#MondayBlogs Literacy – A Journey to Justice

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One year ago I attended a meeting at the Galleries of Justice with 25 people about a project called Journey to Justice (JtoJ). The day was planned with our partners: Sharon Monteith, Founding Co-director of Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R), Rosemary Pearce then of C3R and Bev Baker (Senior Curator and Archivist at GOJ), Tim Desmond (CEO of GOJ) and Midlands 3 Cities with PhD student Scott Weightman, JtoJ local organiser.

The remit of JtoJ is “to inspire and empower people to take action for social justice through learning about human rights movements.” This voluntary organisation initially focussed on the US civil rights movement, taking Dr. Martin Luther King’s timeless message of solidarity, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” as their mantra. The first major project of JtoJ was a touring exhibition that focussed on the principles of the U.S civil rights movement. This has slowly developed and spread around the globe, linking with other activists to promote and educate about issues that specifically relate to local communities.

We were shown case studies of how other cities had got involved and I was quite taken by the scope and ambition of the project, particularly the ease with which organisations were able to collaborate and promote various causes. Nottingham, as a former ‘factory city’ with a real mix of identities and ethnicities, has a long history of activism so we were pretty spoilt for choice when trying to find causes we could promote. Some of the issues raised were: Nottingham’s refugee history; Streetwise Opera – homeless and non-homeless performers; Sash (Salaam Shalom) a Muslim/Jewish weekly soup kitchen and food bank; October Dialogues – Black History; Polish homeless men project; History of the 1958 race riots and colour bar; Child Migrant Trust HQ in Nottingham; Radical Walks; Women’s History Group; Bread and Roses Theatre group; Creating a school and FE resource packs; Nottingham’s first UK Black Lives Matter chapter. I was there as a representative of Nottingham UNESCO city of literature and Dawn of the Unread.

When Dawn of the Unread was created in 2014 I positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse. Therefore, it is a human rights issue to me. It has been proven through countless research that an inability to read or write has profound effects upon a person’s life from their ‘trust’ in society to whether they become a home owner. Nottingham is below the regional and national average for literacy levels and so there is additional reasons to fight this cause.

Within the Dawn of the Unread comic serial we have championed other identity politics, from the Operative Libraries of the 1800s that empowered workers to self-educate and demands rights from employers to the #readwomen campaign that addressed gender inequalities within publishing. We explored the lack of representation of Black history in our final issue via George Africanus and George Powe, poiting our readers towards the work of Nottingham Black Archives (who were at the JtoJ) event as well as inspirational figures such as Norma Gregory.

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On Friday 24 March, Aly Stoneman  was invited by Bradley Phipps to host a workshop at Galleries of Justice. She was there as a representative of Dawn of the Unread and as a PhD student as part of Midlands 3 Cities. In issue 10 Aly explored the imaginary life of Ms. Hood, updating the Hood legend to a modern setting where activists are protesting at fracking and the greed of banks. Written as a poem, it takes inspiration from Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. Of her workshop Aly said:

“The idea was to present a poem and talk a bit about the context of the piece and how it links to present-day social justice issues. Ms Hood seemed a good match, as the poem explores how contemporary social, political and economic situations might create 21st Century ‘Hoods’ and how challenging inequality and marginalization of vulnerable people is as relevant today as it was a thousand years ago. Topics I addressed included authority and anarchism, war, land ownership and the feudal system, race, feminism, education, police brutality, and environmental crisis. Robin Hood may be a myth, but it’s what he stands for that counts: Truth, Freedom and Justice.”

The ability to connect and provoke conversations has been one of the greatest successes of Dawn of the Unread. We have offered small glimpses into the lives of Nottingham’s literary history, created awareness of other organisations through our embedded content, and then left other people to continue the conversations. At the time of Aly’s workshop Rebecca Goldsmith is drafting lesson plans so that schools across Nottingham can use Dawn of the Unread as a learning tool, our student placement James Wood is writing blogs for us and mentoring in schools, Connie Wood is developing and managing our Instagram account, and the recently published book by Spokesman Books has been sent out to libraries and schools across Nottingham as well as UNESCO cities across the globe. And in the background, over many cups of coffee and bus and train journeys, I’ve been putting together Dawn of the Unread II which will be called Whatever People Say I Am. Amelia Sharland has been assisting me with the research. Another journey will begin very soon …

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#MondayBlogs Nottingham: City of Football, City of Literature

 

women can do it DOTUApparently 150,000 more women participated in sport this year. That’s an impressive rate of growth and largely due to government initiative like City of Football and This Girl Can, education and greater visibility in the media. We’ve come a long way from young women having to lie about their gender in order to play Sunday league football for their local team. But before I tell you about one woman’s incredible determination to play the sport she loves, let me explain how I met her.

