trigger for mass action, sparking fear and fury in the Asian community. Ten days after Ali’s death, 7,000 people marched behind his coffin through central London in protest, asking the Government to address issues of racism in the capital and particularly the East End.
In July 2016, Journey to Justice teamed up with Girlz United to run a residential weekend at Danbury Outdoor Activity Centre in Essex. The event was attended by members of Girlz United, Hawkwell Girls Brigade, Essex, and Brandon Baptist Church, Camberwell, and was led by youth workers and facilitators: Liz Anderson, Sally Claydon, Parul Motin and Leanne Sedin. Through team building activities and creative writing, the young women learned more about local East End history and discrimination. They also discussed issues of social justice, race, equality and identity, producing a collection of searing poetry in response during a session with JtoJ volunteer Parul Motin.
In partnership with Journey to Justice, Girlz United have shared their learning all over the UK.
Girlz United’s presentation was the highlight of our AGM event in November and they ran a workshop at our Youth Training Day. On 10th December 2016, Human Rights Day, Girlz United helped to launch the Journey to Justice Tower Hamlets exhibition, talking about their project with JtoJ and performing their dance and poetry. Nadia Ishmail wrote the outstanding poem ‘Dear Murderer,’:
‘My poem was inspired by the murder of Altab Ali. It is to stand up to racism because it needs to stop. I want my poem to emphasise the importance of equality regardless of your skin colour or religion’.
Death is brought upon us all
We don’t know when, where or by who.
My death was cruel.
My death was vicious
By you know who.
What did I do to endure such a cruel ending?
Should I be ashamed of who I am, an Asian man?
The colour of my skin? Orange with a tan,
A decent brown man.
I was murdered at 25 because of who I am
The religion I believed in had no ground to stand.
It was despised.
The knife to my neck.
These were your entire actions.
Blood gushed out and piercing my veins
I could feel the pain through my whole body.
I knew it was the very end.
I was left for dead.
Damaged, dangling on my doorstep.
I could hear the sniggering and laughter spraying through their mouths.
My body left for dead.
How could you commit something like this?
I wonder how you feel now?
Ashamed, ambushed with embarrassment?
Of course not – no remorse. Excused of crime.
“We’re back” lives in your eyes,
bleeds on those very hands that ended mine.
Yes you are.
Nadia Ishmail 2016
To read all the wonderful poems by Girlz United see here
Girlz United’s reflections on their partnership and work with JtoJ:
“I’ve learned how I can be accepted for who I am with a set of people I’ve never met before. We learnt that we all have a voice. It’s just what we do with it that can make a difference.”
“What we’ve done together this weekend is important not only through the practical activities, I also gained knowledge and it’s inspired me to become more of an active person and to start taking more interest in my own community and value every piece of it…I learnt how to start believing in myself.”
“Without programmes like this people are unable to understand why people are racist..It’s fear of the unknown.” “I became more confident, learnt how to work in a team and not to fear heights.”
“Working with Journey to Justice was great for our girls, giving them knowledge and appreciation of those who’d gone before them to fight for equality in their local area, and equipping them with creative poetry skills to powerfully share their own experiences and reflections. It was so beautiful to watch them confidently share their poems at the exhibition launch event at Rich Mix!”
(Leanne Sedin, Key Worker for Girlz United)
Morpeth School staff and students’ visited our exhibition at Rich Mix
We asked them:
How relevant are stories of ‘ordinary people’ in the US civil rights movement to you?
“Very relevant because they face discrimination that anyone would or I myself would e.g. racism.”
“I find it very fascinating and important to know the past.”
“Very relevant – it gives an insight to regular people’s lives and the struggles they went [through] giving us the freedom we have now.”
“Very relevant, as well as local people telling stories, stories are from people of the same ethnic background as me, such as Julie Begum.’
What do you feel about the presence of local (Tower Hamlets) stories in this exhibition?
“It makes me feel proud that young people my age, from my ethnicity are being active and makes me want to be active too.”
“Happy that they are taken into consideration.”
“Very welcome and essential.”
“There should be more stories about Bangladeshi people against racism.”
