It’s Jo Hiley’s job at Hope Not Hate to try and talk to people about racism, discrimination, homophobia and other unpleasant subjects. Hope Not Hate’s approach to the recently popular right-wing rhetorics is to take people with these views seriously and try to win them over to a more accepting point-of-view by just conversing with them. The power of the word. Hiley explains their methods in much detail, while also trying to give a context to the surge of British nationalism, xenophobia and, of course, Brexit.
“We realised we needed whole communities resisting, resisting against these fascist people coming in and leafletting, suggesting that they were legitimate electoral forces.”
“Hope Not Hate doesn’t really have a distinct starting point in its history, but we more or less started ten to fifteen years ago. It was an evolutionary process that came out of an older organisation and other people’s interest. The reason we felt it was needed was because the traditional far-right groups, which were usually organised in the margins and fringes, suddenly became a threat through the electoral process. We saw the emergence of groups such as the BNP (British National Party) and they stood a real threat to become members of parliament. There was already a sort of traditional anti-fascism around, but it was obvious their usual counterdemonstrations weren’t going to stop them getting into power this time. We realised we needed whole communities resisting, resisting against these fascist people coming in and leafletting, suggesting that they were legitimate electoral forces. There is a particular famous account of one campaign in a place called the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, famous for their huge former council houses. Britain had a lot of social housing sold off in the 1980s, so you’ve got a lot of areas in London where there are no longer cheap places to live. Add some recent migration in the mix and you get a lot of tension in that area. We leafleted every door three times over and the community response was huge. It kicked off something that is growing slowly and organically.
Hope Not Hate has a research department as well that keeps track of the far right and their movements, but also more recent threats like what UKIP is up to. We have an education department, an organising area and more journalistic groups. We’re a bit segmented, but we do that for our protection. The organising department is really focusing on how you build resilience in communities.
“We work not only in a classic anti-fascism way, but we try and achieve a culture shift. We want a change in attitude in the long run.”
The most imminent threat concerning the far right has been changing over the course of the past years: in Britain one of the key things that changed is the immergence of UKIP (UK Independence Party), which used to be tiny and people used to laugh with, but suddenly they were starting to gain atraction through Nigel Farage. They became really popular by saying things that were also popular on the leaflets from the far-right activists. They started campaigning to leave the EU. So, as we know, that really took hold and the prospect of leaving the EU was really popular, especially using immigration as a reason for that. This idea spread so wildly that the conservatives held a referendum. We know what happened next. As an organisation, that meant we had to adapt to the evolution of the far-right threat. We still focus on far-right groups and racial hatred, but we also try and keep tabs on the anti-immigrant organisation and those who stir things up in communities in a more general sense. We also go into communities where the anti-immigrant sentiment is quite widespread. We work not only in a classic anti-fascism way, but we try and achieve a culture shift. We want a change in attitude in the long run. The past two years we had a particularly strong focus on more community organising techniques. We learn with communities how to really build something that lasts, which is more about celebrating the positivity of unity.
“Why is it that in this community we are dying twenty years earlier than the rich community down the road?”
We’ve got projects running in places all across the United Kingdom. We have a few organisers that work in post-industrial communities, which tend to be further North in the country. We find that it’s often generally aligned to areas that were hit particularly hard by economic deprivation over the past thirty years, dating back to the miner’s strikes and Margret Thatcher. You see a big difference between urban areas like London and places where there used to be coal mining, steal industry or fishing ports and where there is a shortage of jobs right now. The far-right organisations and organisations focused on hatred are really trying to use that for their own gain. So we go into those communities and focus at first on other issues that feel immediately important for the members of the community before we introduce ideas about race. Our project that we’re trialing in the moment is the idea of going in and saying “Why is it that in this community we are dying twenty years earlier than the rich community down the road?”. Because in this political environment, the idea of NHS (National Health Service) and employment have been racialised by some groups, however, the straight up idea of health is something that matters to a lot of people that hasn’t been used in a politicised way. We use the idea of the community deserving to be well. So that also means that it opens up to a lot of local partners and we can bring people together in meetings about starting sport clubs. Like this, they work towards a common goal while interacting with each other. Later we can start to introduce questions of what the real problems actually are and of who is really to blame here.
