What do new migrants think about our region?

In a guest blog, Pria Bhabra and Rosemary Brookes reflect on their experiences working on the Migrant Access Project in their part of our region.

Leeds is an amazing and diverse city that has so much to offer for all the citizens that live here, new and old. But if you are new to the city, how much do you actually know, and how do you learn to navigate your way through to services and society?

Working with some of the new migrant communities through MAP is fantastic as we learn so much about their culture, how things were back home and how different things are here. Different individuals say there are both good and bad things both here and back at home, but feeling safe is why many are here. There is a lot to learn as new migrants start to integrate, for example the specific way we define ‘safeguarding’ is something new, something not discussed within communities because it’s not a definition that really existed back home, but they are learning in their own way to understand the bigger picture.

Do we all understand Leeds in the same way? How does it look through different eyes? Yes, there are some pictures and views of Leeds that are put out at a corporate level, but for each individual who lives in Leeds and are part of its existence these ideas and images may not be exactly the same.

In April, MAP was invited to attend a workshop for Leeds 2023 European Capital of Culture bid bid. We had the opportunity to hear people’s thoughts and visions of Leeds, but also a chance to share our own views. Two volunteers came along with us, Michaela came to the event representing the Roma community, and Bei came representing the Chinese community. For Michaela, Leeds was about different communities and cultures. It was good to see that people of Leeds are starting to learn about different communities and work with them, and she wants this to grow. Also, Leeds is a friendly city with opportunities. It’s about looking at some of the things that are negative such as deprivation, but also seeing the good. For Bei, she similarly saw the options that Leeds could offer, whilst highlighting some of the city’s contrasts in terms of prosperity, history, architecture and culture.

Every time MAP meets someone from a new migrant community, both staff and new migrants learn more about what Leeds is now, and what it should ideally be. These ideas may vary from person to person, but overall MAP, and the majority of people we meet, want Leeds to be a safe place to live and raise children, just like everyone else.

The Migrant Access Project (MAP) is developed by Leeds City Council, Touchstone and Feel Good Factor, aiming to reduce pressures on services where migration has impacted the most whilst helping new arrivals to put down roots in Leeds. It works with different migrant communities, often training volunteers up to become members of Migrant Community Networks through leadership training. For more information about MAP, or anything else in this blog, please contact Pria Bhabra pria.bhabra@leeds.gov.uk


Saving devolution from itself: Building #RegionalDemocracy in the North of England

Devolution. City Deals. Northern Powerhouse. What does this even mean to the average person on the street? Devolution probably reminds most people of Charles Darwin. If not, then it’s something to do with Scotland. City Deals just sound like business as usual. The Northern Powerhouse may be a funk band. If somehow all these big words are about the future of Northern England’s society and economy, about its transport and education and health system, about power and control vis-à-vis Whitehall bureaucracy and the whims of national government, about jobs and infrastructure and other areas where we are spending and raise tax money, then we should be talking about something else. We should be talking about regional democracy – a mechanism to build better systems to support our lives, communities and industries through more democratic governance.

From the beginning, it seems that both the term ‘devolution’ and the processes behind it – in contrast to the more bottom up approach in Scotland – have been conceived by and for Oxbridge politicians, local authorities and suited-and-booted business representatives. This has served to exclude and disengage the public, as the agenda is often seen and perceived as something remote from our daily lives. Indeed, it is fair to say that a lot of citizens have never even heard about the Northern Powerhouse, City Deals or devolution.

Like too many things in this country, these are policies conjured up in the corridors of Westminster, in local authorities’ offices, behind closed doors, or at exclusive events attended by the few. Imagine: attending the ‘Northern Powerhouse Conference’ held in February 2016, costing only £450: a real bargain for a programme which focussed only on business, with no inputs from civil society and third sector organisations, minority groups, or young voices.

Beyond this, the way in which City Deals have been put on the agenda seems only to reinforce the idea that devolution in the North has little to do with democracy, and more with the needs and wills of politicians. Indeed, none of the Deals that have been signed so far in Northern city regions such as Greater Manchester and Sheffield have been involved in any real process of consultation with the public from the outset. Of the elites, by the elites, for the elites, one would be tempted to dare say.

