OPINION: The Economic Impact of COVID-19 – A Birmingham View

Words by Ifor Jones – Head of Partnerships, The Pioneer Group / Picture of Birmingham skyline by Luke Matthews, profile pic courtesy of The Pioneer Group

As the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has become clear with the threat of a tsunami of redundancies across the West Midlands I couldn’t help but reflect on what I experienced first-hand with the closure of MG rover first hand back in 2005 with 6,300 redundancies being made.

This had a profound economic and social impact on local communities which was mitigated by the action of the MG Rover Taskforce. I led the community support strand of the Taskforce which started with mobilising advice services to work in tandem with JC plus and the Learning Skills Council and progressed with a community regeneration programme supporting grass roots organisations and focusing on providing support for workers and the MG Rover community.

The following sets out the learning and the lessons which arose from this tragic time which I feel are very relevant to the potential impact of COVID-19 across the City.

In the lead up to COVID-19, statistics for the first quarter of 2020 confirmed Birmingham’s comparatively high unemployment claimant rate (9.3%) compared to other major English cities.

The figure had been relatively stable but began to increase during 2018 in the wake of benefit changes connected to the roll out of Universal Credit.

It is my assertion that, when considering the potential impact of COVID-19, we will see two distinct cohorts within the unemployment claimant count for Birmingham.

  • Longer term cases clustered in geographical hotspots or demographic characteristics such as youth unemployment, BAME groups and people with disabilities.
  • Those who have lost their jobs as an economic consequence of COVID-19, across a range of sectors and impacting on an even wider cross section of the working population.

A Precedent for What’s Next

In 2005, MG Rover at Longbridge closed with the overnight loss of 6,300 jobs. Further job losses in the supply chain pushed this figure to over 8,000.

However, a significant number of workers were able to retrain to change their careers; undertaking academic vocational training. A report indicated around 4,000 (63%) of former MG Rover workers found new, mostly full-time, work. Approximately 25% of these workers were earning more with over 50% of them earning less.

Strong partnerships were key to the management and mitigation process, especially in relation to the social and economic impact of such a significant plant closure.

In a two-year period, I witnessed a shift from crisis management to sustained economic and social strategies for recovery. At the heart of this was a collaborative approach coordinated at different levels, from the very local in Longbridge and Northfield to across the city, region and nation as a whole.

My engagement through a localised team in the City Council was to co-ordinate the initial crisis response regarding advice and community support delivered in partnership with agencies such as JobCentre Plus and The Learning Skills Council. This was complemented with the support of organisations across the voluntary and community sector and, most critically, the MG Rover communities themselves.

Mobilising a response to administer change at pace was critical, as was building relationships with the workers and MG Rover to ensure engagement with and wider community buy-in.

The lessons that were learned, that can help us deal with the anticipated fallout of COVID-19 include:

  • mobilise interventions at pace working with both cohorts – existing and new claimants
  • get new cohort of unemployed into training and work as soon as possible
  • quickly intervene with training agencies and providers for re-skilling
  • ensure personal contact with individuals whether through advice and support or training
  • recognise importance of welfare advice and wellbeing services and administering benefits quickly
  • use opportunities for public service employers to take on and train former MG Rover workers, for example the city council created opportunities in youth, leisure and community development services
  • work in partnership – at regional, city and local levels – with public services, employers, community and third sector agencies
  • provide community support in the moment of crisis – e.g. helplines, social events, funding for holiday breaks
  • create a strategy for inclusive growth e.g. local area regeneration – Longbridge transitioned from a centre of economic activity of regional and national significance to an important local centre with a mix of new housing, retail, public services and some retained manufacturing.

Ifor Jones is Head of Partnerships at The Pioneer Group – for more on The Pioneer Group, visit: www.pioneergroup.org.uk

The Pioneer Group is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce, facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association.

Established in April 2020, the Taskforce is a network of local organisations from a wide variety of sectors, working together to support people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

To access the online address book and database of local support services compile by the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce, visit: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19/local/support

LOCAL PROFILE: Saba Malik

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King & Saba Malik

Saba Malik moved to Erdington some two years ago with her husband Adeel Bajwa and three children. In normal circumstances she would be working as a secondary school science teacher. During lockdown, she took to volunteering to help the vulnerable in our community.

Saba is part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith – a movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, formed officially in Punjab in 1889 – and does community work through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA) in Erdington. Ahmadiyya Muslims are a unique and worldwide religious movement outside of the more well-known Sunni or Shia faiths, with 144 ‘branches’ across the UK alone.

Initially, the AMWA didn’t cope well with the monotony of lockdown: “they are used to having about 20 people over every weekend,” says Saba. Better at cooking potatoes rather than being couch potatoes, Saba galvanized the team of about 25 women into cooking up hot meals for vulnerable people around Birmingham, but especially in the Erdington Community. “Why not?”, explains Saba, “this is using skills, resources, something they can do, so we got in contact with those ladies and they’re more than happy – we got a bit of a rota going now.”

