#ReclaimOurSpaces – Sharing our Stories and Collaborating for the Future

#ReclaimOurSpaces was a collaborative event held on Saturday 25th of June at Conway Hall. The Ubele Initiative, Just Space and Spark were the main organisers who offered participants an opportunity for community organisations to come together and discuss how communities can influence government policy and secure community spaces. Other partner organisations who contributed to the running and organisation of the event were Latin Elephant, Community Food Growers NetworkConway Hall, London Gypsy and Traveller UnitLong Live SouthBankMela, Migrants Rights NetworkTake Back the City, Three Acres and a Cow and Uprise.

The morning started with Yvonne Field (Ubele), Richard Lee (Just Space) and Jake Coleman (Spark) welcoming over 100 attendees. The shock result on the EU referendum vote was an unplanned topic of discussion, and opened up conversations about what impact leaving the EU might have on gentrification, and how communities could work together to counter negative impacts.

One of the first sessions of the day was ‘Storytelling’, facilitated by Ubele intern, Emily Nelson. The workshop gave a platform to those who were part of different campaigns so they could share their stories about the struggles they faced in trying to mobilise their communities. The purpose of the session was to help inform each other about the different approaches they took to create successful campaigns.  This was very successful, with many attendees citing that hearing the experiences of other community workers first hand was empowering.

One of the speakers on the day was Robin Grey from the Somerford Grove Estate. He explained why he chose to work on the estate, the Food Growers Network he helped create and how he managed to mobilise youth dismissed as ‘mischief makers’ to make the project a success. He emphasised the importance of rehabilitating troubled youth and using the energy and enthusiasm that is often seen as negative to create beneficial and positive outcomes. Robin spoke about the success of the programme; for instance, they were able to sell what they produced in the garden and this gave many of the youth a fresh outlook on life, once they realised they could reap the rewards of their work in a positive way. Robin’s talk showed that reclaiming spaces is not only about fighting local authorities, it is also about spreading positivity, working together as a community and helping young people foster a sense of belonging and happiness.

Another inspirational presentation came from Gina Osborne, a former member of the Chestnuts community centre management group. She showed a short film that featured The Ubele Initiative. The film was about the Chestnut Community Centre in Tottenham and the fight to save the space from being reclaimed by the council. It explained how the centre played a crucial role in the area as it was a space used by culturally diverse communities offering activities for children and young people through to classes for local adult This meant the community were able to come together in the moment of crisis to save it from getting closed down by local authorities.

The rest of the morning sessions included workshops on particular campaigns offered by different individuals and organisations. Participants were able to gain knowledge about activist movements and campaigns that happened across London over recent years.  One of the workshops; ‘Land Space in Diaspora Communities’ was co-facilitated by Ayo Wallace and Mama D on behalf of The Ubele Initiative. The workshop explored what space meant to us as individuals and how our relationship to space isn’t just physical but can also be spiritual.  There were people present from different communities and it was great to see the shared experiences they had in terms of with coming to this country as migrants and their movement through space. It is clear that we need to be more empowered in terms of understanding our Land Rights and also in terms of having space to share our stories.

Following the workshops, we were served a delicious, healthy lunch by our caterers Just Bite, a young start up catering company set up by two young men from South London. Following this break, we had the ‘What’s Bubbling Campaign Wise’ session led by Toby Laurent-Belson. He spoke about campaigns taking place currently, how they were operating and what techniques activists were using to spread their message. This was followed had a singing session with Robin Grey who used folk songs to sing about Mother Nature, this lifted spirits and recharged those in the room as everyone took part with great charisma. To follow this electric atmosphere Tony Cealy showcased a theatrical performance piece based around the involvement in community activism and featured those who participated in his morning workshop. This session was followed by a screening of ‘You Can’t Move History,’ which was a film about the successful campaign that saved the Southbank Skate area from demolition. The penultimate session was an interactive panel discussion where the panellists gave their reflection on the film. The closing session asked ‘what form would a community coalition to reclaim community spaces take?’. Participants were asked to complete their feedback forms, to reflect on the day and they were asked for suggestions on possible ways forward, each group fed back their ideas into the wider group, which led to a massive discussion about what actually needed to be done and what were effective ways to do this.

To conclude, #ReclaimOurSpaces was dynamic and successful. It drew a wonderfully diverse crowd together to discuss the topical issue of gentrification, and what communities can do to ensure that spaces and resources that are vital to the community can be preserved. We need to say what will happen next! One of our participants, felt #ReclaimOurSpaces gave them ‘a renewed sense of hope in their activism, and allowed them to come together with great people to discover how I can manoeuvre the roadblocks in my way to keep up the fight for my community space.’

We felt that this is a fitting testimonial of the power that communities have when we gather together to act as catalysts for change. We felt just small ounce of this collective power at our event, and as #ReclaimOurSpaces continues to grow, we want to ensure that spaces that nurture and grow the community, are allowed to thrive for generations to come.

Roy Edgeworth