Dance, drumming and debate as Hackney celebrates its diversity

Photo: Camilla Brown

Stoke Newington Media Arts and Science College was transformed into what the organisers claimed to be a  “hub of positivity” last Saturday as hundreds congregated to take part in  Celebrate Hackney, a one day event design to show the diversity of the borough.

Locals, community activists, trade unionists and artists took part in youth dance performances, film screenings and drumming lessons, or simply relaxed with a Turkish or Caribbean meal in the sunny courtyard.

Yet the celebratory event had a serious undertone. The newly established Hackney Unites coalition said: “While planned as a fun, relaxing and informative day, we also hope that some shared objectives will emerge. We will be discussing how our communities can continue to work together to address issues of shared concern.”

There were 15 workshop sessions throughout the day, with 60 platform speakers, each addressing a different topic, ranging from immigration and racism, to gangs and employment.

The event is also seen as a response to the current economic situation as Britain braces itself for massive cuts in hospitals, schools, nurseries and social care services.

Project Co-ordinator, Andrea Enisuoh, 39, explains why Hackney Unites was created: “We began as a force of resistance against the British National Party during the GLA elections. Our campaigns were successful but once the elections were over we decided we had more work to do in Hackney.”

“We launched as Hackney Unites in January. We used to campaign against the BNP. We are now campaigning for positive, rather than against negative.”

Hackney Unites is pro the diversity of Hackney’s communities. They believe that by bringing people together from different faiths, backgrounds, politics and beliefs in a relaxed atmosphere, the people can become empowered.

Andrea stated: “Our ultimate goal is to create a network of care. There is unity in strength, we are fighting against isolation.”

Hackney Unites volunteer and speaker at the event Karys Afko, 24,  has lived in Hackney for a year. She said: “Hackney isn’t perfect but there is a strong spirit. People are passionate about building the community.”

“There are a lot of exciting projects here today. I have enjoyed meeting people and finding out about the interesting activities which are going on across Hackney. I would like to ensure that the communication created between groups today is maintained.”

Cinar Altun, 26, Hackney Unites Film Festival Co-ordinator, was amazed at the wealth of talent in the borough as they were inundated with submission for the film festival. The films, covering issues such as immigration, the Holocaust, health inequalities and youth matters were all made by locals.

The seven-minute film ‘Kids Might Fly’, an off-beat portrait of kids living in East London, by local filmmaker Alex Taylor was screened at the Celebrate Hackney Film Festival. The film has been an international success, and has been praised by the British Film Institute and at the Cannes Film Festival. Cinar described the film as “very powerful” and “an insight into the psychology of the people of Hackney”.

The stallholders at the event seemed to share the sense of optimism held by the organisers. Hackney Link, ‘the local voice in health and social care’, chair Ida Scoullous said: “We haven’t met any resistance in our campaign. Everyone has been so supportive.” While colleague Michael Vidal added, “Hackney is so diverse, there are many different groups, but everyone seems to get on really well.”

Chair of Hackney Caribbean Elderly Association Victor McAllister, who provides a support service for Caribbean elders in Hackney, said: “Not only is Hackney diverse, but it is talented, and today has proven this. The situation today goes back to the recession after the [Second World] War.”

“There was a spirit of unity then and I think that’s what we need now. We need to come together and build on what we have in Hackney.”

Glynn Harries, an activist and organiser for Hackney Solidarity Network has lived in Hackney since 1985 and said he has seen many changes. “There are many positive changes, housing is better than it used to be. But there are some botched regeneration attempts, half empty blocks of flats.”

“It can be a very dangerous area yet a lot of people who live here are blind to this- they just want to have a good time, which is fine, but at this time Hackney needs more people who care. Hackney has always been famous for unity but in the last 15 years or so the divided communities feel even more distinct; it is a borough of two worlds.”

“The Hackney Solidarity Network hopes to break into the problems young people face. We have plans for music events and football tournaments over summer.

“We are also looking to re-build the community spirit by encouraging more TRA’s (Tenants and Residents Associations) and street parties.”

Eileen Bellot, 48, of Hands Inc., an organisation which promotes access to massage and complementary therapies for the economically disadvantaged, said: “A strength of Hackney is the diversity. The regeneration that is occurring across the borough is a great thing, but could bring problems. I hope Hackney can stay unique through the change.”

John Page, Secretary for Hackney Unites, said in the closing session for the event that the next stage for Hackney Unites is a ‘pause and evaluation’ of their progress. In a month they will reconvene to discuss next steps an upcoming projects.