Trainee Archivist Laila Benhaida shares her insights into the hidden depths and human stories within one of our collections.
This collection was donated to us by the previous CHAC Manager, who wanted to ensure the memory of the organisation is preserved for the material to be of benefit to future users. The collection consists of approximately 40 years’ worth of organisational records (from 1978-2019). The material is made up of annual reports, meeting minutes, research material for a celebratory event and exhibition material.
What could possibly be learnt from meeting minutes and annual reports? They must be boring, right? Having had the opportunity to spend time sifting through the records, which allowed me to gain a greater level of understanding, I can tell you that on a broader scale this collection captures the changing demographics of the local area over the course of four decades. It also captures the common socio-economic factors which affected the local people, such as unemployment, low education level, poor living conditions and crime.
Things like austerity cuts, government policy changes and political party changes all impacted this corner of central Manchester on a grass roots level, as well as global situations (such as war in Syria, Iraq and Vietnam) which led to the formation of new communities.
I wish to share what I have learnt from the months I spent cataloguing this collection so I will first introduce the background to the collection, the content and point out some prominent themes which would be of interest to researchers.
For those who are not familiar with Manchester, Cheetham Hill is a ward to the north of Manchester. It’s an ethnically diverse and densely populated area which sits quite close to the city centre.
CHAC was originally founded in 1977 by local residents to help give each other advice over the common housing problems they were facing. It then grew into an advice centre after receiving funding from a government funded job start scheme which created two paid posts. In 1976 the workers moved into a room above a local pub. After a local campaign, Manchester Town Hall agreed to let CHAC have premises in the basement of the Old Library on Cheetham Hill Road. The Advice Centre began to grow in response to the needs of the local community.
The Centre’s aims/objectives were to promote charitable purposes for the benefit of the community and to help relieve poverty, distress and sickness, in particular supporting vulnerable people, the elderly, those living with disabilities and asylum seekers. CHAC offer advice and support to those who are often desperate, vulnerable, newly settled and have little knowledge about our complex laws and entitlements. These objectives still remain the same today.
There are some strong themes within this collection: one is their struggle as an organisation to keep afloat. In the decades that followed the formation of CHAC they faced several moves of premises and near insolvency. Staff and volunteers recognised the needs of the local community and decided to take action by working beyond what would be expected, applying for funding, organising fundraising events and advocating their work to the local authority.
As is evident from their meeting minutes, staff recorded their everyday issues and resolves, hurdles and triumphs; it was touch and go for a lot of the time and I got a real sense of the stressful conditions they endured over the years. I found the dedication of ordinary people who were passionate about helping people in need truly inspiring.
Another interesting theme which is documented in CHAC’s meeting minutes is the lack of representation in their workforce 30 years ago. Around the early 90s CHAC recognised there was a need to recruit staff representative of the local community, specifically with language skills, in order to better help their then majority Asian clients. Fast forward to 2020 and this is still an issue across many mainstream institutions which has been highlighted by recent global anti-racist protests.
CHAC worried about using affirmative action to advertise an ‘Asian Woman Advice Worker’ post, probably because this wasn’t common practice amongst employers back then; you could therefore say that CHAC were pioneers in their recruitment process. Unfortunately, it became evident that there was a substantial lack of candidates with the skills required to fulfil the role. This made me think of the wider social/economic issues at the time that caused this skills gap amongst Asian women.
CHAC were successful in delivering volunteer projects, one of which became recognised by the Cabinet office in 2006 for sharing good practice with other organisations. They demonstrated good practice with volunteers from socially excluded backgrounds by developing their skill sets and helping them secure paid work.
In early 2000 CHAC were finally able to recruit an Asian Woman Advice Worker. Farhat Khan arrived to the UK as a refugee fleeing domestic violence and came to CHAC seeking advice. After volunteering for the Centre, she secured the post of Asian Women’s Advice worker. She brought a great set of skills and experience: being from Pakistan herself meant she could relate culturally to her (many) Pakistani clients, and brought this cultural understanding to the organisation. She also had vital community language skills. We also have her personal collection archived: the ‘Papers of Farhat Khan’, collection number GB3228.83. The catalogue is available to view through our website: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/collections.
Farhat was instrumental in seeking funds to start advice sessions for refugees and was involved in developing the Centre’s ‘Refugees Welcome Here’ campaign. Her timing was well received; as documented in CHACs annual reports, the centre saw a significant rise in asylum seekers needing support.
Unfortunately, this was also the start of her own fight, as her right to work was withdrawn in March 2004 due to her appeal for refugee status failing. This leads on to another prominent theme within the collection: CHAC’s support for Farhat’s anti-deportation campaign. The months that followed saw CHAC campaign to raise the profile of Farhat and support her right to work while she re-appealed her case. In 2006 Farhat was granted refugee status and returned to paid work with CHAC, later becoming qualified in delivering immigration advice.
CHAC also supported clients who were facing unfair fines and enforcement by the state; they helped many local people out of extreme hardship, providing support and guidance whilst navigating through complex cases.
It is worth noting that this collection is mainly text based with some photographs and exhibition type material. The early typewritten annual reports have some great typography and illustrations and are full of statistical information, interpretations of government legislations and case studies. I found the pie charts interesting as they illustrated how the problems their clients faced changed over the years. It is clear that CHAC value research and their records demonstrate this.
Aside from reports and meeting minutes, there are always hidden gems to be found in collections. I recall coming across a printed story of a single mother and her children arriving to Cheetham Hill as refugees; it was inside some meeting minute papers. It is so important to preserve stories like this as they capture the harsh reality and truth of a person’s experience, a person who would be often marginalised and only recorded as a statistic or a problem.
As an organisation CHAC are still functioning today and with the current global pandemic it is fair to say that their work is as crucially important as it was all those years ago. We as a collecting organisation aim to continue to preserve CHACs organisational history going forward to create a fuller picture of our collective past.