Knit Toxteth: a labour of love

yarn-bomb

verb

To cover (an object or structure in a public place) with decorative knitted or crocheted material, as a form of street art.

“knitters have yarn-bombed Toxteth”

 

The idea

“I want to yarn-bomb Upper Parliament Street with hearts.”

This was Chantelle’s idea. We had met just before Christmas through a mutual friend, and a bit through serendipity too, while I was working at Red Brick Vintage in Cains Brewery in Toxteth.

Chantelle and I bonded over the vintage loveliness of Red Brick and red wine. It’s always a relief to meet someone who gets you on a level that other people just don’t. And so we became friends.

Before moving to Liverpool, Chantelle and her family lived in Vancouver where yarn-bombing was a popular occurrence. Trees across the city were often found with bright yarn wound around their trunks. Practically anything screwed into the ground was fair game: bus stops, bike rails, parking metres, benches. Further afield such things have been yarn-bombed as a tank in Copenhagen, a bus in Mexico City and statues in Bali.

Yarn bombing is seen by many as a subversive act. It reclaims public spaces, drawing our attention to those things that usually go unnoticed. Yarn bombing can also be a way of delivering a peaceful protest with more and more people realising they can challenge the status quo and create positive change.

In 2014, Chantelle and her family moved into the vicarage at St Margaret’s church, set within the Granby Triangle in Toxteth, and while clearing out the cellar one day she found an old map of the parish: a bold line cut across the faded paper, running down Upper Parliament Street, along Windsor Street and onwards zigzagging through Toxteth. To Chantelle, the border symbolised a community where people live and work, and public spaces where acts of community take place. It was this map that inspired her.

The first plan was to somehow knit around the whole border but the distance proved unrealistic.

“I thought knitting little hearts would be a good idea. That way, lots of people could join efforts and knit together.”

Chantelle decided that a section of Upper Parliament Street would be enough to represent the original vision. This was the beginning of Knit Toxteth.

The parish

The public perception of Toxteth is not usually a positive one. The area received worldwide attention in 1981 for what was termed the ‘Toxteth Riots’ outside but is more commonly described as ‘the Uprising’ within – a time that was for many a response to years of institutionalised racism, being ignored and isolated politically, within a context of decades of police brutality. A yarn-bomb of hearts certainly wouldn’t change national perceptions of Toxteth, but quite simply our message would be love, love for the community, love for Toxteth. Our hope was that this love would be shared.

St Margaret’s parish has a population of just over 3000, within a small geographic area of Toxteth that mostly covers the Granby Triangle, the most ethnically diverse area in Liverpool and home to some inspirational community initiatives.

The Turner Prize-winning Granby4Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) has become world-renowned: four streets of beautiful Victorian terrace houses, previously marked for demolition under the Housing Market Renewal Initiative, are now being renovated due to the unwavering determination of the community and those involved with the CLT, bringing about ‘a thriving, vibrant mixed community, building on the existing creativity, energy, and commitment within the community, where people from all walks of life can live, work and play.’

Granby market, originally set up by the community, brings life and energy to the streets once a month with wonderful smells, music and dancing, local buyers and sellers. The vision for the market is that it will sow the seeds for the re-establishment of shops and businesses on Granby Street, which once thrived generations ago.

Beyond the Granby Triangle is Windsor Street, with its expanding community food production project known as the 100-year food street plan. Take a stroll down Windsor Street and you’ll see chalkboard signs promoting community food gardens such as the Grapes Garden, the base for Food For Real Film Festival which seeks to ‘explore the environmental, political, health and cultural impacts of the food we grow, eat, waste, and share.’ Further on, the soon-to-be-opened Toxteth Food Central is home to Squash Nutrition, a social enterprise and community-food organisation who ‘work with food as an ingredient to stimulate a more socially active, engaged, fair, and inclusive community’ and will house a local affordable fresh food shop, training space, and food garden.

At the end of Windsor Street is Toxteth Library, with a well-stocked children’s library and the base for literary organisation Writing on the Wall. WoW’s incredible team coordinate projects and events with all of Liverpool’s communities to celebrate writing in all its forms, supporting marginalised writers and giving them a voice, loud and proud. They have just finished their annual month-long literary festival, WoWFest 2017, with the timely theme of Revolution. The festival brought writers, activists, poets, journalists, commentators, spoken word artists, and audiences together. Akala, Gary Younge, Raoul Martinez, Margaret Aspinall, Chris Riddell, Natalie Bennett, Howard Gayle, Vicky Pryce, Phil Scraton, and many more explored their take on the palpable change that is in the air.

As well as these there are dozens of other great projects, charities, social enterprises, community-run businesses, seen and unseen, to explore in this small parish and throughout the rest of Toxteth.

Toxteth is rebuilding itself after years of deprivation. To this day St Margaret’s parish ranks as 23 out of 12,599, where 1 is the most deprived. Within the parish child poverty is at 50%, working age poverty is estimated at 30%, and pensioner poverty is 70% (ranked 2/12,599). There is still work to be done, of course, but help is coming from within the community. If you are wondering how you can help solve these and similar issues in your own community, do some research and find projects already doing something and connect with them. I know Squash Nutrition are very passionate about ending child poverty, so if that is something you want to help end, get in touch with them.

The call out

We did the call out in January for knitters and crocheters via Open Culture, Art in Liverpool, and Knit Toxteth’s Facebook and Instagram. There was no deadline.  We hadn’t decided when we would do the yarn-bomb. We intentionally didn’t push so we went with the flow to see if anyone was interested. Looking back should we have had a bit of a strategy worked out?

Chantelle doesn’t think so: “Having a strategy would have defeated the purpose of it. I just wanted people who were interested in coming along. I didn’t want to make people do it or convince them. I just wanted them to do it out of their own goodwill.”

