I am really excited to have been offered the role of project director of Detention Forum. The Forum is a network of over 40 groups challenging the use of immigration detention in the UK.
I have had occasional involvement with Detention Forum since 2012, when I helped them to think through their strategic priorities. I have admired how they have worked in collaboration and worked together to further their mission. And I have loved how they have raised the profile of immigration detention in the UK. And have built broader support for change.
I am excited to be taking on this new role. But also I am daunted by the prospect of taking over from their impressive project director, Eiri Ohtani.
I’ll be doing this new role on a part-time consultancy basis, so I will also be able to maintain my existing broad portfolio of UK and international work. But I can’t wait to get going in April to work with the network to build on the impressive momentum already established for change!
Working as I do on a variety of contracts around the world, it doesn’t always start well!
This was certainly the case for me in a recent assignment in Serbia. I was running a workshop for Roma community group leaders to introduce a simple approach to advocacy.
Initially they were all very quiet and non-responsive. I have a few lines which always seem to work around the world – these lines did not work. By the first coffee break, I suggested to the organiser that it was not going well. “Ah no,” he responded, ” they are always like this. They are just getting the measure of you.”
And how right he was! By the end of the first day they were responding with great vigour, and by the end of the second day they had produced some great initial thoughts on their advocacy strategies.
I was intrigued though at the difference between how they had started the workshop and how that had finished it. Therefore I enquired about how I had been introduced to them prior to the workshop. The organiser had described me as an ‘international advocacy expert from London’. With hindsight, I am not sure that they are the best words. It made me think about how some NGO people I know in London might respond to an international advocacy expert from Belgrade coming to tell them how to do advocacy!
So I have learnt from this assignment the importance of not giving up at the first coffee break (!), but also to find out in advance how my workshop is being billed. I will never be able to tell people how to do advocacy in their own country. But I can offer them a framework on which they can construct their own advocacy plans.
I am now entering my fourth year of working independently to help charities and NGOs to campaign for change around the world. One thing though that has challenged me during this time is what to call myself.
The conventional description for the way that I am working is a consultant. Yet I have always somewhat resisted describing myself in this way.
For me, I have always taken a great pride on both campaigning as well as helping others to campaign. So I describe myself as a campaigner.
I am also a teacher, qualified to teach in secondary and higher education. And I spend a lot of my time teaching people a simple and practical approach to campaigning. So I also describe myself as a teacher.
But in my independent work, I don’t just campaign and teach, I also seek to help people to move forward with their campaigns and to overcome obstacles. So I have increasingly also described myself as a campaigning catalyst.
I love the concept of a human catalyst. A person whose talk, enthusiasm, or energy causes others to be more friendly, enthusiastic, or energetic. Do you think that this term campaigning catalyst works?
Last month I had the opportunity of running advocacy workshops for the Open Society Foundations in Georgia and Ukraine. My aim was to support parents who wanted to advocate for changes to support children better with conditions like autism. The campaigning passion of these parents was inspiring.
For me this was a very different assignment. In the past most of my international work has been for local, national or international organisations. Yet this time I was faced with a room full of individual parents. In the main they did not represent organisations but all of them had had to fight for the rights of their children. They now wanted to advocate to help other children.
I was daunted faced by such an audience as to whether I would be able to offer them anything helpful at all. Yet their appetite to learn and then to apply my simple advocacy tools was inspiring. Their passion and their lived experience linked with these advocacy tools was just so powerful.
And I have worked with people to develop their elevator pitches around the world. Yet I have rarely come across such passionate and engaging pitches yet also focussed on particular policy or practice changes. The campaigning passion of these parents showed me yet again the power of lived experience.
Since 2007, I have had the good fortune to be asked to run a session on the Certificate in Campaigning. This superb course, now on its 20th intake, is run by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). It aims to offer campaign training for people working in the voluntary sector.
What always astounds me about this course is the way in which NCVO is able to recruit such a diverse group of people. In addition to people from the large household-name charities, they also attract people from very small charities across the UK, as well as people interested in getting more involved in campaigning.
Yet what unites them is a common desire to campaign for change. In each session I have done a presentation, which I have updated each time on my campaigning efforts to change the support for asylum seekers in the UK. Starting back in 2000 with my work with Oxfam, through my work for Refugee Council and Red Cross. And now my effort around destitution.
What brings the session to life are the questions from the group. They are always interesting and challenging. Once again this time, the issue of being able to combine both professionalism and passion came up.
I know that I have written before about the need to retain your passion in campaigning. So it was so heartening to hear these campaigners talk about the importance of passion.
If this group from the Certificate in Campaigning represents the future for campaigning in the UK, then it is looking bright!
There’s a lot of talk at the moment in the UK charity sector about the importance of valuing the challenge from lived experience in both service delivery and campaigning. While people may be talking about it, there is one new report which is both compelling and challenging by Baljeet Sandhu – the value of lived experience in social change. It is a superb report and well worth making the time to read it.
I am really excited to see this new focus on welcoming the challenge from lived experience. Recently I have been inspired by the work of Migrant Voice giving a voice to migrants on issues of concern to them – the recent TOEIC campaign is such a superb example of the power of such campaigning. I also continue to be inspired by the work of Freed Voices, which exists as an independent project within Detention Action to ensure that the voices of people who have been in immigration detention are heard both in campaign planning and by decision makers.
