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The Aviation Justice Tour

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 10:32 pm

Abby McFlynn and Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

“Clearly somebody doesn’t want to hear the story about the Heathrow Campaign,” said John Stewart, someone who has been described as the most effective activist in the UK, as he retold his seven-hour detainment and interrogation by FBI, secret service and immigration officers at New York’s JFK Airport.  However, there were communities all across North America who did want to hear about the victory of the ‘No Third Runway’ campaign at Heathrow Airport, and decided to invite John and Plane Stupid activist Dan Glass to visit their communities that are being affected by the expansion of the aviation industry.

Even with a file full of support from MPs, MSPs, congressmen, senators, human rights lawyers and scientists, Dan didn’t even get as far as New York because of the “incident”.  “Which one?” “You know which one!  The superglue.”  At the Belfast passport office a CIA agent took him aside to a Hummer with deck chairs, and when he finally made it to his interview, he was asked “Dan, I hear you want to superglue yourself to Sarah Palin?”.  This suggestive question concluded any chance of Dan traveling into the United States, and now with both John and Dan barred from the country, the Aviation Justice Tour went ahead thanks to Skype, and the ‘Let John and Dan in’ petition maximized publicity for the tour. Read the rest of this entry »

A Competitive Cooperative

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 10:14 pm

Katherine Selby

Now in its 40th year, the Essential food cooperative presents itself as a viable alternative to the unjust food system, and its worker-owner management model is a inspiring example to anyone who wants to change their social and economic relationship to people and food.

The days of wholefoods being considered impractical, ‘odd’ and personified by ‘brown rice and sandals’ have long gone.  Much has changed in this market since its humble beginnings in the 1970s to embracing organic, fairtrade, ethical and sustainable goods.  Oddly, such goods are now considered more upmarket and desirable than their mainstream counterparts and the choice of conscientious consumers, as opposed to the ‘wacky’ audience of its early years.

There were critics a-plenty when wholefoods first emerged and many thought this would be a fad; a passing phase.  How wrong they were!  Essential Trading – one of the pioneering wholefood retailers – is celebrating 40 years’ successful trading this year.  As it goes from strength to strength, the critics have long been silenced and ethical, sustainable, organic wholefoods are here to stay.

As it celebrates 40 years in the business, Essential Trading has a turnover of around £12m.  It produces its own Essential branded products and offers a cash and carry service for around 6,000 goods in the UK and abroad.  Its export arm that supplies European countries is growing 15% year on year. Essential Trading employs 85 people, making it one of the largest successful worker co-operatives in the UK.  Yes, not only is this a successful wholefood business, it is superb proof that a cooperative can be competitive.

How it all started

Essential Trading was one of the first wholefood businesses to set up shop in 1971.  It has come a long way since selling pulses and muesli out of hessian sacks on the shop floor. Over the years the market and consumers have changed and come around to the sustainable way of thinking, but the ethics and principles at Essential Trading have remained unchanged in all its 40 years.

Courtesy Essential Trading

Essential supplied organic and fairtrade food for ethical reasons, long before it was trendy to do so.  It has held steadfast to its views and gradually – with issues such as BSE, salmonella in eggs and GM crops attacking the ‘traditional’ mode of thought – the mainstream market has finally seen that the ethical, organic, fairtrade and wholefood movement is, in fact, not just viable but preferable.  Essential was a founding member of Genetic Food Alert and lobbied parliament against GM. To this day, brands that cannot guarantee to be GM-free are not listed with Essential.

Supporting the independents

It took the supermarkets nearly 20 years to make the leap into wholefoods – when they were good and sure that the independent sector was onto a winner.  Despite its strength and reputation, Essential made a conscious decision not to supply supermarkets and instead stayed true to its values and core principles by continuing to trade with local, artisan and specialist producers and to supply only the independent health food trade.   This ensures retailers retain many unique lines that they know customers cannot find elsewhere and has been key in keeping the independent health food shop alive on our high streets.

“The last 40 years have seen the wholefood market grow exponentially,” says Eli Sarre, marketing manager for Essential.  “Back in the 1970s health food stores were novel and the foods they stocked relatively limited,” she explains.  “But now, through education, a distinct rise in vegetarian and vegan diets, growth in free-from diets and the shift towards organic and ethical foods, we have a strong and thriving industry.  It has been most gratifying for Essential to see the changes and improvements down the decades, and we are looking forward to seeing what the next 40 years will bring.”

Ethical Code

Essential adheres to a strong code of ethics that runs through its business, employees and suppliers.  It actively supports organic and fairly traded goods and continues to call for the banning of GM crops.  “The wholefood movement started with organic commodities – most of which were supplied in bins, such as pulses and rice,” recalls Steve Penny, Finance Director at Essential who has 25 years’ service within the company. “Everything was in 5kg and 10kg bulk sizes but the health food stores and their customers didn’t mind.  It was a brave new world of wholefood shopping and demand grew rapidly,” he says.

Mass Market Triggers

Essential believed strongly in the inherent value of eating good, unprocessed, additive-free, organic and vegetarian food.  But it took a few major events in the 80s and 90s to start to change the opinion of the masses.  Firstly, the Daily Mail published the F-Plan diet, which advocated the importance of fibre in the diet from whole grains instead of processed “white” foods.  This created a big run on such goods.  Next came salmonella, BSE and pesticides scares, not to mention the worrying concept of GM crops.  Suddenly people were questioning the provenance of their food.  With 15 years’ experience in the organic, sustainable, wholefood market, Essential was ready for this new dawn of conscientious consumer demand. When in 2004 Dr Gillian McKeith recommended people eat more pulses, she ‘nearly killed us with success’ says Eli.  While the F-Plan and pulses stampedes may have subsided, their legacies remain.

A Little Essential History

Essential Trading is the company and Essential is its own brand label but the business was borne out of local co-ops established in the 1970s, Harvest in Bath and Nova in Bristol.  Harvest dealt mainly with retailers while Nova had a customer base of wholesalers, so a merger made absolute sense.  The two came together in 1991 and the company name was changed to Essential Trading. All jobs, customers, products and ethics from both companies were kept at the bigger company.

Courtesy Essential Trading

As a co-op supplying wholefoods, Essential Trading wasn’t trusted by the big banks who considered their business to be a fad and unreliable.  So Essential had to trade very carefully to ensure cash flow and survival. They devised a system whereby orders were in on Wednesdays, they bought the goods on Fridays and delivered on Saturdays.  Essential asked for seven days’ credit from their suppliers and cash on delivery from their customers.

All the sales money was banked before the cheques were presented. All the profits were invested in building up stocks, to ensure a reliable supply and better margins.  Gradually – organically! – the business grew.  Its development, like its goods, was sustainable. This business model is worthy of anyone starting out in 2011 – and preferable to shouldering a business loan or overdraft.

Supplying organic and fairtrade food before it was trendy meant Essential was early to market and, when the demand escalated in the 1980s, it stepped up its business and grew rapidly right up to 2008 when things started to plateau.  By the 1990s, organic was really coming into its own across Europe.  Essential’s buyers went to the European trade show Biofach to see what producers further afield had to offer.  Essential started importing key organic food and non-food goods and its status as an international trader was established.  As in the UK, Essential was competitive and other businesses had a similar trading pattern: the market was becoming exciting and dynamic.

