Community activist Rowenna Davis: from striking for better school meals to fighting the virus in Croydon

Rowenna Davis volunteering with CCMA. Pic: Rowenna Davis

COVID AND THE CITY: During the pandemic, many have expressed the importance of coming together as a community. Eastlondonlines spoke to one activist who believes in the power of local networks

When COVID-19 first struck in March, Rowenna’s Davis’s previous experience in community organising and activism – from her school days onwards – made her well placed to help at the frontline of the pandemic.

Davis, 35, an English teacher in Croydon helps to run Croydon Covid-19 Mutual Aid (CCMA), a group started by local people to support those in need throughout the pandemic. They help residents with simple tasks including grocery shopping, dog-walking and providing moral support. 

The aid group has partnered with Croydon Voluntary Action, food banks, charities and Croydon Council, to ensure that everyone who needs help during this crisis gets it. Davis told ELL: “I was just in complete shock when we discovered that there was a global pandemic coming. I just went online and was like, ‘how can I help, what are people doing?’”

Davis realised that other parts of England were creating their own mutual aid groups, so she decided to contact all of her Croydon contacts to help bring one to their borough. The idea of a mutual aid Facebook page came soon after, and Davis was touched by the immediate response of residents willing to get involved.

“It was only within a couple of weeks before we got 4,000 members on the page. And then under that, there’s like 17 WhatsApp groups working on a street level,” Davis said.

Davis said: “Loneliness is disempowerment and relationship is power. If you join together, then there’s resilience… I learned from an early age that you need relationships.” People can use CCMA’s interactive map to find their nearest local mutual aid group. CCMA also has a central telephone hotline for those unable to access WhatsApp.

Davis has managed to be actively involved in her community since the beginning of the pandemic, which coincidentally was around the time she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth to Lila Ann Roberts on November 26, all while still managing CCMA.

Born in Lewisham, Davis and her family moved to north London while young but her roots in south London compelled her to move back to the area and help the community.

With a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, followed by a masters in journalism, she had originally pursued a freelance career in journalism – writing for the Independent , the Economist and the Guardian among others – and tben a political one, becoming a Labour councillor in Southwark and sometimes appeared as a political commentator on programmes such as Newsnight and Sky News. In 2011, she authored “Tangled Up In Blue” an analysis of the controversial Blue Labour movement, started by Lord Glasman.

But after an unsuccessful attempt to win the Southampton Itchen seat for Labour in the 2015 General Election, she moved away from active politics and journalism in favour of teaching and community activism. When she is not helping with CCMA, now Davis teaches English at Harris Invictus Academy in Croydon.

Her roots in activism stem from a strike she organised as a 16-year old school student against schools meals provider Sodexo that was constantly criticized by student for their mediocre meal options.

“I went to a really multicultural comprehensive school in Kilburn [in north London] and the one thing that I hated was the school canteen. Absolutely terrible, you’d get chips, beans and cheese every day. When we should have been studying for exams all of us [students] collectively organised instead.” The students prepared their own food and sold it in the school, leaving the school canteen empty.

The protest found headlines on a local paper and forced Sodexo to improve their food option to include smoothie machines and vegetarian options. “[We were] a bunch of kids who weren’t even old enough to vote, and we had come together and defeated a huge company.”

Later with two schools friends she formed the Hands Up for Peace against the Iraq War and a campaign that saw 100 young people placing 10,000 posters in one night across London to campaign for peace.

The strike made Davis realise the importance of the media and its benefits to silenced communities and, after Oxford, eventually led her to train as a journalist. “When you saw [your work] on print and know that a lot of people have read it, it has an impact and people get in touch with you afterwards. That’s special.”

But Davis realised journalism wasn’t enough to help communities.“ I didn’t want to report on these problems. I wanted to be part of the frontline fixing them.” This led to her political career and then the book on Blue Labour. “It was about empowering working class people and uniting them with middle class people in the country to truly transform lives… A lot of people felt like the Labour Party had lost touch with its community roots and organising. I explored how we could go back to our roots, and kind of regenerate and win.”

 Although unsuccessful, in the 2015 election, it helped her to become the teacher that she is today. “The thing I loved the most in the process of being a candidate had been working with young people in schools and going and talking to kids about their politics and being questioned by them.”

Mental health and Croydon

Now her focus is on Croydon, although she remains active in the local Labour Party. Davis and CCMA realised that another issue that was affecting their community was mental health. Knowing they did not have the resources to do something about it alone, they decided to join forces with Croydon council to bring more awareness to mental health training.

Davis said: “There’s lots of studies that show that people who’ve never had mental health problems are now feeling really vulnerable, and even lonely.”

“I know Janet Campbell, the head of mental health for Croydon Council, and she found the funding for 1000 places [for mental health training] from Transport for London [and Croydon council]. We advertised this through all of the mutual aid networks and those looking to help.”

CCMA and Croydon Council launched Mental Health First Aid in the borough soon after. MHFA allows anyone to sign up for mental health training aid as long as they’re willing to help. Participants take a two-day course for £270 to cover expenses, with the option of in-person or online training.

“While volunteers can never replace frontline professionals, residents are often the first ones to recognise when someone they know or love is suffering. This training should help people recognise the signs of developing mental health problems and provide guidance for early intervention.”

Over 400 people have applied for training, with 200 already completing the process. They are hoping over 1,000 people will join the initiative.

Davis helping with food donations. Pic: Rowenna Davis

Future plans for CCMA

With the pandemic expected to continue into 2021, Davis told ELL that CCMA had no plans to slow down on finding ways to help the local community. One of their upcoming projects includes donation boxes for mothers and newborns.

Davis said: “Because I just had a baby in lockdown, the community thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could do a collection specifically for babies and mums?” The donation boxes are expected to happen throughout the Christmas holiday.

CCMA have also started the ‘one tin initiative’ to help tackle food insecurity in Croydon. “We encourage everyone in our groups to give one tin a week to give to local food bank bins, which we’re setting up and delivering to our members,” Davis said.

“We work with people that have huge food needs and are particularly isolated, especially people in temporary accommodation with language barriers. We need to make sure our networks are reaching these people as well.”

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