I’m an avid bookreader and a director of Nottingham’s recently successful bid to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ve spent the last ten years or so promoting local literature in various forms. In 2014 I started an online graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread which brought back to life literary figures from Nottingham’s past. As I began researching, it quickly became clear that our literary history is dominated by white male authors. Women are conspicuous by their absence. As for Black female writers, forget it.

During my research I discovered an awareness campaign by Joanna Walsh called the Year of Reading Women. Drawing on research from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the campaign highlighted the lack of attention given to female authors and reviewers in the press. This discrepancy is odd, particularly given that women consistently perform better than men in literacy tests, as well as read more.

I decided to promote this campaign through Dawn of the Unread and commissioned the LeftLion poetry editor Aly Stoneman to retell the Robin Hood legend through a modern day Maid Marian. This paid homage to Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, a poetry collection told from the perspective of wives of famous men. Aly’s story sees Ms.Hood self-educate at a local library and so I began researching feminist libraries.

Feminist libraries really began to take shape in the 1970s when identity politics began to emerge. One opened in London in 1975 and a Feminist Archive quickly followed in Bristol in 1978. During this period one was opened in Nottingham thanks to Sheelagh Gallagher, Lorraine Meads and other members of the Nottingham Women’s Centre. It is the only one of its kind in the East Midlands.

The Library is still going today and has an incredible archive of zines and books aimed at self-education and empowerment. It recently gained prominence thanks to the WoLAN Project (Women’s Liberation and After in Nottingham). When I visited the centre and talked to people involved with WoLAN I was shocked, amazed and inspired to discover the story of a female football fanatic who was so desperate to play football for her local team that she stopped shaving her legs, cut her hair short, and selotaped her breasts tightly to her chest to conceal her gender. It worked for a while. But as she matured her body shape became more difficult to conceal and she was rumbled. Her football career was brought to a sharp end.

 

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As a ‘privileged’ white male I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for this woman to be denied playing the sport she loved on account of her gender. As a writer and reader I can’t imagine what it must be like to not have your words taken seriously on account of having the wrong chromosomes. But as a working class kid from a mining community, I do know what it means to fight.

Fighting for Nottingham to be taken seriously as a thriving literary culture is one of the reasons I got involved with the UNESCO City of Literature bid. I’m determined to help poets like Aly Stoneman and organisations like the Women’s Centre have a voice. It’s not breasts that need selotaping down in 2016, it’s our mouths. This is so that the ears, the only part of our anatomy that keeps growing, can listen to these incredible stories from women in culture, sports and the arts.

The next digital project I’m putting together is called Untold Stories. It will follow the Dawn of the Unread format but this time the emphasis will be on giving voice to people who have gone unheard due to prejudice, censorship and persecution. It will situate Nottingham as an international city and give voice to ten people from ten different countries who have settled here and share their incredible stories. For the last six months I’ve been in the process of collecting these stories and building up partnerships and sponsors. But if you know of a remarkable story or an inspiring individual, please get in contact.

This is an amended blog which was originally published on the City of Football website on 10 December, 2015

Babes in the Hood: Aly Stoneman

Aly Stoneman is the Poetry Editor of LeftLion magazine and author of Lost Lands. Here she talks about her collaboration with Amanda Tribble for issue 10: Ms.Hood

This is your first comic. How did you find it?
It’s been a really interesting process. I’ve collaborated with artists before – Steve Larder provided the illustrations for my pamphlet Lost Lands, for example – but creating Ms Hood posed different challenges. Amanda Tribble (the artist) is studying in Lincoln, so we only met up once in person, towards the end. The rest of the time we collaborated through email, ‘phone and Skype. I sent the initial poem text over to Amanda and then she created the first ‘roughs’ with text boxes and shared them with me on Google Drive so I could see the suggested layout. I had a look and sent back comments and suggested tweaks (both to the layout and my text) and she responded to those. We worked like that the whole way through. It was exciting waiting for the next draft to be uploaded, especially as we progressed through the pencil and ink versions to the final piece. It’s interesting as a writer to see how an artist responds to your words, how they envisage a character or a scene and also how the two forms weave together to create a new version or piece.