Supermarket Wake-Up Call

Once the wholefood companies had established a substantial market, the supermarkets woke from their slumbers and started to stock organic.  The honeymoon period was most definitely over and Essential had to regroup to ensure it maintained its success, despite the threat of the ‘mass market’ organic brands being sold through the supermarkets.

The Essential Trading co-op made the decision to not supply the supermarkets.  By trading with the independent wholefood stores only, it guaranteed retailers a bespoke range that could not be bought at the supermarkets. Thus it protected its heritage and gave the independents key selling advantage of selected lines to keep their customers coming back.

Fairtrade Movement

As organics levelled out, the new kid on the ethical food block was fairtrade. Arguably, fairly traded and sustainably sourced foods set the independents apart from the multinationals even more so than organic.  Again, Essential’s ethical code that had embraced fair trading saw the business in the right place at the right time: it was simply a case of stepping up its fairtrade business in line with the demand.

“Organic trading was bigger financially and commercially, but fairtrade defines Essential internally,” says Eli Sarre.  “We all believe in the bigger picture that includes people and communities across the world.  Organic farming is important but sustainability of this farming is even more important.  Markets need to be sustainable if they are to survive.  And the livelihoods of the producers must also be safeguarded.”

Why a Co-op?

Essential Trading – and Harvest and Nova before it – is a workers cooperative meaning the business is owned and managed by its workers.  Like its stock-in-trade, co-ops were considered rather faddy and ‘alternative’ back in the 1970s.  The Thatcher years were not exactly conducive to flat management structures or seeking a consensus of opinion across all employees. But Essential had unshakeable faith in its coop status and employees all embraced the opportunity of being a stakeholder with a voice.

Courtesy Essential Trading

Each employee pays a minimum £500 to Essential as their ‘stake’ in the business.  Every member has an equal say in all major decisions and this democratic and non-hierarchical structure makes for an empowering environment – and a spirited community where all views are welcome. The co-op structure also gives some financial stability and Essential Trading currently has over £90K of members’ loans.  As a cooperative, Essential actively seeks out other co-ops at home and abroad to work alongside to perpetuate this caring, sharing business model that is endemic to the wholefood trade.

Looking Forward

Like most 40 year olds in 2011, Essential Trading is far from middle-aged. In fact, it aligns itself more closely with those who believe ‘Life Begins at 40’.  The market will no doubt continue to change but, as Essential has shown for four decades already, it is alert to opportunities and will move with the times to sustain its business. Organic is here to stay and fairly traded food continues to gather pace with new goods coming on-stream every year.  The overarching goals of sustainable farming and production and ethical wholesale and retail practices will see this market survive. Supporting the planet, protecting people, eating healthy food and cooperating with your business and social partners will not go out of fashion.

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Essential Trading Co-operative is a worker-owned organic food wholesaler based in Bristol. It supports strikers with food and pallets for fire wood, and also sponsors the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls.

Grassroots Football: Values, Examples, Potentials

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 10:10 pm

Gabriel Kuhn

Modern football is often criticized for bringing the history of football as the “people’s game” to an end. Authors like Matthew Bazell (Theatre of Silence, 2008) speak of the game’s “lost soul.” With respect to professional soccer and its ever increasing commercialization, such views are hardly surprising. Earlier this year, the 24-year old Sporting Gijon defender Javi Poves quit his job in protest. He was quoted by the Spanish daily ABC as saying, “The more you know about football the more you realise it is all about money, that it is rotten and this takes away your enthusiasm.”

Courtesy PM Press

However, the professional game is only the surface of a global football culture that, on the grassroots level, remains as much a people’s game as it has always been. In the alleys and backyards, on the meadows and beaches, the traditional “soul” of football is still alive. The 2010 documentary film Pelada, which follows Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham, two U.S. soccer enthusiasts, on their journey playing pick-up games in twenty-five countries, is but one example to demonstrate this.

At its core, grassroots football shares many principles with grassroots organizing, championed in many alternative and progressive circles: self-management, horizontal organizing, anti-commercialism, a strong community base, etc. Grassroots football can take on many forms. This article attempts to present some of them.

The classic: the pick-up game

On the most basic level, grassroots football consists of kickabouts and pick-up games. Whether it is on college playing fields, city parks, or neighbourhood playgrounds – in many places, people simply gather at more or less regular times and in more or less organized fashion to play casual games of football. The rules – usually very loose – are established locally. Very often, the fun and the community aspects are at the centre, sides change constantly with a flow of arriving and departing players, scores are hardly kept, and referees unnecessary – it is an entirely self-managed affair, very much the opposite to the strictly regulated and contested professional game. While we ought not romanticize and forget that occasional arguments, and even fights, can erupt on such occasions, that certain social groups – especially women – often remain excluded, and that (micro) power structures and territorial claims can be part of the experience, many kickabouts and pick-up games are conducted in an open, welcoming, and peaceful spirit. People enjoy the company of others, making new friends, and, of course, playing football.

“Grassroots football shares many principles with grassroots organizing…
self-management, horizontal organizing, anti-commercialism, a strong community base.”

The events also provide a setting, in which football proves its reputation as an “international language”: visitors, travellers, and migrants can often connect to local populations ways that are impossible otherwise, be it because of language barriers or because of prejudice. On the football field, class or educational backgrounds do not matter – if anything, middle-class college kids have to prove that they can be “part of the people.” The improvised football ground is a place that challenges many of society’s barriers.

Community Football: 17 SK

On the basis of the social values entailed in grassroots football, people around the world have established more sophisticated versions of the pick-up game variety, mainly in founding projects providing a more organized framework, with reserved playing fields, regular hours, and individuals taking on responsibility for basic equipment (balls, goals, jerseys). The casual character of the game does not change, however: scores are not necessarily kept, sides are switched around, rules are flexible and decided upon democratically, and referees are replaced by self-responsibility. Often, the motivation is to make use of football’s social values in the context of local community organizing and social work. One recent example is 17 SK, a community sports club founded in Stockholm in early 2011.

Fiona Moyler/RAG: RAG: Anarcha-Feminist Magazine

17 SK emerged from Nätverket Linje 17, a network of community projects along the southern end of Stockholm’s subway line 17. Nätverket Linje 17 describes itself as “an umbrella for different initiatives and activities of local groups focusing on a variety of issues, from organizing talks to involvement in local schools and collective gardening.”

In this context, the idea behind 17 SK was, in the words of the initiators, to “create an environment in which people can play sports with a sense of community and without competitive pressure. We also want to use sports’ potential to bring people together, to get to know one another, and to share joy, laughter, and exercise.” Flyers including this credo, and an enchanting artwork by Fiona Moyler, borrowed from an article about “Revolutionary Football” in the Irish RAG: Anarcha-Feminist Magazine, were distributed in the neighbourhood to launch the project.

The results have exceeded all expectations. 17 SK started with one mixed game a week. Soon, a women’s game and training session, open to transgender people, was organized on another evening, then a second mixed game on the weekend, and finally a football school for children, including kids at the tender age of two. All this happened within a few months, when a total of about one hundred people, ranging in age from twelve to sixty-five, had attended the games, the majority not tied to activist circles and hailing from a variety of countries rarely seen represented together at local political meetings: apart from Sweden, there were players from Argentina, Austria, England, Gambia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Somalia, the U.S., and other countries I now forget.