“Very positive, it got me more interested as I had not been told about many.”
What do you think Journey to Justice aims to achieve with this exhibition?
“Equality, to be aware of the injustices, achieving human rights and how the discrimination and the actions against it affects our lives now.”
“To show that change often comes from the ripples of ordinary action.”
“To make people aware of the injustice that takes place locally and around the world.”
With thanks to Ruth Marx and Tracy Barbe for organising the visits
JtoJ assembly at Leyton Sixth Form College (LSC) – raising awareness and recruiting volunteers
JtoJ volunteers Dani Carroll, Diane Alonzo (students at LSC) and Martin Spafford presented a Black History Month talk to student representatives and members of staff including the Humanities department and form officers. Martin told stories of UK Black and Asian social justice stories and talked about the work of brief of JtoJ followed by a surprising fact from the 1st century, a 14 year old girl who was first person of black descent in the UK. Diane then spoke in depth about stories from our exhibition with the aim of getting people interested as well as enlightening them about our reputation of telling untold stories. I took charge of the volunteering opportunity, explaining the location of the exhibition and what their role would be. Then I asked for a raise of hands of who has already volunteered, as well as sharing the benefits of volunteering.
Our aims were to get the form reps to deliver the information to their form classes during tutorial. They could take it in any direction they wish from the organisation’s belief, to focusing on one of the Black or Asian social justice stories and handing out application forms. The impact we hope to have made was for them to think of their own issues of social justices or ones that happen day to day we did get a list. In addition the importance of speaking out against things they think are wrong rather than following the crowd.
“It was definitely such a great experience! I tried my best and was able to overcome my nerves and I really enjoyed it. I’m extremely happy that’s it turned out so well. We gained a number of excellent volunteers!”
“Yesterday we delivered a presentation telling the stories of not-so-famous Black and Asian people, both in the UK and in America, who have made significant and long-lasting positive changes to not only their lives but the lives of many many thousands through social action. The students were given scripts and the same presentation we had which they would then use to deliver the same information and message to their own form classes, whether they choose to do it the in the same manner we did or otherwise. By doing this, I hoped to inspire the students, make them feel like their voices matter and show them that they too have the power to make positive changes to the society we live in now, just as the people in those stories did in their time, about anything they see as an injustice.”
Carrie and Tania promoting JtoJ in Whitechapel Market
JtoJ training events in Tower Hamlets
One of our priorities at Journey to Justice is to develop high quality training that will enable increasing numbers of teachers and trainers to use our approach that brings together history, the arts and social action. As part of this process, during our time in Tower Hamlets we tried out several different approaches.
With thanks to funding from the Lipman-Miliband Trust and BAAS (British Association of American Studies) and the US Embassy.
‘Train the Trainers’ afternoon for teachers, youth workers and others looking at ways to inspire young people to be involved in action for change. Civil rights activists, artists, educators and writers bring together history, the arts and social action to explore methods of nonviolent community action for social justice. Interactive workshops with practical teaching and learning ideas. 13th Oct. at Brady Arts Centre.
