In Plain Sight: Knowle West Women Activating Communities – Dr. Sharon Irish

Dr. Sharon Irish, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA

Dr. Sharon Irish is an historian and grants coordinator at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), USA, with particular interest in community cultural development and urban spatial practices.

Knowle West, an area of south Bristol that was built starting in the 1930s, has a history of women actively working for positive social change. My recent fellowship through the Institute for Advanced Studies culminated with a celebration of a number of these women, and a discussion about future directions for Knowle West and Bristol. As an historian, I wanted to provide some perspective on the hard work that these activists have done over the decades: others came before them, and others will follow, all determined to improve the lives of their families and neighbourhoods.

During my time in Bristol, I interviewed ten of the Knowle West women who have organised against drugs and the de-funding of youth services, and for increased bus service and park improvements. Penny Evans, the assistant director of the Knowle West Media Centre, was an essential partner in my project, introducing me to the women whom she had interviewed for an earlier project, the University of Local Knowledge. I asked them what had prompted their actions, what challenges and successes they had experienced, and what advice they had for future activists.

‘Sew Clever’ Bunting

On 28 April 2014, about 35 people gathered at the Knowle West Media Centre to reflect together on the ‘tips and tricks’ that arose from our conversations, and to express further ideas about needed change. This event was part of the University of Bristol’s Productive Margins research programme with which I was connected this spring. We had an animated evening of exchange! Participants also wrote some suggestions on fabric triangles and Knowle West’s ‘Sew Clever’ group created bunting with the messages.

Why it is important to know about and acknowledge those who have struggled before us? Stories from the past provide a context for our current efforts, and add dimensions to our actions that help us see ourselves as historical agents, as women making history. The first cooperative women’s guild in Bristol formed in winter 1889-90 and was run by the members themselves; a Mrs Layton in about 1900 reported on condescending outsiders who came to their meetings. Her frustrations were very similar to the experiences of Knowle West women, who also were poorly served by officials and experts from outside their community. Mrs Layton noted:

I was not used to working-women managing their meetings. I had attended Mother’s Meetings, where ladies came and lectured on the domestic affairs in the workers’ homes that it was impossible for them to understand. I have boiled over many times at some of the things I have been obliged to listen to, without the chance of asking a question. In the Guild we always had the chance of discussing a subject. (Margaret Llewelyn Davies, ed., Life as We Have Known It, 1977, p. 40)

Drawing by Joff Winterhart

The Bristol Broadsides publishing cooperative included Pat Dallimore, a Knowle West resident who not only wrote compelling poetry and essays, but also worked in radio and television. She attended Bristol Broadsides editorial meetings, and appeared on television in the mid-seventies under the auspices of Knowle West TV. Women whom I interviewed recalled her with fondness, and discussed her leadership with admiration. These women recognized that media—print, radio, television, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—were tools for education and publicity, as long as they remained in charge of the messages. Their commitment and hard work—done ‘in plain sight’ but not often visible—has shaped the histories of Knowle West and Bristol.

Sharon Irish
Twitter: @zumpang

20 TIPS FOR COMMUNITY ACTIVISTS 20TIPSAcademics working with Community Activists

My “Yuanfen” with Bristol – Professor Lianzhen HE

He Lianzhen
Professor Lianzhen HE, University of Zhejiang

Professor Lianzhen HE works at the School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, China and visited the University of Bristol in 2014 as an Institute for Advanced Studies Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor.

Yuanfen is a Chinese term meaning the “binding force” that links two persons together in any relationship, and for me, it is the right term to describe my relationship with Bristol.

I first visited the city of Bristol in 1992 when I was studying at the University of Birmingham. Bristol struck me as a beautiful city with great dynamics, and deeply impressed by the magnificence of Bristol Bridge and the city as a whole, I promised myself that I would be back again.

What happened twenty years later brought me to Bristol again, this time to the University of Bristol. In May 2012, a delegation headed by Professor Nick Lieven, Pro Vice-Chancellor of UoB, visited Zhejiang University, my home institution. I was invited to the presentation by Professor Lieven, from which I got to learn more about UoB, “One of the jewels of British Higher Education”. Soon afterwards, in June 2012, when I was leading a small group visiting a couple of UK universities, I decided to include UoB, in an attempt to establish the bonding between my school and the Graduate School of Education at UoB, and the visit proved fruitful. Later in 2013 when UoB held its first graduation ceremony overseas, Professor Yang Wei, then president of Zhejiang University, was awarded Honorary Degree from UoB, I was invited to attend the ceremony and the dinner hosted by Professor Sir Eric Thomas. There I witnessed the popularity of UoB among Chinese students and I could foresee her greater impact in China in the future. And here I am again, as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor this time. A truly great honour for me, I consider it a great opportunity to tighten the bonding.