In the lead-up to the yarn-bombing we received some media exposure through BBC Merseyside who approached us because they wanted to help. Chantelle and I were interviewed live on air on separate occasions, and we were able to hold a heart knitting session through BBC Merseyside’s Up For Arts project. That day around 20-25 people turned up to knit, crochet, and sew hearts, many of whom continued to support the project. Chantelle decided to launch the yarn-bomb on May 6th. This coincided with Voluntary Arts Festival – Up For Arts’ partner – which promotes community participation in the arts.

In the following four months we were inundated weekly with stunning hearts: some big, some small, some brightly coloured, others embellished with tinsel, buttons, tiny dolls, the Jamaican flag, some stuffed, some made from fabric and sewn together and attached to string. Altogether, over 1100 hearts were donated. We still aren’t sure how many people were involved. We’ve estimated about 50-60 but there could have been more. Families, individuals, knitting groups, social groups, and work teams all contributed.

Photo courtesy of @skatiecreates

And thank you, thank you so much if you are reading this and you are one of those who took the time, energy, and resources to be a part of Knit Toxteth. You have all been so wonderfully generous. We are also so grateful for the support and encouragement received from all of the organisations and the people behind them, who helped spread the Knit Toxteth message.

There is something so powerful in the word-of-mouth passing-on of an idea or message through trusted sources such as friends, family members and colleagues. A good idea in the right hands and at the right time can grow naturally and that is an important lesson this project has taught me.

The yarn-bomb

I woke up on the morning of May 6th so excited and a bit terrified. Doing anything public is scary but if I’d learned anything in putting myself out there, it was that there will always be a tiny minority who don’t like what you have to say or do. And if you allow them, they will make you angry with their opinions. But generally, in my experience, there is always a majority of people who will love and support a positive idea.

About 15 people met at the vicarage to help us hang the hearts – friends, family, contributors and those who just came along to get involved. After a quick cuppa we stepped out onto Princes Road with our bags and boxes of hearts. One of our volunteers immediately got cracking on the fences of the Greek Orthodox Church while the rest of us carried on to Upper Parliament Street. Hearts were hung on railings as we made our way to an overgrown grassy thoroughfare in-between two Georgian houses. We covered the iron bars there in hearts while Chantelle got to work hanging her Knit Toxteth sign. Half of the group broke off and carried on down Upper Parliament towards Toxteth Library then onto St James’ Church.

It was absolutely thrilling working with such a mix of people, some of whom I knew fairly well, some absolute strangers and those I’d met maybe once or twice, people similar to me and people who live very different lives.

“I felt there was a really good turnout of people who came to help,” Chantelle agreed. “It was really great to see people stopping and taking pictures and looking out their windows wondering what we were doing. I think the actual putting them out was quite fun and just seeing how it changed the whole street. And then seeing the online presence too was cool.”

Yeah, it wasn’t long before people started to notice.

Next

We are still thinking about what happens next. There is scope for us to set up a regular group at the vicarage so we might do just that. We will definitely launch another project but we aren’t going to force it. I guess when it feels right, when things align, then that will be the time.

Knit Toxteth was our way of celebrating and honouring the wonderful community and beautiful things that are happening in Toxteth, and we were able to bring people together into the process at every step of the way. There is exciting and fulfilling work to be done in every community. What great things are already happening in your community? Connect with them. What issues are not being tackled? See what you can do about them with the resources you have. Get together with friends and talk about these issues and pool your resources. We need to be engaging with our own communities again, at neighbourhood level, even street level.

The most important thing about this project was the connections that were made: the families, friends, and groups that got together to create hearts, new friendships formed, and the connections the hearts made with people as they walked past. More than ever, we absolutely need each other. We need to be able to have open, honest, and real relationships and we need to build our communities on these relationships.

We hope that what we have done together will inspire others to do something similar. Ideas like Knit Toxteth aren’t owned. We have merely given it a go.  It worked.  Hopefully it will work for others too.

“Just like each of those small hearts,” says Chantelle, “if we do our own little bit in our communities, we can build and create something extraordinary.”

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Coming Home

A little over a year ago I woke up early to the sound of a cockerel crowing. After stepping out of bed, I walked towards my small balcony and opened its wooden doors wide. The hot morning light spread across my room. I leaned against the iron railing, looked down to the bottom of my street at the Saigon River, and took in a few deep breaths.

My beautiful white, ginger, and tortoiseshell cat rubbed up against my ankle. The only time she was nice to me was when she wanted feeding. After seeing to her needs, I got dressed for the day ahead choosing suitable clothes for teaching English to energetic children in classrooms that had one or two slow old ceiling fans, while temperatures often reached 32 degrees.

Before leaving the house, I wrapped a long skirt around my waist, pulled on a flowery face mask, a pair of long beige gloves, and a long-sleeved thick black cardigan – suntan lotion cost a fortune –strapped a helmet under my chin, and put on a pair of my favourite fake Ray Bans; preparation for the forty minute scooter ride to a primary school on the other side of Ho Chi Minh City.

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Today I woke up in my mum’s house in Kirkby. Those morning rituals are from another life. After three years living in Vietnam, I left on 24th June 2015. And, after a short period travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, I came home on 19th August 2015.

Those exact days when I left and arrived are completely etched in my mind. I remember subtle details like the sweat on my back as I stood at Vietnamese immigration and the warm eyes of the young man who greeted me at the guesthouse in Phnom Penh. I remember the car journey from Heathrow airport. The cold English rain running down the windows. The curry I ate with my mum and aunty in our B&B bedroom. Days of extreme opposing emotions.

When I returned home, I spent weeks visiting friends and family I hadn’t seen for years. Each big bear hug was a healing experience. I had actually got through it; through the painful loneliness I’d felt for so long. And coming home was my reward.

