Globally connected, locally engaged

Post date 22 February 2017

What happened when a group of international Active Citizens visited Easton and Lawrence Hill? Up Our Street had a busy time last week hosting visitors from Brazil, Egypt, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and… Doncaster.  This was part of our British Council funded Active Citizens project.

Celia met Bella, Stacey, Shadman, Bessam, Illona and Camila together with Ana from the British Council in London on Monday, joining them for a tour around Parliament. Bright and early on Tuesday it was time to board a train for Bristol. After a quick lunch, there was time for sightseeing around the old city. The Georgian splendours of Queens Square provoked discussion about the slave trade, one of the less palatable aspects of Bristol history.

Then it was time to head to the Up Our Street office at the Beacon Centre to meet some of the local residents who had completed the Active Citizens course in Bristol. We had a wide-ranging discussion that covered women’s rights, refugees, engaging young people, and economic inequality. We heard from Ilona from Ukraine who lives very close to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula, her city has taken in many refugees.

On Wednesday morning it came to the part of the visit that we were most looking forward to – visiting community groups working to make life better in our neighbourhoods. Arriving in St Marks Road in a minibus provided by Bristol Community Transport (another long-running social enterprise), we met Afzal Shah, councillor for Easton ward. We were also joined by Abdul Malik, local businessman and chair of the St Marks Road mosque committee.

Afzal and Abdul gave us a tour around Easton Jamia Mosque, which is currently being extended with an amazing new golden dome. Abdul talked about how the mosque engages with the local community, particularly the Eid festival held in St Marks Road. Because it is an open public event held in the street, it is a great opportunity to bring the community together. In the newly expanded mosque there will be a new community area which will be open to the general public, which can be used for community meetings or events. Shadman and Bessem talked about the cultural differences in how Islam is practised in their home countries of Bangladesh and Egypt.

We didn’t have to walk far for our next stop, as just over the road is the St Marks Community Café in St Marks Baptist Church. Café manager Leslie outlined the ethos of the café which was set up in 2009, explaining simply that ‘we serve more than food’. Around a third of customers cannot afford to pay for their meal, but they turn no-one away. Leslie is one of two part-time paid staff, the rest of the café staff give their time for free. Volunteers provide a listening ear and can often help signpost to support agencies. Some volunteers have been with the café since the beginning, others gain experience and confidence and move into paid jobs.

No visit to St Marks Road would be complete without stepping into Bristol Sweet Mart. Saleem Ismail welcomed the group into the shop and told his family story. Sweet Mart is now such an Easton landmark, but the family arrived in the UK with just £50 after being forced to leave Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972.

We then provided our visitors with another authentic Bristol experience, a walk in the rain! Easton Community Centre was our next stop and we were joined at lunch by Anne and Jules from the management committee at the centre. The conversation flowed, discussing local democracy and the best ways to engage residents. Easton Community Centre was built by local residents coming together to raise money and run the building, but it’s fair to say that it hasn’t always had a straightforward history. One of the projects that sparked most interest with the group was Easton Community Centre’s use of sustainable energy.

Then it was back in the minibus again for that other well-known Bristol landmark, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Our favourite quote from the group was that despite having seen the big houses in Clifton, they would rather live in Easton, as it had a strong sense of community. After a few hours downtime to absorb all they had seen and heard, the group came back together to round off the day with a delicious Jamaican meal at Café Conscious in Barton Hill.

On Thursday morning we managed to squeeze in a walking tour of Old Market with Edson from Trinity Centre and held a session to reflect on lessons learnt before the train back to London. We delighted to say that the feedback we’ve had from the British Council was overwhelmingly positive. They said that the visitors were really impressed with all they had seen and were particularly struck by the community cohesion in our neighbourhoods. Ana from the British Council summed it up “What to say about Bristol? I'm in love with the welcoming Easton community! …it was a masterclass on how to build strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds and support community cohesion and diversity”

Up Our Street would like to thank all the people who gave their time to help with this visit, especially Afzal, Abdul, Leslie, Saleem, Anne, Jules, and Edson.