The level of competitiveness is kept at bay by the project’s guiding principles. Switching sides has proven to be a very easy manner of avoiding the winner-loser pattern. Rules are kept to a minimum and the standard points of contention (throw-ins, corner kicks, role of goalkeepers, etc.) are decided collectively on the spot depending on the number of players, the size of the field, and other factors. Most games have been played on a patch of grass next to the fields of the local football club where portable goals and water are available, allowing the players to make use of often undervalued public resources, which fits in nicely with the anti-privatization sentiments of the Linje 17 network.

The biggest challenge for the mixed games was avoiding the neighbourhood’s “football lads” from taking over the event. Even in Sweden, where women’s soccer enjoys a comparatively high status among the population, a strong gender imbalance is deeply embedded in the game and football tends to be an area in which masculine hierarchies are established and defended. Despite pledges of “inclusiveness” and “non-competitiveness,” this can also spill into projects like 17 SK. However, very gentle countermeasures proved to make a big difference. After a couple of weeks, four “guidelines” were established that prevented some of the most problematic behaviour from recurring and thereby making the games much more welcoming for people with less football experience, which was one of the main goals of 17 SK from the very beginning. These guidelines, repeated at the beginning of every game, were:

1. No hard physical play: no tackles, no high kicks, etc.
2. No hard shots with the potential of injuring people
3. Encouragement between players rather than critique
4. Responsibility to include everyone in the game

Especially number four turned out to be of great importance. Even with the best intentions, it is easy to pass the ball to friends or players you consider most likely to score rather than to newcomers or less experienced players. However, the insistence on the guidelines together with a raised level of awareness proved effective in the long run, and while it would be foolish to claim that all problems were overcome at the end of the 2011 outdoor season, the 17 SK games had turned much more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone – at times, women outnumbered men even in the mixed games.

Establishing a women’s group, “17 Sisters,” was another means to counter the gender imbalance inherent in football and to provide more space for women to play. There is an overlap between the mixed games and the women’s group, with some women participating in both. Others prefer to play only in the women’s games. Among other things, 17 Sisters has contributed to 30-year-olds playing football for the first time in an environment they actually enjoy. The success has been huge. Now, there is a 17 Sisters Facebook group with close to fifty members and indoor facilities have been organized to continue weekly games during the winter. This is a pioneering effort within 17 SK, which will hopefully inspire more indoor activities next winter – significant in a country like Sweden.

Meanwhile, “17 Kids,” the children’s football school, has been enjoyed both by the children and their parents who self-manage the school. Not only can children at the youngest age participate, there is also a conscious effort not to let gender determine early divisions (personally, I consider five-year old boys naming Sweden’s Lisa Dahlqvist as their favourite player a huge step forward), and not to exclude anyone for “lack of talent” or “lack of ambition,” making the common joy in playing the most important aspect instead.

“It is useful to break out of your Political community and enter the political Community, and ‘expanded’ sports clubs can be a short-cut to doing this.”

With the first outdoor season finished, there are, of course, plenty of discussions about how to proceed with 17 SK. So far, no 17 SK team has been formed to play in competitions. Shall one, in the future, participate in “Korpen,” a Swedish variety of Sunday Leagues, or at least in amateur tournaments around town? Or would this violate the non-competitive credo? Can the “community project” continue, while a Sunday League team might emerge from it? If so, can both projects carry the same name?

For 17 SK, these questions will be answered in the future. Other grassroots football projects already field teams in Sunday Leagues and amateur tournaments. Many of them prove that this does not necessarily mean to betray football’s social values – in fact, it can be a vehicle to promote them.

From Lunatics to Cowboys

There are many self-managed clubs in football, formed by colleagues at work, the patrons of a certain pub, or the sports nerds of a university lab. All of them are part of the wider world of grassroots football, at least as long as they aren’t run by power-hungry egocentrics and sponsored by local businessmen, which are the first steps towards football being controlled by political and economic interests rather than by the people playing it. Some teams avoid any such development consciously and make up the backbone of what is a constantly growing global network of grassroots football clubs based on principles of self-management, anti-commercialism, and community organizing.

Easton Cowboys

The histories of these clubs differ, but they are all, in one way or another, rooted in combining a passion for football with the desire to make the world a better place. The Lunatics from Antwerp, who want “to combine a great fighting spirit and an attacking mind with the necessary fair play” derived their name from a local reggae band and formed already in the 1980s, “when some young punks and other youths didn’t only want to hang around in the local park, but started kicking a ball as well.” The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls Sports Club in Bristol developed from a Sunday League team formed in 1992 by “twenty punks, anarchists, hippies, asylum seekers and local kids” into a flagship of alternative sports organizing with twelve current league teams in four sports (apart from football, Cowboys and Cowgirls are to be reckoned with in cricket, basketball, and netball). The Republica Internationale FC, calling itself a “socialist football club,” has its roots in various amateur teams formed in Leeds in the 1980s, before taking its current name in 2001. The FC Vova was born from a football match advertised on a Lithuanian punk website in 2004 – today, the FC Vova Sunday League team draws up to two hundred fans and has its own supporter clubs. The Autônomos & Autônomas FC of São Paulo, Brazil, was founded in May 2006 “by a bunch of punks who were tired of other punks questioning their passion for football and of football fans questioning their passion for punk”; recently, they acquired their own club house.

The constitution of the Republica Internationale FC contains values that are, essentially, shared by all of the mentioned projects:

“The club will not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist, prejudicial, or abusive behaviour by any of its members.

The game should be played in good sporting spirit.

Whilst committed to the rigour of hard physical, competitive sport, players will not behave in an unacceptably aggressive or violent way.

Players should play in a camaraderie spirit of a team, co-operatively advise each other in a positive manner and never offer purely negative criticism.

Players should recognise that the game is played, first and foremost for fun!”

The political potential that lies in playing football on this basis has been summarized in an excellent article written by Roger Wilson, founding member of the Easton Cowboys, for the book Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and radical Politics. Calling “soccer the lubricant, progressive ideas the engine,” Wilson elaborates thus:

“Football (and other sports) can go some way to breaking divisions of nation, race and culture whereas overtly Political interventions often fail.

Ideas such as autonomy, popular democracy, inclusivity, and internationalism can be practically explored outside of the confines of Political organizations.

It can be easier to test ideas like these when there is no overt Political approach. The ideas themselves are more important than political stances or labels.

It is useful to break out of your Political community and enter the political Community, and ‘expanded’ sports clubs can be a short-cut to doing this.

Organizations such as sports clubs can provide social spaces for people to meet, which can overcome some facets of sub-cultural, race, class and gender divisions.

Clubs such as the Cowboys should not be judged on their ability to achieve Political objectives but in their capability to put radical ideas into practice and act as conduits for their spread both locally and globally.”

One of the strengths of this level of grassroots football is the international dimension that comes from being able to send teams to “football festivals” abroad. Events like the Anti-Racism World Cup in Belfast, the Alternative World Cup in alternate locations, or the numerous Antifa Football Cups in Germany allow players and activists to meet regularly, to establish ties, and to exchange experiences and ideas. The best-known of these events is probably the Mondiali Antirazzisti in Italy, organized since 1997. Today, over two hundred teams participate and numerous social and political events are organized parallel to the football games. Soccer games are also organized at political protests. In 2008, for example, an Anti-G8 Football Cup was arranged by the incredibly energetic Rage & Football Collective from Tokyo during the anti-G8 protests in Japan.