So who constructs the discourse of devolution in the North? How can citizens have a voice or exercise their power to decide what future they want for their localities and regions when decisions are made in the corridors of power?

It is hard not to feel disillusioned when comparing England’s experiences of devolution to Scotland’s democratic resurgence. Regardless of how one feels about the subject of the Indyref vote, it was a huge victory for democracy. People on both sides got engaged, got involved, and the politics, process and ideas were better for it. So rather than wallow in yet another critique of devolution, our question is how do we turn the devolution agenda into an opportunity to develop a real system of regional democracy? How can it be moulded into something positive, inclusive and hopeful? How can this moment be used to mobilise people of all backgrounds to be part of a movement to change England’s North for the better?

Step 1: Stop talking devolution, start talking about the issues

The first step in this direction is to change the ‘power-and-economy-obsessed’ discourse of devolution in the North, and focus instead on everyday lives. Devolution should not be just an empty word used by politicians in speeches or manifestos. It should not be framed simply as a way to achieve economic development. It should not be only about passing responsibilities (short of matching funding) down from the central government to the local or regional level. It should be about how to turn all these narratives into action, and figure out how the emerging new systems of governance could be used to improve people’s lives.

Thus, devolution must be reframed into something that is interesting and important to people on the ground and relates to their daily struggles, hopes, frustrations and dreams. We need devolution only if it is actually and directly connected to issues that matter to citizens. We need a system of regional democracy that brings better transport, education, housing, jobs, health care and strengthens communities rather than depriving them of their voices.

Part of the problem with devolution is that each of these systems is different. Instead of focusing on whether power should be given to Yorkshire or West Yorkshire or this council or that, we need to focus on the things that matter. Transport is not housing, health care is not education. There is no perfect geography for all of these systems, and they don’t need to be the same geography for everything. We recognise this already – Transport for the North has been set up because transport needs large-scale thinking, but this is often left outside the devolution conversation, even though it is ‘devolution’. Certain things are better done at the council level, and in some cases – as  with aspects of housing, or local economic development, or care – we need to be thinking about pushing power down to districts and neighbourhoods.

Regional democracy is about bringing together all of the actors – government, third sector, private industry, regular citizens – that are capable of contributing to a more sustainable, economically efficient and socially just systems that can provide these key services, regardless of scale. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, in this case better governance for better lives.

Step 2: Stop talking to each other, start talking with everyone else

If we are truly devolving power to local people, where are the people? Charities and the third sector have been almost entirely excluded. Grassroots groups have been ignored. Minority groups, communities of colour, young people – not at the table. From the beginning, there has been a politics of division and neglect – dividing rural voters from urban ones or squabbling between northern local authorities, or everyone from the political elite doing their best to either ignore outside voices or proclaim their own powerlessness in the face of Whitehall and Osborne. This is not to say that local authorities in the North are to be ‘blamed and shamed’. They have been between a rock and hard place, with the government snapping at their heels, all the way through the process that led to City Deals, and in the end they did what they had to do: accept what was on offer, so as to avoid their cities and economies  falling further behind the rest of the country. However, at the end of the day, in order to work the new structures that will emerge from the Deals (including elected City Region mayors) will have to take root in the local communities, and have the people behind them—at the polls in local and city region elections; but also on a daily basis. Local politics could, and should, play a key part in this, as an agent of change—but to achieve such a goal local authorities need to turn their attention not only to what the government wants, but also to their citizens’ voices. In many ways, last week’s local elections were a warning, shining light on how a continuing disconnect at local level could undermine the whole devolution agenda from within.

So we need more people involved, not because it is more just, or out of fairness, but because it is the only way to make sure the new processes actually function in the long term, and regional democracy – and the systems and communities it is supposed to improve – becomes a reality rather than a dream. Changing the North can’t be done without the people who live and work there getting involved and participating in such a process. We need organizations and institutions to come together and imagine a new style of politics, one which is pluralist and inclusive, and trusts and empowers communities. We need to engage young people, working people and communities of colour in new and exciting ways. The real ‘revolution’ of devolution as a means to achieve regional democracy ultimately rests in this, and not in the politics of catchphrases heralded by the Chancellor.

