SAFE SPACE FOR SISTAH SPACE
SAFE SPACE FOR SISTAH SPACE
SISTAH zine emerged from a campaign UCLJC ran to support Sistah Space as they sought to avoid eviction by Hackney Council from their safe space. The work of Sistah Space exemplified the theme that the zine seeks to explore: women’s liberation, particularly where women and femmes are creating spaces to enable liberation themselves.
The Significance of Space
SISTAH zine spoke to founders of Sistah Space, Ngozi Fulani & Rose Lewis, reflecting on the creation of their organisation and the significance of spaces for African heritage communities.
SAFE SPACE FOR SISTAH SPACE
SAFE SPACE FOR SISTAH SPACE
SZ: Tell us when & how you founded the organisation; what prompted you to do that?
NGOZI: In 2015, Valerie Forde and her 23-month old baby girl were killed by an act of domestic violence. She had alerted the police to the threat. It was recorded as a threat to property, not a threat to life. The community attended the court when the case concerning her death was ongoing and we quickly realised that the family and other affected people had no safe space to go to. African and Caribbean heritage women and their families were expected to tag onto the end of other services, services which understand neither the particular wants nor needs of African heritage communities. So, we formed the charity. The longer we existed, the more we realised that the problem was not limited to lack of a venue. There was and is inherent discrimination and racism pervading the VAWG (Violence Against Women & Girls) sector. This issue is partly one of unjustifiable ignorance; things like the use of the term ‘black’ for non-African heritage organisations result in the erasure of organisations like ours. We and our communities are consistently not invited to any discussion about domestic abuse and gendered violence. This extends to the new Domestic Abuse Bill. Who from the African heritage community was consulted about that? We are one of the only organisations of our type and we were not consulted.
SZ: The name ‘Sistah Space’ evokes ideas of the importance of having a physical space where women support one another - do you have reflections on this? What were the ideas behind the organisation’s name?
N: The word ‘sistah’ is a direct reference to our heritage. Sistah is a term used to refer to a woman of our community. We used the term ‘space’ to emphasise that our organisation is a space for authentically black women. It’s crucial to see ourselves reflected in our spaces and that extends to things like the background music playing in the space and the images and ornaments that decorate it. African communities in this country are vast and diverse. It is not at all appropriate that we should have to subscribe to a eurocentric way of being, especially when it comes to a space for purposes like ours - to provide a space for refuge and support from violence. The name of our organisation, and the foundation of it, speaks to a problem of central and local governments in this country not affording recognition to our communities. So, we have to create our own spaces.
SZ: How does Sistah Space's difficulties with Hackney Council over the last few months speak to the experience of your community of sexism and racism in our political and social systems?
N: We still cannot access our building, despite having been granted access to it until January 17th (2021). Only yesterday did the lift start working again, but the heating is still not functioning. The building is not usable. The bottom line is we have had to hire another space from which to operate. These may be teething problems but they are problems nonetheless. The transition back to our space has been far from smooth.
21,000 people signed our petition and we submitted that before the mediations with the council began but it was rejected on the grounds that mediations were taking place. This speaks to an erasure of our power, and that of our community and supporters, too. It speaks to a bureaucracy that silences our experiences and seeks to remove our ability to complain.
The consequences for the black community are profound; we have no foundation, no base, for our power or our work. We have experienced a 300% increase in our calls during the pandemic. We deliver food to victims and families 7 days a week. Right now, it is ridiculously difficult to perform those services.
This experience has obliterated our ability to celebrate Black History Month. We are experiencing severe difficulties planning events and we are still supposed to leave our space on January 17th so we need to be able to raise funds for that in the coming months.
We could stay silent for fear of the council, but we choose to speak our truth.
SZ: What would a government policy that properly protected women, especially black women, from domestic and gendered violence look like?
N: Most importantly, it would be authentic and sincere. We accept neither a statement that “black lives matter” nor a list of accolades from the government intended to say “we’re not racist.”
Policies are not worth the paper they are written on if they are written by misogynists, classists or racists. They must be written in conjunction with the people they are supposed to protect. If not, it is merely an empty political act and it is highly, highly offensive.
SZ: On your instagram today was a clip of a conversation about inappropriate behaviour towards women. These are obviously crucial conversations. What do you think are some of the most important conversations that need to take place, that aren’t right now?
ROSE: We can list so many topics of conversation that need to take place. They need to be public and they need to take place across all age groups and genders. We need to keep discussing the Windrush generation. We need to discuss the VAWG bureaucracy and what they do and do not do. We need to discuss the criminal justice system and its ridiculous record when it comes to rape convictions. We need to discuss so many aspects of domestic violence, especially topics that are erased too often. For example, we need to talk to men brought up in abusive families. We need to talk about the interplay between mental health and domestic abuse. We need to talk about talking about domestic abuse! I could speak for hours about the need for a conversation about domestic abuse and religion. As African heritage people, religion is essential in many of our lives and we must hold ourselves accountable on that.
We need to discuss racism, discrimination, prejudice; the list is endless.
SZ: As a London-based organisation, and one so integral to the community, do you have reflections on your purpose and position as women doing ‘activist’ work in this space?
N: We are careful with our use of language; we are reluctant to use the term ‘activist’. We are everyday people seeking justice for our communities. Former clients of ours, people who are survivors of violence, now work for us as volunteers. As we exist in a system that mostly views black people as a monolith, we have a purpose that goes beyond London as a space. We receive calls from women outside of the UK, people who feel isolated and in despair and seek out a space like ours. This is a result of a system and a government that is supposed to support you when you are your most vulnerable, but fails to do so. We exist in a strange hybrid space, where our community in this London space (and communities beyond it) embrace us while the system tries to destroy us. No resources have come our way to support our work, despite the necessity of our work in these spaces.
SZ: Could you speak a little on how you foresee the future of your organisation and the work you do - are you optimistic about it? Have these last few months elevated or hindered that optimism?
N: It’s really swings and roundabouts. Of course, we feel empowered. But we have experienced members of the council, who were formerly allies, who gave us civic awards for our work, turn against us at a headspinning speed at the moment we decided we deserved better treatment than that which we were receiving. So, that experience has been simultaneously numbing, hurtful and enraging, particularly when we only discovered we had been served an eviction notice by the media. We were vilified and treated like we’d done something wrong for providing a space and service that the council are neither willing nor able to provide to our community. We have to think ‘if we feel this way, how must victims of domestic violence who rely on our space and services feel?’ That has inspired us to say no to the council’s actions and fight for our space and community in the face of those who try to silence us. The way the community has supported us has been absolutely revolutionary and that has been an incredible source of inspiration.