Another project we’ve been working on is called ‘The Middle England Project’, which has been looking at the more economical comfortable areas where people might consider themselves quite liberal and cosmopolitan, but at the same tome also a bit more economically conservative. We found that a lot more socially liberal, economically conservative middle class people were actually feeling upset about this anti-immigration sentiment. They didn’t agree, but they just never shout about it. They don’t consider themselves activists, even though several among them do have political influence. If we help these people to look at the power analyses of their own capacity they can maybe really choose to unite and use that influence for good. A bit over a year ago, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far right activist and a video went viral about her first speech in parliament where she said: “We have more in common than what divides us.” It helped strengthen the community initiatives across the country, also because of the memorial money people were sending and that went to community strengthening initiatives. It can be really hard for local community groups to feel that they can do anything, because racism, discrimination and hate are such huge issues, but people came together in the room for the More in Common campaign. People held community picnics or gigs, events in pubs, it all depended on who the members and the issues of those communities were, but the point was that they put energy and effort into figuring out what their particular community needed and who needs to speak to whom.
“What [Brixton and Boston] have in common is, for example, that the housing is very expensive, people can barely afford rent.”
Brixton, South London has a lively Afro-Caribbean community and a history of political activism. It was also one the highest rating Remain areas of the country. When the results of the elections trickled in, everyone there was shocked. We suddenly felt like we’d been living in a bubble and that the rest of the country seemed to feel differently. But we immediately also started building bridges, we felt like we had to be talking to other communities as well. So we reached out to Boston, Lincolnshire, the area with the most Leave votes, even though I had my doubts for coming across as a patronising metropolitan elite. But it worked incredibly well. We went to a group of very strongly opinionated Leave voters who felt they had been neglected, didn’t receive enough funding, had bad rated schools, a destroyed housing market and that absolutely nobody cared about them. Boston is also very rural and has a lot of underpaid migrants who work on the land. So there’s a lot of drinking and a lot of crime, as one can expect. They agreed to reach out to the immigrants working there, start talking on how to get along and create a system that works. The Boston More In Common now has about 2000 members on its Facebook page and is doing incredible work. Everyone in the town seems to have heard about it. This project is really fulfilling for me. We recently got funding to send a load of people up to Boston in November and we’re going to try to make people who have something in common meet each other. We’re going to send a nurse to meet another nurse or a teacher to meet another teacher, construction worker to meet another construction worker from Brixton and Boston. After asking what it could be that we have in common is, for example, that the housing is very expensive, people can barely afford rent.
“We try to not get either party angry, but actually converse and listen to each other.”
The last one and a half year, my job was to focus on mediating the campaigns in London and the Brixton/Boston project. I also organise groups in the North-West of England. And I do things here and there in the community organising team, where we do a lot of training sessions. At the moment these trainings focus on how to have difficult conversations about immigration, which has been incredibly popular over the years. It’s not about talking to the real racist organisations, but the people who say: “I’m not racist, but…” How do you speak to those people? Because the far-right organisations also target these people. You have got to see this as a spectrum: there is us, the far right, and then, you have a lot of people in the middle as well. The first two shout the loudest, but these are not the target groups. So what we do is talk people through about techniques to have these conversations in a way that it’s productive for everyone involved. We use an approach that is developed by the Los Angeles LGTB centre, called ‘Deep campusing’ and their idea is to spend a long time on people’s doorsteps, really just having a proper conversation about how they got to their views and then try and change attitudes towards the homophobia and transphobia. We’ve adapted it to use in terms of migration. So we do door knocking.
Maybe one of our best case studies would be in Cardiff. The government opened an asylum-seeker refuge centre, sort of smack-bang in the middle of a typical working-class area where attitudes to immigration weren’t great. The asylum centre organised events that were open to the public but obviously few people from that area went to these event. So we used that to just knock on doors with activists and we would just have a genuine chat. We find out why and how their ideas formed – it’s recognising that they probably think they embody positive values like caring about their family, caring about the safety of their community, caring about youth unemployment… – and we don’t necessarily change everyone’s minds all the time, but we do soften their view of the other side. People who work in the social sector tend to have these techniques naturally. Because if a twelve-year-old has a dodgy view, then a youth worker is more likely to ask what makes them feel that way than get angry and tell them they’re being an idiot. So we try to not get either party angry, but actually converse and listen to each other. In Cardiff, this was all very fulfilling for the activists doing the door knocking: it didn’t feel like a chore. Sometimes people from behind the doorstep would end up joining us, while other people, who would normally never have gone to an asylum centre, came along when we invited them. We used this as a model for how to shift continuously. It’s a marathon, not a sprint of twenty minutes talking on a doorstep. I invite organisation-based groups, but also areas of the country where they used this approach during the general election. Hope Not Hate is actually not party-political, but it does matter to us that we’re active in areas where racists organise. What we really want to do is kind of encourage conversation between all kind of different groups that are focused on listening as their primary approach.
