Community Organising in Newham: A Diverse 4 Years – Refugees, Housing, and Youth Safety
Andy Lewis Assistant Headteacher & Director of Religious Education, St Bonaventure’s School
OUR HISTORY AND CONTEXT
St Bonaventure’s school was set up the Order of Fransiscan Minor in 1875 in the basement of a Church in Stratford, and moved to its current site in 1877. The school was built before the Church and the Friary, but the community based here became one of the largest Fransiscan friaries in the UK. The Fransiscans opened the school to improve the lives of young men living in East London and improve their life opportunities. This concern for those in need is something that remains important to the school community today.
It was a student at St Bonaventure’s who said to his teachers that he didn’t get to see his mother anymore.
Upon investigation, it turned out she was on such a low wage, that she worked incredibly long hours and was not seeing her children. She was the cleaner in the office of one of the senior executives at HSBC – the lowest earner working with one of the highest earners. This story was part of the inspiration to Monsignor John Armitage, parish priest at the time in St Anthony’s church next to the school, to help start the Living Wage campaign in 2001. This formed part of Listening Campaign and TELCO retreat at The Royal Foundation of St Katharine.
TELCO gave a single share to another cleaner, Abdul Durrant, who worked in Canary Wharf, and he went to the AGM. He spoke up at the meeting saying ‘Mr Chairman, you and I work for the same company but live in very different worlds.’
This had a profound impact which led to the chairman coming to a church in Plaistow to meet with local communities. In addition, local Catholic Sisters and parishioners with their trolleys filled with pennies from candle money and collections from the church were taken down to a HSBC branch in central London and paid in on one of the busiest days of the year. They delayed the functioning of the bank and secured a meeting with the CEO to negotiate over better wages for their workers. HSBC was one of the first businesses to introduce the Living Wage – and the fact it came from the lived experience of one of our students remains key in our involvement in community organising.
It is also worth noting when understanding our context, that the school was in part funded by Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, the second Archbishop of Westminster after the Catholic Emancipation. Two key things that Manning is fondly remembered for is the prioritization of building Catholic schools (like St Bonaventure’s) in largely poor areas to help improve life chances of young people, and also his involvement in the London Dockers strike. The docks are one short bus ride away from our school, it is the part of Newham where a very high percentage of our students now live too.
The communities of our students and their families are the same communities where the men who took part in the Great Dock Strike in 1889 lived and worshipped. However, there are no longer ships, but there is a whole new financial sector. The fight for today’s Living Wage is still inspired by the fight for the ‘Dockers Tanner’.
This strike is an area of expertise of Monsignor Armitage, “The Cardinal stayed with the strikers often acting as an intermediary and thereby ensuring that the dockers tanner was won. Many tried to intervene between dockers and management without success. The only one who stood by the dockers right through was Cardinal Manning… He knew his people. He knew how important it was for the men to maintain their dignity.”
Manning is also seen as being key in promoting a modern Catholic view of social justice. The papal encyclical Rerum novarum issued by Leo XIII reflected these views, which marks the beginning of modern Catholic social justice teaching. Some refer to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as being the “Best Kept Secret in the Catholic Church”, but that is not the experience of those who visit or get to know St Bonaventure’s. Manning’s legacy is lived out by students and teachers alike, we regularly raised in the region of £20,000 each year for charitable causes. This is particularly impressive when you understand the students live in an area of some of the worst economic deprivation in the UK.
Students at St Bonaventure’s are sometimes surprised to learn about Catholic Social Teaching, because it is something that is part of who we are and what we are about, our ethos, our culture. The ongoing generosity and kindness of staff, students and their families has grown into a characteristic of the school, and is certainly a key attribute of a ‘Bon’s Boy’.
Education is about drawing out from young people that which is already there, teaching is about learning skills and subjects. Education draws out that which is most important in a person, something that they already possess. It is the recognition that they are loved, and for that love to grow you have to share that love with others, with the ones you love, but also the members of your family and community who are most in need.