A People’s Game to Stay

The politics of football aren’t set. Unfortunately, football can be tied to many political ideas and forces. As pointed out, grassroots football itself can reproduce highly problematic power structures on a micro level. However, grassroots football holds great political potential and keeps the best of football’s history as a “people’s game” alive. Calling football “one of the greatest concepts of humanity,” as the now defunct http://www.soccernova.com website did some years ago might overdo it a touch, but there is indeed much to be excited about. There are values inherent in football that can help us form and establish communities based on direct democracy, solidarity, and, not least, fun.

Under ideal circumstances, football is a great environment in which to experience and to experiment with the juncture of individual freedom and social responsibility. People with many different skills have to work together to make a successful team. Individual star players might dazzle, but their role must not be overrated. For him or her to shine, others have to do plenty of work that they are not able to do: form a solid defence line, run down loose balls, tackle opponents, win headers, and so forth. There are many examples in football history of a team of “no names” beating a star-studded side simply because the players made the most of their abilities as a team. Football teaches people to combine their individual talents in the way most beneficial to the social good. When opposing players, spectators, and the social environment of a team are included in this ethos, football can become an important part of community organizing in general. The fun aspect might appear trivial, but it is a crucial moment in the grassroots soccer experience, both for players and spectators. It must not be belittled as “non-political.” The U.S. Anarchist Football Association’s variation on the famous Emma Goldman quote about not wanting a revolution in which she can’t dance, is telling: “If I can’t play soccer, I don’t want any part of your revolution.”

If these values are focused on, then grassroots football can be a unique combination of social learning, political education, community building, and sheer pleasure. Its future echoes that of one of its most prominent incarnations, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls Sports Club, as described by Roger Wilson:

“There’s a sense in which the club is one ever-unfolding social experiment. Most sports clubs or social organisations have a limited lifespan and often rise and fall pretty quickly, but nearly twenty years into the Cowboys I have no idea what or where it might lead to next or what the shape of the club might be in five years’ time. Which, after all, mirrors the excitement of playing the ‘beautiful game.’ You never quite know what might happen next…”

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Gabriel Kuhn is an Austrian-born writer and translator, currently living in Stockholm, Sweden. He publishes on a variety of subjects, including anarchism, subculture, and sports. Among his most recent books are Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics (PM Press, 2010) and Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics (PM Press, 2011).

Occupy Blog: The Spanish Election Rejection

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:55 pm

Marianne Maeckelbergh

A poster in support of direct action not elections. Courtesy of Marianne Maeckelbergh

La Nostra Elecció: L’ Acció

Barcelona, Spain, November 2011

The streets of Barcelona appear deceptively calm at first sight. Fashionable people stroll the streets, shopping bags in hand, while others stop to drink a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe. These luxurious images project a sense of prosperity onto the streets of Barcelona, but underneath the surface, a struggle rages. The 15 May Movement that captured the global imaginary just six months ago and encouraged people all across the world to occupy public space and hold massive democratic assemblies is no longer limited to the central square. Now, they are everywhere.

Across the city less complacent images abound. Everywhere there are posters and banners that declare: “Democracy is a farce”; “Democracy is Hypocrisy”; “No One Represents Us”; “Active Abstention”; “All Power to the People: Don’t Vote!”; “Democracy is a Grand Circus”; and “Our Elections: Actions”. Two growing trends are visible here in Barcelona that certainly resonate elsewhere. First, people seem to take for granted the idea that voting and electoral politics actually bears little relationship to democracy. Second, there is an evolution in the tactic of occupation – expanding from public squares to buildings, hospitals and universities. Read the rest of this entry »

The Assault on Universities: A Review

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:45 pm

Nina Power

Around 50,00 students took to the streets of London on 10th November 2010 to demonstrate against the proposed higher education cuts. Andrew Moss Photography. CC BY 2.0

What will higher education in the UK look like in a few years’ time? What can we do right now to save it? If the coalition government’s vision in the Browne Report and subsequent White Paper is to be implemented in full we can imagine several things, all highly undesirable: a two-tier university system in which rich and well-placed middle and upper-middle class students dominate the Russell Group even more than they do already; these institutions, now being able to set their own fees, can charge Ivy-League rates whilst ignoring the all least attempted meritocratic supplement of US college scholarships; students at these institutions will be able to study a wide range of subjects, including those in the arts and humanities – Philosophy, History and Classics will thus return to being the preserve of a cultured elite. In the second tier, private providers will take over those institutions unable to survive the loss of the block grant and who lack land and other resources to weather the sudden loss of income: degrees here will be shorter, perhaps lasting two years rather than three or four, classes will run before and after people go to work, or at weekends, and much of the provision will appear online. Smaller subjects will have disappeared due to a supposed lack of demand and the awkwardness of fitting them into the timetable. Endless feedback forms will attempt to reassure the student that he or she is first and foremost a “client”, unless he or she is involved in any political action on campus or elsewhere, in which case the new squatting laws will immediately be applied, turning the student from consumer to criminal faster than you can say “domestic extremist”. Read the rest of this entry »

An Education System: But What For? And When Will We Answer the Question?

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:38 pm

Michael Newman

We are trapped in an ever-repeated education debate, whose very simplicity and facile nature allows everyone to contribute equally; meanwhile, our children are taught that learning is about exams, their futures, and what jobs they are to do. The majority struggle, the majority fail the five GCSE’s grade A-C, but once they are free from school they can ‘control’ their lives and will not have to study again, except maybe to improve their jobs. Our society continues to confuse human rights with consumerism — we have shopping riots, we have problems with community, with child poverty, with fear of youth, with ethnic differences. What kind of society do we want? How can our schools support this aim? And how can we escape the nausea of this ever-repeating debate that is more like sound bites from a popular TV show than an attempt to answer some of the most important questions we face.

Our new government has been challenging many apparently progressive moves that occurred under Labour. Whilst people on the web and in industries linked to ICT and creativity are holding debates around innovation and revolutionising our schools, there appears to be a regression back to the training of children to pass exams and gain qualifications that will allow them to take opportunities to further study and work. This is reflected in Toby Young’s ‘Free School’, based on his own experiences of schooling: the back to good old basics attitude that only requires that you have been a child in a school for you to talk about schooling and education, whilst the actual child has little voice in the debate.

“What we need to do to address the recycling of schooling debates is to include the children.”

The education secretary Michael Gove focuses schooling on exams as the conclusion to courses, and has recently announced a new Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, “who has told the BBC he is prepared to shake up England’s schools and that he will not tolerate any school being given an Ofsted rating of “outstanding “ unless it achieves outstanding academic results”. Gove is critically looking at the place of citizenship education and its contribution to academic achievement, and in his support of the baccalaureate measure of a school’s success seems to downplay the creative aspects of the curriculum. Teaching is about control, respect for authority, the efficient learning of academic subjects, and the measurement and celebration of outcomes as exams and qualifications. There is no need for education philosophy, or sociology, or psychology except for increasing the effectiveness of teaching.

What is at stake in the current education debate?  Why is its very nature part of the problem? How can we escape from the recurring nightmare of the repeated mantras of standards, basics and achievements: either from the right wing — training to be good producers and consumers — or the left wing —increasing equality through the opportunities of motivated training to pass exams — and, from both, the turning of our children into willing volunteers for the Big Society.

