Yesterday, 17th April, I attended the launch of Our Lives, a study into lived experiences of poverty as recorded by 9 women, from across England and Scotland. The event took place Benwell, in the West End of Newcastle, in a wonderful, warm and welcoming community centre.
Speaking at the launch was Bob Holman, who talked about being an evacuee during the war, and how children ‘like him’ were considered dirty, wretched and ignorant, with their parents in turn being blamed for this. He passionately stated that this same blame, blaming individuals for symptoms of something which is the result of a wider issue of structural inequality.
Attendees and some of those who wrote the report then stood up and gave their own opinions on why this study is so important. This was really inspiring, as we heard from trade union leaders, community outreach workers, and simply those who grew up ‘being poor’. Some of the themes that cropped up time and again were; welfare reforms and austerity, mental ill health, the Bedroom Tax, zero hour contracts, food bank usage and sanctions. It’s always inspirational to hear people who have a lifetime of tried-and-tested experience speak from a place of knowledge.
I didn’t stand up and speak yesterday, although I wanted to. I find it hard to find my voice quite often here, partly because I feel like it isn’t my place, I didn’t grow up here, my opinions are not based on life growing up in the UK, but watching it from across the fence next door; watching Emmerdale and Coronation Street, occasional holidays to Leeds or Wales or London, and the funny stilted perspectives you pick up from the subtly anti-British sentiments all around you (I could write a book on that one). We have poverty where I come from too, of course, although its not felt or understood or experienced in quite the same ways.
What I wanted to say was that I found it truly inspirational to be in a room full of people (70 people!) who genuinely believe in combating the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. I wanted to say that this is such a shocking rarity, and in everyday encounters I meet people who should know better, who judge others based on how they perceive them to fit into a stereotype handed down to them by generations of demonising governments and toxic media.
I wanted to say how, the more I learn about the realities of austerity here, the more time I spend watching Channel 4 documentaries, and talking to students, and generally being in England, the more I am apprehensive about a future where every day people are being set apart, stereotypes used to shame whole groups, a failure to provide a political framework which gives voices of true opposition a space to be heard.
I wanted to say that I found it so unfortunate, that we need to find a way to mobilise and inspire young people, teenagers and those in their twenties, to encourage them to see the reality that is in front of them, to demand and get involved in better local politics, to foster healthy communities, and most of all to talk to each other. To talk to all sorts of different kinds of people, to approach them with an open-minded sincerity, and to enter into conversations that will lead them to realise that basically everybody, irrespective of financial means, wants to just get on.
I am baffled on a regular basis by the extent to which the rigid hierarchies of British society stratify people, set them in opposition to each other, create superficial differences which need not matter. It troubles me deeply. What really matters is how power and voice and resources are divided up.
This report gives voice to the experiences of real people and their challenges. And it’s a very valuable starting point.
You can download a copy of the report here.