Catholic social teaching, which can be manifest through community organising, must be at the heart of any Catholic school. It teaches our young people that to find yourself you have to live for others, especially those most in need. We are proud that the communities from which St Bonaventure’s draws its pupils, is part of the story of the struggle for a living wage in the 19th century, and that today we are still inspired by a life changing social theory called Catholic Social teaching.
The school was a founding member of TELCO, The East London Citizens Organisation. This was one of the early chapters of Citizens UK, which is now an alliance of over 80 members. To understand the history and charism of St Bonaventure’s can help understand why community action remains at the heart of life in the school. Our Catholic faith helps define the school community and see the plight of those who are in need, particularly our neighbours who live locally, as a priority. As the chorus of the school song declares, ‘So let us live to change the world, Let us love with all our heart.’ At the end of every term, and every Mass, it is sung with gusto.
2016: A NEW CHAPTER OF COMMUNITY ORGANISING
Four years ago, I started work as Director of RE at St Bonaventure’s. A specific responsibility that I had was to lead the Schools’ work with TELCO and so my introduction by meeting Emmanuel Gotora, the lead organiser for East London. He explained some of the work that had been carried out previously by the school including some work around the Safe Haven scheme, and more recently providing gifts at Christmas for elderly people in local care homes. I attended the TELCO 20th Anniversary Assembly at York Hall, Bethnal Green and I suddenly started to realise the scale of the alliance, the enthusiasm for change and the potential benefit for our students to get more involved. Young people know exactly what the problems are, and are ready to fight for change when given the chance and the direction.
A Year 8 community organising team was set up, and they got to work. They got involved in the ‘Refugees Welcome’ scheme in Newham. An attempt was made to fund a year’s rent for a refugee family, and so the boys set to work arranging a basketball tournament (with paid entry), while they sold refreshments. They were supported by Clapton FC Ultras, who heard about the event and provided a banner. They raised £53 and learnt quickly that fundraising can be hard work!
However, for this group of students they had begun their journey into understanding the real difficulty of housing in Newham. They heard about the success of the affordable homes on the West Ham football ground development and joined various marches and events in Newham.
Alistair Rooms was appointed as an organiser to work more locally with us as a school and this gave us more capacity to help me understand more about community organising, about Citizens UK and develop our students more strategically.
He was able to facilitate a piece of listening by the Year 9 TELCO team who were concerned that a number of their fellow pupils were being forced to leave the local area and that this would have a negative impact on both their mental health and academic performance. They spoke to a variety of students and staff to compile a report with their findings. At a mental health fair hosted by our local sister school, St Angela’s, they shared their report with a variety of different stakeholders with confidence. Members of the Newham CCG and senior staff from Headstart Newham were very impressed and the boys visibly grew in confidence as they realised that the adults in the room were taking their work seriously.
They sent copies of the report to local MPs Stephen Timms and Lyn Brown who both responded and said they would continue to work hard to ensure young people did not need to leave the borough due to housing. Council Cabinet member Terry Paul, a former student of St Bonaventure’s, agreed to come in and meet with the boys. The Year 9 boys shared their work in a formal setting, and Terry agreed to take a copy of the report to the next council housing meeting to share their findings. It felt like their piece of work was being taken seriously, and that they were being listened to.
Ethan had emerged as the group leader during this process, and by this point part of the Headstart programme. He recommended their Headstart project was focussed on housing issues, and ended up with fundraising and visiting to one of the Crisis centres for London’s homeless. His community organising work had a profound effect on him, and was having an impact on many different aspects of his life. His interest in politics – both local and global – continued to grow. Ethan had spent time looking up the different responsibilities of local councillors, how the London Assembly operates (after Mayor Sadiq Khan had visited his grandparents’ housing estate) as well as developing a passion for US politics. We discussed the significance of Barack Obama’s early community organising in his presidency at length.
The Year 9 boys were invited to visit the Queen Elizabeth Park to discuss the failed promises around housing as part of the Olympic Legacy, and help identify potential sites for Community Land Trusts (CLT) in Newham. The way in which they were able to participate, as the only young people in attendance, demonstrated their knowledge of the issues, but confidence that they had something to say.
