Standing at the intersection of the Seven Sisters Tube Station and a small cafe playing Latin American music, I met Yvonne Field for warm coffee and the chance to talk about her work and the importance of social enterprises in Britain. It was mid-July, meaning that this day was not only hot and sunny, but also four months since the UK triggered Article 50 in the European Parliament. The decision officially initiated Brexit negotiations, and in less than two years the UK will be permanently out of the EU.
Things have changed drastically since I first visited the UK in 2012. My first trip was during the Summer Olympics and it was an exciting time to visit London. I met the Mexican track and field team while riding the Tube, and visited the Olympic Village in West Ham. I learned as a tourist that the construction of the Olympic Village had posed a direct confrontation for local community members, who were forced to permanently relocate for the event. This was one of my first experiences with the impact of large-scale redevelopment projects that result in gentrification. With similar scenarios occurring for the Sochi and Rio Olympic Games, this effect is not geographically limited to the West. Most concerningly, the impact of gentrification anywhere almost always affects the low-income communities of color who live there.
Since the British public voted to leave the European Union in the Summer 2016 referendum, there is an atmosphere lingering over the UK that is difficult to articulate. Hate crimes are on the rise – from verbal and physical altercations to acid attacks in public – and in less than six months there were five terrorist attacks across the UK targeting everyone from pedestrians along bridges in London, young girls at a pop concert in Manchester, and two Muslim worshippers at the Finsbury Park Mosque.
London has been associated with summers of unrest since as early as 2011 when widespread rioting took hold in response to the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of Mark Duggan under questionable circumstances. However, on June 14th, 2017 a new tragedy was added to the powderkeg of rising social inequality. A fire broke through Grenfell Tower, a low-income, high-rise apartment complex in North West London, completely engulfing it in flames in less than 15 minutes. The official death toll was revised to 71, but local residents say hundreds could have lived in the building, many of whom are still missing.
“Grenfell is the tip of the iceberg,” Yvonne tells me as she sips her coffee. We sit outside on the screened-in porch of Pueblito Paisa cafe, while fans buzz above us and the Latin American music continues to blare. The horror of Grenfell is hard to fathom, but the aftermath is unimaginable. Yvonne founded the Ubele Initiative, and her work focuses on spatial issues and anti-gentrification initiatives.
“I think that the building itself will be knocked down. It still has to be decided but my sense is too many people died for them to build another.” Yvonne tells me about her own nephew’s son, who lives in the area and went to nursery school with a three-year-old girl that lived on the 19th floor of Grenfell. “She’s gone. Her whole family is gone. Even if you don’t live there, you feel the impact.”
The living spaces and social centers dedicated to working-class communities are often the main targets of gentrification. Words like “upscale” “pop-up” and “renovation” are used to describe what is, in reality, market-cruelty and internal displacement of marginalized communities. The UK’s go-to words to defend this behavior is to claim these policies “regenerate” the spaces and turn them into “opportunity areas”. To that Field says, “Opportunity areas for who? Not for local people. People are being locally cleansed.”
The effects of austerity and Brexit on communities of color in the UK have decimated grassroots organizations that depended on government funding to serve the community. The current situation in Britain did not just spring up after the 2016 referendum, and its foundation was laid long before I first came to the UK in 2012. This stems back to 2010, when the Conservatives began implementing austerity measures throughout the UK in response to the 2007-2009 global recession. One of the effects of these measures was that funding cuts were unevenly distributed across the public sector. Many organizations by Black and Minority Ethnic groups were forced to close their services – and today the organizations which still exist remain under threat.
With this in mind, Yvonne and the Ubele Initiative are working in London to create a dynamic network of independent Black and Minority Ethnic social enterprises. These projects all work for, and with, leaders in working class communities of color around the United Kingdom.
“For us, Grenfell is real. It’s a lived experience. People are living it now and it’s going to go on for years and years and years. But also, it is a bit of a metaphor for what’s going on across the country and certainly in cities. What it represents is the developers having their way, [local] people not being listened to and being totally disregarded as irrelevant, seen in a way by local authorities with disdain, as less than human. That’s what [Grenfell] represents. That’s why the change that comes from this has to be transformational. Not just about housing and development of the city. It has to be about communities.”
The location of our cafe meeting is a perfect example of this. By no means is our meeting point a coincidence. Yvonne has invited me to the Seven Sisters Market in the Tottenham Latin Quarter, an area that is currently being contested by local officials. “They want to knock all this down with developers and build a shopping center.” She says.
After our conversation, I walk through the indoor market and speak with the people who do business every day there. Many of them own their office space and have invested thousands of pounds into their businesses that are now under threat. One local realtor and his wife tell me how they have been in business in the market for almost 10 years and have spent more than £70,000 on maintaining their livelihood.
Please check out the proposed plan to change the Seven Sisters Market into the Wards Corner, juxtaposed with portraits of the people who actually engage and invest in the neighborhood today. I can only understand how the local government can treat people this way if they see someone’s worth based in their capital, and not in the blood, sweat, and tears they put into building their community.
The UN agrees. In October 2017, the UN working group for business and human rights began an investigation into the Seven Sisters Market and the proposed plan by private developers as a potential human rights case. The decision certainly marks a victory, but the fight has been going on for ten years and isn’t over yet. We cannot take our eyes off of the Seven Sisters Market, the victims of Grenfell, the communities being pushed out of their homes for multi-million dollar shopping centers, or the organizations who work to serve the public. These assaults have been ongoing, and the struggle is long-term. There is no rest until policies protect us instead of greasing rich pockets with our ashes. A society is only as good as it treats its most marginalized peoples and only as vibrant as the communities of color free to brighten it.
This article is part of a two-part series. To find out more about Yvonne Field’s incredible life and the Ubele Initiative’s current campaigns, check back soon for Part 2.
About the Author: Dan Biss currently resides in Southern Germany. Originally from outside of Washington, D.C., Biss organizes events for People of the African Diaspora, facilitates workshops for justice and empowerment, and writes down everything in her mind. In 2014 she began a blog about sexuality, pop culture, and her pursuits to live more intersectionally… You can follow her journey on Twitter @xDanBiss.