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The TSRC team are out in force in several transatlantic exchanges over the next month. First up are Liz Bailey and Phil Child from the Leverhulme Trust-funded project on community-level changes in the powat war voluntary sector. They are presenting at the North American Conference on British Studies in Providence, RI, 25 – 28 October, in a session on “race, community activism and responses to Thatcherism in late-20th century British cities”. The full conference programme is here and abstracts of their papers follow.

 Liz Bailey: Women doing it for themselves: 1980s community organisation amongst black women’s groups in Bethnal Green

This paper focuses on the foundation and early activities of the London Black Women’s Health Action Project (LBWHAP)and partner organisations. Founded in 1982 the group was set up by women in the Somali and Arab communities in the Bethnal Green area of London. The LBWHAP addressed the specific health needs of black women by providing education, support and advocacy. The organisation’s key activities focused on the issue of female genital mutilation but also included a broader range of health issues affecting black women. The LBWHAP was also concerned with black women’s unemployment and its impact on their physical and mental health.

The LBWHAP was a grassroots project, organised by women for women. They stated that the group provided a ‘platform’ to bring together women in the area and ‘facilitate communications between us’ to better bring ‘demands forward and fight for effective change’. The group argued that black women faced several barriers to accessing state services, in particular healthcare, because of racial discrimination, language issues and cultural differences. The LBWHAP felt that these issues were particularly severe for vulnerable immigrants and refugees who were unaware of their rights.

This case highlights an important story of activism in the community as the organisation fought to address the intersectional issues faced by black women migrants and draw on a larger network of similar organisations to provide them with additional support. This case also reflects some of the larger issues of the 1980s such as: increased racial tensions in urban areas, rising unemployment, and discussions about the role of multi-culturalism and sex education in school curriculums.

Phil Child: Babylon makes the rules? Race and housing in late twentieth-century Handsworth

Asking for support from housing associations in May 1977, the Handsworth Single Homeless Action Group (HSHAG) suggested that without assistance, the ‘young single homeless’ black youth that they sought to help would embody the ‘anger and frustration that plight produces.’ This assertion would prove prophetic, with the Birmingham neighbourhood of Handsworth the scene of three separate riots in just over a decade. Each disturbance reflected the powerlessness of a large population of unemployed black youth against an unstable housing market. The experiences of HSHAG as they sought to navigate across a landscape of rising rents, authoritarian policing and racial disadvantage provides a means by which we can examine the significance of housing to difficulties faced by black communities in the ‘long 1980s.’

This paper utilises the work of HSHAG as an advocacy and campaigning group to re-investigate the role played by housing inequalities in the era of Thatcher. Three key themes stand out. Firstly, the context by which HSHAG’s client pool came into difficulties (and often continued in difficulties) indicates that more attention should be paid to the insecurity of the housing market in the 1980s, particularly for the black population. Secondly, the problems HSHAG faced in gaining stable funding demonstrates the narrowing space for voluntary housing action, especially when set alongside diminishing local government funds. Thirdly, the active police harassment towards the group allows us to see how the hostile environment in which community activist groups operated had a direct effect on their ability to support others. The rise and fall of HSHAG is illustrative of the effect of housing on what the group described as ‘the general air of deprivation’ in Handsworth throughout the long 1980s.