As they started Year 10, the boys decided they wanted to pass the work on to a new group of students after two years work. However, in November 2018, Ethan had one last job. In a meeting on the top floor of City Hall, he was to time-keep a meeting about housing in Newham with Deputy Mayor London for Housing, James Murray, and also including Lyn Garner CEO of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). Watching him introduce himself, and explain that he would be keeping them to time – and he did – it was clear how his journey with TELCO had helped him grow into a confident “Bon’s Boy”, ready to hold people to account and change the world. I was immensely proud to see Ethan be awarded a Million Minutes award in 2017 (a national award for remarkable young people making communities and the world a better place).
There have been various other opportunities for the students in this group including a visit to Lyn Brown MP in Portcullis House, after a tour of the Houses of Parliament. She spent over an hour discussing issues such as housing, youth crime and environmental issues with them. The very next day they got mentioned by name in the House of Commons as young people ready to stand up and make a change. Not many Year 10 students would be as excited as our boys were to receive their Hansard report for the day, which Lyn kindly sent to them.
Some members of the group have been involved in a Citizens UK documentary about housing. They were able to articulate the frustrations of the Olympic Legacy and the failure to provide adequate affordable housing in Newham and the direct impact this has on their lives. Ethan also helped chair a meeting with Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz as part of the process of identifying CLT sites in Newham, he was able to take one of the younger ‘TELCO’ students with him, and shared his expertise of attending such high profile meetings.
Ethan reflected, ‘When I first joined TELCO in Year 8, I was a nervous and timid individual who wanted to make a small change in certain people’s unfortunate circumstances. However, as time went on, our focus shifted to a bigger and more locally important issues which is still continuous to this day. TELCO has not just built my own self confidence; it has also shown me the in-depth process of rigorous negotiations between two parties and how the very same negotiations impact people’s lives in ways I never fully comprehend. Overall, I am a better, further well-rounded individual because of the work of TELCO and the guidance of its staff and partners.’
After a day of input on Catholic Social Teaching, a 6th Form team was also formed within the school. This group were deeply affected by two of their friends being shot in an unprovoked attack just before New Year’s Eve in 2017. Thankfully they both survived, but the team found community organising provided an outlet for change.
They worked with Community Links to provide insight into what it is like being a young person in East London. They invited in Newham Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Ade Adelekan, who listened carefully to their concerns, and provided answers to their questions. As a result, students got invited to be part of a new Youth Independent Advisory Group (IAG) and attended various different focus groups. This made them feel they were valued and being heard in the local community. They didn’t even know these forums existed before their involvement with TELCO.
Some of these students visited New Scotland Yard and spoke at a TELCO event about their experiences and why they wanted to be part of the solution. They were invited to speak on a documentary on BBC Radio 4 on youth violence, were live on BBC London radio with Vanessa Feltz and one student, Shanea, was featured in a BBC World Service documentary ‘The Kids are Alright’ focussing on young people determined to be a voice for change.
Shanea had experienced the trauma of finding one of her friends outside her home with a knife wound. She had no First Aid skills and didn’t know what to do. She campaigned within school to ensure that every 6th Former was First Aid trained, something the Red Cross provided for free. This is something that Newham are now looking at doing borough-wide. NewVic college did the same as St Bonaventure’s, so as a direct result of Shanea, around 700 young people now have the skills to save a life. She also achieved a Million Minutes award, and has gone on to set up ‘Your Life More Life’, an organisation to give young people a voice to ‘speak truth to power’ which is already growing within Newham with funding from the London Mayor’s Office.
Shanea said, while reflecting on her time at St Bonaventure’s, ‘I was able to learn, grow and develop as a youth and community leader at St Bons with TELCO whilst studying. Learning how to community organise and strategise gave me the confidence to continue to drive change in my local community and support my peers to heal and thrive.’
The group did struggle to implement many of their plans, on reflection, as they were still dealing with the fall out of their direct experiences of youth violence. Sometimes it is not about the actions, the outcomes, but the journey that young people are on, and their community organising experience over their 18 months in 6th Form is something they look back on fondly and they have said was very useful for university and future employment.
Two of the 6th form team, Shanea and James, were heavily involved in the Newham Civil Society Youth Commission, led by Newham Citizens. This was a year-long process, and Shanea was one of the co-chairs. James time-kept, and helped the co-chairs. High profile positions, that came with great responsibility.
