Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are beyond the headlines? The podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I’m Michaela Benson.
Ala Sirriyeh [AS] And I’m Ala Sirriyah and in our day jobs. We’re sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We’ve also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today.
I’m delighted to be joined in person by Professor Alison Phipps and Tawona Sithole from the University of Glasgow, and our first recording in person sort of almost entirely in person except Michaela who is going to be joining us online. So we’re actually able to look each other in the face and have a have a normal conversation for once, which is lovely. So I’ll just say a little bit about each of our guests today. Alison holds the UNESCO chair in refugee integration through languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, where she is also the Associate Professor of languages and Intercultural Studies, and CO convener of Glasgow refugee asylum and migration network. She’s based at the School of Education at the University of Glasgow, where she teaches refugee studies, critical multilingual studies, religious and spiritual education, anthropology, and intercultural education and education for non violence and Tawona is our first poets on the oh and Allison. On the podcast I’m extremely excited about Tawona is a poet, playwright, and mbira musician, educator and facilitator. His ancestral family name, Ganyamatope is a reminder of his heritage, which inspires him to make connections with other people through creativity, and natural Outlook to learn. Co founder of seeds of thought arts group. And both Allison and Tawona recently worked together on a collection called the warriors who do not fight. So, welcome to the podcast. We’re so happy to have you here. Yes, lovely to be here in person.
MB Just a bit jealous that I’m not there in person. I am absolutely delighted that you’re both able to join us. And yeah, our first poets, it’s super, super exciting. I think one of the things that we were really keen to discuss with you was to do with this, this policy, shall we say, this kind of reporting on the so called Rwanda policy, and we’ve picked, we picked one of many, many articles that we could have chosen. But this article was published in The Guardian on the 14th of June, so not too long ago, and it’s entitled, monarchy, celebrity and clergy. Rwanda policies, alternative opposition. And what the report is about is about the Rwanda policy. And this is the plan from the home office, a UK Home Office, to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda, for them to claim asylum there. And this follows a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the UK and Rwanda, which is officially known as the UK and Rwanda migration and Economic Development Partnership. I think it’s fair to say that this is a significant offshoring of responsibilities by the UK Government, as laid out. So ordinarily, you know, the Refugee Convention would mean that they’d actually have to process those claims locally. And they have, you know, they are a signatory to that refugee convention. So this is a bit of a departure, I would say, probably not the first time they’ve tried to depart from their obligations laid out in the convention. But what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, is that the first planned flight was met with extensive opposition. And it led to the European Court of Human Rights stepping in introducing interim measures, which led to the flight being cancelled, and the removal orders on the remaining seven passengers removed. What’s notable about this, and what the article in The Guardian lays out so clearly, is that there is a broad coalition of people who oppose this plan. And in their article, they list the Prince of Wales, the Archbishop’s of the Church of England, and celebrities. But I think it’s fair to say that there is a longer backstory to this, isn’t there, Allison?
Alison Phipps [AP]: Indeed, I mean, I just love the fact that those are the bedfellows that, you know, the really radical direct action activists are then lumped together in in a coalition and that, you know, it’s monarchy celebrity and the church basically, that are given the kudos in The Guardian, when, you know, in many ways, they’re often Johnny come laters to our party that’s been going on for a very, very long time. And, you know, no less welcome for it. It is really welcome because we’ve been on our own struggling against a lot of this for a very long time. But also knowing that they too, are sustained and supported by many, many, many different actions, which are really quite spontaneous, which haven’t come out of nowhere. So the spontaneity of the action doesn’t mean it’s not a trained action, or a thought through action or a practice action, it’s more than it’s an action that can then happen when the conditions are right. Because I’m a bit like doing a flash mob in the streets, it’s kind of people are just ready to do it, you know, they can burst into an operatic song when it’s necessary. And there can be a full chorus in a shopping mall. And I think in some ways, it’s a slightly strange analogy to use the flash mob analogy, it was what it felt like, and those who knew our job is to protest, we’re out there protesting and those who knew our job is to be rather disapproving royalty suddenly knew that that was their job. And the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have realised it was his job to say, This is against God’s law in whatever the accent is that they teach you to speak in Anglican clergy training school. And those who do direct action, we’re doing direct action, and we’re, you know, really bravely locking on and lying in the middle of the road to try and stop the convoys. And the the barristers were, you know, having had these cases arrive on their desks as immigration lawyers, and therefore taking them up, not because they’re lefty lawyers who believe in taking up immigration case law, but because they’re lawyers who are doing their job duty as lawyers and taking on the defence of those who’ve been brought to them to defend and seeing what then happened as this kind of dynamic space of one after another, those last seven people being taken off the plane, I think, to my mind was just really a show of years of work that’s gone on through little direct action, migration, Justice organisations, that I’ve been working at grassroots in small towns and villages, and places that have often had the most number of dispersed asylum seekers living in their midst. And where people have learned that their neighbours are under threat, and have learned to take action and have have sort of Spread from, I don’t know, I grew up in South Yorkshire have spoken to a group of in Leeds, who then spoken to a group in Liverpool, who then linked up with a group in London, who then all look to Glasgow, where we’ve had the largest number of dispersal. Asylum cases being made, and kind of learned from each other. And all the local conditions have been really different. But also there’s been a similarity of knowing we need solidarity, we need people on the ground whose immigration status is relatively safe, to be able to act in solidarity with those whose people whose cases are precarious. And, you know, certainly my own involvement in this has been really since 2000. And I suppose 2004, when I was first first visiting detention removal centres, and in many ways, it hasn’t changed much, it’s just that we are far greater in number than we were originally. So yeah, behind that headline, where suddenly we find ourselves in great company of, you know, all of these celebrities, you know, you’re seeing Emma Thompson, you know, in her, her opening statement around what’s wrong with migration, with the nationality and borders act, but you’re seeing all kinds of others coming on board, you know, knowing that some of those people have also been alongside for that length of time, Emma Thompson and Greg Wise, have been doing this work with the Refugee Council for years as well. But then others coming on board later in the in the day, but all being part of something that has grown from real grassroots political education and thinking so that it can act spontaneously in the ways that we saw on June the 14th.
