Tag Archives: women

Brixton Fund – Local Group of the Month: Skills Network

Brixton Fund is a micro-grants scheme for projects that create community benefit in Brixton. Four organisations were funded in the first funding round in November: Healthy Living Club, Young People Matter, AGT Social, and Brixton Youth Forum. We’ve already featured two of them on the B£ blog (just click on the links above, or search the tag local organisation), but in March we wanted to have a special spotlight on Skills Network, a group who would be eligible to apply for funding from the Brixton Fund. Skills Network are currently holding an exhibition at the B£ Shop showcasing some of the results of their report “In Work Poverty: Stories from South London Women”. The posters and listening stations are available in the shop during opening hours: 10am-7pm on weekdays, 10am-6pm on Saturdays, and 11am-5pm on Sundays.

The Brixton Fund is funded by Brixton Bonus ticket sales (our monthly lottery), sale of B£ merchandise in the B£ Shop and online, and a 1.5% business transaction fee on pay-by-text B£ payments. So whenever you play to win B£1000, grab yourself a snazzy B£ T-shirt, or simply do your weekly shop in B£s, you’re helping fund local groups like Skills Network.

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About Skills Network

Skills Network is a women’s collective based in Lambeth. We offer free, accredited training to enable mothers to support their children’s learning and develop their own skills; training and experience of cooperative working and peer support; work experience through our parent-to-parent ‘skillsharing’ in Lambeth and social-action projects addressing the issues faced by women in Lambeth.

We are a registered charity but we operate as a co-operative; everyone who joins the organisation, whether as training course participant, facilitator, support worker, or anything else, becomes involved in decision-making, and in making our projects happen.

What’s Our Story

What’s Our Story is Skills Network’s social-action work, which comprises community research and campaigning. Our current piece of research is about in-work poverty, particularly women’s and mothers’ experiences of this.

Researchers and media professionals we have encountered have talked to us of their struggle to really access the granular experience, the detailed stories of women experiencing ‘in-work poverty’. They were able to access and analyse quantitative data and policy documents. But the stories were missing. The women in our group saw the importance of what they, and participatory research, carried out by people close to those situations, could bring to our understanding of the experience of in-work poverty.

“We know those stories. Some of us are those stories.”

Here we present some of the stories we found out about in the course of our research.

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In Work Poverty: Stories From South London Women 

This report presents the stories of women we spoke to in Lambeth, south London, about their experience of low-pay, insecure work and the phenomenon of ‘in-work poverty’.

Read and download the full report here

There are some positive stories. There are also stories of exhaustion, frustration, and instability; stories of bewilderment at how after working so hard they get so little. There are stories of blame and recrimination. There are also stories of hope and stories of resistance.

Here’s a short audiovisual introduction to our research:

Extensive research shows in-work poverty, and austerity in general, disproportionately affects women. However, there is more to poverty than money. Lack of choice, feeling stuck in a rut, not being able to plan for the future and a reduced sense of self-worth are all part of the emotional toll poverty can take. Cuts to public services hit women the hardest, as women almost always fill the gaps in care and community services, doing the jobs themselves for free.

Our story, as participants and peer researchers, is that we cannot completely avoid paying the social and emotional costs of in-work poverty. We can only shift around who pays for it – whether children or parents – and when.

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The Impacts of In-Work Poverty

Poverty is the difference between living and merely existing. It is not a metric, it is fluid and shifting.

Some participants were shocked and confused by the lack of difference having a job made in their lives. Financially many felt no better off, or were actually worse off as they had new expenses associated with working, such as transport and childcare. To meet these costs participants sometimes went into debt, borrowed from family members or sought charity.

However, in-work poverty does not just affect a person’s household budget. It also affects their mental and emotional health, their relationships and their ability to plan for the future. Living in debt, juggling bills and time pressures are often linked to stress and anxiety, which both take a toll in the long term. Interviewees described being constantly preoccupied by financial concerns and not being able to meet their families’ needs.

Some of the women we spoke to felt they needed to put a brave face on for their families, but this left them feeling alone and without support for what they are facing. While some thought staying connected to their community was vital, others felt that experiencing in-work poverty made it hard to socialise or spend time out of the house. One interviewee said:

“Only people that have money … have a social life.”

While some of the emotional and social costs identified by our participants would no doubt be familiar to people experiencing other kinds of poverty, there are some that are specific to low-income work. Disillusionment about work, the stress of insecure work arrangements, or the impact of working hours on children can all be difficult to manage.