- Michael McIntyre, Facing History and Ourselves on Freedom Riders
- Imani Robinson and Joshua Virasami, UK Black Lives Matter
- Mark Levy, US civil rights activist in the 1960s’ on Freedom Summer
- Sandra Shakespeare& Rowena Hillel, The National Archives on the power of using archives to teach about Black British history
- Alia Alzougbi Tower Hamlets HEC Global Learning Centre on Storytelling for Social Change
- Dr Louise Raw on the Match Girls’ Strike with an emphasis on how many were immigrants
- Dave Rosenberg talking about The Battle of Cable Street
For a full programme see here
This afternoon at the Brady Centre in Whitechapel brought together educators from a range of sectors. In an opening plenary civil rights activists from two eras spoke – Mark Levy who was part of the Mississippi Freedom Schools in the 1960s and Imani Robinson from UK Black Lives Matter. They set a context for the day by raising challenging questions about histories not covered in schools and possible ways of engaging young people. A series of workshops then looked at ways of using powerful stories from the past to build learning about action for change. Author and broadcaster Dr. Louise Raw took us into the lives of women – many of them migrants – involved in the Matchgirls’ Strike and what their story tells us about protest. Sandra Shakespeare and Rowena Hillel from the National Archive shared a rich collection of visual, film and documentary resources on the Mangrove 9 case that can be used to open students to the history of Black civil rights action in the UK. East End historian David Rosenberg used the Cable Street mural as a starting point to draw students into the story of events in 1936. Michael McIntyre shared rich resources from Facing History and Ourselves about the Freedom Riders and demonstrated ways these can be used in a classroom. Global Learning educator Alia Al Zougbi engaged us with ways in which traditional fairy tales can be subverted to speak directly to contemporary issues that impact on young lives. Imani Robinson and Joshua Virasami from UK Black Lives Matter looked at how movements can be built that make intersectional connections between different communities and identities. Those who attended were full of praise for the workshops: comments included ‘I wish I could have brought my students’, ‘all day next time please!’ and ‘everything exceeded my expectations.’ One of those attending said she was now thinking about ‘how to develop ways to bring outside actions’ into her teaching and another felt there had been ideas for ‘transformational teaching’ and ‘the interconnectivity of things’. However, there were also lessons for us to learn: weaknesses in timing and technology intruded on the smooth running of sessions and the afternoon felt rushed. A whole day would probably have been better, with opportunities to bring together and discuss ideas and techniques across all the workshops so that participants left with a more coherent sense of a JtoJ approach.
Youth Training Afternoon Interactive workshops to inspire and empower young people to take action for social justice through learning about human rights movements, the arts of protest and understanding the tools of social change. Dec. 5th at Brady Arts Centre.
- Dorian Lynskey, music journalist, author of ‘33 Revolutions Per Minute’ and writer of articles on Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, looking at music and social change
- Heather Agyepong, art educator, looking at art and social change
- Jean Stallings, veteran US civil rights and anti-poverty activist joined the CRM as a young African American mother in the 1960s and is still active in her seventies
- Julie Begum who was active in Tower Hamlets Women Unite Against Racism in the 1990s with Girlz United, a youth group based in Shadwell.
For a full programme see here
To read more about Jean Stallings’ life and her workshops in the UK see ‘The Journey from outcast to activist: ‘It starts with a seed in the heart’ by Diana Skelton, Head of Mission with JtoJ partner ATD (All Together in Dignity) – Fourth World here
A busy, buzzing afternoon at the Brady Centre brought together students from two East London schools and Young Ambassadors linked to Rich Mix in Shoreditch for workshops aimed at looking closely at activism and the arts. Firstly, young people had the opportunity to meet and hear from inspiring activists. Jean Stallings, veteran US anti poverty activist told – in a moving and inspiring talk – how her life of campaigning began when she reluctantly attended a meeting as a young single mother half a century ago. She then got students to explore what was involved in being an activist and urged them to become involved. Julie Begum described how she and other women formed Women United Against Racism in Tower Hamlets in the 1990s and combated the BNP with a voter registration drive and street protest. She was joined by youth and community worker Leanne Sedin and young women from Girlz United who read the poems Julie’s story had inspired them to write. The second section looked at how the arts can be central to movements for change. Music journalist Dorian Lynskey analysed the techniques of popular protest music from ‘We Shall Overcome’ to Beyonce and Kendrick Lamarr. Artist Heather Agyepong, in an especially active session, used drama, creative drawing and the study of photography to enable young people to have their say on why injustices happen and how they can be resolved. In feedback, students said the afternoon had been inspiring, motivational and educational. They also commented, however, that they wanted some of the sessions to be more interactive.
What did you like? Amazing speakers; Interaction with different audiences; Drawing and creativity; Speaking about injustice and how we see and deal with it; Strong messages; Very educational; Loved the workshops; Inspiring poems; Really motivating – thank you; I enjoyed the music workshops; The girl group who read their poems; I enjoyed hearing about key activism points from Jean; Jean’s speech super inspiring; Produced lots of discussion; The Altab Ali poem was absolutely amazing!