AS: And you can sort of see that thank you so much for that, Allison. We can sort of see little glimpses of the behind the scenes and the little connections, just let me know a little bit about that community and collective of people who are trying to achieve, but the way it’s presented, it’s as if it was not a fast platform. It’s as if it just erupted out of nowhere. Suddenly, there’s this sudden change of feeling or …
AP: And you have, you know, these remarkable work done by immigration, barristers and immigration lawyers who are often you know, by far the worst paid within the legal profession, you know, taking on all of these pro bono Legal Aid cases. But who’ve found ways of digging into the deep, nitty gritty of what home office directives are saying, seeing what they are seeing how far they might go, seeing how much panic we may or may not need to have, and sometimes steadying the ship and saying, Guys, this looks bad, but actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds. And other times saying, no, actually, this is risking taking us absolutely out of the Refugee Convention, and then doing the work that they did alongside and I think you could add, actually, to that list of royalty celebrity church, you could actually add, UNHCR, you know, who are not known for rocking the boat, you know, they’re not, they’re not. And then the United Nations is about diplomacy, which isn’t about rocking the boat. It’s about you know,
AS But then it means when they do say something its radical , well the UNHCR has spoken this must be yes, Yeah, a big signal Yeah.
AP And that they’re then, you know, being part of producing the legal. you know, the legal cases to go up to the European Court of Human Rights and are making these 11 Power interventions. It’s really interesting.
Tawona Sitholé [TS]: But I think also Allison, because people now due to, you know, living together, people, the interest, and then the knowledge build up has been also accumulating. So people from being distanced from this issue, if it doesn’t concern you, it doesn’t come directly into your own lifestyle, but people by being alongside others, and this idea that these are our neighbours, as we know, you know, so. So yeah, people’s content and awareness is growing. So it’s no longer one of those tricks that can be pulled over people, because people are learning about what the issues are. And so yeah, people have more of a say.
AS: Absolutely. Could I ask you a bit more about that, actually, because one of the things you were talking about, you know, people coming up to their neighbours, and you’re speaking a little bit about Glasgow, now, I actually wanted to ask you both, as I don’t know, if you’d describe yourselves as, glaswegians. I will describe you as Glaswegians. Because we’ve seen such in, I mean, from us, looking from the outside and Glasgow, we’ve seen such inspiring acts of resistance from communities in Glasgow, from people coming out against the kidnapping of their neighbours on Kenmure Street, I never know if I’m pronouncing that correctly or not. And the the recent protests in George Square against the Rwanda plan, that these are just the latest iterations that I know from looking at Glasgow for a long period of time going by back to the Glasgow girls and before that, and I just wanted to ask you both about why you think that that the city has become this sort of an ally, so to speak, and for asylum rights activism, and it might look a little bit different, perhaps from the inside or …
AP: Yeah, I mean, I mean, it is, I think, down to the fact that Glasgow is the biggest dispersal city or was for a long time. And, you know, this was quite a cynical move on the part of the city council we had they had a lot of empty housing stock, and then realised that this could be used for asylum seekers and it may have been substandard for local Glaswegians to live in but it was fine for asylum seekers. Now colleague in sociology, Teresa Piacentini talks a lot about her experiences as a translator for Glasgow City Council and, you know, suddenly discovering that she’s actually translating people who have been, well who are survivors of torture, survivors of trafficking, and whose experiences of life are radically different to things of her own. And she talks about the appalling unpreparedness of the city for this, you know, in a city that we know well of as dominantly you know, I mean three to 4% Black and ethnic minority statistics until the last last census in 2011, where As up to roundabout 14%, but, you know, really a city that was taken by surprise by the presence of these asylum communities, but also not and I think what’s Tawona was saying about the chant from Kenmure Street, these are our neighbours, let them go, these are our neighbours let them stay. It’s kind of about the the need of the City of Glasgow, and without wanting to romanticise it too much, but it’s a it’s a city that knows poverty, and it’s a city that’s no migration. And it’s a city with some of the worst wicked indicators in Europe, and it’s often known as a sick man of Europe. But that that also breeds common care, and care networks that go beyond what the state or the local authority can offer. And I think that that also coupled with the strong trade union traditions, it wasn’t called the Red Clyde for nothing. And the long histories of organising, but also linked with liberation theology movements in the church, in the 19, back into the 1930s, before liberation theology was a thing of the 1960s. You know, this being about needing to feed the hungry, about providing accommodation about improving