This Commission was partly the result of some work the ‘new’ Year 8 TELCO team had started. They decided to conduct a listening campaign in Year 7 and 8 to find out what worried young people in St Bonaventure’s. Certain bus routes and bus stops were highlighted. The group attended a ‘March 4 Peace’ in Stratford, and met Newham councillor and cabinet member James Beckles. They invited him into school and were able to share their findings. This was when they were very young Year 8 students, they had a story to tell, but at this point weren’t able to share it as effectively as they could later on their TELCO journey. James listened, took a copy of their listening, and remained in touch via the Commission.
One victory was achieved by inviting Stagecoach and TFL into St Bonaventure’s to discuss one of our bus routes, a schools service that the school had been trying to fix for around 6 years. From the moment, Tomas, a Year 8 student, welcomed them to the room and said he was chairing the meeting, it was clear that a win was possible. The boys had quickly learnt how to suitably prepare and conduct themselves in such a meeting. The bus times were changed so students did not need to rush out of school, and a later pick up was made to ensure everyone got home safely. This was the start of a positive relationship with TfL including a visit to the main command centre in Southwark, and younger students now taking part in the STARS travel ambassador scheme.
Tomas learnt how TELCO and Citizens operated, and attended events connected to other priorities, such as CLT housing events. As a result, many people involved in these different campaigns came to support him at the Commission events. The Year 8s began to understand how relationships work outside of the school community, in the local area, and with the local council. The whole team have got to know Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz personally and they have played a key role in developing the relationship between the Council and TELCO.
One of the recommendations of the Commission was to work at the Stratford Centre to make it a safer place for young people. The boys dedicated many hours to this project, including some work over the summer holidays. They developed a really positive relationship with the girls from local all-girls school, Sarah Bonell and signed up 20 shops to the City Safe scheme. As Year 8/9 students they visited the shops, developed relationships with the shop staff, earned their respect, so they were willing to join up. The launch was a great celebration with the Mayor, local councillors, police and many others from the local community.
Sadly, just 8 days after the launch, one of St Bonaventure’s students was murdered just outside the Stratford Centre; Baptista Adjei was just 15.
The day after, in school, I met with the TELCO team. They literally could not believe after all their work in the Stratford Centre, that this was the scene of such tragedy. However, through their tears, one of the boys said, “This is why we were doing the work, because it is not safe to be a young person in East London. This is why we need to double our efforts, this is why we need to do more. We will do this for Baptista.”
Later in the day, one of them produced a presentation ready to restart the campaign.
Over the next few days, all of the people we have got to know through our community organising got in touch. The Mayor came to visit the school, and the TELCO team were her tour guides. They have grown to be the public face of the school, and it is their enthusiasm for social justice, for change, and to make Newham a better place that is how the school is known.
I was invited to be part of the Mayor’s Youth Safety board, and due to their work, and that of Shanea, James and other young people, the school has a fantastic reputation locally.
The Year 9 team have picked up their work again, ensuring that Mayor Fiaz followed through with her commitment to write to all shops who signed up to the Safe Haven scheme were thanked, and all those who had not yet, to consider doing so. They met with Barry and Margaret Mizen when they visited school to explain their work. The Mizens set up the Safe Have scheme in memory of their son Jimmy who was murdered. They were articulate, passionate and determined.
When the school had their Section 48 (Diocese inspection), the inspectors were a bit confused by their scheduled meeting with ‘TELCO Team’. They had not heard of TELCO or the work they do. After the meeting, they were described as ‘Mini Fransiscans’ who truly lived out the history and ethos of the school. In the final report, the team were highlighted as being ‘a significant feature of the school’s understanding of the needs of others… pupils have raised the profile of young people who are working to limit the impact of social challenges in the area, such as knife crime and youth violence.’ In a relatively short report, it demonstrates the impact that our involvement in TELCO has on the whole school community.
We have tried to widen the participation of the whole school community with our community organising. A group of Year 10 and 11 students, alongside some of the TELCO team, went to meet with MOPAC and Deputy London Mayor for Policing and Crime Sophie Linden. There was a powerful moment when one student and a police officer were mutually moved to tears by the honest and open exchanges that were taking place.