“I feel like we’re building a body of learning, rather than telling people what to do.”
Some of those door knockers are going to be a bit scared, of course, so what we do like to do is make sure that anyone who’s potentially a door knocker had a nice session with us where we chat about what we really want to do. The interesting thing about door knocking is you’ll always be nervous at first, but afterwards, most volunteers have loved it. We still have lots to learn, though, from how groups respond to the general idea and the conversations that they had. It’s great to talk to people about how their conversations with strangers differ to family members. If my dad says something silly, for example, I get angry way faster, because I think he should know better. So if you are in a very small community where you know everyone, how will that change how you have those conversations? I feel like we’re building a body of learning, rather than telling people what to do. But it’s proving really interesting and if we can spread that approach from one organisation to the other, then we feel like it massively changes how a community views our campaign, even if they are not involved, because they can feel that you’re present, and interested and engaged.
We experience difficulties, of course. One of the reasons we like to talk about the spectrum is when you go into a certain level of hostility, then you have no obligation to talk to them. You’re trying to start something, but you can’t win everyone over. There is also something that I haven’t mentioned yet and it’s the fact that it’s very different for a white person doing this than it is for a person who is usually on a receiving end of prejudice. They asked me to deliver this training at the National Refugee Woman’s Conference. And I panicked: “Me? On the front of that room, telling them how to have conversations with racists?”. That didn’t feel exactly right, but the room was absolutely packed and they were fascinated with our approach. I think it’s all about the common learning experience and saying different people have different thresholds for talking to a hostile person and having a bad experience is not unpreventable. You get taken out of your comfort zone and you can learn.
“I don’t think hate is a fixed thing, more like a spectrum. […] Then it’s about building a bridge across the prejudices and life experiences, so you can challenge something in their ideas.”
These hateful things, with a lot of people, it’s just the thing that comes out because it’s what they say to each other in pubs all the time and because they experience difficulties in their own lives, so they look for a black sheep. I don’t think hate is a fixed thing, more like a spectrum. You have people who believe that we should help child refugees, but at the same time are a bit unsure about Muslims. Then you talk it through with them and they may have experienced a lot of judgement in their own life. This is often the case. Then it’s about building a bridge across the prejudices and life experiences, so you can challenge something in their ideas. Because you can mythbust all you want about, for example, climate change, if someone has decided they don’t agree, they’ll decide that you’re lying and that you’ve got your information wrong, even if you show them a graph. So it’s all in how to become someone that they want to listen to.
“If people feel separated from each other you feel like you’ve got different issues. You feel like there is some way that what others are doing is detrimental to your goal.”
I don’t think there are simple answers to the question where racism and fascism come from. I do think that if you look at how the far right organises and get their messages across, it tells you a lot. In terms of the traditional fascist far right, it can be very similar to cults. It can be a group mentality like ‘us against the world’. They are tapping into negative experiences and there is kind of indignation. If you look at post-industrial communities, it’s also the widespread desperation that they’re using. But they always tap into someone’s emotions and beliefs about the world or something that has happened to them. Our research found that the place where the far right or racist ideas do best are parts of the country where white working class lived, but has a Muslim community very close-by and where there is no integration. So they are seeing something all the time, but they never get the chance to meet and get to understand who they are. Compare that to Brixton, where there are all different kinds of cultures, who shop in each other’s shops. People there are generally very tolerant, because it feels like they are all the same community. So that’s why, if you speak to someone on the doorstep, they’ll say: “Well, my eastern European plumber next door, he’s fine. I like him. It ‘s just the rest of them.” If people feel separated from each other you feel like you’ve got different issues. You feel like there is some way that what others are doing is detrimental to your goal. But it’s incredible complex, so insanely complex to solve.
Every while and again a far-right group – the English Defend League – threatens to march through a town if anyone is planning on building a new mosque. One of our scenarios is: ‘Your town is getting a new mosque and the English Defend League is coming, what are you going to do?’ How do we involve the entire community to make them feel safe and how do we get involved in celebrating the people of that community, even the people those protests are targeting? In Birmingham last year, Pegida came to town. Hope Not Hate spoke to them as a community and they said: “We are more British than them, we care about our community”, so they did a thing, called ‘our cup of tea’. Moslim women held tea parties in all the mosques in the city and invited people in, many of which who had never been in a mosque before. So on the day of the Pegida demonstration, which turned out to be much smaller than they planned, the whole community took tea.