Photography for both events courtesy of Aziz Rahman
While the above two sessions enabled us to see what kinds of workshops succeeded best and why, we have also had a chance to try out ways of making our work have a life beyond us, forming some kind of legacy.
Embedding JtoJ approaches in a school’s curriculum
JtoJ volunteer Martin Spafford spent two days in Bow School in Tower Hamlets -thanks to teachers Sim Khera-Lye and Dan Gillman – running sessions for students that are now embedded in the school’s curriculum and will in future be taught by their own staff. With Year 10 classes he looked at the story of Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry which we feature in our exhibition, and that of UK children transported to Australia taken from an earlier JtoJ event at the V&A Museum of Childhood. He then created two role-play activities about aspects of the history of migrant Lascar merchant seamen, the ancestors of many of the children in the school. With Y8 classes Martin set up a group activity requiring them to design and plan a fundraising event for a cause of their choice in a local park. They had to organise stalls, performers, publicity, merchandise for sale and so on, while doing careful budgeting. In this way they learnt about the many practical challenges in running an event. Each of these sessions was run three times over a school day: Martin was therefore able to learn from the earlier sessions to improve subsequent lessons.
We asked the students: What do you think the aim of this session was? and they replied:
- Justice/ fight for justice/injustice;
- Racism awareness
- Fight for/understand rights
- To understand that you can make change
- History/ the past
- To help us understand about choices that we should make
- We should stand up for ourselves
- To inspire us to make a difference
- To show we should stand up for people
And: What has it made you think about?
- The struggle people had to go through
- My family’s history
- How lucky we are
- We can make a change
- Choices I make in life
- What can I do to help my community
- How people never give up
- The forgotten stories of heroes
“It was the best drop down session ever!!”
Thank you for what was an insightful and thoroughly enjoyable session on social change and Justice. Our young boys had a lovely time listening to the stories of real life examples of people who made a difference to the world. The sheer enthusiasm they displayed in the volume of comments and questions which led to discussing other important aspects of history and social change, is testimony to how well the session was delivered and how thought provoking it was! Our boys were thoroughly engaged throughout. I was particularly impressed by the activity that was set in relation to the topic, as it really enabled the boys to widen their understanding of justice beyond abstract terms and gave them the opportunity to consider issues they are personally passionate about and bring it to a tangible level. They took away a lot of important lessons which inspired them. I can easily see this session/content being extended into a very successful one day workshop. I look forward to seeing you at Bow again soon!
Next stop – a Train the Trainers event for 20 educators from all over the country – thanks to the MSN Fund
All the above events – in addition to the many JtoJ projects with young people described elsewhere on this site – are helping us learn about how we might train volunteers to become JtoJ educators across the country. Thanks to a grant from the MSN Fund we are now able to run our first structured training session in September 2017 which we hope will be attended by 20 educators from all the places where we are present. We will use the rich experience from our many different projects involving young people to plan this, our first Train the Trainers event. Details to follow.
Journey to Justice Human Rights Day launch
Tower Hamlets December 10th 2016
Our Tower Hamlets celebration of Human Rights Day and our exhibition’s presence at Rich Mix was a most uplifting, moving, inspiring event. It was widely diverse in the range of people and skills represented and a real coming together of the JtoJ community which is itself ever changing but rooted in our key values and a very East London event in a perfect venue.
