Dinner with Madeleine Albright?

Jam and Justice action researcher Sarah Whitehead (photo c/o Salford Now)

Last week, Jam and Justice ARC member Sarah Whitehead was in Gothenburg, “looking at how communities, academics and businesses work together to produce solutions to the issues in communities.” The trip meant missing the Spirit of Salford award ceremony (where Sarah was nominated for Citizen of the Year), so we wanted to share some extracts from Salford Now's profile of Sarah & her work, as reported by Yann Robinson (14 March 2019).

Sarah Whitehead, has been running Community Pride Community Interest Company, which works with local people to seek out solutions to the problems of poverty and inequity, since 2015. Since 2009, Ms Whitehead has been fundamental in several community projects, helping to elevate the voices of those suffering from the unrelenting effects of social injustice. However, despite her contributions she does not expect to win.

“The stigma around people that live in poverty and those who suffer from it is still very strong,’ she said. “The idea that people are lazy and it’s their own fault and that they should do something. It’s not always that black and white. I think that’s why it’s not always valued as much as other work in the community.”

Ms Whitehead was the driving force behind mental health empowerment event ‘Mad Pride.’ Originally founded in Toronto, Canada in 1993, it began as a mass movement for those with mental health illnesses to revel in their ‘mad’ identity. Salford’s version aims to “bring people in the community together to celebrate their diversity whilst raising awareness about mental health.” The event in 2018 was the root of controversy however: “There were some people in the community who were not happy with it being called Mad Pride, because of the stigma. Some were telling me they’re not mad and they don’t want to be called it. Others were telling me they were and they loved it.” The event takes place again this year on June 8th in Victoria Park.

Ms Whitehead believes she has developed a better understanding of the political landscape over the past few years. She does not believe enough is being done by those in power for those who need help.

“There’s so many issues like universal credit, so it’s the systems that are put in place that don’t work for the people that need to use them. We’re coming together nationally with big organisations to say ‘okay, how do we get the voices of people with lived experience in the rooms with government and decision makers?’ They’re not fit for purpose and don’t serve the needs of the community. The only way they will suit the needs of the community is if communities are involved in creating them from the beginning.”

It is by these means that Ms Whitehead has found herself on numerous visits to Brussels and around Europe in the presence of figures such as the Vice President of the European Commission and the Deputy Secretary General of NATO. On one occasion, her work even had her seated at the table of Madeleine Albright, who she admittedly did not know much about.

“I wasn’t star struck, because I’m not a huge follower of politics. I never really had any political interest or political drive.I’ve only learned about politics and the power of community as I’ve done these community projects. I’ve realised along the way that everything is political, and everything is connected. But in some ways, it’s a good thing that I didn’t know a lot because I could have a conversation with her and it was a really equal discussion. I didn’t have any preconceptions. We just had a really good conversation.”

“When I measure how far I’ve come, I always say; from tea and biscuits in Weaste to dinner with Madeleine Albright.”

As much as winning Citizen of the Year would mean to a person like Ms Whitehead, she will not even be in Salford during the ceremony. Instead she will be in Gothenburg...

Read the full article.

Why was Sarah in Gothenburg? Several members of Jam and Justice's Action Research Collective made a trip to Gothenburg, as part of a wider delegation including policy-makers from two Combined Authorities, and the academic team. The goal was to share learning from our work in Greater Manchester, and pick up some useful lessons from co-production coordinators in the Swedish city-region. As part of the programme, Sarah spoke powerfully about The System Doesn't Work project and its Everyday Politics exhibition, and shared reflections on her previous work with Salford Poverty Truth Commission. Delegates are now writing up their reflections to contribute to our trans-local learning series. In other words, more on this shortly!