housing, and all of those memories are still there. And in a way, your movements like the Glasgow girls just tapped into what was already a rich scene. And so the Glasgow girls, it’s easy to tell it as the musical and these young girls and so feisty, but actually, the story of the Glasgow girls is the story of an English teacher. And the story of these two fabulous grannies, Jean and Noreen. So it’s a story of a carried history within trade union movements, within a sense of we don’t treat anybody like this in this city. This isn’t what you do to people. And that then being part of almost the mentoring, but those those people, you know, the legend, the legend, that is the English teacher from Clyde bank, who was, you know, looking after and nurturing those kids in the school, and then Jean, and Noreen and the way that they mobilised people when the dawn raids happened in Glasgow, and just went, ehh sorry, we’re just gonna sleep in your flat tonight. And so when the dawn raids happened, they find two grannies in bed who were absolutely. You know we’re laughing as we tell it. In Glasgow, yeah, absolutely. Javing none of it or you know, the movements that said, Right, everybody out everybody in the streets, and when they say the name of the people they want, we’ll all step forward. And just that, that, you know, classic nonviolent resistance. It’s not even direct action really, in the way that we think of it with lock arms. And you know, barricading it’s actually that, yeah, that slight twinkle in the granny’s eye just going, I’m smarter than, I’m smarter than you, and at this point i have to speak about SEIU that the dear friend of ours who’s just passed away, who just died a month ago. And she was just one of these granny types in Glasgow she hosted, I don’t know 17 To 20 destitute asylum seekers in her home through the last 15 years of her life. And it was just an amazing experience for her of not living a lonely life as a widow. But also, you know, when the home office got a bit wise to her, you know, they’d kind of turn up at her door and kind of say, we want to ask you a few questions. So she’d say, Oh, come on, come on, you must be so tired from that walk from the home office, you’ve cut off, for goodness sake you’ve walked all the way from branch street, you must be soaking wet. I know what happens, because I know the people who stay with me, they have to walk because they have no money. So therefore, you must have had to walk you poor souls. So of course, she’s automatically flipping the script and shaming the officials who’ve come to question her, because of course, yeah, they turned up in a taxi on the doorstep. So all of this kind of quiet, Spry, elder energy that’s having none of it as being part of the story of the city. And it was never deracinated in the way that happened in many other cities, under the Thatcher years and years of needing to smash the trade union movement, you know, the poll tax riots, and other things, they really meant that that didn’t, that didn’t happen to quite the same extent within within Glasgow, that there was something of a tradition that’s continued. So yeah, I think that’s the story I tell. But I think Tawona would tell a very different story of waiting in the rain at Glasgow.
TS: no, no. The city of course, is bold citizens who want to reclaim what their story is, in terms of what they look out to the world. People don’t want to have this closed and welcoming city, and they should think about all the public protests that happened in last year. It’s a very wet and cold. So if they want to be out there, you know, they mean, they want to be out there. And also, you know, Allison, we’ve been talking about this that, I think, you know, there’s, they’re starting to be, you know, a realisation that, you know, these are places of migration as well. You know, even within Scotland, the movement of people as, as long been happening, you know, and the idea of diverse cultures, whatever that means, is also present in this historical movement of people. So these incomers as we’re seeing now, are joining a long tradition that is actually built the city foundations of the city and, and Scotland right is starting to see itself as a multilingual nation as well. So all these things are really coming into the continent and young people as well. Being more part of the conversation because of the presence in the classroom of people from elsewhere around the world, and just how the political space has opened up for young people to be more in the debate.
AS: It’s so fascinating to hear about the different age range, I love the stories of these very inner ordinary, everyday acts of resistance that often so often when we talk about social movements, we talk in often such a kind of sort of masculine way, these people that I mean, not that, that’s also important action you tie yourself to the railing, but it’s those ordinary things that think rallies are doing. That the young people are doing e everyday neighbourliness.
TS: I was welcomed to this city by elderly people at bus stops you know being called Son, it’s I don’t think they realise you know, this work, but you go wow, you know, and I’m here.
AS: I wanted as as our first poets on the show, I wanted to ask you a little bit about also Artspace practices and interventions in work on asylum and migration. You spoke a bit about the protests chants, and that to me, just already there was a beautiful chant. And I wondered for both or either of us, what do you think the role and potential of arts is what is it for sort of supporting resistance particularly kind of building hope and change.