Then began the process of thinking about work. Actually, this process had been going on for some time. ‘What will I do?’ had haunted me from the moment I’d decided to return home. I knew what I’d enjoyed doing in Vietnam. I loved writing articles for two of the biggest English magazines in the country; Word Vietnam and AsiaLIFE. I especially loved writing a really controversial piece about sexism within the expat community. The then editor of AsiaLIFE, Chris Mueller, had seen me argue with a bunch of Neanderthals on some expat Facebook group, sent me a private message to ask if I was the writer of a blog post called ‘Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist’ (I was) and if I would write a version of this for the magazine.

I wrote the article and got paid $50. I was made up! Then the article went to print. What followed was probably the most transformational experience I have ever had. So much love and support came my way. Men and women sent me private messages on Facebook and Twitter thanking me that finally someone had spoken up. And how disgusting it was the way many expat men treat Vietnamese and other expat women. Thank you thank you thank you!!

Oh, and then all the really awful, nasty, abusive public comments that were written about me and the article on social media. I expected the fallout. What I didn’t expect was to not be able to physically write anything of substance for over a year. My self-confidence was shattered. It wasn’t the pathetic delusional comments like “she’s just jealous because no one wants to have sex with her,” but the comments that criticised my writing ability and poor grammar.

A year or so later, we held a party in our house for a friend’s birthday. I sat on the floor of the spare bedroom with a girl I’d just met called Njeri who had recently arrived in Saigon to teach English. By this point I’d become disillusioned, knackered, and cynical of life in Vietnam but tried, and failed, to hide my true feelings from her. I mentioned that I’d written an article the year before about sexism. She looked at me excited, “Did you write Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist?” I choked. Someone I had never met before had read my work, liked it, and actually remembered the bloody title. I realised then that I’d done something very powerful in writing that article. I’d encouraged someone. I’d empowered another woman. My shit grammar didn’t matter anymore. I’ll always treasure that conversation with Njeri.

So I was back in the UK and adamant that I wouldn’t return to 9-5. Before I’d left for Southeast Asia in 2012, I worked as an Intelligence Analyst for a law firm in Liverpool. The job had its interesting moments and I think I was good at it. What I wasn’t good at was working in a corporate environment. The only way I could utilise any creativity was by coming up with efficient and organised systems of work. It was dry and I died a little bit inside every day.

I needed to separate myself from what I thought was expected of me and instead realise what I wanted to do. Not in any selfish way. I wanted to use my skills in a pure and unhindered way. To wake up every morning enjoying the work that I do. To show others that there are other, happier ways of living. That was the goal, anyway.

By October 2015, thanks to the kindness of my cousin Robyn at Innovators Hub, I landed a two-month internship with Wordscapes, a print and digital communications agency based in the Baltic Triangle, working with the very talented Fiona Shaw and Andrew Beattie.

During my internship I did a bit of copywriting, research, admin, interviews; basically loads of dead interesting work that I completely believed in. Halfway through I was asked by Fiona to do some research for the launch of a new initiative called The Beautiful Ideas Co. that would be funding social enterprise ideas with the aim of regenerating North Liverpool. I needed to find stories of social innovation around areas such as money, spaces, manufacturing, regenerating the docks, mobilising the workforce, and real-life social networks.

The stories I came across were fascinating; a worker-owned cut and sew textile factory in North Carolina; a community hub and market for the distribution of wholesale food and local artisanal goods in Detroit; a city-wide initiative to incubate local creative enterprises using empty shops in Newcastle, Australia; a renewed transportation infrastructure to mobilise the local workforce in Medellin, Columbia; a local city-wide currency to support independent businesses in Bristol.

Beautiful Ideas Co. launched in November through a series of events across Liverpool. What I’d researched and written about was hung on large A-frames at all of the events and used to inspire people to come up with their own beautiful ideas for North Liverpool. It was through these events, specifically a hack day at The Sandon pub in Anfield, where I met someone who would change the direction of my life.

The morning of the hack day, I walked through Anfield where I’d lived with my mum until I was 13. It had been maybe ten years since I’d been anywhere near the place I grew up and I was curious to see how much of it had changed. I walked past my old primary school on Anfield Road, along quiet streets of Victorian terraced houses, then on to Stonehill Street, and saw my old home. When I dream about it – and I dream about it often – the front door is always open and I go inside. Sometimes the interior looks completely different, but I always feel safe.

That day I saw my old house boarded up in between other boarded up empty homes. And I stood in the street with this sinking feeling in my stomach. I took a few steps back, pulled out my phone, and took a photo.

As I walked away, I burst into tears. I don’t know why. It could have been the memories of life on Stonehill where we used to regularly hold street parties. Where kids would play until it went dark and people would stand to chat at one another’s doorsteps. Where everyone knew everyone else’s business and that was fine because we were looking out for each other.

My childhood home
My childhood home

Ten minutes later, I arrived at The Sandon on Oakfield Road. As the function room filled with some new and familiar faces, I showed Fiona the photo of my old house, the windows and doors boarded up. We both agreed it was a real shame and then I got on with the job for the day.

Once everyone settled, Ronnie Hughes stood up. I’d briefly met him the night before at the Beautiful Ideas launch event but had no real idea who he was other than a well-known local blogger. Ronnie began introducing the day ahead which was to be about coming up with some beautiful social enterprise ideas that would ultimately regenerate North Liverpool. Someone shouted out “Like what?” Ronnie suggested a project could be set up that would see the thousands of empty homes in Liverpool lived in again. Fiona and I looked at each other and smiled. What a coincidence.

Later that day, I ended up interviewing Ronnie to camera for a short film. I asked him questions about social enterprise and his answers were elegant and succinct. Afterwards, we chatted about Ronnie’s work with the Granby 4 Streets community and also some with Homebaked and I knew I wanted to be friends with this kind, honest, and gentle man.