Judi Trott, mostly curls.

Judi Trott, mostly curls.

Where did the idea come from to have a modern day Maid Marian?
I loved the 1980’s series Robin of Sherwood when I was a kid; Marian was played by Judi Trott – she was a proper member of the gang and a deadly shot with the bow. So I always imagined Marian as an independent spirit, a fighter. My contemporary re-telling of the Robin Hood legend was initially penned for LeftLion Magazine and illustrated by Rikki Marr. One of the inspirations for telling the story from Ms Hood’s point of view, and for the title, was Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife, a series of monologues from historical and mythological women who are usually defined by their male partners. Apart from justice and an affinity for the poor, Robin Hood’s special regard for women is a feature of the earliest stories from the 14th Century. 2014 was declared the ‘Year of Reading Women’ so it felt right that Ms Hood should be the December publication for Dawn of the Unread. Although her real name is never mentioned in the story, I hope it’s clear that at the end she becomes Ms Hood, the idea being that anyone who stands up for social justice is ‘Hood’.
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How have you updated the Hood legend?
It struck me that some things never seem to change: Foreign wars; corruption, greed, abuse, social inequality and an elite who tell the poor to tighten their belts and pay their taxes while their ‘overlords’ feast (or in the 21st Century, spend £275,221 on Champagne in the House of Commons over four years – that’s approx. £69,000 per year!). I would argue that stories about the fight for social justice in this country are as relevant in the present day as they were in Medieval times. Back when I first wrote the poem, the war in Iraq was at the forefront of my concerns, along with reports about police infiltration and framing of environmental protest groups, heavy-handed policing of protests, and the erosion of the right to protest. For some people, a police caution would be comparable to being ‘outlawed’, as it would make it hard for anyone requiring a DBS for their work to find employment. As a storyteller, I wanted to explore how contemporary social, political and economic situations – especially events covering the last 30 years – might create 21st Century Robin Hoods.
DEAL OR NO DEAL
Poetry is all about shape and rhythm. How do you get that balance in a comic split up into panels?
Well poetry is an adaptable form; the oldest written poem (the Epic of Gilgamesh) dates back about 4000 years and was written in ancient Iraq, and poems have been transmitted through the oral traditions of songs and stories as well as being written down. Technically Graphic Novels started in the 1960’s and comics in the 19th Century, although if you count murals, tapestries and cave paintings, again the idea of telling stories through pictures is pretty ancient. Basically, I edited the text down so that it wasn’t too wordy, while trying to preserve the internal rhymes and rhythms of the piece. Amanda included some of the text in her illustrations so that it became dialogue between the characters, newspaper headlines or words on a gravestone. The poem naturally shifts from scene to scene every couple of lines, and is quite specifically located, so perhaps that made it easier to split into sections.
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The Labour politician Emily Thornberry had to resign after posting a picture on Twitter of a house draped in the St. George’s Flag. This was seen as snobby. One of your panels has a girl pushing a pram with the flag. Are you a snob?
I’m a writer and my purpose is to ask questions and hopefully encourage other people to ask questions too, because if people are too intimidated to ask questions then – seriously now – we are all dead in the water. So why do you suppose I’m being a snob by showing a scene featuring the St. George’s flag? What has displaying the St George’s flag come to represent and why is it that displaying the flag is automatically connected with working class areas and nationalism? If you look at the original Robin Hood stories, you could pull out the ‘Saxons versus the Normans’ themes and say, ok this is a story about nationalism and Englishness, but for me and for most people through the ages, the story is about the fight for social justice. The whole English class-system is nonsense; there are only two real classes in society – the minority who ‘have’ and wield all the influence and power and the majority who ‘have-not’ and are powerless – and in essence that hasn’t changed since 1066.