2020: WHERE NEXT?
Organising is at its best a process of action and reflection, where students plan and take an action before reflecting on what they learned. Opportunities for a learning process connected to real life problems and experiences, can sometimes feel limited in schools, but something that organising can help provide. It takes young people out of their comfort zone in a supported way. Young people are not often prompted to reflect on their practical experiences and thinking about what they have learned, but we have found this to be transformative in the case of our current Year 9 (2018-2020) TELCO team. Their journey has been significant, profound and will last a lifetime. From bouncing around with excitement in the classroom with a local council cabinet member, to helping co-chair and time keep a Civil Society Commission follow up hearing in the presence of over 100 local community members including the Mayor in just 18 months. Along the way solving a 6-year-old school bus problem, helping identify CLT sites in Newham and signing up 20 shops as Safe Havens. The problems were all real, and important to the community. These boys are now well known as changemakers locally. I know they will continue to live out our Fransiscan mission, and be a positive change in the world for many more years to come. I also know they will want to keep community organising, they know it works.
After mentioning to the students that Barack Obama was involved in community organising, one went away and did some research and emailed me this quote from his farewell speech at the end of his presidency: ‘If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing… If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself… Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.’
That student has said he is going to be the next mayor of Newham, and if not the Prime Minister, or maybe the President of the United States. My job here is done.
On a personal level, it has helped me develop the relationships that will be important professionally as I move in deputy headship in September 2020. Education is fast moving and challenging, but it is community focussed. The problems and issues of the community are the problems and issues of the school. They cannot be separated, but crucially, I have seen that through community organising, positive change can be led by schools. We have a student body, ready to be mobilised. We have the parental contact and relationships, ready to work with. We also already have many positive local relationships – with the council, our MPs, various places of worship, community groups, other schools and education settings.
I have discovered that these relationships can be nurtured, developed and grown – and that it is important and beneficial to do so. One example is our work with Sarah Bonnell school – there was never a strong historic relationship between the two institutions, we had very different cohorts (we are all boys, and they all girls for a start!), but working with Deputy Headteacher Joanne Sangster the students have got to know one another and worked closely and passionately with one another on the City Safe scheme. We have been really grateful and know this relationship will continue to grow going forward.
It has helped me share the good work that goes on within St Bonaventure’s. We have invited in MPs, the Mayor, council members – many of whom had never visited before. They now better understand us, who we are, and the kind of young people we are able to grow and nurture. This is our ethos and our mission. Community organising forms a key part of manifestation of Catholic Social Teaching, and through the legacy of Cardinal Manning, of Monsignor John Armitage and generations of St Bonaventure’s staff and students being involved with TELCO, this work will grow and develop. We will continue to make a direct contribution to Newham being a better and safer place to live, with our school at the heart. As Peter Block said, ‘Authentic citizenship… is to hold ourselves accountable for the wellbeing of the larger community and to choose to own and exercise power rather than defer or delegate it to others.’
Block’s definition of citizenship is one that echoes the true spirit of being a Bonaventurian – they are ready to go out into the world and be that positive change.
Who wrote this article?
Andy Lewis Assistant Headteacher & Director of Religious Education, St Bonaventure’s School
Andy Lewis is an Assistant Headteacher and Director of Religious Education and St Bonaventure’s School in the London Borough of Newham. He has worked in a number of Catholic comprehensive schools in the Diocese of Brentwood, holding both pastoral and subject leadership positions. He has contributed to Religious Education nationally through his work with Culham St Gabriel’s, Teach First, The Teacher’s Enterprise in RE, and the Catholic Education Service. He has been involved in organising TeachMeet London events and ran The London RE Hub in 2015 and 2016. Andy has spoken at a number of events including Westminster Briefings, the Institute of Ideas’ ‘Battle of Ideas’, various other TeachMeets, and regional RE training days. He has published textbook and revision guides on Religious Education. He was nominated for TES Teacher Blogger of the Year in 2016 and frequently tweets and blogs about RE and wider education.