My internship at Wordscapes ended just before Christmas with a promise of partnering in the New Year. By early February, I still wasn’t working but instead kept myself occupied with a screenwriting class I’d joined. I hated being at home on my own all day so made the decision to get out the house and find a café in town where I could work on a screenplay and be around people.

I went to 92 Degrees on Hardman Street, ordered my coffee, pulled out my laptop, and scattered some papers on the long wooden table to make myself look legit. Not long into my session, I noticed Ronnie had been sitting at a table at the other end of the café. As he was leaving we had a little catch-up and that was that.

Over the next four days we bumped into each other twice as we walked in opposite directions on Bold Street. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Ronnie asked me if I had any dreams for a social enterprise. Not really, I said, although I had dreamt about my childhood home the night before. But in real-life it was boarded up and empty. He told me his idea was the one he’d mentioned at the Beautiful Ideas hack day about the empty homes.

We met up properly a few days later at The Egg on Newington. Ronnie said he’d tried to give away his empty homes idea to someone else but it turns out he was the perfect fit for it. He’d worked in housing since the 70’s and has been heavily involved with the Granby 4 Streets; the most recent winners of the Turner Prize. I explained my background, my dreams for my future, my faith, my family story, pretty much laid out my whole life before him. For some reason, Ronnie liked what he heard and decided to put his trust in me.

Coming Home – the fitting name Ronnie gave his empty homes idea – will soon be a Community Interest Company (CIC) working to get many of the thousands of empty homes, primarily in North Liverpool, made into beautiful safe places to be lived in again. So far, the core team is me, Ronnie, and local artist Jayne Lawless. We also have a strong board of proper amazing people; a few national but mostly Liverpool-based.

I’ll be Writer-in-Residence. At a pitch for funding with The Beautiful Ideas Co. I was asked what it actually meant to be a Writer-in-Residence. I’ve never Googled it to find out or really asked around but I know what I am capable of. Since coming home to Kirkby in August last year, I’ve written a few articles and blogs, have a regular column at Ethos Paper writing about new ways of doing business, and have coordinated a grassroots business festival partnering with Wordscapes. I teach English to asylum seekers and work as a social media manager for a small local company. I am also building relationships with fascinating people who love Liverpool.

I know I’ll be writing regularly, be it blogs, tweets, bids, proposals, press releases, emails, and even a book! I’ll also be painting walls, updating spreadsheets, meeting homeowners, making tea for builders, project managing, and loads more. I’ll be using all of the skills I’ve picked up over the years. Nothing is lost. And I am dead, dead excited!

Recently, Ronnie, Jayne, and I were at a pub discussing all things Coming Home when Ronnie pulled out a book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh; the story of how a community on the Isle of Eigg fought against corporate power by organising themselves and using their collective resources. Ronnie told us that this book inspired him and others when working on Granby. The following day I flicked through the beginning pages and read this beautiful passage:

“If we can persist and sit with the reality, not running from it, a music may eventually be heard. The fetters of destructive control loosen. Life’s dance resurges. And there is joy in spite of everything.”

Yes. Joy in spite of everything. That’s what I see. That is what Coming Home is about.

Independent Liverpool are proper sound

As many of you know, I’ve recently returned to Liverpool after 3 years living in Vietnam. I left in June but the months that preceded my departure were some of the hardest I’ve ever had.

I’d known for a while that it was time for me to leave but I didn’t feel ready at all. Social media became an obvious way for me to escape from reality and find out what was happening in the lives of my friends back home. Around the same time, loads of people I knew had liked this Facebook page called Independent Liverpool which promotes local independent businesses, writes blogs like 10 of the best Sunday roasts in Liverpool, and posts the odd photo (see below) to mix things up.

David Hameron

Independent Liverpool made me feel so excited to come home. I was simply delighted by each post and blog they wrote. I felt proud to be coming back to Liverpool and I knew it was the right thing to do.

Even though their content is stunning and hilarious and makes me dead hungry and sometimes I actually physically drool, there’s so much more to Independent Liverpool. They themselves are a business and sell these cards – £15 each or £20 for 2 – that give you access to discounts at nearly a hundred different local independent restaurants, café’s, bakeries, bars, pubs, clothes stores, arts and crafts shops, theatres, bookshops and more. It’s incredible.

When I arrived home I wanted to let the fellas at Independent Liverpool know how much they’ve helped me while I was away so I sent them an email thanking them. I received a lovely reply and they offered me, as a welcome home pressie, two free cards. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later and today they’ve arrived in the post.

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So, now I have the joy of giving away one of these cards and I’ve come up with a cunning Liverpool-themed plan.

If you live or work in or near Liverpool and would like the chance to win a card, then take part in my ‘Ooer, How Scouse Are You?’ quiz.

So get your mate Google ready because some of these questions are proper rough.

 

Ooer, How Scouse Are You?

1) If you have new kecks, what do you have?

a) New pants/trousers

b) New trainers

c) New friends

 

2) What doesn’t go into a pan of Scouse?

a) Potatoes

b) Mushrooms

c) Onions

 

3) Which came first?

a) Everton FC

b) Liverpool FC

 

4) When did Liverpool become a city?

a) 1720

b) 1207

c) 1880

 

5) Which of these is not a middle name of a member of The Beatles?

a) Arthur

b) Paul

c) Winston

 

6) To be devoed means…

a) To have no money

b) To be drunk

c) To be upset

 

7) What is the most likely meaning of the name Liverpool?

a) Pool of life

b) Muddy water

c) Pond of livers

 

Send your answers to me at ourjencanjump@gmail.com. I’ll randomly select a winner from those who get every answer correct. If you get any wrong the first time, don’t worry I‘ll let you know and you’ll have 2 extra chances to try again. The winner will be announced Wednesday 30th September.

Good luck!

