From the moment people starting registering there was a buzz – people reconnecting with friends and colleagues from way back, Scottish delegates chatting to those who ventured north from England, students discussing what they are doing with more experienced colleagues, and already and informally, personal stories of activism.
These were people who attended the recent UK People’s Health Assembly at the Queen Margaret’s University in Edinburgh, organised by the UK People’s Health Movement. About 100 delegates attended, some as presenters, all as active participants, sharing our experiences and learning from each other. We came from a range of backgrounds – community workers involved in grassroots initiatives, civil society activists campaigning on a range of issues, academics and the usual assortment of health professionals. But in contrast to the more usual conferences where the participants tend to be professionals working with communities, this assembly included a large number of ‘ordinary’ (for that, read extraordinary!) people who were there because of their personal experiences of living through difficult times. And so their presentations were about the challenges they faced and the strategies they adopted, collectively, to improve their conditions.
The overall theme of the assembly was ‘Austerity’ and Social Exclusion, and the programme comprised plenary presentations interspersed with workshop discussions across three, interlinking, parallel streams: austerity and health; social exclusion and vulnerability; and environmental justice and occupational health. The topics therefore, covered the same themes as Medact’s Economic Justice, Ecology and Climate, Health and Human Rights, and to a lesser, but still relevant extent, War and Weapons.
The overall focus of the three days was what communities can and are doing to challenge the status quo, using story telling, football, art, drama and other creative approaches to inform, inspire and challenge. This was combined with a strong call for solidarity, and for researchers, health workers and other professionals to recognise and validate community led, ‘bottom up’ experiences, instead of keeping only to the traditional, professionally led approaches. The need to respect people’s dignity and to recognise the social and emotional impacts of austerity in their lives was another.
There was so much to learn and be inspired by. Among the highlights were:
- An introductory political and economic context set by David Woodward, an independent writer and researcher on development issues and a regular PHM contributor
- A plenary presentation by Cathy McCormack on her life growing up in Glasgow, with her passionate plea for the recognition of how socially and emotionally undermining poverty and social exclusion can be – what she called WMDs (Weapons of Mass Demoralisation)
- Presentations by Street Soccer, Scotland who run regular free drop in sessions where adults and children play football and to coach others, and through that, discuss their experience of daily life, such as being homeless, unemployed or on drugs, and the challenges they faced. Two of the presenters, now working with the scheme and playing football for Scotland talked about the difference this has made to their lives and that of others in the scheme.
- FACK (Families Against Corporate Killers), a campaigning group comprising people living with the impact of family deaths due to inadequate health and safety in industrial settings, including the brother of the presenter
- The Amaan project run by the Mental Health Foundation, which pilots community conversations alongside training for professionals who come into contact with asylum seeking and refugee women in Scotland.
And from south of the border, examples included:
- Nothinghamshire Refugee Forum that aims to ensure that newly dispersed asylum seekers and refugees are enabled to access health services, and
- Pathway, a London based model of integrated healthcare for single homeless people and rough sleepers, that puts the patient at the centre of their own care pathway and works to transform health outcomes for one of the most vulnerable and deprived groups.
As a break from the more traditional format, a plenary workshop, run by The Theatre of the Oppressed, used participants to demonstrate techniques to explore and uncover oppressions connected with health inequalities.
Inevitably there were discussions, in plenary, in workshops and informally, about the changes to the NHS in England, along with the potential threat for the Scottish NHS. Also about the pending referendum, including questions about the impact of an independent Scotland on the rest of Europe, raised by participants from Belgium.
There was a good attendance by Medact members, with five from Scotland and four from London. Scotland Medact in particular was prominent, raising awareness of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system which is based in Scotland, and its projected cost. Biofuel Watch and Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance presented a case study on the resistance to the UK’s largest new-build biomass power station which is just opening in Scotland.
The final session of the Assembly was specifically recorded youtube presentations sent to us by some of the leadership of global PHM, from Australia, South Africa, India and Nicaragua, all sending their good wishes to us in the UK. We were also joined on skype by Chiara Bodini, the European coordinator of PHM, and a PHM member from Uganda. The Assembly ended with the development of a Call to Action, based on the suggestions from the participants. This, together with the proposal for a PHM UK Manifesto will be part of the ongoing work of PHM UK, together with local activities in different geographical areas.
The Assembly provided an excellent opportunity for promoting Medact, with the event serving as a forum for networking with like-minded people, interested in the same issues and with the same concerns. Because most of the participants were community based, they had not previously been aware of Medact. However, the logic of collaboration was easy to see. This would include the bringing together of their practical experience, stories, that is, their ‘evidence’ and local practical campaigning strategies, with Medact’s combination and experience of health activism, research, analysis and networking. The challenge now – to take this forward!
Ruth Stern, Medact and PHM
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author and do not represent the official position of Medact.