The AMWA joined up with Birmingham Community Solidarity group, which was set up very quickly in response to the announcement of lockdown on March 23rd – the group acts as sign posting for people with free time wanting to help those in need, with Saba becoming a key part in their delivery work in North Birmingham.

Always humble, she notes that “there’s amazing charities out there and organisations. We have a really good COVID-19 response as well in Erdington with the food deliveries.”

Helping those in need is a family affair for the Malik-Bajwas. Saba has created more than 50 protective masks at home using her sewing machine, and explains how her son, Yousuf, “wanted to learn to sow after he saw me on the machine for two days – and I thought, ‘good these are the things you learn!… I’m grateful we can share this with our children.”

But the Malik-Bajwa’s family approach didn’t stop there. “The littlest one has got a fan base of her own,” explains Saba – referring to Ayla, her youngest daughter, who has been writing letters and creating artwork for those people receiving regular food packages.

She can’t write completely! When I give deliveries, she comes with me. She just makes cards. She’ll write ‘I love you’ to whoever it is, and draw a picture, she puts it in an envelope, goes into the study, finds an envelope herself and decorates it.”

These simple acts of kindness can go a long way. As a proud mother, Saba recounts that “there are some who are completely on their own and they’re isolating, and it really makes their day. It breaks my heart when they tell me that they stare at her cards all day and it makes them feel happy, or they’ve got them on their fridge. If it makes them feel happy it’s good. I tell her ‘it’s so nice that you’re sharing your talent. It’s the cycle of wellbeing.”

But whilst volunteering efforts can be noble, they aren’t always appreciated. Not at first, anyway, as Saba recalls a situation where one of the women she met became suspicious of her appearance – noticeably the headscarf she was wearing at the time.

You know you are right,” explains Saba, “because one of the women I met first…. she spoke to me after and said ‘when you turned up… I don’t wanna be offensive, I don’t wanna get anything wrong. But you had this a scarf on your head, you had this mask on your face… and I just thought, who is this person who’s come to me’?”

Headscarf,” Saba laughed, politely correcting the mistake. And after talking some more, the woman admitted: “I never felt like I’ve ever discriminated, but without realising that’s what I felt when I saw you… she felt bad about it after, and we’re really good friends now. But that’s how you break down barriers sometimes, and it works both ways.”

But it’s not all about the hearts and minds when it comes to community action, someone has to do the paperwork – and admin queen Saba Malik keeps a keen record of all that the ladies group do. To date the Birmingham North branch of Ahmadiyya Muslims have distributed 200 meals, delivered 340 PPE masks, and are in constant contact with families across the constituency: “who have been 100% supported through donations and cooked food.”  

Now the lockdown pressures easing, Saba reflects on her time over the past couple of months. “It’s been long weeks of lockdown. I don’t want to open my diary,” she jokes. Always comparing her family to those less fortunate, Saba continues, “we’re just incredibly grateful it’s not been as challenging for us.”

Volunteer efforts, like Saba’s and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association, have been integral to helping people cope during the coronavirus pandemic – with faith and community groups working together to help their friends and neighbours. This phenomenal show of strength and community action has alleviated the anguish of lockdown for thousands across Erdington, much of which is unseen and unreported.

But the message that runs though many of the groups who are out there serving the community, is inclusivity – regardless of faith, age, status, or standing, now is the time to help. And as the web address and strap line for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association declares, ‘Love for all, hatred for none.’

Words Saba Malik underlines, clearly and confidently, when asked about the people her group want to reach out to and help: “…any religion, it’s irrelevant.”

To find out more about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, visit www.loveforallhatredfornone.org/

NEWS: Erdington United – local football heading for the big leagues

Words by Adam Smith / Pics courtesy of Erdington United

Erdington United could be a semi-professional club playing in its own stadium and hosting FA Cup ties within 15 years, under ambitious plans unveiled by its chairman this week.

The club is hoping to create a shining beacon of non-league football in a desolate North Birmingham for semi-professional teams.

Unlike the Black Country, which has a host of non-league football clubs including Stourbridge Town, Halesowen Town, Lye Town, and Sporting Khalsa – Birmingham is chronically underrepresented in the footballing pyramid.

However, chairman of Erdington United – Luke Caulfield – told Erdington Local everyone at the club is determined to put Erdington on the footballing map.

He said: “North Birmingham is crying out for a decent non-league team to get behind and we believe Erdington has got the community to create a thriving football club.

And we have recently found out that we have the history because there was an Erdington United which played from the 1950s until the 1980s.

We formed in 2014, then had a break but came back stronger last season and we have got our place in the Festival League for next season.”

The 30-year-old added: “I told our annual general meeting last week that in 15 years I want Erdington United to be playing semi-professional football on a Saturday, which would mean we would qualify for the FA Cup.”

There is a site on Spring Lane that would be perfect for a clubhouse and our long term plan has to be to have a stadium of our own, I know it will take years and years for this to be a reality but it is something we can all work towards.”