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Working Women; Working Mothers

“Most women … worry less about being able to break through the glass ceiling than they do about falling through a structurally unstable floor.” Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work

While it is essential that women have equal opportunities to undertake formal paid work, it is important to recognise the additional pressures on women who perform the majority of unpaid care and domestic work. We are still at an immense disadvantage when it comes to trying to hold down work, be a parent and maintain a sense of individual identity at the same time.

It seems pregnancy itself can be the point at which women start the slide into cycles of poverty. This may be due to health problems, difficulties in continuing to work or an end to educational or career  possibilities. Yet despite having caring responsibilities, there is a lot of pressure on women to re-enter the workforce as soon as possible after having children, even if it is to the detriment of their family. Working as much as possible to pay someone else to look after your children can seem illogical and counterproductive. Many of our interviewees experienced conflicting societal pressures, feeling they were failing as a mother, as a worker, or both.

“In Africa, we have less money there, we have less stuff to support ourselves. But on the other hand, we have the privilege of being a mother.” Research participant

Many women we interviewed were worried about passing stress onto their children. Mothers spoke of having to work through school holidays, struggling to keep up with necessities like food and of not being able to provide social outings for their children or even manage school trips. Some worried that not fulfilling themselves as a person, for example through feeling demeaned and exploited at work, would affect what their children thought they could achieve in their own lives. However, some mothers also expressed hope their children would end up more understanding and better able to handle adversity because of their difficult situations.

The women we spoke to were far from passive victims. They identified strategies for coping with the day-to-day difficulties they face. This includes focusing on prospects for a better future, especially providing their children with a better life. Their skills and determination demonstrate an inner ‘resilience’, a characteristic increasingly celebrated over the past decade. But this raises an important question: How far should we celebrate ‘coping strategies’ that result from bleak and unfair working conditions?

The women we spoke to were happy to work and wanted to avoid reliance on state support at all costs. But two demands were clear: (1) better financial and emotional support in order to stay in work, and (2) more autonomy to integrate work alongside caring responsibilities.

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Challenging Prevailing Narratives

An important aim of this project was to examine and challenge the language government and media tend to use around work and welfare. This included looking at loaded terms like ‘choice’, ‘help’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘fairness’. Too often people are falsely separated into ‘strivers’ or ‘skivers’. The idea that you are either a hard-worker or a ‘benefit scrounge’ ignores the reality that many people have to balance paid work with unpaid responsibilities, such as childcare. Current rhetoric around ‘aspiration’ implies people just need to try harder, ignoring systemic constraints and structural inequalities. These types of narratives seek to impose simple identities on complex lives.

Policies designed to ‘help’ families may perversely lead to less family time and poorer family relationships. Policies that could be more ‘helpful’ to parents include shorter working days and flexible working hours. No matter how hard you work, neither families nor individuals can overcome entrenched privilege and structural inequalities. Historically, solidarity and collectivity have been needed to achieve these aims.

The women we interviewed often felt that if they made what the government would call ‘responsible’ choices, it was to the detriment of other aspects of their lives, such as building family relations or engaging with their community in meaningful ways. Many of the women we spoke to felt the only ‘choice’ they had was between bad options. Similarly, the notion of ‘flexibility’, which is often touted as increasing choice, is seen as benefiting employers more than workers, as is the case with zero-hour contracts. Unstable hours and poor work conditions can lead to hardship, stress and insecurity.

Current government rhetoric seems to assume individuals end up living in poverty simply by making poor life choices. We challenge this perspective and instead propose adopting a capabilities approach, developed by economist Amartya Sen. This means focusing on what individuals are actually able to be and do, rather than looking at opportunities that are theoretically available but difficult or impossible to realise.

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A New Way Forward

In-work poverty can mean many different things. How we define poverty and work has far-reaching implications for policy and how we provide support to people. It would be a positive step forward to value different kinds of work more equally in terms of reward and status. Not everyone can ‘contribute’ equally and some people have more needs. It is important to acknowledge that we all rely on each other.

There should be a recognition that other activities beside formal paid work are important and valuable too, such as creativity, social interaction and enjoyment. These contribute to stronger communities, where people can find a sense of belonging and are less likely to feel isolated. We also believe that we need to accept and embrace the different capacities, skills and knowledge present in our society.

Perhaps it is time policy-makers replaced the idea of homo economicus, the self-interested rational man, with homo reciprocans. In this conception of humans, we are viewed as cooperative actors motivated by improving our environment. Fostering cooperation, reciprocity and sharing also bring us closer to realising equality.

‘Aspiration’ is a complex idea that encompasses more than your financial lot. It includes wanting to spend more time with your children, building communities and realising alternative worlds. Let us think more about collective aspirations and how we can balance our needs and desires with those of other people.

