Beyond Refugee Week….our new approach to Refugee Week, Black History Month, International Women’s Day etc

Three young people of different ethnicities holding a placard reading 'Beyond Refugee Week'

Black History Month, Refugee Week, International Women’s Day, South Asian Heritage Month, LGBQT+ heritage month…and the list goes on. These commemorative days, weeks or months are important and significant; in many cases hard-fought for. They offer us the chance to spotlight, celebrate and mark important histories that are still pushed to the margins, overlooked, and under-represented. They create space for us to centre ourselves and our cultures, histories and experiences.

A problem for the sector

However, there are problems with this approach. Black History Month has become, for many heritage organisations, the only time when they pause to feature and celebrate Black histories in any detail. You can almost hear the sigh of relief when, at the end of October, they say “Black Histories: done” and congratulate themselves on the increased diversity of their visitors during the month. For a conversation about this, see our blog In Conversation – Black History Month

We work with many creative freelancers and they have told us that they find themselves in high demand during Black History Month, South Asian Heritage month and so on, but struggling for commissions during the rest of the year. We hear and understand their weariness: their creative work doesn’t stop once the commemorative period is over, nor does their need to pay the bills.

Our experience

This affects us to some degree: September often brings a flurry of last minute requests to supply archive items or contribute to events in other ways. We are often unable to support or enjoy these events ourselves due to the short notice and our lack of capacity. This is frustrating, both for us (as we often want to take part) and for our potential partners (who understandably, wonder why the only Global Majority-focused library and archive in the North-West is unable to support them in their activities).

Over the past few years we have sought to offer a range of activities during the various commemorative points in the year, organising (sometimes relatively large scale) public events. These events have generally been huge successes, and we’ve been heartened by audience members’ obvious enjoyment and the positive feedback we are given. However, this takes a toll. The capacity of our small staff team finds itself stretched uncomfortably and we have to pause all other ongoing work in order to pull off these events. We work long hours, are unable to take part in the many interesting events going on around us, and at the end of the period we then have a backlog of work to pick up. Sadly, these times of year become more of a burden than a delight.

Stepping off the treadmill

We thought long and hard about this, asking ourselves How can we offer opportunities to explore Global Majority histories all year round? How can we help creative freelancers develop a steady stream of work? How can we ensure our team can work in comfortable and healthy ways? It became clear to us that we needed to step off the treadmill and find a new approach.

How will this work?

Our new approach moves us away from flagship events during the key commemorative periods and towards a slower steadier spread of activities through the year. We will choose a theme or themes for each of the different commemorative markers and explore these throughout the year. We will develop events and activities with partners (schools, youth groups, researchers etc) and the public that take place at intervals, rather than clustered together.

This doesn’t mean we ignore the commemorative periods of course, but that we will use them to present our ideas and plans for the year ahead. We will then hold further events and activities around these themes spaced out more evenly throughout the year.

Refugee Week launch

Our theme for Refugee Week 2023 is Creating compassion and critical thinking around refugeeism. We launched our year of exploring refugeeism with an event during Refugee Week (19-25 June) bringing together a small group of expert educators, to collectively explore this question: How, given the increasingly hostile environment for refugees, can we cultivate a compassionate and empathetic approach towards refugees and asylum seekers? And how to encourage young people to think critically about the narratives around refugeeism they encounter?

Though we could not open this event up to a wider audience, we will create a good practice guide to share widely following on from the event. We hope this will prove a valuable resource to the many teachers, youth workers, home educators and parents and others working with young people.

Putting our collections to work

Throughout the year we will be diving into our collections and exploring the stories of two people who both experienced the UK’s hostile environment.

Marxist student Viraj Mendis feared for his life when threatened with deportation to Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and sought sanctuary in Hulme church. He spent two years here and was at the centre of a sustained community campaign. Later, in 2000, Farhat Kahn came to the UK to escape domestic violence but soon found herself and her children threatened with deportation and did not win her fight for refugee status until 2007 .  Both are incredible stories of bravery, resilience and determination but also document the harsh reality of UK immigration policy over the decades. Look out for blogs and short articles highlighting these histories throughout the year.

Educational resources

These articles will be of interest to many of our followers, but they also form the foundations of the education resources we are slowly developing. They will offer invaluable contextual information to teachers, youth workers, home educators and others working with young people. We will also offer teaching activities of different kinds: designed to suit a range of ages; offering creative and discussion-based activities as well as curriculum-based resources.