The club is currently finalising where they will be playing next season but one thing is for sure, after each game the team will all be heading to The Kingstanding Inn, Warren Farm Road.

Luke said: “We are really fostering a family feel for the club and the owners at the Kingstanding Inn, near where we played by last season, really looked after us, they put a spread of food on every week and it’s great to all get together after a game.”

Last season, using a squad of local players mostly under 25-years-old, the team qualified for a cup final but their day in the sun was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, due to an innovative and relentless social media strategy Erdington United used the lockdown to increase the profile of the club.

Two Facebook posts about limited edition specially designed kids, Support the NHS and Black Lives Matter, went viral leading to orders from across the country for the strips.

Luke said: “As soon as one batch of kits are delivered they are sold out, people liked our Support the NHS kits but the demand for Black Lives Matter strip has been insane.

We have had orders from Newcastle, Leeds, London, Rugeley and random other places. I spoke to our manager about a Black Lives Matter kit and he was up for it, we have a mixed squad of players and growing up in Erdington I’ve obviously got black friends and family members so we wanted to make a statement.

We asked GB Kits if they could make them for us and they cannot make them quick enough because of the demand. It has been a brilliant way of introducing people to Erdington United.”

Whereas Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City’s social media accounts all attracted racist and abusive comments under Black Lives Matter posts – Erdington United fans on Facebook were totally positive.

Luke, who went to Edmund Campion School, added: “We want to reflect Erdington as a club so obviously I was really proud how everyone reacted to our Black Lives Matter posts.”

To follow Erdington United on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/ErdingtonU

To find Erdington United on Facebook, visit www.facebook.com/erdington.utd.7

OPINION: …and you’re worried about a statue?

Words by Ed King / Pics by Paul Ward – all photography in this article has been taken from Snapshots of Mumbai

I used to live on Cecil Road. At the end of Cecil Road was Kitchener Road. Running parallel to Cecil Road, and perpendicular to Kitchener Road, were Fashoda Road and Manila Road.

Every one of these roads is named after a murderer, or where many murders took place.

And each terrace house that sits behind their names, be it full of second year students or people on remand, are an epitaph to evil. And Imperialism. And to Empire that stole a third of the world, then sold it back piecemeal at a charge.

How does this happen? What possible reasons could there be to celebrate such cruelty? Let’s backtrack… let’s look backwards to move forwards, to see the patterns. Let’s understand some history before we compartmentalise modernity.

In 1601 a group of London merchants set sale aboard a fleet of grand old ships called the Hector, Red Dragon, Ascension, Guest, and Susan – bound for the East Indies, a place we now recognise as India and South East Asia. White British men with their eyes on fortune and glory. White British men with privilege – a word you need to remember when talking about Britain’s colonial history.

Their mission was to trade, and their reason was that the Dutch, Portuguese, and French merchants were beating them to it – charging them a high price for goods a new society was beginning to enjoy. And to feel was their right to enjoy, be it gifted by God or the court. But it was trade that galvanised the request to take bullion abroad and exchange it for silks on the road. It was about competition, and greed – two more words to remember.

So, in one decree the East India Trading Company was born – and over the next 400 plus years would use their Amazon approach to the Elizabethan marketplace to end up controlling half the world’s trade.

What began as a royal charter to circumnavigate the prices of spices, silks, coffee, and cotton from mainland Europe, would turn into a centuries spanning race for control of international territories – one that would end in monopoly, slavery, a New World Order, and the backbone of what we purport as ‘democracy’ – after some savvy North American think tanks helped coin a new meaning. And wars. And bloodshed. And all the unspeakable horrors that occur when you believe God isn’t watching.

I know there’s a lot to research here, and I am not an academic man. But we all have a responsibility to ourselves, to learn. To keep learning. Then to pass on truth and knowledge. And as most of us walk around with the world’s largest library in our pockets that’s a pretty good place to start.

But there’s another point of understanding we need to address. Something I need to recognise too, as I become involved in conversations that are long overdue and fundamental to any future that can call itself equal.

There is a thing about being British. And white. And male.

And until the widespread media reports of recent weeks, it’s a word that that is not often acknowledged as it really needs to be. Just like the names of the roads where I used to live.

Privilege.

A hierarchy formed through history and hubris; a position stolen by my forefathers and endorsed by every silent generation that came afterwards, including my own.

I have it. My father has it, as did his father beforehand. It is impossible to be British, male, and white, and not have it. You can deny it all you like; all your heart wants to. But it’s there. We’re born into it. The world around us was built on it, by powerful people who can get away with murder. Who have roads named after them.

I’m not condoning acts of social disorder or violence, but crimes need to be challenged – whether they happened weeks or centuries ago – and their perpetrators need to be seen as the criminals they are.