AP: I think it is, it is the work of the poets to really think about this currency this medium this magic potion called language because it is often in language that you know, all the kind of the power struggles happen, you know, the politicians tend to pull it to their side you know, so we get we’ve been very negative point that comes up the sloganisation of those ideas made by politician that. So it is it is the work of poets to always claim this back to think about language very carefully and what we mean, you know, so for example, we have been talking in our team more about, you know, what is it that, that you know, humanises people, we’re on the move, you know, because people come with the kind of, you know, forms forms, you know, only requested information to be the end. And then we get to conceive of people as migrants with just their whole experience, the fact that they are poets and gardeners and painters and musicians, and thinkers and scientists, all these things get flattened by these terms that come. So yeah, the human experience is really what courts are wrestling for, to bring that back and see what that experience offers us. there is also something about having to , you know,try and bring a bit of a wink into the conversation and just go, you know, they might be saying all this stuff, but we know better and we’ve we’ve got a different way of saying it and a different way of undercutting it, that can kind of bring a kind of a relief to what is unrelenting. I mean, I think we were, we were chatting just before we started the recording Michaela about you being a sociologist, and you know, and I was just thinking about myself and really as being an anthropologist, but also as a linguist, and, and those disciplinary traditions. For me, I’ve led me to really care deeply about words, that also have meant that I’ve spent a lot of time being able to be around some really, really beautiful practices of life making, and that the more I engaged with work with people who’ve sought refuge and people who’ve survived the worst of what human beings can do to one another, and continue to do to them, the more I realised, I wouldn’t be able to stay the course, intellectually, let alone emotionally unless I had some degree of relief from the unrelenting, miserable stories, and the unrelenting focus on, you know, reports on human rights abuses, which literally, literally, some of them will have me throwing up, I mean, they are so unspeakable in terms of bringing you face to face with the horror of what human beings will do to one another. And I think the more I spend time, listening to and living with and alongside those people who have survived and survived with dignity intact, and survived with a steely determination to live life in as greater fullness as as possible, then the more I’ve realised that I need humour, and I need the I need the kind of tragedy I need to I mean people weep with me, and people who make me laugh, with humour, but I also need all of the kind of space for beauty in between, in my traditional, those are really ancient elements that we are trained to think with a tragedy and comedy comedy, The Janus face, the mask of theatre, are absolutely fundamental to any serious quest for an understanding of the human tradition. And the more I open myself out to other traditions, more I found their present too. And the you know, the kind of the raw of the Joker or the Jester. And the role of the person who can sing the lament, or things, the praise poem are absolutely critical. And therefore, within our team, we often say our role is to hold the bowl of tears, and expand the space for joy. And that’s quite poetic language. It’s not that, you know, we are I don’t know, world changes with a vision to make the world mediocre ly better for all of us, which seems to be the dominant mission statement of every university in the world. And I knew that if mimicking the dominant mission statement in any other part of the world is kind of trying to say, look, you know, we need a vision, but we need one that’s holdable and livable, and it’s to the work and language of poetry, or what Seymour Vai, we call the kind of higher range of language on the middle range. That is where I would turn and where I do turn when I’m, when I’m lost, or I’m needing that kind of ability to find a place to stand, I suppose.
TS: Yeah, but you know, thanks, Alison. It’s also the creative arts are interesting because, you know, within everybody, this is something that dwells within us and you know some some times we forget it’s there or sometimes we don’t you know draw on it as much so that’s one important thing, it’s in everyone, that why people recognise it that’s why we can,you know, there is something as playful, bold, daring as artists, maybe it wasn’t them trying to serve anything, but sometimes artists do it for the sake of beauty and sometimes it’s for the sake of posing a question. it’s for the sake of us just maybe having a laugh. if we want a better world we should imagine it. so the power of imagination is not just so you know for frivolous things but yeah we actually.the use of a positive imagination , if we want something better we have to conceive it in our minds first. so that kind of imagination, it’s just finding ways to keep that alive and our UNESCO so far, has described it, this is part of our work you know of making sure there is enough fire wood For this proverbial fire, to keep blazing,
AP: But it’s also where, you know, the kind of work of storytelling, I think is so important. And so there’s so much that drives me crazy within migration and refugee studies, which is about telling the story. And it’s like, and the story is, in our experience, never the story that people who have have sought refuge want to tell, and certainly not as the first thing that they’re asked to do. And you know, there’s a whole NGO and inter governmental industry around this story. And thinking that somehow the story is going to be the trick that will change everything. As long as you hear enough bad enough stories of journeys of horrific migration, then everything will change. And, of course, that’s not what’s gonna happen. And the things that we see as the most transformational for people are the chance to tell a story, any story.
TS: Yeah, storytelling is a huge thing. It’s greater than us. You know, we there’s something really deep within us. Stories also do something important, they, they body swerve the truth axis, true or false as so many questions come. But stories are not for that stories are just relational. There is something really important about storytelling or story making, and also stories, the emanates. As you were saying, Allison, you know, stories come when the teller is ready, then the story will happen. And stories usually happen between people without this teller in the audience, because it’s a mutual thing. So So yeah, story is really powerful.
AS: I love that phrase. ‘Body swerve the truth axis’.
AP: Tawona has a Lovely, storytelling workshop that he does. And we were obviously, you know, we’ve been doing quite a lot of our work online. And we had a children’s story storytelling session as part of our UNESCO spring school. Not that long ago. And one of the phrases that Tawona uses with the kids is that you’ve got to pull the story into the room. So he got all the children out there on a row. going pull the story on my little granddaughter. And every time I say Shall we have a story, she’s like, Yeah, but we’ve got to pull the story in . But it’s quite a nice metaphor for this work. And it’s like it doesn’t just come like that a click of a finger. It’s got to work for it. to pull the story. And
MB: I was just wondering whether this would be a moment for one of your poems, because I think you’ve, I mean, it’s so beautiful, what you’ve just described there and the work of this form of storytelling.