Let us start with some surprising establishment views about the direction education should have taken:

“What cannot be doubted is that a piece of fascinating and valuable educational research is going on here which it would do all educationalists good to see.” (HMI report 1949 on Summerhill)

“A vision of what the new form of secondary school can be.”  (HMI report 1948 on St Georges in the East)

These are the words of HMI, or Osfted, the very organisation that threatened Summerhill School with closure in 1999. We used the first quote to invite politicians, the Select Committee on Education, and educationalists to visit the school, or to meet us all when we held a democratic community meeting in the Jubilee Room at the House of Commons in 1999. They have yet to visit.  They prefer to meet with celebrities and hear about Jamie Oliver’s experiments in education made for a popular TV audience. Even so, they have discussed Summerhill’s fight with Ofsted and the consequences of its legal fight for survival.

Sadder still, no one seemed to respond to the opinions of HMI in 1948 and 1949. The 1948 comment is about an East London school that A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill School, thought was the furthest any state school could go with democracy, participation, and children controlling their learning. He visited the school a few times as guest of honour at their prize giving ceremony. You may have read about St Georges-in-the-East in the novel ‘To Sir, With Love’ by E.R. Braithwaite.

A. S. Neill was a teacher and writer who in 1921 founded Summerhill School in response to his experiences of teaching in state schools in Scotland. He wanted to create a school in which the children would be happy, would have no fear, would be able to choose how and what they learn, would be able to play as much as they wanted, would be able to express and share their emotions and creativity, and would be able to control their lives through democratic meetings.

A.S. Neill: The founder of Summerhill School

In 1915 he published his first book, A Dominie’s Log, which would become the Dominie Book series. This was a diary of his life as a teacher. He begins sitting on his school desk reflecting on the rules of writing an official school log. ‘You must not put your feelings, ideas or reflections into it.’ He goes on to think about why he is the head teacher of Gretna Green village school, and why the children of farm workers, who will never own a home or go to university, come to his school. The series ends with the book, A Dominie Abroad, in which he sets up his own school as a result of his thoughts and experiences of education and children. Summerhill School is the result of years of reflection on philosophy, different models of practise, experiences of teaching, discussions with other practitioners, psychologists, criminologists, educationalists.  Neill is now recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s hundred most important educationalists.

This is a different world from that of Toby Young’s inspirational experiences of being a teenager in a strict, traditional, and successfully academic school. This difference in ‘heroes of change’ reflects the difference in their values. The arguments of the traditionalists are obvious — ones that we can all sympathise with as they relate to how we felt as children in our own schools. Give us soldiers or great communicators from television, and without any knowledge of education theory, practice or history, they will make good teachers and schools. If not, then we simply need to train them in classroom methods.

Neill reflects on the wider questions, necessarily ignored by the Toby Youngs and Goves of this world:

“Books are the least important apparatus in a school. All that any child needs is the three R’s; the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom. Most of the schoolwork that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play; it puts old heads on young shoulders.

When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge. They know a lot; they shine in dialectics; they can quote the classics – but in their outlook on life many of them are infants. For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel. These students are friendly, pleasant, eager, but something is lacking – the emotional factor, the power to subordinate thinking to feeling. I talk to these of a world they have missed and go on missing. Their textbooks do not deal with human character, or with love, or with freedom, or with self-determination. And so the system goes on, aiming only at standards of book learning – it goes on separating the head from the heart.”

Imagine if HMI’s comments on St Georges and Summerhill had been followed-up. If our schools were now based on the work and experiences of these and similar schools, imagine what our children would be like. Imagine what learning would be like if, as Sir Ken Robinson stated in his concluding speech to the TEDx London conference, our progressive schools should become the mainstream innovators. Indeed, imagine what our teachers would be like.

Strangely, there is a sense that this has happened with creative, self-directed, and individualised child-centred learning; the input of children’s voices into their learning and their schools; the right not to be physically punished; the importance of play and the role of emotions in learning; the previous government’s growing importance of citizenship education, participation and enterprise.  All this may be seen to be influenced by Summerhill — if nothing else but as the icon of progressive education. Again, quoting the ‘enemy’, the Conservative Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Young, in 1999:

“My Lords, is it not a fact that in many respects Summerhill School has been the pioneer of many educational ideas which have subsequently been incorporated into mainstream school teaching and practice?”

Sadly, these changes have greatly affected our primary schools but not our secondary schools. I remember picking up a battered Penguin children’s book on my local doctor’s waiting room table called ‘The Primary School’. The class take a vote on where they want to go for their class trip!

How can schools based on children’s rights be created?  “By the children.” – Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner

Our national curriculum subject descriptions and assessments, literacy and numeracy hours, and SATs all undermined these changes. Indeed they undermine the aims and values of the National Curriculum and state education, which are to develop successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve; confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives; and responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

These values are very close to those of the progressive education movement, and are hardly referenced by the traditionalists. In Summerhill’s most recent inspection in October 2011, on the school’s 90th birthday, Ofsted finally recognised that we fulfilled these aims:

“Pupils behaviour is outstanding…”     “Pupils develop clear views in how to live their lives and there is a tangible atmosphere of tolerance and harmony.”    “Pupils have an extremely deep understanding of work-related learning.”

At last, as a result of a legal battle in the Royal Courts of Justice in 2000, a team of modern inspectors examined the school according to its values and philosophy instead of those of academic classroom teaching. Summerhill is now seen to be a working school that shows excellence in its development of active citizens, ‘outstanding’ in eight aspects of its provision and practice, and ‘good’ in all others. Even so, we do not expect the government or the Select Committee of Education to come and learn from us.

So why should they? What issues about schools, learning and modern society does Summerhill address?

We are in a rapidly changing world: our technology, our knowledge, the nature and diversity of our communities are all being transformed. Religious people claim that we are in a moral malaise because people are deserting God and so they are fighting for religious schools and the influence of religion on values education in state schools; business people claim our children are not ready for work and that we need to compete with producers and businesses around the world; our universities are always criticising the young people they get as lacking in basic information and literacy and numeracy skills; our government argues that we must get back to basics to ensure that children become literate and numerate so that they can access opportunities in our society; our children need to learn parenting skills so that children in the future do not become ‘feral’…the list goes on and on.

The irony of this debate, and the sense of superficiality of it all, only hits you if you bother to look up a bit of history. The arguments have been repeated again and again and again. Darwin’s Bulldog, the scientist Prof T. H. Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’, was on the first School Board of London and his words echo through time:

“In fact there is a chorus of voices, almost distressing in their harmony, raised in favour of the doctrine that education is the great panacea for human troubles, and that, if the country is not shortly to go to the dogs, everybody must be educated. The politicians tell us, ‘You must educate the masses because they are going to be masters’. The clergy join in the cry for education, for they affirm that people are drifting away from church and chapel into the broadest infidelity. The manufacturers and the capitalists swell the chorus lustily. They declare that ignorance makes bad workmen; that England will soon be unable to turn out cotton goods, or steam engines cheaper than other people; and then, Ichabod! Ichabod! the glory will be departed from us. And a few voices are lifted up in the favour of the doctrine that the masses should be educated because they are men and women with unlimited capacities of being, doing, and suffering, and that it is as true now, as ever it was, that the people perish for lack of knowledge.”

These issues hit the headlines during the debate around public education that led to the Foster Act (1870) that created a national schooling system. In the school boards around the country and in the House of Commons they had to discuss ‘What is a school? What is a teacher? How big should a classroom be?   What should be taught?’ They are in the writings, speeches and the workings of the school created by Robert Owen in response to the industrial revolution at New Lanark.