Maybe some of us need to live in fear for a while too; maybe some of us need to know what that’s like. To be unsure of what the world could do to you without consequence. To walk down a road and not feel safe. To sit in a job interview and know it’s not your experience that’s the problem. To not get served in a bar, or a restaurant. To get heckled from the stands. To get spat on, to get to get punched. To have your last cries for help, for mercy, squeezed from your windpipe by a man with a badge.

And if you don’t believe there’s a balance that needs to be reset, Google each of the names I mentioned at the start of this article – those proud men and moments of history that still pepper UK cities. Whose names are remembered but whose actions we choose to forget. Men with privilege, granted by a world that hid its horror behind their own.

Lord Robert Cecil. Lord Kitchener. The Fashoda ‘incident’. The Battle of Manila.

Murderers and murder, adorned on the roads where I used to live – on street corners near primary schools and pubs. In the edge of our blind eyes every single day.

…and you’re worried about a statue?

Ed King is a Birmingham born writer and author of Snapshots of Mumbai.

For more on Snapshots of Mumbai, published by Review publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/snapshots-of-mumbai

NEWS: Erdington’s Evening of Creativity returns with its first ‘live show’ since lockdown

Words by Ed King / Pics courtesy of Erdington Arts Forum

On Friday 19th June, the Evening of Creativity will be returning to the OIKOS Café – presenting its first ‘live show’ since the lockdown began.

An eclectic programme of music and art, June’s Evening of Creativity will be a mix of pre-recorded performances from musicians across the city – alongside selected live performances on the OIKOS stage, being streamed through the Erdington Arts Forum Facebook page.

The special Friday night showcase will be the first time the event has been held, in part, at the OIKOS Café since the widespread closures of venues to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Organisers are keen to recreate the live gig experience, using the full venue set up at OIKOS Café – with all the sound, lighting, and staging in place that you would find at one of their regular concerts.

Running from 7:30pm, musicians appearing across the evening will include Clive ‘the slide’ Allsopp – who is taking a break from his role as conductor of the Walsall Symphony Orchestra to play some solo jazz trombone.

Robin Surgeoner will also be performing a live solo acoustic show, playing a set of original music – all penned by the nine time Gold medal winning Paralympian swimmer, who is also a prominent musician, poet, and artist under the pseudonym Angryfish.

There will also be a special cooking segment from the Polish Expats Association (PAE), showing the online audience how to prepare authentic Central and Eastern European dishes – as featured in the Central European Cookbook on the PAE Facebook page.

Performing and hosting the Friday 19th June event will be local poet, Empress P – returning to the Evening of Creativity after her set at the 17th April showcase, the first event held online after the widespread venue closures.

Empress P will also be interviewing local author Ed King – whose new book, Snapshots of Mumbai, is an exploration into the South Asian megacity and the historic relationship between India and Britain. Keen to shine a light on the fingerprints of Imperialism for a modern day audience, Ed King will be discussing his book amidst the recent clarion calls for clarity over Britain’s colonial past.

Having run every month since it was first established in 2017 by the Erdington Arts Forum, the Evening of Creativity events have become a regular fixture in Erdington – hosted at the OIKOS Café on Erdington High Street, until the coronavirus crisis forced it online.

Committed to supporting artists across the constituency, each Evening of Creativity is also a chance to introduce new performers to Erdington – establishing them in front of a vibrant North East Birmingham audience, and vice versa.

But as the lockdown saw music venues close and stages left empty, the Evening of Creativity embraced a new digital audience – one that allowed the local event to reach out even further than before through social media and live streaming.

Now, as the coronavirus crisis is brought more and more under control, with the physical and social distancing restrictions being eased week by week, organisers are keen to nurture this new-found fan base – alongside returning to the live environment that helped establish the event.

We’ve always been ‘standing room only’ at Oikos,” tells Jobe Baker Sullivan – Evening of Creativity founder and chair of the Erdington Arts Forum, “the live events were well supported and loved by a loyal crowd – every month, without fail, we saw a packed house enjoy music from across Erdington and the country.

But when the lockdown came and venues closed, we were forced online to keep the event alive – recording performances and posting them onto social media. Initially we didn’t think of this as anything more than a stopgap, but the ability to reach audiences well beyond Erdington has been an unexpected gift.

So, on Friday 19th June, we are going to bring back the live show – recording part of the event live, back at Oikos, and broadcasting it as it happens. But we’re also keen to nurture our new digital audience too and bring them more into the gig – recreating the live show experience as much as we can for everyone enjoying the Evening of Creativity online.”

To find out more about and Erdington Arts Forum and their regular Evening of Creativity events, and to watch this month’s event at 7:30pm on Friday 19th June, visit www.facebook.com/CAFEartsforum

For more on Oikos Café, visit www.oikoscafe.co.uk

LOCAL PROFILE: Reverend Gerard Goshawk

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

Reverend Gerard Goshawk has been a Baptist minister for “probably about 18 years.” Working first as a lay pastor, he became a full time pastor 13 years ago – finding his way to Six Ways Baptist Church after coming “from Nottingham, and it’s been brilliant. I love Erdington.”

