This blog was originally published as part of the Social Rights Alliance’s work. Set up in 2019 by Just Fair and funded by the Tudor Trust, the Alliance aimed to empower rights-holders to claim their rights. The Alliance’s work is now part of Just Fair’s broader mission to build a movement of people claiming their economic, social and cultural rights.
By Martin Connelly, Nic Cook, Hinda Mohamed and Kayleigh Rousell, with Helen Flynn, Susanna Hunter-Darch and Emma Lough.
From September 2021 to February 2022 the Social Rights Alliance brought together four community activists from across England, from Difference NE, Intisaar, The Annexe at The Wharton Trust and Sheppey is Ours! Through an action research process they explored and learned about economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) and a Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA). Much happened and much was learnt by the Community Researchers.
But the other side of that journey is about what happens for Just Fair, and other human rights organisations, through holding such a space. How do we ensure that learning happens on all sides?
When gathered in London for the day on 22 February, the Community Researchers reflected on their learning about human rights and the PANEL principles. The powerful, insightful conversations triggered more questions.
”My question is flip it to the other side. What is Just Fair as an organisation, a human rights organisation learning from [this project]? What will it take forward in terms of working with communities like ourselves and very powerful individuals like ourselves?”
For some who have been involved in community activism for many years, there was scepticism about the ability of human rights policy organisations to open up to genuine participation:
“I find quite a lot of participation [spaces] in human rights organisations very uncomfortable. It’s like they select, and that gives us the participation… because we’re talking about human rights and yet human rights organisations [often have] one of the most un-participative processes I ever come across.”
Are human rights policy organisations necessarily practicing a Human Rights-Based Approach themselves?
The make-up and identity of who funds, leads and works within these organisations is vital. Their view of the world and people’s power positions within it, is crucial to how projects, such as the Community Researchers space, are formed:
“All I saw was white faces staring at me. I don’t know the background of those white faces, but it was white faces there and we critiqued that, years ago – if you’re going to set up an organisation based on human rights, please, let’s do it. But let’s think about how that is structured.”
Community Researchers discussed how organisations are bringing together people to be empowered, without acknowledging the inherent power these individuals have. They also highlighted the failure to acknowledge that the organisation is empowered by this participation – the Community Researchers have lent their power to the institution, given it legitimacy. The “disempowered” have in ways in fact “empowered” the organisation. If this process isn’t seen as reciprocal it becomes tokenistic:
”It’s so powerful, but how the organisation structures a project to empower communities… how you hold so much power to start with. It’s all about that kind of… I can’t articulate it, but again, there’s that contradiction, and real problematic in that, that the organisation could write to a funder and say this space involved, a black Muslim woman who is classically seen as, you know, disempowered, but by the way, who are you to say I’m disempowered, I dare you!”
Community Researchers discussed whether participation work within human rights policy organisations is tokenistic when it fails to challenge and change power structures:
”I often feel particularly now in the human rights experience the last few years, if it is about participation but not talking about power, what are we actually talking about? Tokenism. Because unless there is a transference of power, it is just rolling out a different body.”
”What are they learning? What is the institution learning from this project? Whether that then translates into the work of the organisation this project is holding up, holding a mirror up to our own practices as an organisation.”
As Community Researchers took on the Human Rights-Based Approach principles they scrutinised their own practice, the structures and systems within their own community projects and organisations.
“And me as a person and in my own work is actually going, Oh yeah there’s, you know, a critique of our own work as well of thinking, how do we this?”
A key theme of the project centred around the need to claim the right to talk about rights. As a group of grassroots activists, without academic/policy/law backgrounds they felt traditionally outside of the human rights field. The difference between these individual identities and experiences in comparison to the make up of human rights organisations staff and trustees was not lost:
“… tend to be most of whom are white. Who aren’t bringing lived experience, who don’t work in communities. And then here we are, having a diverse group of people who are talking about the right to, needing to claim the right to talk about rights. And how the two groups contrast and who has the right to talk about rights? The [lawyers and policy makers], they’re doing it all of the time, aren’t they? And they get to define what legality is and they have the power to decide who gets to participate. So all the stuff… is very live for organisations to really think about how it practices these [HRBA] principles.”
Going forward to Community Researchers are laying down the challenge: human rights organisations can’t be neutral on participation of people with lived experience within their structures and systems, as well as their projects and campaigns, as organisations with privilege and power:
“If you’re holding the power, you’re either enabling or disabling our access to rights.”
The Community Researchers’ Manifesto for a Human Rights-Based Approach offers a new tool to help in this journey.
Plus take a look at the Community Researchers’ report on the PANEL principles, Whose Rights Are They Anyway?
Quotes are taken, slightly paraphrased, from the Community Researchers’ day together on 22 February 2022.