There are several problems here.  Firstly, the failure of our schooling system to respond to debates and to take account of the evidence and work in the fields of sociology, education research, psychology and child development.  Secondly, the failure of our school system to reflect the values to which it is framed and is supposed to legally express — the Education Act and the aims of the National Curriculum.  And lastly, the failure of the school system to tackle the problems projected onto it.

Michael on a panel with Summerhill students answering questions as part of celebrating the school's 90th birthday at the Institute of Education's students union. Courtesy of Michael Newman

What we need to do to address the recycling of schooling debates is to include the children. It is to allow our school students to find out about the evidence, the history, the working models of progressive schools and communities — from Robert Owen’s school at New Lanark, to Nellie Dick’s Whitechapel school that she founded in the early 1900s at age thirteen, to Janus Korczak’s Warsaw ghetto orphanage, to Bloom’s St Georges-in-the-East, to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill. Let these models of practice, of the history of the implementation of children’s rights, become a part of our children’s culture, and then let them see how they can adapt these successes to their own schools and communities.

The fight for good education is part of the fight for our children to have their rights expressed in their communities including their schools. After women, blacks, ethnic minorities, the working class, and groups of different sexuality, children are the last group prevented from struggling for their rights. Ironically, the image of the child was the powerful argument used to deny most of these groups their rights. We continue to do so by projecting onto our children the need for authority and control, experiences from our own childhoods, rather than the contrary examples of what children do when given those rights. We need the children to be able to respond to Toby Young and attack his view of childhood with a look at what’s happened, is happening and what has worked.

Without children’s rights all of our human rights are undermined. How can we have the values and culture of rights that protects groups from being bullied, imprisoned, disempowered, exploited, and killed if our childhoods are based on the opposite, paternalistic authority? When asked how schools based on children’s rights could be created, Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner, said “by the children”. This can only happen if the children can see that rights are about justice, and that arguments about responsibilities and practicalities can be answered through models of extreme practice. They need to disarm those adults who hang onto unaccountable power by showing them that schools based on children’s rights can work, have worked and will work.

My mission is to help our children transform their schools as active citizens fighting for their rights. For children to be active global citizens they should learn about school councils and children’s voice through radical models of practice that create an alternative framework from orthodox, traditional schooling, allowing them to question the assumptions of the nature of childhood, learning and power. This will enable them to develop the underlying values of children’s rights and social justice.

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Michael Newman trained as a science teacher to deliver the then newly created national curriculum,attended the Speakers Conference on Citizenship in 1990, which was chaired by Francis Morrell, and included Shadow spokesperson Jack Straw with the Education Secretary John McGregor.  He has been active at conferences either as a delegate or speaker on citizenship, rights and educational innovations including social enterprise with the Executive Director of the Serco Institute, Gary Sturgess.   He has also worked at A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School for over 11 years as teacher and then houseparent, facilitating the children’s campaign to save the school in 1999, and organising events with them ever since to share Summerhill’s history and philosophy with other children and educationalists.  For the past six years he has been a school project worker for active global citizenship working with primary and secondary schools in Tower Hamlets and London, working on children’s and human rights, local democracy, sustainability, ICT, community cohesion, and co-operative enterprise.

Common Ground: Securing a future for all who share our planet’s resources

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:37 pm

Dr Mark Everard

Seed Sharing: To counter the rise of the proprietorial control of seeds Indian women swap seeds.

We live in a fragmented landscape.  This would matter a lot less if human populations were sparse and ecosystems across the globe were in a healthy state.  However, the exact converse is the case today: human numbers have exceeded seven billion with the fastest rates of growth in developing and often already environmentally-stressed countries, and the UN’s authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides solid evidence that virtually all major habitat types across the planet are substantially degraded with alarming implications for their continued capacity to support human well-being into the long-term future.

The causes of this fragmentation of landscapes, watersheds and seas are multiple.  However, many, if not all, stem from the parochial way in which we have made decisions in the past.  This parochialism extends beyond mere geographical localism, blind to wider-scale ramifications including for example localised flood defences exacerbating flooding elsewhere in inherently connected catchments or changing uses of land affecting water resources downstream.  Read the rest of this entry »

Making Music a Racket

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 2:57 pm

Mat Callahan

Joe Hill was a labour organiser and songwriter. By Carlos Cortes

The criminalization of file sharing spearheaded by groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America has been underway for more than a decade. While this strategy has failed to halt the decline in the sales of recorded music or the increase in the sharing of music via the internet it has nonetheless sown a great deal of confusion. In particular it has succeeded in pitting musicians against each other and their audiences. In a climate of fear and mutual recrimination the real culprits get off scott-free.

To shed some light on this situation it is useful to examine how the music industry in the United States took shape, how copyright law evolved to serve it and how music has been affected by this process. While specific to one country, this experience is valuable to people in the Global South as a negative example that should not be followed. Read the rest of this entry »

Bring It to the Table: Creating Justice Through Food

In Articles on 20 November 2011 at 11:19 am

 Guppi Bola & Bethan Graham

Our decisions about food are complicated by the fact that we don’t eat alone. Table fellowship has forged social bonds as far back as the archaeological record allows us to look. Food, family, and memory are primordially linked.
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

What do we understand by the term food justice? Is it the search for accessible, affordable and healthy food for all? Or is there a role for food in tackling today’s larger-than-self problems?

If we think about scarcity, the term food justice describes our reaction to the stark injustices of our food system; one in which more than a billion people live in hunger while more than half of all the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded. The UK alone produces 16 million tonnes of food waste each year, while The Trussell Trust food bank has reported a 50% rise in the number of people coming to them for food parcels. At the same time giant multinational companies, banks and hedge funds rake in the profits as food is traded and speculated on, like any other commodity on the global markets. The essential role of food in maintaining human life and health is devalued as the system is skewed against the people who need it most.

Living in a world of contradictions prevents us from feeling a real connection to, or the power to change, the political structures around us. For activists, our understanding of the problems can be so far removed from what we do and where we live that we find an added challenge in connecting our personal activity and our activism. Making this connection — for example by rummaging in bins for thrown away food, changing our diets or growing our own vegetables — is truly empowering as it represents an active disengagement from the companies we disagree with and a redirection of money and/or energy to the practices that we approve of. Yet to do it alone, or only with other activists, can lead to isolation from our own communities as we seek to stay true to our own values yet miss the opportunity to reach outside our comfort zones and engage with others.

Here we look at some examples of exciting projects in the UK that are working with their communities to create food justice, and in doing so are bringing up new ideas and thinking around creating justice through food.

Transition Town Brixton

Our first project takes us to the bustling streets of Brixton, South London. With its rich mix of cultures and history, it was also the birthplace of the first inner-city Transition Town. It is here we meet Emily* (*some names have been changed), part-time Brixton Farmers’ Market manager and part-time London Honey Company worker. Between both these jobs, she spends time with her neighbours growing vegetables in a community garden plot. For her, food is an essential essence of life as it punctuates and structures our day three or more times and gives us the opportunity to enjoy and be good to ourselves. It is a crucible of history and culture; a common thread between everything that lives.

“When I was at an international school food was an important means of teaching each other about our cultures,” Emily says. “Again, it is a chance to give, to show generosity between cultural groups. Food tells stories of religion, climate, abundance or inequality and of historical influences: why do Brits like curry? It is an excellent way into any discipline you want to teach or issue you want to explore.”