 

Courtesy of Independent Liverpool
Courtesy of Independent Liverpool

 

For more info visit Independent Liverpool at independent-liverpool.co.uk and like them at facebook.com/IndependentLiverpool

We need to talk about human trafficking

When I was a child my mum became a member of Friends of the Earth and was their Liverpool coordinator for a time. I have very fond memories of those years. I remember going along to protests at B&Q, watching my mum’s weird mates holding handmade wooden placards shouting at customers for buying wood from Brazil. I remember once sitting on a big green sack filled with leaflets and pamphlets at the back of a white tented stall in the middle of Church Street while my mum and her mates would give curious kids and lippy teens a badge of a big beaked bird with the words ‘you toucan save the rainforest’ emblazoned across. I loved that badge. I remember overhearing a lot of talk about how it was absolutely necessary to only buy dolphin-friendly tuna, which we never did because ours was, naturally, a vegetarian home.

Sometimes I forget this childhood and tend to remember instead having handstand competitions against the school wall and playing manhunt while simultaneously trying not to get smacked in the face by a football hurtling through the air. Yet, being exposed to these global issues and environmental injustices at such a young age has most definitely paved the way for me to bring to light those causes I believe are the greatest injustices of our time.

When people started to become aware of the possibility of bits of dolphin being found in their tins of tuna, they were horrified and many did something about it, especially in the USA. They boycotted any tinned tuna company that did not state that theirs was dolphin-friendly, later rebranded as ‘dolphin-safe’. By 2004 dolphin mortality rates dropped by 97% thanks to the dolphin-safe commitment made by tuna companies. Nowadays ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna is the norm and is expected by consumers and for a while it seemed that the world had been made right-ish.

Fast forward 20-odd years and recently, before the refugee crisis hit our shores, there were news stories coming out on a near daily basis about thousands of people being enslaved as fishermen for brutal Thai fishing captains and other forms of forced or bonded labour across the world. Many victims trafficked by people they may have initially trusted. Just because these stories are no longer flooding our media doesn’t mean it’s all been fixed and we can go on our merry way.

In fact, it has been widely reported that traffickers are cashing in on the current refugee crisis. Lest we forget the 71 people – 59 men, 8 women and 4 children – who were found dead in the back of a lorry, abandoned beside an Austrian motorway.  It was illegal people smugglers, traffickers, with their networks and logistical knowhow who are behind incidents like this.

So now, let me remind you of the full extent of the problem.

A New York Times article, Sea Slaves: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock, investigated the experiences faced by those, mainly Cambodian and Burmese men and boys, who were promised a job by traffickers within their home country only to be faced with years of indentured servitude as they work, and occasionally die, in horrifically oppressive conditions at sea: ‘the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.’ All to fulfil the needs of the United States’ cat and dog populations.

The findings of investigations like the New York Times’ article have prompted lawmaker Gabriel Mato, a Spanish member of the European parliament and its committee for fisheries, to suggest the possibility of refusing imports of Thai fish products into Europe. In the meantime, as we did with tinned tuna, a boycott of Thai fish products by European consumers would send a strong message. There are plenty of websites giving useful recommendations for how this can be organised. Ethicalconsumer.org is a good place to start.

Already we are witnessing the Thai government moving into action. It was recently reported, after the discovery of 36 bodies in the south of Thailand – all believed to be migrants from Burma and Bangladesh – that over 100 people, including 15 state officials, have been arrested for crimes of human trafficking within the fishing industry. The Thai defence minister, having received a letter from the EU detailing their concerns, has admitted to 3,000 unregistered fishing boats being used nationwide.

To be clear, the definition of human trafficking is “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” It’s worth pointing out that every country is affected by human trafficking, as countries of origin, transit or destination.

Trafficking happens in your country. A quick Google of ‘human trafficking statistics UK’ provides ample evidence that it is rife in my country. In 2014 the National Crime Agency published a report which stated that an estimated 2,744 people, including 602 children, were potential victims of trafficking in 2013. A 22% increase from 2012.

Stats are not easy to come by in terms of measuring the size and impact of the human trafficking industry; traffickers, pimps and madams don’t particularly enjoy being quizzed about their business dealings. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have identified that forced labour, such as what we see happening on Thai fishing boats, amounts to 18% of those who are trafficked contrasted with 79% who are being sexually exploited. Due to the fact that those who are sexually exploited are more visible, to an extent, and those who are forced into labour tend to be hidden, especially out at sea, the distribution of these figures may be due to statistical bias; forms of trafficking other than sexual exploitation are less frequently reported.

As consumer activists we need to consider the fact that human trafficking for sexual exploitation cannot be boycotted and therefore it is harder for governments to give the ‘red card’, and sanction into action those nations that contain sex trafficking networks.

Compared to what we are able to do as consumers for those in forced labour, the average concerned citizen can do a number of things to raise awareness of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. You can help by campaigning and fundraising for organisations such as Stop The Traffik, a global movement of activists around the world who passionately give their time and energy to build resilient communities and prevent human trafficking.

The work Stop The Traffik do in terms of awareness raising for sexual exploitation cover campaigns such as the No Room hotel campaign which enables you to ask local hotels to say they have No Room for trafficking. Or if you or someone you know is a taxi driver then Stop The Traffik can provide support for how to deal with a potential trafficked victim in your taxi. Drivers across Liverpool are now issued with a sticker (see below) when they renew their license.

Taxis against Trafficking
Courtesy of Stop The Traffik

A Cambodian-based non-profit, Sak Saum, provide vocational skills and training to women who have been trafficked and sell an array of handbags and accessories. Buying from a business such as this and telling people about the story behind your purchase is a way to raise awareness.

Whenever you read an article about human trafficking for sexual exploitation you can share it on your social networks and raise awareness that way. If you want to do something more visible within your community you can walk a mile barefoot.