Step 3: Have the courage to believe in regional democracy

It is too easy to be cynical, but all cynicism does is turn the fear of the elite not delivering on promises into an inevitable reality. Instead, we need to take progressive steps to ensure that we are the start of a community-wide movement. Public pressure is one of the most effective ways to change policy, yet this is feeble at the moment. The key here is to spark the interest of citizens, and use that genuine interest as a catalyst for bottom-up regional democracy, bringing people closer to politics.

This is the biggest challenge ahead – especially because, in times of austerity, citizens tend to disengage from, turn against and blame politics. We must instead insist on and develop a new style of engagement that is not couched in easy anti-politics motifs, but builds from the grassroots upwards and seeks to challenge dominant assumptions – speaking to and connecting with the diverse and rich communities of the North, and insisting that a regional democracy which develops new forms of governance for better regional and local systems is possible.

All of us, as people living and working in the North of England, have to take responsibility for making this happen. We have to act together in any and all capacities that we can, whether as grassroots groups, community organizations, charities, unions, activists, universities and, most of all, as citizens, without asking for permission or waiting for public funding. This is not an easy task. But it’s not impossible either – just think about the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention back in the 1980-90s, the democratic thrust generated by the referendum, all the impossible that became the possible. Our demands and needs and communities are different, but looking north of the border should be a source of inspiration to build on, rather than just of wishful thinking. Regional democracy has to start somewhere.

This is a collaborative piece jointly authored by Yorkshire residents Leila Taleb, Arianna Giovannini, Andrew WilsonAlex Schafran and Ian Martin.

A version of this article also appears on the Open Democracy and Oxpol websites.


Could we put ‘Ubuntu’ at the heart of better mental health for all in West Yorkshire?

Guest blog by Penny Wangari-Jones from Liversedge

Before David ‘Rocky’ Bennett’s death in an East Anglian psychiatric unit 18 years ago, he sent a letter to the nurse director, pointing out there were no black staff members. He wrote: “There are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realised that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment”. Bennett died while being held down by four staff members at a psychiatric unit after a violent altercation with another patient and a nurse. Looking at the circumstances around his untimely death, it’s clear his blackness was threatening to staff members. He had been using mental health services for at least a decade, yet his needs as a black Rastafarian were not being met.

Bennett’s death was a catalyst for what became ‘delivering race equality’ in health, however the cuts since 2010 mean little is currently being done. He is just one example of the mental health system failing people of colour – Sarah Reed, who died in a prison cell earlier this year after having been sexually assaulted, is a more recent case, but the list is far, far longer.

61% of refugees are likely to experience a mental health crisis or breakdown. Most will have experienced trauma before their arrival in UK, forced to deal with a complicated, bureaucratic immigration system. Refugees face the challenges of restarting a new life in a new country, often without family members, dealing with culture shock and language issues. Understanding the culturally specific, underlying reasons for their mental ill health could lead to far better treatment.

Minority communities who have been in the UK for several generations are also known to feel alienated from the health system. This means that often they do not feel comfortable in environments that are supposed to improve their mental health well being. Support is not always timely: reports show that black people are 40 times more likely than white Britons to come into contact with mental health services through the criminal justice system, rather than the general practice referral system.

There is also evidence that ethnic minority communities are less likely to seek help at an early stage of illness, due to a combination of lack of knowledge and stigma around mental health. But this is not helped by inappropriate or racist models of diagnosis which often lead to poor experiences of mental health services, for example being medicated, restrained and going off radar upon release.

It currently costs the NHS about £105 billion a year to deliver work on mental health. The NHS also has a specific plan for ‘equality and diversity’, following a catalogue of failures. But the continuing cut backs mean this plan is no longer being regarded as a priority. When it comes to mental health, providers still have little understanding of the nuances in the different cultures of minority ethnic groups. This means treatment that is offered by practitioners is ineffective and at a cost to the taxpayers.

