Friar Park Matters

09 09 21

In 2006 the British National Party (BNP) won 33% of the vote in local elections in the Sandwell ward of Friar Park. What was remarkable was that the BNP had never stood a candidate in this ward before and did not do any campaigning.

While the BNP did not win the seat, its share of the vote understandably shocked and even scared people and some called for anti-racist leafleting to be carried out immediately.

Others were not so sure and thought this would be counter-productive.

Friar Park is a poor working class estate and home to approximately 11,000 people. At the time, in 2006, it was 98% white and economically deprived. We thought that going into this proud, tightly-knit community, to address their racism would be counter productive and if anything illicit a backlash.

In our view, the vote for the BNP was a cry to be heard. Here was a community that felt it was losing out and was not being listened to by mainstream politicians. Addressing their very real issues and installing a sense of pride in the local community was more important than telling them not to be racist.

Luckily this was a view that was shared by a young and dynamic local councilor, Simon Hackett, and the local MP. We sat down together and plotted out an alternative approach.

As is often the case in these situations, the answer was to be found in the local community. In this case it was the women who attended the local Sure Start project.

Our research had long showed that women are more opposed to extremism than men. This is not about women being more anti-racist or even having more favourable views towards multiculturalism than men, but greater concern about the damage extremism could do to their communities and a desire to solve problems through dialogue.

We picked the women of the Sure Start project because it was a place where young women, who were often sidelined from the local political debate, gathered. Just as importantly, as young mothers we felt that they had the greatest investment in improving their local community.

The local MP helped secure a small grant from the Regional Development board and with that a community worker was hired on a short-term and part-time basis to help the mums produce a local newslatter – Friar Park Matters.

What began as an amateurish photocopied newssheet went on to become a glossy quarterly magazine. It highlighted positive stories happening in the local community, advertised key events and promoted services, particularly health services, that were available to local people.

The newsletter was available in local shops and distributed by volunteers. It quickly become an important part of the local community. It was both informative but also celebratory. It was a newsletter produced by the people of Friar Park estate for the people of Friar Park estate.

At Christmas time it produced a list of useful information, like the opening times of shops and services, but also promoted help lines for those feeling lonely and depressed. More positively, it also ran a ‘best dressed house’ competition.

In the summer it held what became an annual summer festival. Packed with stalls, dance and games, it quickly grabbed the attention and involvement of the local estate. Within a couple of years more than 1,500 local residents were attending.

In the early days of the project there was no active anti-racist work done. The point was about gaining the respect and trust of the local population. Once that was achieved, anti-racism was slowly introduced. The quarterly newsletter began debunking some local myths and stereotypes and an Asian dance group performed at the second festival, whilst anti-racist badges and balloons were distributed.

We are under no illusion that racism was eradicated from the estate, but we believe that we were able to raise some of the issues in a more productive manner than would have been possible if an outside group had just delivered anti-racist leaflets to the area. More importantly though, through Friar Park Matters we created a vehicle to improve community spirit, that could celebrate the people of Friar Park as they were and to increase the take up of benefit and services and support – which by extension addressed real needs of local people. It also gave us a way to address difficult issues as they arose through a messenger that was trusted and liked by local people.

The BNP stood a candidate again in 2007 but this time took only 17% of the vote, a drop of almost 50% on the previous year. Simon Hackett, who drove the project forward, is in no doubt that the newsletter was partly responsible.


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