TS: I’m going to do a very short one for now, but I’m sure we’ll do a couple of poems later. I know, just for the sake of words, right? Words are like Lego. And we build them into different shapes. And then, you know, they look a certain way. So. So this one is just called words. “Words are so rude to enter without knocking words always getting in the way though I try to push them aside the problem with words words are hard to control verbs always doing what they like prepositions always seeming out of place as for nouns they are such monsters adjectives have a habit of exaggerating and so unpredictable to ears just before the message arrives they turn into euphemisms now i don’t know what i didn’t mean to say last week’s verbal aftershocks manhandled today by what i said yesterday forgot words are like food need to be cooked well as you may have to eat them so i hope these words treat me kindly”
MB: Absolutely fantastic. It’s really beautiful. And yeah, I think, immediately, like brought brought to mind all sorts of thoughts on my behalf as somebody who struggles to cook words, I have to say. So, so yeah, I mean, I’ve got kind of thinking a little bit, you’ve obviously both been so involved with that local work that’s going on in Glasgow, which is truly, truly inspiring. And today, one of the reasons I’m not in Lancaster is because I live down in Canterbury, so I live very, very close to the Kent coast. And it’s slightly apt, although it happens almost every morning down here at the moment, that on the local news this morning, it was a report about the channel crossings, and particularly this morning about how prosecutions were being brought against people on the other side of the channel, who’d helped people onto the boats crossing the Channel, which then led to I think 27 deaths or something like that sets regular attention down here to the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats. And on the ground. There’s some fantastic work that’s being done by can actually in for refugees, to really, really combat that very anti migrant sentiment that can be so prolific down around the south coast by showing solidarity with refugees in the areas. But I suppose my question to you both is, how do we learn from each other and build communities of resistance across the UK?
AP: I think that’s a really interesting insight. Michaela, because I’ve also been watching the Kent coast and thinking that some of the energy and learning that we had in Glasgow, from having to do that work in Glasgow, because of the numbers has actually shifted geographically down to the Kent coast with the with the crossings over the channel, you know, because it’s so much harder for people to get under the tunnel, basically, that then wouldn’t land you on the Kent coast, it would land you in various places having been dispersed from Croydon. So I do think that I’m seeing quite a lot of learning, particularly between Kent action and the different organisations in Glasgow that have worked together. And also some of the national organisations that have done this grassroots work, I was on the board for about eight years of right to remain, which is a wonderful organisation that, you know, grew from a couple of workers developed a toolkit for thinking about how to work with, with claims work ethically, with claims, work out, you know, as a public campaign what I need, or do I need to talk to my MP? Or do I just need a good lawyer, because I’ve not got one yet. And all of that really basic but important information about how to conduct yourself when you receive one of those letters that says that you are a person subject to immigration control and to removal. And I think that that, you know, I’m seeing that that work happening down on the Kent Coast, but also taking local inflections because it’s about a sea border. It’s not about dispersal. It’s about an actual international border. think there’s something really quite visceral and interesting about the fact this is the sea, and that there’s a sea border there. And the sea is such a poetic vehicle, and has been such a politic vehicle for such a long time, and evokes all of those different migratory journeys, particularly those that are linked to the Middle Passage. So I think there’s something about the sea almost coming in as an actor to the space now. And the fact that that then also brings in another set of legal requirements for thought around maritime law and the law of the sea, and what you’re allowed to do and not do as a mariner and the kind of way that you have to save life at sea, then I think there’s something else being brought into the space. And that kind of comes and aligns itself with the work but can can actually are doing, but also bring something that is tapping into different imaginaries in England, and I say England advisedly there that are about the White Cliffs of Dover, which evoke Vera Lynn, which evoke all of these very problematic understandings of invasion that are then allied against each other in these wars of words, and words of ideologies that are going on around around migration. But I do think there’s something that then means we’ve got to keep working really hard across the country at telling different stories, and making different stories, and being the actors in the stories that are dramatised on on the streets and the ways in which we try and stop the deportations or stop with a different because it’s not just deportations, it’s the destitution. It’s a detention, it’s for the hotel, the tensions that are happening now, all of these different ways in which violence has been perpetrated against our neighbours, our new neighbours, the people who many wished to see living peacefully alongside them within their communities. So I do think there’s something there about these new circumstances. And the new ways in which a lot more people know a lot more about immigration law that bring new actors into the space. And that isn’t to say at all that this is, therefore some kind of game or some kind of play. It’s deadly serious. And I think when, when people talked about when people talk about this being about the UK Government at the moment, wanting a spectacle, I think there’s a truth there that we need to take seriously. But only at the level of the fact that this is these are real people who are really in handcuffs, who are really being taken out of cages, who are really being put onto real flights that will take them to real places. And this is then the spectre of cruelty that has been produced by and for the UK Government, because it feeds a very narrow subsection of its of its voting, its voting base, that is not in any way to say that this is a metaphor and therefore, is just play acting. It isn’t in any way shape or form.