“For me, the aspiration would be to think alternatively – what is the best quality of life I can have that supports other people around me? Otherwise people have lost their human value… and I don’t want to aspire to that.” Research participant

To read the full 2015 report on in work poverty, click here

If you’d like to read the previous report, about experiences of the job centre from south London women, click here

#Brixton Fund – Local Group of the Month: IRMO

Every month the Brixton Bonus provides revenue for the Brixton Fund, our new micro-grants scheme in Brixton for projects looking to create employment, challenge injustice and create community benefit.

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The Indoamerican Refugee Migrant Organisation (IRMO), based in Brixton, is the sort of group that would be eligible to apply for funds.

IRMO is a migrant-led organisation that has provided support to the Latin American community in London since 1985.

Its main aims are to combat poverty, to defend its community members’ human rights and to empower them to build a stable life in the UK.

B£ met up with Jeannine, IRMO’s Project Manager for Family Learning and Children’s Education. Before joining IRMO as a staff member Jeannine volunteered for 8 months for their women’s project, then called El Costurero (the sewing box), whose aim was to create an open and free space where people from different backgrounds could share their thoughts on issues that affect them such as maternity, domestic violence, female representation, as well as topics about community empowerment and the arts. El Costurero had a subtly feminist ethos and covered a range of activities, from Spanish language workshops on prejudice, sexism, and racism, to women’s history themed trips around London. Jeannine is Venezuelan and moved to the UK aged 5. After graduating with a BA in architecture and working in the conservation sector, she went travelling to Colombia and Ecuador, which made her want to be more involved in the Latin American community in London – and that’s why she joined IRMO.

“IRMO was set up 30 years ago by a group of Chileans, and at the time was predominantly a refugee organisation, particularly for people who were fleeing the Pinochet regime and other dictatorships in Latin America at the time. Today we still give support to refugees and asylum seekers, but there are less of them, and so our focus has shifted to migrants. The biggest migrant groups these days are Brazilians, and also Colombians and Ecuadorians. We have 6 members of staff and 90 volunteers. About 5,000 people use IRMO’s services every year – mostly latinos and latinas, but our doors are open to everyone. Our focus is to help people get out of poverty, to give them the skills they need to make their lives better. Their ideas are crucial for us – we give them as much lead on the projects as possible. We want to facilitate them to help themselves, rather than impose any solutions. It’s important that we too come from the community: many of our volunteers are Latin Americans, some are recent migrants themselves.

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Latin American Youth Forum

Our advisers run drop-in services: immigration advice on Tuesdays, social welfare and housing advice (including taxes and benefits) on Thursdays, and employment rights advice on Fridays. We do have to charge a small fee, but we never turn people down – if someone can’t pay the full price we’ll ask for a smaller donation, and even if that’s too much, we find a way to fit them in – we never just say no. We also provide interpreting services and publish booklets in Spanish about employment rights and other issues relevant to the community.

IRMO Family Project at the Horniman Carival

IRMO Family Project at the Horniman Carival this year

Apart from that we run a number of projects. I work on the Family Project which is funded by BBC Children in Need. We give advice on schooling, housing, anything the families need. Accessing education in Lambeth, and in London in general, can be a long and complex process, and increasingly you need all sorts of documents, like a proof of nationality or a housing contract, which weren’t compulsory before. Lots of applications are rejected. There’s a shortage of places in schools, so children wait from 1-2 months minimum, and up to half a year, which is a really long time for a child to be out of school. A new extension of this project is bilingual support that we provide in 3 schools in Lambeth: we run a homework club, and help students and parents to communicate with the school.

IRMO Family Project on a trip to the Horniman gardens

IRMO Family Project on a trip to the Horniman gardens

We also run English classes for kids, organise creative stuff like a theatre club, and do trips around London, to show the kids around and to point parents in the direction of free things they can do with their children. There’s an additional layer of difficulty beyond the price of things though: a lot of parents work very anti-social hours (for instance as cleaners) so have very little quality time with their children. Housing is also a huge issue. Rent in London is very expensive, so even though a lot of families can pay, they don’t have enough to rent a two bedroom flat to themselves. They want to rent a room in a shared house, but many landlords won’t accept them, claiming they would be too crowded in one room – but often the reason is that it’s harder to evict tenants with children. So many people are forced to sublet or rent without a contract. If people are eligible for council housing, we help them apply, but realistically often all they can get is emergency housing. Many are caught in some bureaucratic catch 22 situation – in order to get certain benefits like housing benefit you have to have a record of employment of something like 6 months, so in the case of recent arrivals we often feel quite helpless. If you can’t afford a house, you aren’t entitled to benefits, and your child is not in school – what do you do? Nobody takes responsibility for these people. They contribute, they pay their taxes, but are treated badly. We’ve had increasing numbers of people turning to us for help. When this project started we used to accept everyone, and now we can only help people whose children aren’t currently in education, and even with that the waiting list is so long. A lot of the people we help came from Latin America to Spain 15-20 years ago, but because of the acute crisis in Spain right now are forced to move again. And it doesn’t look like that process is going to slow down anytime soon.