19th July 2010, Dr Jeff Brodsky visited Cambodia in order to support a feeding programme. His visit took him to a rubbish tip in Phnom Penh where many children lived who were at risk of being taken and sold into brothels. Jeff noticed that most of the children at the tip were barefoot. Later that evening, back at his hotel, Jeff wondered how it would feel to be without shoes every day. He decided that for the next year he would live barefoot.

Jeff said the day his barefoot year ended he went to put on his socks and ‘sat on the edge of my bed, socks in hand, and was ready to feel the warmth and softness of those socks around my feet. I stretched them a little, brought them towards my foot and then something very strange happened. I couldn’t get them past my toes!’ He believes something that day stopped him from putting on his socks and he saw the children who motivated him, children who had no choice whether they would wear shoes or not. He has never worn a pair of shoes since.

Since 1981 Jeff has been working with the poorest and neediest children of the world with his organisation JOY International. In 2014 Jeff visited a church in Coshocton, Ohio where the youth group decided that they wanted to help JOY International somehow. After some discussion they came up with the idea that they were going to walk a mile barefoot. Their local community participated and together were able to raise over $12,000 while bringing awareness of child trafficking for sexual exploitation to hundreds of people.

My own experience walking a barefoot mile was powerful. It was the five year anniversary of Jeff being barefoot, and the first international event, outside of the USA, of its kind. Held at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, it couldn’t have been at a more appropriate location, chosen because those we were representing that day may never get the chance to participate in the sports and events that take place there. Due to construction on the running track we did four laps above the seating area. Although it was raining constantly the weather was ideal for being barefoot; the hot Cambodian sun would have made it a painful experience. As each lap ended Jeff would speak about something on his heart, the growing crowds of Cambodians and other nations being represented were left tearful yet motivated to continue.

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Dr Jeff Brodsky – photo courtesy of JOY International

After the event, Kelly Treat, Joy International’s National Director of The Barefoot Mile told me ‘Our hope is to expand our Barefoot Miles in many more countries to raise awareness and the much needed funds to continue rescuing these precious children. Together we can make a huge difference in the lives of these children.’

The funds raised through hosting a Barefoot Mile go towards rescue missions, rehabilitation efforts and other projects that allow JOY International to combat child trafficking. If you would like to organise a Barefoot Mile event in your local community then contact Kelly Treat at kelly@joy.org for an information pack.

Imagine thousands of people across the nations walking barefoot in solidarity for the oppressed, the powerless and voiceless. You’re stood waiting for the bus. You’re not wearing shoes because you’re being sponsored by friends and family. Someone asks you ‘why aren’t you wearing shoes, mate?’ and you tell them that you choose to be shoeless for those who have no choice. A powerful statement and one which, although initially mocked, will be remembered for a long time after.

You have more power than you realise. Use it to make this world good.

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Photo courtesy of JOY International

 

From half to whole

IMG_20150628_075702Standing amongst a sea of strangers waiting for the bus assistant to shout my name and give me back my stamped passport, I felt sick. I was exhausted by all the crying and months of debilitating anxiety that had led to this day and my face was blotchy and I probably smelled of fear and BO because it was so fucking hot.

Everyone there had someone to support them. Someone to moan to about how long this was all taking. Someone to lean against while checking social media because it was that boring. Someone to shake their head at because words failed them. I didn’t have anyone. How would I feel better if I didn’t have someone to talk to? And it occurred to me that I will never say ‘remember that day we left Vietnam forever?’

So I stood there, eyes wide with the horror of what this whole situation really meant; once over that border, there was no going back. The nearly 5 year relationship with my, now ex, boyfriend had abruptly ended almost 2 months before – although we’d managed to scrape a flimsy friendship together – and the life I’d built as half of a couple these past 3 years in Ho Chi Minh City would finish. Just like that. And I would have to begin again.

5 hours later I arrived in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Soon after settling into my room I booked a seat on a minibus to Kampot, a sleepy riverside town in southern Cambodia famous for its pepper. I was going to be staying at Greenhouse guesthouse on the Kampot river a couple of kilometres out of town. I arrived two days later determined to find some rest from the pummelling I’d given my brain the last few months.

My room was a bamboo hut with a shared bathroom. It was simple and cheap and I was only a few metres away from the restaurant serving an uncomplicated menu of Western – mostly French – and Khmer cuisine, and lots of lovely cocktails.

Although hut and cocktail were in close proximity to one another, I didn’t want to step outside the confines of my new safe abode. Words sometimes can’t articulate what is feared and it felt as though I was afraid of everything. In order for me to make the most of this time I needed to take drastic measures. I decided that whatever I was afraid to do, I had to do it.

The first thing I had to do was take a shower in the shared bathroom. I’m so not one of those people who cares about the cleanliness of public toilets, like, I sit on them without putting down loo roll. However, my anxiety was through the roof so any kind of self-care, such as washing my body, felt like an unnecessary reward.

I carried my red beach towel, some clean clothes and my wash bag across the car park towards the block of two bathrooms. All around the sink was wet and the floor was soaked. I noticed a long piece of bamboo hanging from the ceiling so draped my clothes and towel on it. Next, I had to strategise: How can I take off/put on my clothes without getting them wet? Do I keep my flip flops on? Do I use the shower or the tap? What gets cleaned first? Should I even bother shaving?

I eventually got round to showering. The water was freezing, but I got used to it. My clothes were a bit damp after I put them on but they dried up quickly in the heat. There really wasn’t anything to worry about and maybe I’d even shower tomorrow.

A couple of days later I rented a motorbike to ride up the meandering road of nearby Bokor Mountain. Knowing this terrified me was what propelled me to do it.

I looked at Bokor and I breathed it all in, then burst into tears, a loud ugly sobbing, still riding my bike. Every time a car or bike came in the opposite direction I had to pull myself together and take the odd look behind me in case someone was close enough to hear. As soon as it was safe I’d start crying again.