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These issues are also important to you because of your job…
I work in the ex-coalfields areas of Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire and I see boarded up houses, joblessness and deprivation. There are many, many people in this country living bleak and hard lives of absolute drudgery and misery, but there are also people campaigning and fighting for social justice from all walks of life, and also people living within deprived communities doing amazing work to improve and re-energise their areas. That provocative panel in the comic begs this question: isn’t it poignant that people living the hardest lives in the economically hardest-hit areas are supposedly waving the flag for an England that sends their kids off to foreign wars, cuts their benefits and education, closes down their workplaces and demonises their communities?
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It’s usually working class boys who die in foreign wars, something you elude to in the poem….
In the comic, I was drawing a parallel between the war in the Middle East in Medieval times (led by King Richard The Lionheart) and the combat there now. I do understand that joining the army can seem a good option. As there are no jobs down the pits, on the railways or in industry, the army can seem to be the best prospect, particularly for young lads from poor communities leaving school with few qualifications. The statistics from the BBC and the Guardian (among others) speak for themselves: 30% of British army recruits in 2010 were under 18, probably due to spiralling youth unemployment. Young people are attracted by the ideas of comradeship, training and travel. However, although no one under 18 can go into foreign combat, 12 soldiers aged 18 and 23 aged 19 have died in Afghanistan since 2001. 453 soldiers died in total. The way I see it is, there should be other options for young people and better support for returning soldiers, but I’m not criticizing the soldiers or their families at all. Again, it feels like some things never change – but that shouldn’t stop us from hoping that they will.

You can read issue 10 Ms Hood on our website or download our App and feature in our final chapter.

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Rigiberto Menchu and the Feminist Library

2014 is The Year of Reading Women and there is no better way of celebrating this than hearing how Lorraine Meads, a Principal Librarian for Children, Families & Schools in Northamptonshire, helped create the first Feminist Library in Nottingham. This would have a profound effect on both her career and in shaping her outlook. The Library is also featured in our Ms. Hood chapter, out on 8 December. 

I went to volunteer at the Women’s Centre in Nottingham when they moved to their new premises on Chaucer Street.  I was asked by the management committee to volunteer in the Library which was very therapeutic and helped me through some very difficult times that eventually led me on a journey back into education, studying for a Masters in Women’s Studies at Loughborough University in the early 1990s. Not bad for a council estate girl who left school with no qualifications, and a struggling single parent!

The proposed Library was on the top floor of a building in a cold dark room. It was filled with boxes of books that needed sorting and cataloguing, and the need to extend the collections by writing begging letters to publishing houses for free copies of books that were not in the mainstream libraries at that time.  The only other access to a number of Feminist and alternative books was a lovely little shop in Hockley which has since closed down.

I suppose I was an angry young woman who had survived an abusive relationship, unhelpful police and public services, and felt release by volunteering and enjoying the camaraderie of women who had had similar experiences. My friend and niece Ebru Ince (Turkish) helped put the library in order and opened the library in the afternoons talking and supporting women who came in to find what they wanted in terms of extending their knowledge on aspects that affected their lives. There was always a box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on, and a helping hand to turn the sadness into something productive.

Members of the NFAN Reading Group. See 'related reading' to get involved.

Members of the NFAN Reading Group. See ‘related reading’ to get involved.

Public reaction was that we were all man hating lesbians! Who were radical and could not be taken seriously. I fondly remember ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches as women tried to reclaim the spaces that were denied them because of fear of assault. The attitude at the time was women deserved abuse for wearing provocative clothing.

At the same time I took into my home two young Iranian women who had fled Iran via the Red Cross, they lived as my lodgers for a number of years and have both gone on to live very successful and productive lives. I felt that women needed a safe place to come and research/learn about their rights to work together to publicise injustices against women

Life takes many twists and turns and I vividly remember being incensed at the Stepford Wives film, in which a young mother begins to suspect that the frighteningly submissive housewives in her new neighbourhood may be robots created by their husbands. I then discovered Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique at the library, a book which is widely seen as creating the second-wave of feminism. In it, Friedan conducted surveys with suburban housewives and, surprise surprise, discovered that many of them were very unhappy. It really made me want to connect on a deeper level with other women.

I then became interested in global injustice and read Rigiberto Menchu’s Crossing Borders, a harrowing book about how she fled her homeland. Menchu has dedicated her life towards publicizing the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996) and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. I got the opportunity to actually meet her at a Liverpool University event which was profoundly moving.

These books, issues and people have shaped my career for the past twenty years which has been concentrated on children and family services. I have become interested in how young people today are being fed gender loaded images which both create and maintain gender imbalances. Now, as a librarian, I see books and education as a means of fighting against these prejudices and inspiring people to make a difference. My new battle is fighting to make libraries a valuable tool of the community before they face extinction.

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