But the ‘new normal’ created by the coronavirus crisis has established new ways of working, socialising, and even worshipping – as everywhere from classrooms to congregations have been subject to physical and social distancing restrictions.

Reverend Goshawk’s working week before lockdown “was a different rhythm. It was more based with things happening up at Six Ways Baptist Church. The different groups, activities we had there, being around for those, and visiting people – and lots of meetings, meetings, meetings! Lots of worship based at the church, and (the Erdington) foodbank based at the church.”

An important part of the community, the Erdington Foodbank is based at Six Ways Baptist Church – providing ‘three days nutritionally balanced emergency food and support to local people who are referred to us in crisis.’

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Trussell Trust – who support the Erdington Foodbank – have seen usage across their UK network increase by 89% from April 2019 to April 2020. For Reverend Goshawk, his active role helping the people who need access to food has become even more pertinent.

Although reaching his congregation was also a concern, as places of worship across the country were completely closed during the coronavirus lockdown. “It’s been a big learning process,” explains Reverend Goshawk, as social media became the most viable method of communication with people in self-isolation.

We have a service on YouTube that we pre-record for each Sunday, that goes out… I do some Daily devotions on Facebook live each day and I send them out on a WhatsApp list as well. That’s Monday to Friday.

Then, we also have a zoom fellowship – a service on a Sunday where most people that can do that get together. That’s been really great and we’ve kinda adapted to how we do that.”

Excited by the prospect of this new normal, Reverend Goshawk notes that “there’s statistics out there about people who have not done church before but are watching church services online. There’s a whole new field of people out there who are being reached, and in our small way, Erdington is part of that.”

But while he can’t yet meet his congregation at church, Reverend Goshawk still goes out to members where they live – spending a lot of his time “cycling round Erdington, delivering news sheets, written information for people as well… because we have… 25 people in our church not connected on the Internet.”

There’s even a chance for prayer, as Reverend Goshawk finds himself “sometimes praying with people on their doorstep… 2 meters away.”

Places of worship are now set to open for private prayer in England from the 15th June, and Reverend Goshawk is preparing for “coming out of lockdown, as of next week. We’ll be able to open up for people to come in just for quiet prayer, socially distanced and everything.”

But like many businesses and social groups in the UK, Six Ways Baptist Church has seen how some engagements are actually better off being at least partly conducted online.

We wouldn’t want to be losing all the new things that we’ve done,” tells Reverend Goshawk, “because we are reaching different people in different ways, you know.

Sometimes I used to do a bible study for a very small number of people who would turn up on a Sunday evening at the church – on a cold winter’s evening, about four faithful people perhaps sometimes just turning up. And now we’re in double figures every time and growing with the number of people that will come to bible study [via zoom].

I believe we’re made by God to connect with each other and to be alongside each other. I think we will still do lots of things online. It would be a shame to lose that experience and that benefit that we had. It just means a bit more work!”

Outside of the coronavirus crisis, and the changes Reverend Goshawk has made to stay in touch with his immediate community, Six Ways Baptist Church has received recognition for its hard work helping migrants and asylum seekers.

Reverend Goshawk is also the chair of the group Everyone Erdington, which celebrates diversity, and in the past has organised “get togethers”, lunches, and festivals specifically inviting people from different backgrounds. And whilst institutionalised racism is a constant concern, affecting communities worldwide, following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota people and protest have risen up across the globe in solidarity.

Our church at six ways is a black majority church,” explains Reverend Goshawk. “I don’t really feel equipped to speak on behalf of people that would identify themselves as black. But the response has been deep… actually looking at the practical ways that we as a church can make a difference for ourselves and for this community to actually be part of that transformation.

That exciting change that seems to be out there as a possibility at the moment. There’s a whole range of feelings about it. One of those, the more positive thing about it, there’s a move that’s happening. It does feel like there’s potential for real change.”

Reverend Gerard Goshawk is pastor at Six Ways Baptist Church. To find out more about the church, visit: www.sixwayserdington.org.uk

For more on the Everyone Erdington Facebook group, visit: www.facebook.com/EveryoneErdington

For more on the Erdington Foodbank, including information on how to access provision or to make a donation, visit: www.erdington.foodbank.org.uk

OPINION: Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation.”

I was spellbound by the thousands of people who gathered in Birmingham for the Black Lives Matter protest. There were people of all ages and races. There were children, and even a few pet dogs. It was in response to George Floyd’s death – which has caused shockwaves in cities around the world. I was proud to be there for Birmingham’s show of solidarity.

Initially, it was a scary experience. On my way to Birmingham Library, where the speeches took place, I was handed a slip of paper from an organiser with ‘advice on arrest’. I became anxious as the crowds gathered momentum – lest we forget, there is also the possibility of being infected with coronavirus.

But the intention of this protest was noble.