TS: Yeah, listen, you know, thank you so much, because, I guess you know, Maya Angelou spoke about courage being the greatest virtue because without courage, it is then difficult to perform the other virtues. One of the things that I say Allison is like there’s no pure place to stand. I think people have allowed up to allow themselves to be really bad at organising and taking action and being involved. You have to allow yourself to be very bad at it. Otherwise, you won’t find the energy to be in it. There is no perfect way to do it. There is no right way to do it. So it needs that carry it needs to make that mess, you know, but it starts with that intention. I was thinking of my my youngest sister. We recently were having a birthday party for and we’re remember when she was younger, she would know that when guests came in, I know my mom would make a cup of tea. For guests. You wouldn’t believe it in the Hudson Valley that we have but she then would go and get a fill the kettle with cold water and put the tea bags in and then come and pour it for the guests. Even though there was one technical thing that was not right, but the action of making the tea and I’m sure that guests understood what the welcome was. So I think people should, you know, try really hard not to be so hard on themselves and think you know, how do I do this? Will I do this wrong because there’s so many different Though I would rather someone mispronounce my name, than not trying to say my name at all, you know, that kind of thing. So people really need the courage to say, I’m going to make a mess of this, it doesn’t matter, I am adding my energy and voice to this. And it is true that we all you know, we will then those who have been sort of more experienced in doing this work, then instead of the, you know, quite often, if you speak to people who are now quite far on in that journey of doing this work, they will tell you all their beginnings.
AP: It’s like the theatre director, Peter Brook who died this weekend in his book, there are no secrets. He, he says that, yeah, great theatre director, but he just says, I never admitted that I was directing my first play. And I was actually laughing when I was thinking of that over the weekend, and kind of preparing to talk to you and thinking, you know, I never admitted as on my first demonstration, or at my first protest, organising my first campaign, because you know, that then just suggest you don’t know what you’re doing. And it was too important not to do it, you know, it actually needed it needed more courage than savvy. And because the stakes were so high, because if I hadn’t done it, then really bad things could have happened. And therefore, and it was, it was mine to do so. So stepping into that space and saying, Okay, I’m just going to just that what I’ve learned so far will be enough, and that there’ll be people who will catch me when it isn’t, and who will set me straight. And they’ll know how to do it, hopefully kindly. And if not, we’ll you know, point the finger and say, Look, you know, just step back. And this isn’t the way to do it. That trusting there’s enough that there’s an abundance of knowledge within the ways in which we campaign and it’s what I see a little bit between Glasgow and the Kent coast at the moment, I kind of like, ah, that’s what you’re about to do. Okay. Yeah, you know, when we did that, and then it reads a story. And it doesn’t mean that when you do that, it will look like that. It just means, here’s a couple of warning words, or here’s a few things to maybe learn on the way or here’s things to watch for so that you can care for yourself as you go on those journeys. So I almost think that it might be better to phrase the question not so much. What can we learn from one another, so much is how can we be alongside one another in ways which are forgiving. And I know that when in 2015 2016, there was suddenly a whole surge of new people coming and needing to take action around what was happening in Syria, and needing to welcome all the new refugees, which was actually a very tiny number, who were going to be arriving in the UK rather, like with the Ukrainian situation, it’s not going to be large numbers that come. Because the UK Government are hell bent on not allowing large numbers to come. Because they set their quotas and they know roughly what they want it to be. But people want to know, and learn and try and do. And there were an awful lot of mistakes made. There are an awful lot of really clumsy actions taken an awful lot of people who would smother with kindness. Who’d overdo it, you know, who’d think that everything that was needed was in an English lesson, I mean, all kinds of things which are, you know, Neo colonial in their own ways, or just, you know, old style, colonial and inherited thinking that, you know, one of the beautiful things was to just watch people learn together, and the ways to honour was saying, these stories that got shared between each other, that then led to people, you know, two years down the line? you know who say to, me. Allison, why on earth? Did you not just slap me around the face and tell me to stop it? Honestly, what were we thinking of? When we accompanied you know, every single person who arrived by taxi for six months? You know, what on earth were we thinking of when we didn’t actually enable people and equip people to have as much dignity and agency over their own lives and normality? as possible? What were we thinking when we shoved people into drama programmes who didn’t need it, when actually what they needed was a good game of football, you know, what were we thinking, but actually, that realisation is worth so much more to enabling a kind of robust understanding of what we need to sustain one another, than, here’s your blueprint for how to do it. And it was developed in Glasgow, therefore, it must be right and that way, you can just implement it on the coast and you’ll be fine. It’s like, really, I think it is something about the way you make the tea, you know, you might not make it in the way that we would make the tea, but it will still be tea, and it will still be something that will sustain and nurture and nourish those struggles that are needed.
