Learn, collaborate, unite: my fellowship year

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Nicola Browne

20178-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

Travelling into Belfast from the nearby town of Whiteabbey takes ten minutes and two train stops. The route skirts the edges of Belfast Lough and runs parallel to the M2 motorway into the city. It winds past old mills, relics of Belfast’s linen-spinning past, and newly constructed shopping centres. Cranes litter the skyline, which is dominated by the “sleeping giant” outline of the Cave Hill, inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

To the untrained eye, there is little sign of the community divisions that propelled conflict in this place for 30 years and cost over 3,500 deaths, countless injuries and untold heartache. Yet Belfast, and Northern Ireland, is a place apart, and the people feel it. The nuances of the sectarian conflict that played out here were largely treated with indifference and lack of interest elsewhere, particularly in the UK media.  

I took this journey in the autumn of 2018, travelling to London as part of the 2018-19 Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity cohort at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was a time of change and (not unwelcome) uncertainty. I had recently recently left my job as Director (Policy) of Participation and the Practice of Rights, where I’d spent 12 years supporting communities that have been affected by poor housing, inadequate mental health services and unemployment, and helping them to use human rights to challenge and change the everyday inequalities they face. A year-long programme of learning about radical economics, social reproduction, financialisation and digital inequalities lay ahead.

I shared the experience with 18 other social justice activists, all with their own deep grounding in challenging inequalities in places ranging from Chile to Brazil, Zimbabwe to Kenya, Armenia to Croatia. And in that space, something vital and enduring was born. We learned, of course, from a range of inspiring academics and activists about the interests at play at the elite level of global financial institutions, states and corporations that result in the neglect and abuse of countless people in all of our countries.

But most importantly, we learned from each other. The nature of state and institutional power and how it operates became clear, and it was evident that although place and context may change, power rarely does. I listened as my friend Craig Tinashe Dube from Zimbabwe spoke about the declaration by Emersen Mnangagwa, who became president in 2017, that “Zimbabwe is open for business”, and I recalled how the phrase “Northern Ireland PLC” became a common refrain in the early years of the Northern Ireland peace process, as foreign direct investment was feted as the tide that would lift all boats, alongside a hefty cut in corporation tax. The wise and insightful Anjali Sarker from Bangladesh talked about her work on digital financial inclusion and how tech is seen as “neutral”, but all too often works against the interests of poor communities. I was reminded about the “digital by default” roll-out of Universal Credit across the UK, and the disorientation, deprivation and exclusion that it caused people. As we drew constant parallels and made connections among our experiences, we became a bonded and supportive group of friends whose collaboration across difference challenges another innate truth of power — that “divide and conquer” is one of its most effective tools.

As activists we underestimate the value of community at our peril. Those who work for social change are often motivated by their own strong internal beliefs about justice, and how it should look in the world. We bring our whole selves to the work, and the scale of the challenges we face means that support, space and solidarity is absolutely vital if our activism is to be effective. And to be effective, it needs to be sustainable. Our strength lies in our humanity and our recognition of the humanity of others — both the communities we work with, and the activists we work alongside.

In late July 2019, shipyard workers from Harland and Wolff, the iconic firm that built the Titanic in Belfast and drew its workforce from the Protestant communities living around the yard, stood in protest outside Northern Ireland’s parliament building at Stormont. The workers, who were seeking renationalisation to prevent the closure of the yard, were awaiting the arrival of the new UK prime minister Boris Johnson. In scenes that would have been unthinkable at the height of the Troubles, they stood alongside campaigners from An Dream Dearg, a group calling for formal recognition of the Irish language in legislation, as promised in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. A loudspeaker changed hands, and chants of “Sábháil ár gclós” (“Save our Shipyard” in Irish) rang out as they stood together in solidarity.

Powerful interests rely on our division. Humanity, connection and solidarity can create the conditions we need to truly learn from each other, and create meaningful social change. There are no prizes for heroes. The real prize awaitng connected, nourished and encouraged activists is the ability to move ourselves and societies closer to the equal, just and sustainable world that we all dream of.

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Nicola Browne is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity and a Fellow with the Social Change Initiative’s Leadership for Social Justice and Peace in Northern Ireland programme. A human rights activist with 18 years of experience in NGOs and academia, she is the former Director (Policy) for the Participation and the Practice of Rights project (PPR), in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She tweets at @nicolajbrowne.

Photo: @GMB_Union