People chanted in full voice: “George Floyd, remember his name!” organically, along with other slogans. There were signs containing anti-establishment messages, messages of hope – some tongue-in-cheek, some with wise quotations. The one that resonated with me was the powerful, ‘They want our rhythm not our blues.’ As a musician, I believe that a vast amount of popular music owes a lot to talented, pioneering yet anonymous, often intentionally uncredited, black musicians. And as a white musician, I believe we stole their music but we didn’t alleviate their sorrow.

By chance, I spotted some people I know from Erdington. Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) joyfully handed me a free face mask, before disappearing into the crowd to give more to strangers.

Feeling fully equipped, having brought my vinyl gloves and voice recorder, I joined the crowd outside the library to hear passionate speakers selected by the Black Lives Matter group using a portable PA, often doubled with a megaphone. It was only audible if you were very close to the action, but people were happy to start chants in their own pockets of activity. I caught most of the speeches, with various speakers commending the multi-ethnicity of the crowd, the fact that this protest cannot be the last, and getting the crowd to kneel as a gesture of solidarity.

The fight is not black verses white; the fight is not black verses Asian. The fight is not black verses any race. The fight is against racists,” one speaker sermonised, followed by rapturous applause.

A couple of hours later, we marched, from Centenary Square, along New Street, to protest symbolically in front of the Lloyd House Police Headquarters.

An acquaintance of mine spotted me in the crowd. Like all the following speakers, she is black and wishes to remain anonymous. She is from Castle Vale: “Everyone’s out here. Black, white, Indian. Fighting for the same cause. It’s like the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to. The message is clear. All anybody wants to have is an enjoyable life, and some people are robbing them of that.

Me personally, I feel like Black Lives Matter is inclusive to everyone as well. As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation. The George Floyd incident was filmed, but it’s like, this has been going on for decades. This protest is saying, stop it. Just stop.”

I too had fear that this day would not remain peaceful, having seen the news of tear gas and looting in America. Trump’s response was to threaten to send in the army to cease the unrest, yet here in Birmingham I see an army of well-meaning citizens mobilizing to bring positive change.

One man, from Moseley, tells me: “As you can see, everybody’s behaving and respecting. Not many police officers. In general, I’m quite blown away because also, nobody with grey hairs like us! The majority of people are under 30. It’s mixed like hell mate! Proper mixed… It’s been an excellent day, a great day.”

We stopped our conversation to admire the marching crowd as it circled around Colmore Circus. Buses had come to a stand-still, and cars sounded their horns as they drove by in solidarity.

This is different from every other one [protest] because it’s worldwide. And it’s unfortunate that the people who commit the crime are telling other people to be peaceful!”

Another male I knew from Erdington was a little more sceptical of the speakers present at the protest: “to be honest, I think it’s just a façade. There was no direction on the mic in what they were saying. There were people on the mic saying: ‘if you’re not down with XYZ then you’re not XYZ’.”

Black Lives Matter itself as an organisation is not without its criticisms. It has been accused of being militaristic, police-hating, and has had a history of confrontation in the public domain – a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and writer, Shaun King, was banned from Facebook in 2016. Although King’s censorship was later redacted by the social media giant and labelled ‘a mistake’.

But whilst agitation can be seen as an important part in evolving debate, it can also lead to messages getting blown out of proportion in a media frenzy – a difficult balance no doubt Black Lives Matter, and many activist groups, will be all too familiar with. And if you need an example of how this can go wrong, just Google ‘Katie Hopkins’.

But the response to the George Floyd murder, for that’s what it is, has been the most recent flashpoint of a whole history of anti-human abuse. Black lives do matter, and as offensive as it is to even need an organisation to clarify that the conversation about race needs to be kept alive, by everyone.

And personally, from my corner of the crowd and community, it was important for me to be part of this historic event in my own city. And as a musician, and a human being, I can only pray that finally a change is going to come.

For more on Black Lives Matter, visit www.blacklivesmatter.com

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is an Erdington based musician and arts ambassador, leading the Erdington Arts Forum and the Active Arts Evenings of Creativity. For more on Jobe Baker Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/JobeSullivanMusic

For more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum/

FEATURE: “I don’t think I would have survived the lockdown without my volunteering,” – Erdington local woman’s cry for more community support

Words by Steve Sharma / Pics courtesy of Erdington Local Community Response

A local woman helping an Erdington community support group to deliver food and essential supplies, and safeguard elderly and vulnerable residents, says volunteering has saved her life.

Donna Tone said her experience working alongside Mutual Aid Group, Erdington Local Community Response, has helped her to survive the lockdown.

At the start of Volunteers Week (June 1-7) the primary school worker is now urging others to follow her example and reap the ‘amazing’ benefits it brings.

“Should people volunteer? Absolutely,” she said. “Because you are not only doing good for others but for yourself too. My self-esteem and confidence have increased massively since I started volunteering and I’ve made some amazing friends and met some lovely people.e 

“At the beginning of the lockdown I felt very isolated with my family living far away from me – but my volunteering has changed that. I now feel uplifted as a person. I don’t think I would have survived the lockdown without my volunteering – it saved me.” 