And at City of Sanctuary, we are working hard with people with lived experience. We are ready to be challenged on our ways of working and on our strategy. In addition our recent Sanctuary in Parliament event was so inspiring by giving a platform for experts by experience and then asking MPs to respond to their points. We want to do much more of this in future.
The value of lived experience is one of the most exciting things happening in campaigning – but it needs to be real, genuine and not just tokenistic. And for this to happen NGOs need to be ready to give up some power and lose some control. The command and control approach to campaigning by some NGOs is no longer fit for purpose.
For NGOs really to gain the value of lived experience in campaigning then they must be ready to lose control. We do need to see a shift in the power dynamic in campaigning. Whilst professional campaigning skills are important, so is lived experience. If we can get to a place where both are valued, then surely we will see real change both internally as well as externally.
I have thought a lot recently about what drives and motivates campaigns. When I look back on my campaigning, I know that it was when I had time with people who had lived experience of the campaigning issue that I really felt a sense of drive and purpose for the campaign.
At Oxfam campaigning against the use of supermarket vouchers to support asylum seekers, it was my time with asylum seekers who were using these vouchers, which really motivated me and showed me that this campaign needed a priority focus. At the Refugee Council looking at our campaigning priorities, it was travelling around the country meeting refugee communities, which highlighted to me the need to campaign on destitution, detention, access to legal support and the right to work. And at the Red Cross, it was meeting with asylum seekers around the country who were struggling with the Azure card which propelled me to keep campaigning on this issue.
Lived experience is so powerful in motivating campaigns. And increasingly I have seen how lived experience is so important in also shaping and running campaigns. I have loved seeing how campaigning experience and lived experience come together, with both being valued, to push for real change.
In my next blog post I will look at how this new focus on lived experience is beginning to have an impact on the charitable sector in the UK.
Having written in my last post about how you can overcome the language barrier, I faced a new challenge the other day on a webinar.
I was due to run a webinar introducing a simple approach to advocacy for NGOs across Ukraine. There hadn’t had too much contact with the organiser beforehand, but I did know that there would be a translator on the webinar. I made contact with him days before and sent him my presentation slides. Then I didn’t give the webinar too much more thought.
On the day I logged onto Zoom, which I enjoy using for such webinars. It always seems to have a good connection; you can see the participants; and you can share your screen. And it is free for the first 40 minutes.
It suddenly dawned on me that this was going to be more complicated than I had first thought! Whilst I was sharing my screen to show my presentation in English that was useless for all of the participants. With hindsight I should have asked for my presentation to be translated into Ukrainian. And this should have been the presentation which was shared with the webinar not my English version.
As time was against us, I decided as I progressed not to talk to certain slides. That decision made sense to me but confused my translator. I realised that I needed to tell him which page number I was on to make sure he was keeping up with me.
All this was in addition to having to pause after every sentence or so for the translation. So, it was a tough webinar, but amazingly there was really positive feedback at the end of it. there was also interest in thinking more about my approach and having a more detailed conversation.
I was stunned that despite these difficulties we could still communicate with each other and this webinar offered them some useful learning for their advocacy campaigns. They also asked me some great questions. I learnt a lot from this experience and will be better prepared for my next webinar with translation! I’d be interested in your ideas about how to respond to such challenges on a webinar.
I’ve written before about how campaigning and challenging injustice shows our common humanity. Across the world I have met people wanting to campaign for change. I am interested in how to break through the language barrier to support them.
My first experience of running a campaigning workshop with an interpreter was in Tajikistan. I was never convinced that the Russian interpreter fully understood the word ‘campaigning’. It was not my most successful workshop. Some years later I ran a workshop in Peru, but I made sure that I had time in advance with the Spanish interpreters to clarify their understanding of campaigning. This workshop worked so much better!
Campaigning is a hard enough word to explain sometimes in the English language as it has so many connotations. This is also true in other languages. So time with the interpreter is just so important.
More recently I ran a workshop in Sri Lanka with a Tamil interpreter. The Tamil group was so keen to learn and they asked such great questions. However I found it really hard to answer them as I need to build up a flow to my argument. But having to stop after every sentence for the interpreter makes it very hard. This is a skill well worth practising!
I’ve also just run a workshop in Bulgaria. Here my slides had been translated into Bulgarian. I had two laptops with the English version for me and the Bulgarian version for the screen. Again I found the discipline of changing both slides really challenging!
So it is possible to break through the language barrier. But working with another language is a different skill, and it is one that requires thought, preparation and practice. But it is so worth the additional effort to be able to break through the language barrier!
Last month I attended a meeting hosted by Women for Refugee Women and NACCOM to explore the possibility of a new campaign to end destitution.
I wasn’t too sure how I felt as I travelled to the meeting. While I was optimistic and hopeful, I was also slightly wary having been to some of these meetings in the past, where organisations have sought to promote themselves as opposed to the campaign.
But it was my feelings of optimism and hope which were right thankfully! I was struck by the energy in the room. There was also a real sense of common purpose that by working together we could campaign to end destitution.
Reflecting afterwards I tried to think why the meeting had been so positive and not reverted to some of the less positive meetings I have attended in the past. I think for me there was one key reason. Most of the people in the room either had lived experience of destitution or were working on the front line dealing with the impact of destitution. This reality seemed to give the meeting such focus and urgency.
Whatever happens next, if this energy, focus and urgency can be sustained then we are looking at a very exciting campaigning initiative. And it gives me hope!