Illustrations by @carcazan
Is there an implicit hierarchy of power, even in work and activities intended to create social justice? How do we make that visible? What do we about it? Who ‘gets to’ lead parliamentary advocacy work and why? Why are we afraid of asking such a question? The Refugee Tales have recently made a decision that its parliamentary activities will be, from now on, led by people with lived experience of immigration detention. We asked Anna Pincus (@TreesAnna), Director of Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, who runs the Refugee Tales, to tell us why and how they reached their conclusion. PS – If you are not familiar with the Refugee Tales, we strongly recommend you visit their website and find out more.
We celebrate our small charity where change can be created without us having to recast a weighty infrastructure. We can adapt and develop and respond to the external environment and our own learning swiftly.
It’s a flexibility that enabled Refugee Tales to grow from a small idea from our ‘outreach’ team planning the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group response to Refugee Week, through three books and five walks, to the platform that it has now and the international connections it is developing.
The Better Imagined
The conversations emanating from Refugee Tales are all about ‘the better imagined’ in the words of Ali Smith. The books are used as tools to amplify our calls for an end to the discriminatory practice of indefinite detention. As an organisation, we have developed three ‘lenses’ that we apply to our work: is it ethical, is it creative, and is it the best possible way. When applying these to the way we were using the books as tools to have conversations with parliamentarians, we felt that we needed to break down hierarchies in our own organisation.
Our community included people who had experienced detention and we discussed their leading our parliamentary work. It wasn’t always an easy conversation. We were even advised that it would never work and that experts by experience would be inconvenienced if MPs cancelled meetings at the last minute. I raised this with Mishka from Freed Voices. How do you feel if a meeting is cancelled at the last minute? ‘I think, great’, he said… ‘I can go away and use that time to prepare for the next meeting!’
When we started Refugee Tales we thought walking was a way of getting from A to B. We never realised that the walking and the sharing on the walk would create community in the way that it has. We never realised how empowering the community would become. There is a strength in walking together having left our everyday lives behind.
Starting afresh together on a common journey gives us all an equal strength. The July walking journey has given us confidence as a group and that powers many other journeys – whether it be the personal confidence to learn a new skill or a collective confidence to speak out and call for our rights in a more direct way. It is our footsteps across the North Downs Way, from Runnymede where we felt at the heart of the Magna Carta, along the coast looking out at the border, that have led us to embark on self-advocacy as the way we call for an end to indefinite detention. It is the peer support in our walking community that extends our capacity and makes new things possible.
The storytelling that Refugee Tales has embodied over five years helps shift xenophobic narratives about migrants and a way of working with people who have lived experience to create their own conversations about our shared futures is our next step. Sana Mustafa of the Network for Refugee Voices writes ‘Nothing about us without us’.
The way Refugee Tales opens up the landscape, opens conversations and hopefully opens hearts has changed the way we work on many levels. Other than breaking down internal hierarchies, other openings have been our many collaborations. Starting with the University of Kent as a key partner, we wondered at first how discussing ideas in an academic environment could really create change on the ground. It has! Processing, understanding and learning has filtered through to who we are, what we do and how we do it.
Collaboration has enabled us to identify issues and solutions we may not have considered and to place learning at the heart of practice. This is a long way from developing a policy and that being the passed down wisdom that we adhere to – it’s a process of collective learning, testing, changing, learning and more learning again.
Nothing Stands Still for Long
It’s not always easy. ‘Nothing stands still for long’ is a grumble we’ve heard more than once. But we’re working in a volatile external environment and we can’t afford to stagnate. Our new partner is Lauren from Right to Remain who has introduced us to Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation. She’s exploring with us who has the power in our organisation when important decisions are made. We aspire to citizen control through delegation and partnership.
We’ve long been inspired by the work of Freed Voices but developing such a project as an add on was never the way forward. Our similar path has grown out of our developing community of walkers in a gradual journey. In the sector, we all bring different ways of working as we live and breathe our call for an end to indefinite detention and the combined tapestry of approaches amplifies our voices. It’s a privilege to work with every group creating change.
Our first newsletter written by those with lived experience of detention launches in December and the first workshop for our self-advocacy team takes place with Lauren in November. I was invited to write this blog for Unlocking Detention and to describe the new direction of our self-advocacy project. Thank you. Next year I wish you to hear silence from me and hope those with lived experience of detention will write for us as they jointly occupy the space of our imagining better.