At the top of Bokor mountain you can see the sea and some nearby islands. The sky is ominous one moment and serene the next. There is an old abandoned hotel and from the outside the building looks unfinished and hollow. Inside is labyrinthine; rooms freely connected to other rooms or hallways or staircases or roofs. It’s easy to get lost. Floors are flooded by the rain that seeps in and pretty green mold covers some walls, complementing the peeling grey plaster.

I walked into a room overlooking the sea. The floor was mostly damp but there was a dry patch in the middle so I stood on it. The dusty wind blew straight through the glassless window and up against me. I closed my eyes and made myself smile. I realised that what I had been afraid of was experiencing something beautiful alone. I felt something inside me lift.

IMG_0782 Upon returning to Greenhouse that evening I stared at the river. The water was calm and reflected the stillness of the darkening sky. I wondered why I hadn’t yet swum in it and asked myself what was I really afraid of. Well, the day before I’d seen a snake poke its head up and swim a good 10 feet through the water. I’m scared of snakes. – But Jen, I said, snakes are much more afraid of you than you are of them. – Alright, the water looks a bit yellow. If I swallow it I might get sick.- Yes, you might even catch a deadly skin eating bacteria but the likelihood of that happening is remote. – OK. I’m afraid of being on my own. I’m afraid of feeling lonely and what loneliness can lead to. I’m afraid of being pitied for being on my own and I don’t want to be pitied. I want to be loved. Fine. I’ll jump in your fucking river.

To prime myself, a couple of days later I rented a kayak for an hour. I walked towards the pile of green plastic two-man kayaks and a British guy was there gauging their size for him and his girlfriend. He offered to help me so I accepted and took a step back to watch him push the kayak into the water. He looked at me confused and said ‘Yeah, grab your end then’. I was so ashamed and I wanted to tell him that I was really sorry for coming across like a lazy, entitled woman, and maybe I am, but I am a feminist too, obviously not a very good one, but I’ve just come out of a long term relationship and my ex would do those kinds of things for me and I’m just trying to get used to everything now. Sorry.

After a fairly awkward and clumsy entrance into the water – my end happened to have only a thumb sized hole while his had a handy piece of rope – I paddled upstream along the riverbank where trees hung low and birds where singing. The sun was high and hot making my sunburn from Bokor sting but my anxiety was abating although the absence of anxiety doesn’t equate to happiness. I was in this perfect place and felt nothing.

I returned to dry land, threw the paddle onto the stone steps and balanced my way out of the kayak. I manoeuvred the end with the rope towards me so I could pull it out of the water. Wearing my soggy flip flops and digging my feet into the sand, I pulled with everything I had. I managed to get half of it out but the other half was going into the water. I stepped backwards and slipped but managed to stay upright. My hands, gripping the rope, burnt. My stomach was searing as I eventually dragged the kayak towards its home. I let go and felt dizzy and then nauseous so sat down. Even though I wanted to vomit all over that stupid kayak, I felt a tiny sense of victory.

Before there was any jumping in a river, I needed some Dutch courage. As I sipped a pina colada, I looked out to the jungle covered hills beyond the river. The view before me began to come alive. As I breathed, it breathed. I inhaled as it exhaled.

I thought about how I could be better, how I could get better. My short time at Greenhouse had taught me an important lesson; I must love myself better. I must trust myself the way a child unquestioningly trusts her father. I must care for myself the way a mother cares for her child, with gentleness and kindness and love, unconditional love. For me to be well, and to love well, I must first know how to love myself well and that sometimes means doing the things that scare me the most so that I can be free from fear.

I skipped back to my hut, grabbed a dry green towel and made my way to the floating dock. I sat on a bamboo sun lounger and lay the towel over the top of the chair. I was concerned about making the sunburn on my face worse so put the towel over my head and sat still for what seemed like hours berating myself for not going in. My heart was racing and my head began to pound from the heat and the mental fight I was having.

I slipped off my flip flops, lifted the towel away from my face, pushed myself off the lounger and stood up. I didn’t give myself a moment to think as I walked towards the edge of the dock and dived straight in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is Robyn

There is a young woman in my life who I am truly blessed and honoured to know. She inspires me no end and leaves me standing in awe of her life’s accomplishments. This young woman is my 17 year old cousin, Robyn Dooley.

Robyn left school last year and is currently working in Debenhams as a Sales Assistant. Robyn is also an elected Member of Youth Parliament (MYP) for Knowsley; a Fellow for the yearlong World Merit Fellowship Programme (Robyn will spend 2 weeks touring the UK, 11 months working in her community doing social action, then 2 weeks in Washington DC and New York); a Knowsley Young Advisor and Social Media

Robyn Big Love Little Sista
Robyn

Associate for Young Advisors’ social media platform RoundUp (Robyn promotes up-and-coming campaigns for Young Advisors); a Young Leader for the soon-to-be national programme Big Love Little Sista; and a Researcher for the national project Talent Match, which helps to find work for those who are unemployed and face severe barriers to gaining work or education.

Robyn hasn’t been to university yet. In fact, she only has GCSE’s. She is a talented, strong, focused, ambitious young woman who wants to see, and bring about positive change in this world.

Two years ago, Robyn was suffering with an eating disorder, yet seeing her today she is thriving and living with absolute purpose and confidence.

Robyn’s journey fascinates me and I want her to share her story with you. So, here is Robyn, in all her grace and vulnerability and boldness:

What do you think was the catalyst for your journey beginning? Was it your recovery from having an eating disorder?

(R) I definitely think my recovery has played a massive part with where I’m at today, though I have always, since I was in primary school, been keen to get involved in creating positive changes. So I know the journey I am currently on is one I have been thriving for.

