Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously said there was no such thing as society, just individuals; the following 30 years saw governments of both hues try to make this a reality. The depletion of manufacturing and mining communities may have been a natural outcome of modernisation but selling off council housing, weakening of unions and defunding social activities were deliberate political decisions. Bit by bit the fabric of communities has been picked apart.
At the same time, we are encouraged to worship our individual freedoms and strive to increase our personal consumption. Britain has become, on the surface at least, less concerned with community growth and more interested in the accumulation of wealth.
Humans though, are designed to work together. Deep down we know life is a dance not a race. We value of our lives in relation to our peers but never truly thrive if others are suffering.
All people benefit immensely from interacting closely with each other and those working to create a more fair society are no different.
Kin is a new project, which aims to harness the power of community by providing the environment for black activists and organisers to collaborate, strategise and support each other.
Kin co-founder Ayeisha Thomas-Smith said: “We understand Kin as ‘the family we choose’. It’s that sense of being in deep connection with the people around you and the people you’re in the struggle with.”
Ayeisha said Kin is building a “national network of black activists and organisers and the aim is to build a home, a community where activists and organisers can come together and share experiences and strategies – and do a bit of mapping: Where are we? How did we get here? Where should we be going?”
Britain has a history of black activism which goes back decades including organisations like the Mangrove Trust and Southall Black Sisters but there is also a groundswell of new organisations which are carrying on the work of those who came before. Kin aims to bridge the gap between these types of organisations so that knowledge and be preserved and lessons shared.
Fellow Kin founder Kennedy Walker said: “What we’ve seen over the last few decades is a breakdown of community. Kin is about creating that space where we can have community, where we can come together and show that we have a history of organising around that powerful, loving, inclusive community.
“In exploring that history as new generation of black activists and having those intergenerational conversations, it’s a very empowering space to be in. We have traditions of organising in a way that isn’t about burn out and isn’t a burden but is in fact a very powerful space.”
“When we were talking about Kin, as a strategy, we thought that Black Lives Matter movement in the States is very powerful and amazing and brought these conversations to the fore but we realised that as young black activists we lack a contextualisation of what that looks like in the UK.”
The desire for community and collaboration is not unique to black activists, or even minority groups, but those who have been marginalised, or who have felt othered by mainstream society, often have a deeper, more lived, understanding of the importance of support networks.
Ayeisha said: “I did some work in the US last year with loads of amazing black activists from groups including Black Lives Matter US, Black Youth Project 100, Black Alliance for Just Immigration. The minute I arrived in that space, there were 30 or 40 young black people who welcomed me and made me feel so empowered. They had such a strong understanding of their shared identity and the collective struggle, in a way that I personally hadn’t experienced as much here.
“Young black activists saying ‘this is who we are, welcome to the family’. I got chatting to some of the people there about how there is a real lack of space that intentionally there to build community.
“When I got back to the UK, I got on the phone to all the great black people I knew and said, ‘we need to build this thing’.”
Set up to compete
Activism-based projects like Kin, which try to do their work in a more collegiate way, often find themselves running up against the very nature of the voluntary sector in the UK. The way charities are funded often encourages them to compete with each other for funding rather than collaborate. Although funders are trying to reward cooperation more recently, they still have a long way to go.
Voluntary organisations are often so busy try to carve out their own slice of the funding pie that they don’t have time to do work taking a broader look at what’s going on.
Ayeisha said: “People are so focussed on the work. It’s all so urgent. Everything is fire fighting. There’s also a culture of competition and individualism. When it comes to funding, we are pitted against each other for scarce resources. Meaningful collaboration is not really seen as something that we should be prioritising.”
“What we are trying to do at Kin is to get people to think in a movement ecology sense. Who’s doing what and how can we build synergy and alignment across those different areas rather than see each other as competitors?”
“One of the problems that we face as black activists is not really having spaces like that where we can come together, connect with other people and ask those deep questions.”
“So often in all activism, not just black activism, there’s a real lack of time to inhale and have a space to think what is needed, to do a bit of a sense check.
“What we’re hoping to do is build that piece of infrastructure, build the house. So that we can bring people to give and have those conversations, start to build the connections so that we can be more unified and start to talk about what collective liberation might look like.”
Kin has a deliberately fluid path ahead of it. How the network develops and how it evolves is all undecided as the whole point is that the community will set it’s own path.
“We have our DNA, our story, strategy, structure. But our overarching objective is to make ourselves obsolete,” Ayeisha explained
Where does activism fit?
Civil society in general and the voluntary sector in particular are going through period of change and self-reflection. Scandals at places like Oxfam, where aid workers were accused of taking sexual advantage of the very people they were supposed to be helping, have dented public trust in large established charities. These have added fuel to larger questions about how they function and what their purpose is.
Finances and free time mean young people have always been drawn to more protest/activism-based forms of social engagement and the digital world means it’s easier than ever to start and grow single-issue protest groups.
The Charity Commision’s rules, which govern all registered charities in the UK say “An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”.
A lot of funders see social change in terms of impact and demand measurable results to their money. Scrutiny is important and measuring impact makes sure that money is being spent well but there this view of civil society is way too prescriptive.
“To apply to a lots of these bigger trusts and foundations, you’ve got to be a registered as a charity. But because of charity law, you can’t be doing anything that they deem political,” Ayeisha explained.
“Obviously everything we do is political so that’s ridiculous. It’s got fall into these weird liberal parameters of work that’s generally good but not political, that’s helpful but not radical. It’s a very dodgy thing.
“In the US they have 501c3 Status, where you can apply to big trusts and foundations, which is completely separate from charitable and you can do political stuff. They also have lots of wealthy individuals and donors. One of the big funders for a big black organisation that I worked with over they is funded by two wealthy individuals.
“I think there’s less of this over here as I don’t think the landed-gentry are going to fund Kin anytime soon.”
There are funders who are looking at ways to be more flexible with the money they give out but until there are people from more diverse backgrounds, who have actual experience of doing the types of work they are funding, change will be slow.
Civil society, like the society it serves, is ever changing. If we are to harness the transformative energy of young people and communities, structures and funding will need to change to keep pace. People are eager to work together for the common good, we just need the government and funders to loosen the chains and let it happen.
The Kin Project plans to hold a convening in August. If you want more information or want to keep updated with their progress keep an eye on their website.5th April 2018