MB: That’s incredibly inspiring. And incredibly, I think it’s a lot of food for thought, because I think that both of you’re absolutely right, that sometimes it’s the it’s the fear that you’re going to do things wrong, that’s holding people back as well. And, and the question is really what the stakes are, but I was thinking about this spectacle as well. And I think, you know, Ala knows this very well. One of the things that happened before a lot of the channel crossings was the Kent Coast Guard started to stick up posters all the way around the Kent coast, asking people to be super vigilant for suspicious activity and, you know, identified boats landing on the Kent shoreline. And as somebody who regularly walks and runs around the coastline, started to make it my duty to rip all of these things down and throw them in the bin was my small act of resistance. They were really alarming. But actually, the thing about them that really stood out to me was the aesthetics, they use the Second World War aesthetics, to kind of to promote this and it kind of looked a dare I say, it kind of looked almost civilised. And as though this was your civic duty to actually do this. But I’m thinking about that, that kind of spectacle, because, of course, one of the things that we’ve seen is in the wake of the ECHR, putting in place this interim measure around the Rwanda plan, all of a sudden, and I say this in slightly inverted commas, all of a sudden, that act, the Rwanda flight, this programme of deportation to under became mobilised by the government as a rationale to replace the Human Rights Act with the Bill of Human Rights. And I think for me, you know, obviously, the Bill of Human Rights has been under development for a really long time. But in that moment, you could see how suddenly the Rwanda flight or the cancellation of the Rwanda flight, became the kind of the rationale for introducing this really wide ranging Act, which is really going to change a lot of our civic rights actually, as kind of individuals. Because I mean, aside from anything else, as we know, because Ala and I spoke with Zrinka Bralo on the last episode of beyond the headlines around this. This is a massive erosion of rights for wide swathes of the UK based population, which includes like the removal of rights from migrants. So what do we need to be aware of going forwards? How can we prepare, I suppose
AP: I think I do find myself going back to people like Simone Weil and and obviously, Hannah Arendt a lot. I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, her, her real understanding of the banality of evil as a failure to think and seeing that actually, it is the government of the United Kingdom that is removing those rights. It isn’t the people who are protesting, or the removal of those rights. And it isn’t the stopping of the Rwanda flight that led to the publication of the Bill of Rights. It is the government that published the Bill of Rights, that bill should have been unthinkable. And it has been thinkable because vested interests wish to see the removal of human rights from large swathes of the population, in the interests of vested in offshored capital, and outsourcing as a way of thinking about human beings and human beings not as human beings, but as human capital. So I think that, for me, it’s really important as a first defence that we we say, it’s you who are doing with UK Government, it’s not me. And it’s not you Michaela or Ala or Tawona, who whatever part you have played, in the role that you have had, in standing up to this, the academic, albeit political storytelling, albeit, you know, spiritual, whatever that role might have been that people took, you are not the ones who produced the Bill of Rights, the Bill of Rights was produced by Dominic Raab when he produced it in the UK Parliament. And that, to me is the first thing because it’s actually about taking blame off people that they don’t need to hold, or it’s a refuting of what’s usually called gaslighting, because it was coming down the road, it was absolutely and now we are going to blame you and make you blame yourselves for the fact that we are going to do really appalling things to human beings. Know the appalling things being done to human beings are being done by the people who are doing them to human beings. They are the ones who are guilty of those actions, not those who have been trying to prevent it. So I think that’s maybe the first thing is to just clear the space. Because without a clearing of that space, you can’t think and then you will be then bound into these in almost instruments of evil that will produce nobody’s done that. You shouldn’t have gone you shouldn’t have tried to stop it. Those barristers What are you thinking of? and you’ll end up with all of this really, really effective infighting that will destroy the space. Whereas actually, if you can create for yourself a space to think that can then allow you to go back to a ground of, of being a thought of conversation with people who you can think with, you’ve got enough sanctuary for thought, to be able to work out what the next thing might be. And I think my other thing would be, and we say this a lot in our work is that we’re always improvising. It’s a pinball machine. At the moment, we’re being hit from every time we don’t know what I mean, yesterday was my white hot fury about the headlines. Michaela was about taxing childless couples, you know, and as a woman who has not been able to have her own children, and has ended up fostering a child. I mean, I was I was so furious at that moment, seeing that being put forward, but also just everything about it is just an unthinkable set of statements. And it’s such a racialized set of statements to be making about our population that the UK are trying to maintain that I think you’re using that fury to say, what can I make with this, that is good. And there are times when that needs to be a public expression of pain. But there are also times where it doesn’t needs to be the ridicule of established power, as Walter Benjamin would say, but there are many, many times sorry, and also just what can we do, I think we can hold on to the vibrancy of life, and the knowledge that the spaces that we live in, and that we’re trying to make with others who’ve come to be part of our lives are average, and they’re diverse, and they’re quirky, and they’re unusual. And they are, you know, often often, you know, full of things I do agree with, and I don’t agree with and I don’t know if I agree with I’m gonna have to go away and think about but they’re absolutely vibrant. They’re not these kind of monochrome monotone, you know paired pared down boring spaces that are to quote grader and when grow unnecessarily dull as a way of expecting everyone to live, you know, so. So I think one of the main things we can do is maybe, you know, there should be more dancing, more vibrancy and more poetry. And, yeah,