We are definitely not interested in working on the same way as other anti-fascist groups. There are a couple of major groups organising against fascism at the moment. One is called ‘Unite against Fascism‘ and they traditionally follow where the far right is going and organise counter demonstrations. The fundamental purpose of the organisation isn’t to provide an alternative and bring communities together. Another that appeared recently is ‘Stand up to Racism‘, coming out of a far-left group in the UK. They also march and do big protests in London on pro-migration.
“[The follow-through on demonstration on a political level] requires something that on the surface might seem less radical, because it takes lots and lots of community meetings in evenings with flipcharts and post-its, but it’s actually listening to people and building really large base movements which will force change because we’re a large collective.”
Sometimes there’s a feeling of needing to do something and one easily expresses that feeling in going to counterdemonstrations. But sometimes it feels like there’s this growing problem and counter demonstrations aren’t enough. Having people come together and demonstrate that they agree with each other is a very powerful something, but it requires a lot of grassroots work in the weeks leading up to it. It also needs a political narrative: how to follow through on the demonstrations on a political level. That requires something that on the surface might seem less radical, because it takes lots and lots of community meetings in evenings with flipcharts and post-its, but it’s actually listening to people and building really large base movements which will force change because we’re a large collective. You can think what you like about punching Nazis, but it doesn’t matter as much as that segment of people, because they are the point and they are the people who are going to be influenced either way. And whether or not you punch a Nazi wouldn’t influence that person, who is living out his life, having an opinion.
My job has generally been quite safe. However, especially during election periods, we focus on areas where there is a lot racist groups organising and in those places, it is not unheard of our activists to be chased or intimidated. Sometimes we are quite provocative, so we’ll say like “Nigel Farage is not the solution to your problem!”. So there are elements of it that come with risks and then whenever we take volunteers out we always do a very thorough safety precaution exercise. It probably won’t happen, it hasn’t happened to me, but it’s a sign of respect to your activists that you assess it for its risks.
I think that it’s important to form a strategy, not just fight the fascists. For every group that is organising for a better world different strategies and tactics need to be addressed. So a tactic would be an occupy action, a boycott or a demonstration. You can think of lots of examples of someone not doing something against the unjustifiable but sometimes things just don’t work out. It can be hard to see really great people putting a lot of energy in projects that aren’t working.
“There are ways in which you can disrupt the social order and these are good and change people’s minds, but you also want to bring as many people in as possible.”
Have you heard about Marshall Ganz? He is a community organising theorist in America, he has written a lot of stuff about community organising. He has this idea of strategic capacity and essentially that means that if you got three people in an office, deciding on what your strategy is, doing the mapping, going through all these exercises, you are never going to think of an as effective strategy as if you’ve got lots of different people in the room with different knowledge, different experiences, who lived different lives, because you weren’t automatically thinking of things through these different perspectives. So your campaign is going to be ten times better if you save the planning for having all these people in the room.
I’ve been to a lot of different activist trainings in lots of different settings and if you’ve got lots of different people in a room and they are all from trade unions, far left… There is an accepted culture, an accepted language, everyone calls each other ‘comrade’. During our four-day training ‘Hope Camp‘ – that’s not the assumed tone of the room – there are more people who come from their communities, they are much more diverse and don’t necessarily consider themselves activists in that sense. And to me that feels like building a movement that’s going to have a wide reach. I think it’s simultaneously very radical and I think being radical looks like that: it looks soft, because it’s something communities can feel comfortable with. If you come selling something people are uncomfortable with, you lose more people than you gain. There are ways in which you can disrupt the social order and these are good and change people’s minds, but you also want to bring as many people in as possible. Especially if it’s about attitudes and ideas around race and immigration, you need people to feel like that’s something positive instead of a burden. And I think we focus a lot on that.
Hope for me is possibility for change. That can be seeing a potential strategy or looking for the good in people in communities that we can use to change people’s minds. When going into communities, we show them there can be a positive outlook. I think it’s a sense of celebration of the ideas we stand for. I can’t tell you concrete what hope for me is, but I think it’s better that way, because other people need to own it too.”
Interview by Labo vzw & Sonderland
Photo by Sonderland