All 200 seats were taken with others standing. Dave Rosenberg was an excellent compere, always setting the acts he introduced in the context of Tower Hamlets histories. Diane Alonzo spoke on all our behalf with confidence and clarity, explaining JtoJ, describing its impact on her personally and thanking all our key supporters and funders. She may be our newest and youngest MC member but JtoJ is in her bones! We then had the perfect musical introduction to the US-leaning first half with two freedom songs (one of them ‘We Shall Overcome’) performed with power and warmth by Sing Tower Hamlets. Helena Kennedy’s speech was a tour de force, reminding us that journeys to justice can be very personal (dealing with domestic abuse, for example) as well as tackling national and global issues. She spoke with emotional force and passion about the challenges ahead. Then East Londoner Kemi Sulola did the most beautiful rendition of ‘God Bless the Child’ (Jean Stallings said it was better than Billie Holiday!) that had the audience hanging on every note, to be followed by an extraordinary and memorable energy-charged dance piece by Freya Dare to Paolo Nutini’s ‘Iron Sky’ which incorporates part of Charlie Chaplin’s speech in ‘The Great Dictator’. Roisin Gewirtz O’Reilly introduced her inspired project, creating a book of vegetarian recipes contributed by human rights campaigners, with fascinating supporting text as her Batmitzvah social justice project – for sale in aid of JtoJ. Alexandra Letu recited the poem she wrote during the JtoJ Live project and which features in our exhibition, followed by London rapper Lemzi performing his track ‘Across the Pond’ which responds to police shootings and the Black Lives Matter campaign and brings the issue home to the UK. Then Roger McKenzie, UNISON Assistant General Secretary, spoke with passion about how the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike (featured in our exhibition through the story of the Nickelberries) inspired him, reminding us how much injustice and racist abuse is suffered in the post-referendum UK now.
The second, more Tower Hamlets focused, part began with a film of Grand Union Orchestra and Choir performing ‘Cable Street remembered’ with its sobering refrain ‘The Beast is back’ echoing the warnings we’d heard from Roger and Lemzi. Parul then introduced six of Girlz United who read their stunning poems with enormous presence, dignity and power. After all the poems by Shadwell girls, the final poem, by Tobi from Camberwell, was first read by the author, after which Amber (from Southend) danced an interpretation of, and tribute to, Tobi’s writing. This was a moving affirmation not only of opposition to injustice but also of a friendship between Amber and Tobi that was one of many outcomes from the residential run by Parul, Leanne, Liz and Sally . Next was a speech by Rushanara Ali MP in which she told the story of her own justice journey from being a small child hugging her mother tight at the time of a military coup in Bangladesh and living as a recent migrant in Tower Hamlets. Far from delivering an identikit politician’s speech, she made personal connections with what we are trying to do. Our friend and local poet Naga MC followed on with probing tracks about identity, the disconnect between the individual and authority and the perils of 21st century East London. Then Dan Jones took us through three seminal events in local antiracist history in the 1970s: the murders of Altab Ali and Blair Peach and the rise of Rock Against Racism.
Finally Jean Stallings spoke with grace, dignity and modesty about her life and half-century involvement in anti-poverty action and the civil rights movement. I don’t think anyone there will forget her words. She speaks to hundreds as if she were speaking one to one, a human rights activist who never advertises herself but demonstrates in her own example what JtoJ is all about, that ‘ordinary’ people can effect extraordinary change. As she says, she was a struggling single mother on welfare who went with some trepidation and reluctance to a meeting that changed her life, and 50 years later she is still an active campaigner against poverty. Her generous spirit and love for humanity – especially her hope for young people – have been a real inspiration to those of us who met her and so affected the audience that there was a spontaneous standing ovation led by Rushanara, Helena and Roger.
For the full launch programme see
Huge thanks to everyone involved, starting with the wonderful planning group, an object lesson in how to work collectively, with each person contributing their individual skill. We enjoyed it so much, we’ve decided to continue, focusing on developing work in Tower Hamlets and other parts of London. Please let us know if you’d like to join!
Five days before the launch we had a successful series of workshops for 22 young people at the Brady Centre. Jean Stallings, Julie Begum, Leanne Sedin and Girlz United ran workshops on activism while Heather Agyepong (art and photography) and Dorian Lynskey (music) ran sessions on the arts and social action (see above)
Finally, a note about the local stories in the exhibition at Rich Mix. We were delighted to host stories of women from Tower Hamlets who have played a huge role in campaigning for rights and freedoms, researched and curated by Esther Freeman as part of Share UK‘s ‘In Her Footsteps’ including Minnie Lansbury, Nellie Cressall& Julie Begum. And thanks to Bethan Rigby’s hard work researching less well known stories of community action for justice& human rights in Tower Hamlets. You can now download eight of these stories, each with links to further information: https://journeytojustice.org.uk/projects/local-history/
More news about all the events and activities we’ve run so far and their impact – coming soon!