Donna, who has spent the last three months helping to pack and distribute food parcels from a base in Ladywood, points to the collective efforts and unity of those working to support those in need.

“It’s like your own little community,” she said.

“One minute you’ve got these strangers standing behind you, the next minute they’re becoming your friends. 

“You just start talking to people and form connections, everyone is there to help each other, they are invested in the collective effort. Everyone is united.” 

Erdington Local Community Response was founded by local woman Jo Bull. It has been delivering hundreds of food parcels every week to homes across the district and supporting people through befriending services and via social media with information and resources shared on its Facebook page.

David Owen, who co-ordinates activity for the group, said the support it has received has been ‘eye-watering’ but with certain lockdown measures now being eased and people returning to their day jobs, volunteers are needed to sustain the help that’s being delivered to people.

“The take up of volunteers in Erdington has been immense with over 70 people giving up their time to pack, shop and deliver for those in need,” he said.

“But as these people return to work, we need a new wave of volunteers to get us through the weeks and months ahead. 

“So, if anyone out there, who lives in the North Birmingham area, can spare some time to help our group over the coming weeks we’d really love to hear from them. Please email me at: erdingtoncv19@gmail.com” 

Erdington Local Community Response is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce – a network of local community organisations and individuals working together to support the district’s vulnerable, isolated and at risk during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Taskforce is facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association. Chief Officer, Afzal Hussain, commented: “Volunteers are the lifeblood of organisations like ours and their efforts across the constituency in support of organisations like Erdington Local Community Response has been truly inspiring. 

“We have also benefited from their incredible and selfless work in getting food parcels packed and delivered to the most vulnerable members of our community during the lockdown.

“Without their support a lot of the work that has been achieved would not have been possible. We are all very grateful to every single one of our amazing volunteers.”

To visit the Erdington Local Community Response (to COVID-19) Facebook group, where you ask for help and support during the coronavirus crisis – or offer your services as a volunteer, visit www.facebook.com/groups/625073991557017

A directory of all Erdington COVID19 Taskforce organisations can be found by visiting: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

Volunteers’ Week runs across the UK from 1st to 7th June – for more information, visit www.volunteersweek.org

FEATURE: Death and social distancing – the grief of funerals during lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

The UK’s funeral industry is estimated to be worth around £2billion annually, with an estimated 4,000 directors conducting 600,000 funerals each year at an average of £3-5000 per service. Britain’s death economy is big business.

But honouring the dead is also paramount for people’s mental health and society’s social fabric – a respectable funeral is a helpful step in the grieving process, allowing people to say goodbye to loved ones whilst offering the emotional sanctuary of a traditional service.

During the COVID-19 crisis, however, funerals have taken on an even more sombre tone, as death tolls rise whilst places of worship across the country have been closed to stem the spread of the virus – building a backlog that has seen some funerals held weeks, even months, later than normal.

Along with the Government restrictions being imposed on funerals of all faiths, whatever your beliefs the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the way this vital part of human society is carried out.

As someone who would play the church organ at funerals pre-coronavirus, sometimes three times a week, I was interested in exploring the drastic changes people now face during this important part of the grieving process.

It feels like their bereavement is suspended,” says Father Simon Ellis, the parish priest at St Margaret Mary’s Church on Perry Common Road, who has officiated over six funerals since the start of lockdown – unable to make two, as he was recovering from coronavirus himself.

It’s been agonising… It feels like people have said, you go, I’ll stay at home. The overwhelming thing I’ve heard is that ‘they deserve more’… Normally there would be 50, 60, 150 people at the church or the crematorium. Now we can only have six,” the maximum number of mourners allowed, at that time, according to Birmingham City Council.

And if someone has died of COVID-19,” continues Father Ellis, “people are not permitted to see their loved ones in the funeral parlour. They’re not permitted to touch the coffin. It’s something that will have people struggling with their mental health.”

The Government guidelines have been put in place so that ‘mourners and workers involved in the management of funerals are protected from infection,’ according to the .Gov website. But this has caused anguish for many families, with some having to make tough decisions about who attends the funeral of a loved one and who does not.

But despite the hardships during lockdown Father Ellis has noted, “generally families seem to be sticking to the rules… All the families have been saying there will be something at a later date – whether that’s a memorial mass, a memorial service, or something followed by a proper reception. There are plans for the future.

I feel genuine sorrow for people. Whether they’ve lost a person through COVID-19 or some other reason, they’ve been hurled into this new world…

It is very hard to experience this extra burden people are carrying. But it’s also remarkable how resilient and high-spirited people are being.”

The coronavirus crisis has also seen ingenuity, as people embrace digital platforms to combat the widespread physical restrictions. “Perry Barr Crematorium did have a system where they could relay the service outside,” tells Father Ellis – explaining a shift in how the funeral is conducted which allows more people to gather outside of the chapel area.