The methods used to diagnose mental health illnesses are western-centric, often rooted in a tradition of Freudianism. This means they do not work universally. Globalisation means we no longer have monocultures in our towns, but mental health systems don’t reflect this.

Could devolution be an opportunity to do things differently? If we had responsibility in West Yorkshire for mental health, could we decolonise our system to fit with the communities that live here?

The Race Equality Foundation found that black people are three times more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. This, in turn, has been attributed to institutional racism or to a racialized definition of traits associated with schizophrenia. Gesticulating or talking loudly is often seen as threatening in western cultures but might be seen as normal, acceptable behaviour in non-western cultures. People have lost lives because of such misconceptions.

For example, witchdoctors and prophets have been known to claim having powers to heal, transmit messages from gods or the dead to family or congregation. In some communities such people are held in high regard, but in others they are seen as delusional and therefore in need of medical intervention.

Decolonising mental health would allow practitioners to have a better understanding of different communities. This can be achieved through cultural diversity awareness, as well as having a more diverse staff team as people learn about others informally. This would make the services more accessible because a lot of service users are put off by going into places where no one looks like them. It would also place less expectation on the NHS to be the only solution for mental health problems. Communities can look after their own and each other allowing them to practice, for example, the African concept of ‘ubuntu’.

Ubuntu holds that humans feel human through affirmation from other humans and that is achieved through belonging, participating and sharing with others. The concept of lack of belonging and being ‘othered’ is one that most minorities say they struggle with. It has been argued for example that individualism in western societies can adversely affect someone who has migrated. Reinstating their qualities of Ubuntu instead of prescribing medication can improve someone’s mental health. An individual’s ability to have a choice of treatments that suit their cultural need would empower someone to feel like an agent and not a problem or victim.

Looking into the underlying reasons for poor mental health within certain communities and working with the communities to address it would be far better and more cost effective than sectioning someone under the Mental Health Act for a period or several times. Medication should not be the only solution. Instead, working with individuals and families will allow for better understanding of conditions to allow people to make their own choices on what works best.

Mental health has been and still is underfunded. Continuing cuts mean the situation is likely to get worse for those experiencing mental ill health. One positive thing brought about by cuts is it has fostered relationships and synergy between the statutory and the third sector. This has perhaps facilitated the gradual growth of social prescribing within the health service and would therefore mean health services are now looking at other alternatives.

It could be said that this ties with the spirit of devolution where the government announced it will empower local communities by handing decisions down to local people. A devolved health system is already part of the powers held in Greater Manchester and despite the size of the budget, there have already been calls to use this as an opportunity to challenge failings in national policy. If we get the chance through regional democracy to do things differently in West Yorkshire, stopping the situation deteriorating any further would mean refusing to replicate what has been the case so far: alienating those who are on the margins of our society. Having an understanding about communities who face multiple oppressions and equity would harness and create opportunities for involving everyone in West Yorkshire. The ability to involve all members in our communities in looking after their own will not only inform and empower them to demand what is best, it will also fill in the gaping hole being left open by cuts in services.

Intersectionality has in recent years highlighted how multiple barriers can make certain individuals or communities more vulnerable than others. W.E.B Dubois spoke about double consciousness and the effect of internal conflict on an individual living as a minority in an alienating environment. To improve mental health treatment for ethnic minorities would require understanding racial disparities in treatment. This is an example of ‘equity’.

Assuming everyone has similar health status and health care needs is a false starting point. People experiencing disadvantages mean equality in service is not enough. Equity in this case means patients not getting the same thing, but treating people differently having taken into account their different circumstances. Equity would mean that all sectors would work together to ensure individuals are not slipping through the net. If we have the opportunity to do things differently in West Yorkshire, that should be our starting point.

Penny coordinates the West Yorkshire Racial Justice Network and also works on developing and advocating for inclusive mental health support systems for BME communities. She can be found on Twitter here.

 A version of this article first appeared on Open Democracy here.