Soil Tests at a community garden in South London by London Permaculture. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Living in a highly urbanised area of London, our connection with food is a good way to remind us of our animal nature. We hunger, we eat, we shit. All food ultimately comes from nature and we are more removed from this as a society than we consciously realise.

“I have tried to involve people in my block in growing food and I have been surprised not by the ignorance but by the interest,” she says. “Sarah who lives upstairs suddenly started arriving with gardening equipment, old copies of gardening magazines and all sorts of knowledge. I used to find Tim and Kevin a little scary due to their drinking and sometimes loud discussions on the balcony. But when I started growing food in the courtyard Tim was the first to rush down and start giving me advice.” Little did she know he was a gardener during the week, and his expertise and enthusiasm became the foundation for the others’ interest in recreating their local space.

Emily soon found that by growing food in a neglected corner of the garden into her own block of flats, she had found the common ground that was missing in her interactions with her neighbours. Food provided the context for this to happen, which is all the more poignant in city neighbourhoods where the environment has mostly been concreted over and communities are transient and stratified.

“The necessity of food unites us,” Emily says. “This is why I feel it is an important lynch pin in the community. In the food shop where I work, I cherish meeting a wide variety of people. Sharing tips and ideas about food is a conversation starter and the food itself a prop which gives us a reason to interact. People are more inclined to talk when they have an activity they are engaged in. The tactile nature of picking up vegetables and fruit slows you down – which is why they are always at the front in supermarkets. When working at the farmers’ market I have met many people I never otherwise would have. Food shops help people feel less lonely in the community. That the barista knows which coffee you want before you ask, because they recognise you, is a nice feeling of belonging. In the urban jungle we can often miss this.”

Foodcycle

When thinking about food injustice, the issue that seems to shock and resonate with people the most is the sheer amount of good food that is wasted. Globally, 50% of food stocks are thrown away, and the British food industry alone wastes 18 to 20 million tonnes of food each year. That’s five tonnes for every person in the UK living in food poverty. While good food goes to landfill every day, and malnutrition costs the NHS £13 billion every year, more than 2.4 million people are searching for work, including a million 16 to 25 year olds. These statistics too can be seen as waste; it is a waste of human potential that is denied the opportunity to learn and develop new skills. These contradictions are at the heart of Foodcycle, an organisation that seeks to tackle this waste with one simple idea. By providing expertise and lots of support, Foodcycle empowers communities to set up groups of volunteers in their own cities to collect surplus food and turn it into nutritious meals in unused kitchen spaces. The meals are then served to those in need in the community.

Certainly Not Rubbish: Loading the trailer with top quality Metfield Bread. By Unique Multiples CC BY 2.0

For Foodcycle each different type of waste — wasted food, wasted potential and wasted kitchen space — provides a kernel of a solution to the other. Volunteers have the capacity to transform surplus food into nutritious meals for people who need it and in doing so reclaim more than just food. They take back physical space, too, in the form of empty kitchens. More importantly they restore human potential, as people of all ages who have struggled to find meaningful employment are given the opportunity to develop skills, build confidence and take away useful qualifications and character references.

Regular volunteer at the Bristol Foodcycle Hub, Tristan Pringle explains what attracted him to the project:

“The thing that inspired me about Foodcycle initially is still what motivates me to volunteer regularly now — and that is an appreciation of the essential and unique position that food occupies in our personal and social lives, and its resulting power to bring people together. My experience of attending Foodcycle events and feeling the atmosphere of community and kinship created through the act of communal eating really highlighted how working with food could be a way to make a positive impact. From the creativity of preparation in the kitchen to the conversation around the dinner table, I realised that every element of the process can be a source of enjoyment and good energy.”

For Tristan, it’s about communicating the message of food justice in a way that includes everyone. Food isn’t the only way you can do this – but it is a language that every human being shares.

The heart of Foodcycle in Bristol is the Community Kitchen that runs every Sunday in the Easton Community Centre. With no shortage of volunteers or customers, 60+ people come together to chop, eat and chat. Outreach is particularly strong, and has seen many people from homeless and refugee groups initially come to the project for a free and healthy meal, to then become regular volunteers.

The need to generate funds and ensure a steady flow of volunteers for The Community Kitchen has led to the formation of a Student Restaurant, a fortnightly event in which student volunteers prepare a three course meal using food which would otherwise go to waste and sell it for £3 to other students. Different student groups take turns to organise the events, bringing with them their own volunteers to help. In this way one organisation isn’t stretched beyond its capacity, as the responsibility is taken on by a different group each time. Once costs have been covered, the co-ordinating organisation takes 20% of any profit, while the rest goes back to the Community Kitchen, so that everyone who puts energy into the project benefits. Each organisation has a different cause and so their volunteers learn from each other, as new opportunities to collaborate arise.

“Previously in Bristol there had been disparate pockets of motivation,” Tristan says, “but a lack of connection between them and not enough physical events bringing people together to share what they were doing, inspire and learn from each other. Both The Community Kitchen and the Student Restaurant act as hubs for people to meet and talk. Topics of conversation are often centred around ethics and politics; it’s an opportunity to meet new people and discover new ideas, while the meal ties it all together.”

The success of the project lies in the way it combines the power of food with creativity to engage a wide range of people in long term action. Tristan summarises it like this: “It’s all about making the experience as powerful as it can be so it has a lasting effect. To do this you have to make it as fun and as interesting as you can.”

In an effort to make this happen the restaurant is now a place for other student societies to display their work, giving them an outlet to play live music, display artwork and screen films to a large audience. The Photo Soc’s most recent theme is ‘waste’, illustrating how the message behind Foodcycle has been taken and translated into a new medium in a way that helps to spread the message.

The impact of the food system on the environment is not only about where wasted food ends up. It also about where and how it is produced — how far it has travelled, under what conditions workers along the chain have been subjected to, what price farmers have been paid for their product, with what pesticides, on whose deforested land. The problem is political — about who profits and who pays — as food now arrives in Britain from countries around the world with appalling human and animal rights records, and trade systems which benefit big business and lock small farmers into poverty.

Historically, food justice developed during the anti-slavery movement. In Haiti, African slaves were brought over to plantations to raise food and other crops for the French colonisers. After recognising the injustice in which they lived was directly connected with growing sugarcane for their masters, Haitian slaves burned the fields in an attempt to free themselves from oppression. The role of food was not used as an end in itself, but as a means to an end: the sugarcane fields were a representation of suffering and their destruction was a necessity for freedom.

Actions echo through history, and on Environment Day in June 2010, approximately 10,000 Haitian farmers protested by setting fire to the seeds sent to them by Monsanto, a multinational corporation that gains huge profits from propagating hazardous chemical herbicides and genetically engineered seeds that grow into sterile plants, thereby preventing small farmers from carrying out their tradition of saving seeds from one harvest to the next. For a country which suffered so severely during the 2008 food crisis, to then be ravaged by an earthquake which magnified already entrenched problems, food sovereignty is fundamental. It is an approach that emphasises self-determination for small farmers and rejects the corporate control of the globalised food system.

