Bina Patel is the Partnerships Manager at Community Links, in Canning Town Newham, East London. Raised in the borough she has worked in the charity sector for over 9 years, joining Community Links in 2019 to work in the area that’s been her home since childhood.
A fond reflection on a borough that is home to so many and why it’s up to ordinary people to change the narrative.
In organising, we start with ourselves, our stories, who we are, and the stories of our neighbourhoods. It’s our stories that make us, our experiences that shape us, and it’s the stories of our neighbourhoods that inspire us to act. So, here’s my story and the story of why I am involved in organising in Newham, East London.
Poverty, hardship, marginalised communities and destitution. These words keep running through my mind as I write, the devastation of Covid-19 was felt strongly in my hometown of Newham more so than almost all of the UK. With headlines shouting about the high death rates and staggering inequality into an angry void with question after question about what went wrong, I want to share a different side of Newham, a borough that shaped my life, gave me purpose and one that I still call home. A story tinged with sadness and anger seeing the destruction the pandemic is causing in my community but also the words used to describe the borough – I am defensive in the face of outside critique of a place that I feel is intrinsically connected to who I am. Defensive perhaps because Newham is not yours to pick apart and label poor, it’s not yours to call marginalised, its story is not yours to tell. We are a community with no poverty of aspiration, no poverty of grit and determination but poverty of equity. True equity that does not ‘other’ us further. We are not a problem community with problem people. We are a community like no other. The place I remember when I think of Newham was one of friendship, community, warmth and home to some of the most brilliant minds I know. My parents have been here for almost three decades, having moved to the UK in the 90s. They raised me in the borough and apart from university, all my education was completed here, all my lifelong friends are from the area and it’s where I had my son.
Flashback to the summer of 2000. I was 8, a Flake 99 in hand I walked down East Ham High Street with my dad. This was a favourite weekend pastime of ours, walking through the indoor market, visiting the pet shop and picking up supplies for my many pets and, if time permitted, going to the magnificent doll shop which housed the most beautiful dolls houses and tiny furniture. If I was lucky the antiques and crystals shop would also be open, and I could buy a rose quartz for my steadily growing collection. I remember that feeling of wonder as I walked through the labyrinth of indoor market units, never quite shaking the feeling that things had moved around entirely since I’d been last. I thought I lived in the most marvellous parts of the world, the grand town hall gleaming in its red brick glory with the smell of candy floss in the air and bubbles from the street performer. It was magic.
I remember the first time I was confronted with the idea that Newham wasn’t seen like that by everyone. Flashback to the summer of 2003. I was 11 and schools had broken up for the holidays. It was the summer before starting secondary school, the air was warm with possibility and a sense of growing up. My parents, wanting me to get to know my cousins from outside London, had shipped me off to spend the holidays in the midlands. We played shops with monopoly money and giggled into the early hours, talking about school and our friends. ‘But Newham is just so poor, why do you like living there?’ my cousin asked. This was a first for me. Newham wasn’t poor, she must have been thinking of another place. No, my Newham had a candy floss man and a huge WH Smith which housed all the Lemony Snicket books that anyone could ever want. My Newham had West Ham Park with its rose garden and sprawling playground, it had a three-story M&S for fancy linens and a theatre district. We weren’t ‘poor’. ‘It’s really scary there, I don’t know why you live there, I couldn’t, it’s so grim’ she replied, turning over to fall asleep as I lay awake feeling indignant and hot with something I now recognise as shame.
On the drive back to London my cousins and I were packed into the back of the car. The closer we got to Newham the more I sunk into my seat, eyes darting about everywhere to see the poverty and feeling triumphant when I saw West Ham Church nestled in the surrounding greenery and Stratford park with children playing. ‘See! It’s nice’ I said, not commenting on how I hadn’t thought much of the midlands village where she lived with no candy floss man. But the seed had been planted. Everywhere I went I started seeing ‘poor’. I wonder what the constant headlines of poverty and deprivation must do to young people in the borough now, how they see their home and place in the community.
Flashforward to 2017, I’m now a ‘professional’, walking through board rooms and making decisions. I’m yet again confronted with another’s reality of my home.
‘I grew up in Stratford’ I said.
‘Upon Avon? It’s lovely there’.
‘No Stratford, East London’.
‘Oh…you don’t sound like you’re from there’.
It’s exhausting seeing the diagnosis of where you grew up, the conflating of poverty with ability, the paradox of people wanting to build equality Newham whilst holding the borough at arm’s length and discussing it as an ‘issue’ not a place residents call home and hold pride in. Chip away at our civic pride and you’re chipping away at the potential to build solutions with the community.
In a neighbourhood like mine, we have a history of people making decisions about us, politics ‘done to’ us from the top down and people defining who we are from the outside. But what I have found in organising is that we have a chance to connect with people who are close to pain and together tell a different story, a story about how despite challenges we can be people of power and can make change in an area we know and love. The rapid development of the borough juxtaposed with some of the highest child homelessness rates in the UK is just once example of how there are multiple narratives of the borough festering but uncertainty in how we connect these to create positive stories for the future and meaningful impact.
What I have learned in organising, is that, it’s up to us to change our narrative. No one else is going to do it for us and that’s why we need to stand up in public life and be counted. So, if you’re also from a place that has been written off, I’d call on you to also, connect with other institutions around you and begin the tough and slow work of organising and telling your stories, being part of positive change in the places you call home.
I am currently chairing a Newham Citizens Safety Action Team, working with schools and colleges, business and the council to ensure our young people can get to school safely, and access the jobs they have the talent to get. You can read more about the work of Newham Citizens here.
You can read more about Community Links here.