TS: Well, in that spirit, let’s have some more poetry, in 2016. Allison was, you know, leading a research project, we were looking at what happens to language at borders and we were going through as researchers, we were crossing many borders at my end for me on my Zimbabwean passport, mainly due to the pressure of going through all these different borders. And, you know, so we’re looking at the militarised borders, especially in Europe, where the narrative of, you know, Europe being flooded or swarmed by people of poorer or lesser countries was was going on. And then one of the really key moments for us came, and we’re also trying to, you know, do this column response, we had this idea, we’ll do a column response collection of poetry, which is now what you mentioned, Ala the words we do not fight. So we were in an area called a flower in Ghana, driving down the stretch of road and the driver said to us, our colleagues at us, or you know, on the left is Togo. And on the right is Ghana and we said really well Stop the car. Stop the car and we managed to. look at all these borders we’ve been fighting and wrestling with, but here is an example of what you know, a space between two nations can look like two states and look alike. So of course, we had to do the ritual of getting our shoes off and you know, walking across this border in a few seconds. But you know, from that came a couple of poems that we will just share now. So yeah, first part is from me. So my pride is called a border crossing in Togo. “There is no one to check you in or check you out No one to weigh your baggage Or touch you up No body in booth Hands above head Feet behind line There is no unheard of herd of people No holding pens No paper cuts No board no number No pass no gate There is no priority clearance No catwalk for the privileged No dignity stripping interview No very very verification Of identity No receptors no detectors No specialised interceptors No thermal scanners Scanning for super diseases In fact there’s only us Only us and the trees And elephant grass For now In a manner of speaking In a matter of seconds We’re across the frontier Border crossing in Togo”
AP: “It wasn’t elephant grass Was it? Surely it was flax And the ground was stony And my feet bare Close to the broken road I was just walking Across a road Into a field And there were Friends With me And our Skin was on fire Because the day Was pregnant with Gifts coming Close to their time You knew we stood On hallowed ground As did I The natural ditch between A road and a field Is a place where Magic and mischief Have always been made There were admonishments But they were laughing Not fearful There were remonstrations but they only served to strengthen the resolve and the sense of safety I saw no elephants in the grass No snakes or angels either But the flax was growing The twine which would Weave enchantments opening this improbable ground Beneath our bare feet To be another Unstoppable conduit For these stories between us About to be born”
AS: You two Tawona and Alison, this conversation has been anything but dull I’m just thinking about all the things that we’ve spoken about today. And I think what you have certainly done so beautifully is create space for thinking and speaking the way we spoke with compassion about people’s attempts to art because we make the way we make mistakes and in doing so, but we at least we do something. There’s so many so many takeaways for me from our conversation. But I wondered, was give you the last few words to say maybe taking us back to that headline that we started off the conversation, where the we express frustrations about and I wondered for you what your takeaway messages would be about how we might think differently about standing up about resisting?
AP: When I think for me, it’s, again, this kind of, yeah, I’m going to say almost hyper masculine sense of what it has to look like. And you have to go out and be arrested for its count. And actually, you know, there are such gentle arts involved in protest. And we don’t know what the thing is that’s going to do it, you know, like looking for the story, that will be the one. And there are many stories that have already been the ones you know, there are many photographs that have already been the photographs. Yeah, I’m thinking of Alan Kurdi, obviously, but actually, then they aren’t the ones they just produce more work that continues to help lend support and lend energy to what is happening. And we don’t know who the person is going to be. He’s going to find themselves in a place of spontaneity, and improvisation and know what the right thing is to do. And it might be other than it might not be as an it might be somebody else. And it’s just the kind of these every day heroics from ordinary people who might come up with something really quite quiet. That just changes things completely.
TS: There’s something important about, you know, finding a way of really thinking our valuable we, and trying to live well within that, because then we will find a way of appreciating that that value is within others. And, you know, so being within the collective becomes easier, you know, appreciating that the, the things that are greater than us as individuals, that metaphor I mean, look up at the sky or standard the ocean and meditate and just let that come to us. What that will, you know, hopefully encourage us to do is to just, you know, start having a different language. And it’s not necessarily a language of spoken language, per se, but I’m very interested in the language of listening, you know, just we need to be to learn to be better listeners, because for for a lot of our communications at the moment listening is something that is not going very well, I feel, we have a lot of the times listening to respond rather than listening to understand or listening to just absorb what is going on in the acoustic. So there’s something within that I think it can start from within and spread outwards.
MB: I’m just blown away by our conversation today. It’s been so nourishing, exactly the opposite of some of the things I was describing before we started to record. And thank you both very much for sharing your thoughts with us today. But yeah, I suppose the closing question is, where can people find out more about you both and your research in this area.
AP: You can find more out about Tawona on the UNESCO website. If you’re ever in Glasgow, and he’s hosting seeds of thought, I suggest you make it along on a Friday night to the Centre for Contemporary Art and just just pitch up and see what happens. It has to be experienced. It’s a beautiful gathering of poets and musicians and people trying to make their first mistake soundstage. Beautiful. It’s such a lovely space. So that’s I think, where you can find out more about us and there’s various bits and pieces of publications and films and recordings that particularly to honour has done that you know, we can send over to you for the show notes as well.
TS: And if you’re listening in from elsewhere in the world, it’s Alison Phipps not Philips.
AS: We spend so much time a lot of time on this show clarifying pronunciation of our name thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been wonderful and it seems so lovely to be able to meet because just has been so lovely to see you in person.
MB: You’ve been listening to Who do we think we are? Beyond the headlines, a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for production and post production support, and to George Kalivis for our fantastic cover art and social media assets.
We’d also like to thank Niamh Welby, who provides much needed support behind the scenes to get these episodes together. If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts, and links to all our socials. You can also find us at whodowethinkweare.org. That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another headline next month.
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