Both members of WUN, there has already been some collaboration between Zhejiang University and UoB, especially in the area of education and language assessment. Working closely together with Dr. Guoxing Yu, we’ve secured funding from Educational Testing Service (ETS), the world’s largest test provider, British Council and Cambridge Assessment for our research projects. We have also succeeded in our joint application for WUN Research Development Fund 2012, aiming at establishing a WUN Language Assessment Research Network, the first of its kind on language assessment in the world that brings together the research-intensive universities at this scale. And we’re currently exploring areas for further collaboration.

It is Yuanfen that brought us together, and I believe it is this Yuanfen that will take us further.

Do women make a difference as foreign policy actors? – Professor Sylvia Bashevkin

Sylvia Bashevkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Sylvia Bashevkin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She visited Bristol University’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) as the Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor.

Scholars in the UK and elsewhere have spent lots of time studying women’s contributions to legislative politics. Whether they focus on attention to child care and anti-violence policy or the better tone of debate that often follows from electing more women, researchers generally conclude that larger numbers do matter.

One angle that deserves closer attention involves women’s clout in the political executive. The growing concentration of power in the hands of prime ministers and senior members of cabinet means legislators are less and less influential. Even when backbenchers had more power than they now command, the political executive’s ability to shape decisions in areas such as international relations far exceeded that of parliament. For one thing, foreign ministers and the prime ministers who appoint them have long enjoyed access to all kinds of confidential intelligence reports and military briefings that never reach average MPs – let alone members of the general public.

Asking how women operate in top jobs in global politics opens a fascinating window on ties between public officials and social movements.  One key finding about legislators is that female MPs from the progressive side of the political spectrum often champion feminist issue agendas after they’re elected. What about female cabinet ministers? Do appointees in the foreign policy field work to direct their country’s international aid spending, for example, toward women in the global South?

Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, 1997 – 2003. © Faizan Bhat

Thanks to support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, I’ve been able to pursue this question in a systematic way. What I find is:

  • Firstly, over time, we see more women holding senior foreign policy positions in Western industrialized countries, including the UK.
  • Secondly, countries with relatively high numbers of women in international relations cabinet posts (such as Sweden, Norway and the US) also tend to be among the most generous toward pro-equality foreign aid initiatives.
  • Thirdly, and conversely, countries such as France and Italy with historically low levels of women in senior foreign policy jobs have been more modest in their support for equality programmes in the global South.

For countries like the UK in the middle of the distribution, which party is in power seems to make a major difference. The arrival of New Labour in 1997 brought not only more female MPs and cabinet ministers, but also a decisive change in how foreign aid was targeted. In both 2001 and 2006, per capita pro-equality spending in Britain surpassed that of Sweden as well as the US and was second only to Norway. In short, the presence of more progressive women at the foreign policy table had a measurable effect on the directions of British overseas aid. The fact that a similar pattern occurred in other places such as Finland suggests left-of-centre women in wealthier countries can make a difference to how development funds are distributed.

A final question my study posed was, “Who talks about equality issues?” The quick answer is that, on average, female appointees to top diplomatic jobs such as foreign minister or UN ambassador spoke much more than their male counterparts. I focused on Finland, Sweden and the US, three countries that named multiple women to these posts for considerable periods of time since 1976, and compared about a dozen women with their male counterparts. These numbers are small because the numbers in the real world are small – and even tinier in other nations. The trend is striking nevertheless: women were far more likely to use extensive pro-equality rhetoric than men, and progressive appointees from social movement backgrounds were at the high end of the distribution.

Responses to these findings can vary widely but the key takeaway is clear. Females in senior international relations jobs in wealthier countries potentially affect much more than the look of a government’s front bench. They can make a difference to how the foreign aid budget is shaped, and to what gets talked about by senior decision-makers. In so doing, they are able to affect the lives of women and girls in faraway places.

(Originally posted on the BristolPolicy Hub blog)