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English For Work, adult English classes in progress

Another IRMO project is English For Work where we run English classes for adults. 50% of Latin American migrants in London (and there are approximately 120,000) work in low paid jobs, as cleaners or kitchen staff. Often their priority is to earn money, and they don’t have time or resources to learn the language, especially if they have children, which in turn makes it harder for them to get out of low-paid work. We provide free language and IT classes and also further job seeking support like CV advice or talks about workers rights from Spanish-speaking union representatives. People often don’t know their rights, don’t know there is a minimum wage or sick pay, and employers take advantage of that. In October we are starting a new project focusing more on career development, access to conversion courses, and other ways in which people can develop their skills and find better jobs.

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Staff, volunteers and management committee at IRMO away day

There’s also the women’s project: The Latin American Women’s Circle (El Circulo de Mujeres Latinoamericanas), which provides mentoring to women who aren’t at work, or find themselves in a rut, or in need of support, and helps them get to where they want to be in their lives. It’s also about them having a space: part of the program is organising group meetings which are led by the participating women, a peer support group where they can talk about their issues and struggles. They often tackle topics like gender roles and domestic violence, but the meetings are strictly confidential to ensure the safety of everyone participating. The women support each other, share news, and meet up outside of the project too. The best thing about IRMO is that it really brings people together and creates communities, which are truly empowered to take control of their lives. IRMO’s role is to connect them, but not spoon feed them – they organise themselves. And there is a word of mouth in the community about IRMO, people tell each other that it exists and is a hub and a support point, which is really great.

IRMO Family Project at work on their gardening project in collaboration with Angel Town RMO

IRMO Family Project at work on their gardening project in collaboration with Angel Town RMO

What’s next for IRMO? This year is IRMO’s 30th, which is very exciting! We’re planning a community event in November to celebrate. And in March we’ll host another event, more focused on other organisations and researchers. There isn’t enough research about Latin Americans in the UK. Standard equalities forms don’t include Latin identities, so no data or statistics can be taken away from that. Only in 2013 Latin Americans were included in the monitoring forms in Southwark and in 2014 in Lambeth. In 2011 there was a report called No Longer Invisible which estimated there were 120,000 latinos and latinas in London, most of them in Lambeth and Southwark, but that’s not nearly enough research. Latin Americans are invisible in the equalities statistics, but they often are also invisible in another sense – because so many of them work in the hours when most of us are asleep. We want to change that. We’re also going to be running a campaign around the mayoral elections, to get Latin Americans to register to vote. Already during the general election we promoted hustings and worked to get people more involved and interested in who is in power, who is representing them.

But to keep up with all that work, IRMO really needs some funding. Any amount of money would be useful, would help to fund more activities, but also simply pay for rent and bills. In February we organised a very successful fundraiser week, we raised over £6,000. Our rent went up loads, and it keeps going up; it’s happening everywhere in the area, like in the Brixton Arches, and it’s happening to us too.

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Photography Workshop with Youth Project 

We could do so much more with extra funds. We could provide more funding for drop-ins, we could provide more childcare facilities so more people could use our services without worrying about their children, we could relaunch the youth project which we had to reduce dramatically. At the moment we have a bit of funding to run a one-off event for young people, which they are really doing themselves, they got a budget and are planing and organising it. But we’ve not got much for them beyond that, and with more funding we could have a separate project focused specifically on youth. If they don’t know English they can be the hardest age group. And we’d like them to have aspirations, dreams, perspectives.

IRMO Family Project at the Horniman Carnival this year

IRMO Family Project at the Horniman Carnival this year

We’re always looking for more volunteers, interpreters, translators, English teachers for adults and children (5-12 years old) – so if you could donate your time, please do get in touch with us.

We also really need laptops in good working conditions, bilingual Spanish/English and Portuguese/English dictionaries, arts & crafts materials, school equipment, good English reading books for children learning to read.

We would also be really grateful for any donations to the Family Project, to help us improve English classes for children, put on exciting extra curricular activities and fund exciting family trips that are otherwise unaffordable.”

If you’ve got a B£ account, you can donate to IRMO by texting ‘pay IRMO [amount]’ to the Brixton Pound payment number (07754832867).

Whenever you buy a Brixton Bonus ticket, you will be contributing to the Fund, which will then support groups like IRMO. One more reason to get involved!