I was in a pretty big rut this time 2 years ago, battling with depression and beginning my recovery from Anorexia. I was completely numb and, quite frankly, I was disappointed when I’d wake up of a morning, which is pretty sad considering I was a young teenage girl close to finishing my final years in secondary school, entering the exciting world of responsibilities and parties, and I had a pretty good group of friends around me, not to mention my family.

Since then, I have attended numerous therapy sessions, received an unbelievable amount of support from the people around me, and I’ve become much more aware of my mental state and myself. This has allowed me to reflect and focus on what I actually find enjoyment in. I also hope to utilise my negative experience of suffering with a mental health illness and use it as a way to raise awareness and help remove stigma,

For World Merit
For World Merit

but also help to improve the services available to young people.

What have been your greatest accomplishments and experiences so far?

(R) Youth Parliament has offered so many opportunities that I could only ever dream of having; as part of Youth Parliament we carry out the biggest youth consultation in the UK; Make Your Mark, which highlights the top 10 current issues amongst young people. Throughout the course of two months we go out to the young people in our communities and ask them what issue, out of the ten, mostly affects them. From this, we then narrow down the top 5 issues that were raised nationally, which we then bring to the House of Commons for all MYP’s to debate and vote on what we believe should be our next annual campaign to carry through nationally. To be in a room filled with young people who share the same desires and creating positive social impact to benefit those back home in our communities, and sat on the famous green benches is undoubtedly one of the best experiences.

Being selected to be part of the World Merit Fellowship Programme is definitely one of, if not the best, accomplishments. July this year, I began my yearlong journey to break down barriers and rise beyond boarders alongside 22 change makers from across the globe, from Brazil to New Zealand, the Philippines to Italy. In just 13 days of our time in the UK, we managed to form bonds so strong and connections so deep, it was inevitably the most intense and overwhelming experience I’ve had to date.

My decision to agree to begin my recovery is an accomplishment in itself, if I had not decided to do it when I did, I would hate to think about where I would be right now. This is what has allowed me to go on to do so many fulfilling things, and though I am not fully recovered I have never enjoyed my life as I am right now. That’s something I thought 2 years ago I’d be incapable of achieving.

What will the next year entail?

Robyn and Malala
When Robyn met Malala

(R) I think this year will be very experimental and exciting. In terms of World Merit, I will be continuing to develop a project with my team to raise awareness of Gender Inequality; we are focusing on the stigma between men and women and common phrases. Throughout the next few months we will be planning and holding virtual meetings, which may well be a challenge but that’s the point, and then July 2015 we will be presenting our final idea to global leaders throughout the two weeks in New York and Washington DC.

In terms of Youth Parliament, I will be stepping down in February however up until then I will be going to the House of Commons to debate this year’s top 5 issues amongst young people across the UK, which we as MYP’s vote on the top 2 for our annual campaign. I’ll also, continue to be involved in other bits!

As for Big Love Little Sista, we are hoping to expand and go out to London this year and then hopefully to India to hold the projects.

I’ll be turning 18 this year so I think some big changes will be happening, whether that be moving out or travelling alone, I’m not too sure yet. But I’m seriously excited for what 2015 has to offer.

What are your long-term goals?

(R) I’m trying to avoid setting myself any goals, I know aspects of what my purpose is and I want to continue growing on that.

I often ask when will I consider myself successful. It’s a word which can be interpreted many different ways; some measure their success by the amount they have in their bank account, some consider success to be about raising a family, owning a business or just by getting out of bed to go to work. It’s different for everyone and I’m still looking for my personal definition.

But to answer your question, my long-term goal is to be successful.

Robyn Fun
Trust

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learnt so far?

(R) ‘If not you, then who? If not here, then where? If not now, then when?’

If there was one piece of advice you would give to anybody what would it be?

(R) The global currency is trust. Although it’s not easily earned and vulnerability is not easily shared, I have learnt that when we do, we truly realise the power of people, the truth in the world, the beauty of difference and the reality of the same.

So my advice to you is to trust in yourself and other people. Be open and listen. Don’t be afraid of vulnerability.

How to love your lunch

Many people contact me asking how they can get involved in volunteer work when they visit Vietnam. In all honesty, until the last few months I couldn’t have answered this question at all. I was so busy, working every day, I didn’t have the time to even think about giving back to the community. Shameful indeed.

After a pretty ugly burn-out, I decided to change my schedule and outlook. It was at that point when I heard about a project called Green Bamboo Warm Shelter (GBWS).

The GBWS is a project of the NGO Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation. The project provides care, education, housing and other daily assistance to at-risk street boys aged 8-16. It is important that they have a safe and enriching environment where they can be provided with resources and opportunities to later integrate them back into the community, either back with their families or in a job. Last year, the project’s main donor pulled out their funding leaving it near to closure.

In response, a group of the oldest boys at the shelter decided to set up and run their own restaurant whereby all profits go to supporting the 15 boys who stay there.

It sits down a small allyway; an unassuming and modest restaurant. Inside Green Bamboo are four long metal tables that could each sit about 6 or 7. Diners are served homely portions by the enthusiastic and caring young waiters.

Each month the menu changes, but the food is generally in the style of com tam (broken rice) including chicken, pork, fish and beef. There are also noodle dishes and vegetarian options. One dish is 25,000 vnd per person, whilst the buffet costs between 50,000 and 150,000 vnd per person.

Green Bamboo is a very special place. A love permiates throughout everyone there; the waiters, the cooks, the staff, the volunteers. You can even taste it in the food. When I have finished my lunch and it’s time for me to leave, I don’t want to. GBWS gives more to me than I ever could to them, and when in Ho Chi Minh City I hope you  have the pleasure of being as captivated by this place as I am.

Green Bamboo Warm Shelter Restaurant is situated at 40/34 Calmette Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward,District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Open from 11:30am  to 1:30pm, Monday to Saturday. Make sure you get there as early as possible before the food runs out.