Leeds Abundance Harvest

The last project we will look at, Leeds Urban Harvest, is about highlighting the abundance of fruit growing for free in your local area, entirely outside the capitalist system of food production. In this way it shares the values of the food sovereignty movement, as the project rediscovers the natural routine of picking unharvested seasonal fruit every autumn. The trees and bushes grow in both public and private spaces around the city, thereby pushing through and creating links between the usual demarcations that separate us from each other. The fruit is distributed around the city to local groups, volunteers and the local community, while damaged fruits, which would otherwise be viewed as unsellable in shops and supermarkets and end up in the bin, are turned into juice, preserves, jams and chutneys. The money raised is put back into the project to help with the running costs.

The Urban Harvest project was founded by a group of people who were interested and active in growing their own food. Already engaged in planting fruit trees in nurseries, they began to notice the fruit trees already growing in parks and gardens around them, and the amount of fruit that was available to be picked. Inspired by the The Abundance Project in Sheffield, which hands out free fruit outside supermarkets and uses bike trailers to deliver collected fruit to people in need, Leeds Urban Harvest was formed with the principles of sustainability and sharing free food at its centre.

“It’s a brilliant project,” says Ben, a volunteer who has been involved since the start, “because people get really excited about it, and anyone can get involved, from all ages and backgrounds.” Both projects have an educational aspect, as they seek to show people that home-grown fruit is just as tasty as anything you could find in the shop. When locating fruit trees in Sheffield, the project came across an old lady who would bag up all the apples growing in her garden and put them in her black bin at home because she thought it wasn’t safe to eat them. It is these types of myths that the Leeds Urban Harvest aims to dispel.

“People come just for apples but end up trying all the other different kinds of fruit that they might never have even heard of; cherries, plums, pears but also quinces and mulberries. In doing this you educate new people about the diversity of indigenous fruit in the UK, and start to break down the idea that you need to import tropical fruit for a varied diet. In the supermarket there are sometimes only four different types of apple to choose from, whereas in reality there is so much diversity in the many different varieties of apples that you can sample; each one has its own unique flavour. The project is also becoming more skilled in developing new ways of preserving fruit, so we can extend the amount of time we can rely on it.

Leeds Urban Harvest: Picking and sorting apples.

The group are also developing a map for their website, showing the location of all the fruit trees in public spaces around the city. They are also dividing the area they cover with local Transition and community groups, as there is too much fruit available for one group to manage. Each group will pick the trees in their local areas, allowing them to rely on more sustainable modes of transport, as the majority of all fruit picked is taken to the kitchen and storage area using handmade bike trailers. Food is grown locally, eaten locally, and the money that is generated from the project simply allows the process to repeat itself the following year. It’s a closed-loop system that allows an urban community to take ownership of food production, and in doing so come to know the city in a whole new way.

Food justice issues are complex and communicating them can be difficult. In a country where supermarkets are stacked to the ceiling with food products, how is the population to understand the reality of a global food crisis? The front line of food injustice is felt most keenly abroad, but food projects in this country do have a vital role in addressing the issue here ­— they reinstate the value of food, bringing it to the centre of our debates around social and environmental justice, whilst reducing some of the environmental impacts of food production and delivering access to healthy food for the community right now. In doing this, food projects facilitate the discussions and learning that leads to action, and promotes the ‘social glue’ that makes communities more resilient and vibrant in the face of insecurity.

The three projects we have looked at are three of hundreds taking place around the UK. They are a small snap shot of the multitude of different ways people are expressing their relationship with food, and in doing so creating positive change:

Emily started gardening with her neighbours in order to break through the irony of the isolating structure of an urban block of flats. How it is possible for people to live on top of one another, and yet can remain strangers until some common ground is found?

Foodcycle in itself doesn’t demand structural change to the system that creates the imbalance, but allows people to come together, giving time and space for discussion, whilst making a direct, long lasting, positive impact on the people involved in the project and therefore on the whole issue of waste in the UK.

For Leeds Urban Harvest, the map that traces the fruit trees in Leeds are symbolic of the links that are made between people as they rediscover the productivity of the land beneath the city streets. The map is a blueprint for the future, one in which the food system is something we can trace from tree to table, and that we work together to create.

“Food is a way to engage people in complex environmental and societal issues,” Emily says. “More importantly, my interactions with food allow me to interact with people from different cultures and different age groups that I wouldn’t otherwise connect with. Building social capital is vital for our feeling of general wellbeing. It is simply the ability to phone a neighbour and ask if they could check whether we left the oven on. The more we have of it the more we are able to tackle problems together.”

In this case, food justice can be said to mean bringing the many issues connected to food, as well as food itself, to a table that is surrounded by the diversity of your community. By sharing food you create ‘table fellowship’, which does not change the broken system, but can break down the walls that, by separating us, allow a system so broken to survive.

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Guppi Bola came into food justice activism after having a brainwave with her partner-in-crime Casper Ter Kuile on Brighton beach. She gets fired up by the environmental and health impacts of the food industry, but has enjoyed exploring new food based campaign tactics after helping run the Create Justice Through Food programme earlier this summer. Guppi’s academic background is in public health, her “spare time” is spent on activism.

Bethan Graham started thinking more consciously about food after dicing what felt like a thousand onions in the Wales neighbourhood kitchen in the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008. Since then, she has been involved in community kitchen and food growing projects in Leeds and Swansea, and has recently moved to London.

Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain

In Articles on 15 August 2011 at 5:33 pm

Reviewed by Rashmi Rangnath

Can a tree and its properties be copyrighted, and those who customarily use it be criminalised? Can the girl scouts be sued for singing copyrighted songs such as “Puff the Magic Dragon” around the campfire? Recently, a corporation trademarked the phrase ‘Radical Media’. With the increasing privatisation of our cultural assets, can we change the system that allows corportations to own our intellectual products?

In policy circles discourse about copyright is almost always in terms of piracy. The big movie and music industries talk of copyright as an absolute right that tolerates no use, reference, or commentary that is not authorized by them. Copyright is commonly portrayed as being under threat from pirates who seek to deprive owners of these absolute rights, but what is lost in all this talk of piracy is an understanding and appreciation of the purpose of copyright law and the nuances in the law that help achieve this purpose.

The comic Bound by Law? is a witty reminder of these nuances. Its comic book format easily illustrates complex concepts that would have taken pages and pages in a textbook or academic publication. By focusing on documentary filmmakers, the comic book reminds us that the law has to both protect copyrights as well as provide certain limitations on these rights. It gives a lucid explanation of the state of copyright law with its various protections for copyright owners and users and highlights areas where the law has lost its balance, also shining light on industry practices—some justified by the law, many not.

The comic’s protagonist, Akiko is a documentary filmmaker who wants to make a film capturing ‘A Day in the Life of New York’. Her film revolves around scenes and sounds in New York City, which she cannot capture without incorporating the music, film, paintings, and other art forms that are present everywhere. She is perplexed about how to clear rights for these pieces, which are inevitably a part of her film, and wonders if she even needs to clear rights for some of them. She even laments that if she cannot use these elements it would be as if she ‘were “disappearing” everything in New York City that was connected with copyrighted culture’.

This fear about disappearing culture underlies the narrative of the book and through Akiko’s search for answers to these questions, two characters act as narrators to walk the reader through the labyrinth of copyright law, fair use, licensing, right of publicity, trademark law, privacy, and defamation. Interspersed throughout are great examples and analogies, but most importantly, Bound by Law? drives home the point that creativity is an incremental process—most artists need to use existing works, and the law should accommodate this process if it is to serve the needs of artists and culture generally.

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