Some funerals are also being livestreamed for the benefit of those who can’t be attend in person, and Father Ellis has taken on the challenge: “[livestreaming] has always happened, but now there are more people are involved. What you’re trying to do in the service, which I’ve never done before is start at the beginning of the service is saying ‘if you’re following remotely, you are most welcome, we are thinking of you’. It’s just something to say, ‘we know you’re there.’”

But for all those who are grieving during the coronavirus crisis, it has been a whirlwind experience; as if losing a loved one wasn’t difficult already, not being able to have a conventional funeral has been a great shock to many mourners.

Steve Lafferty, who lives on Lambeth Road in Kingstanding, lost his brother, Charles, on the 4th April after a seven year battle to cancer. Under normal circumstances, there would have been a ‘receiving in’ ceremony the evening before the funeral, wherein the coffin of the deceased remains in church, St Margaret Mary’s, overnight.

We’d have liked him (Charles) to go to church first, to St Margaret Mary’s,” explains Steve, “for the overnight, and then the service… then the funeral mass, in the church, then up to the crematorium for a little service there.

We’d have had the hymns in church… he wanted certain songs, his kids wanted certain songs, so we’d kept them for the crematorium. But because we couldn’t get to church we give them the songs that they wanted, that my brother wanted, to go out there.”

Part of a strong Scottish family, Charles Lafferty had many mourners wishing to pay their final respects. But with the numbers of attendees restricted, the family he left behind found themselves – like many across the country – having to make some difficult logistical decisions.

He had six grandchildren, so the eldest grandchildren were to go,” tells Steve, crunching the numbers usually reserved for a wedding planner – Sandwell Crematorium, where Charles was cremated, are allowing a maximum of 10 mourners at each service. “Then his three children, his three brothers – his son’s partner, she came. But then my wife came, my other’s brother’s wife came…”

They were quite good actually at Sandwell, they gave us a link,” continues Steve – explaining the digital streaming service Sandwell Crematorium were able to offer, “because I’ve got relations in Scotland and all that there, and they said the link was very good as well.

They give us a code to put in – they set it up straight away, then told us – in a few weeks time – to just click here and it will automatically go through. It was really good. Where the camera was you had the coffin, the priest, the people that were there… it was really, really good.”

For Charles Lafferty, his funeral was to be well and widely remembered – despite all the coronavirus roadblocks now in front of a regular procession. But fortitude deserves fanfare, and whilst working within the Government guidelines the family were still able to say goodbye in their own way.

I went down to the undertakers, Unwins on Rough Road,” explains Steve, “they said look Mr Lafferty, with the circumstances we’re in you can only have this, this, or this… no cars, only a hearse. And because we’re Scots we had a bagpiper performing.

So, what we did… where I live on Lamberth Road… I told all his friends to come, but they must keep social distancing all along the road. Don’t go to the crem, but do it along the road outside my house – and then the bagpiper played him up to my house.

The three bothers and his family there, we walked in front and others walked behind, all the way up. Then they stayed outside my house for about five minutes for anyone who wanted to come up to touch the coffin – it was the only time anyone was allowed to touch the coffin – then I went down in front… You had the bagpiper, me, the lady from Unwins, and the coffin then followed me down the road and we were off to Sandwell (Cremetorium).

I can’t knock Sandwell, and I can’t knock my undertakers down the road, especially under the circumstances. They were very, very good.”

For more information on how ‘births, deaths, and ceremonies’ are being conducted across Birmingham during the coronavirus crisis, visit www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/20016/births_deaths_and_ceremonies

For Government guidelines on ‘managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic’, visit www.gov.uk/covid-19-guidance-for-managing-a-funeral-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic

For more from Unwins Undertakers, visit www.urwinsundertakers.co.uk

For more on St Margaret Mary’s Church, visit www.birminghamdiocese.org.uk/st-margaret-mary-perry-common

NEWS: Jump the queues (and language barriers) for Erdington essentials at Janosik

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Jobe Baker-Sullivan and Ed King

Queues on Erdington High Street are now an all too familiar sight, as shops encourage social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many Eastern European shops, however, remain accessible without too much queueing – stocking an abundance of the basic necessities that supermarkets now sometimes lack.

Janosik, situated at 203 High Street in Erdington, is a grocery store that caters for the Polish community. There is a queue outside, but not for this ‘polski sklep’ (polish shop): it’s for Lloyds bank next door.

Full of food, drink, and household essentials, Erdington Local explores the shelves at Janosik – one of Erdington’s many polish shops where a language barrier might be the only thing slowing down your shopping.

Bread (chleb) is found at the back of the store – fresh, sliced, and easy to spot. Polish people also like to make their own bread and pastries, and there’s a large selection of wheat flour (mąka, the ą gives it a sound more like ‘monka’) on the shelves at Janosik – a staple that’s been disappearing from supermarkets across the region, as many people have begun baking at home during lockdown.

Pasta is also in abundance – specialties, as well as simple ‘farfalle’ priced 400g for 99p.

For milk (mleko), the most common choice popular brand UHT Łaciate [pronounced ‘wa-chya-the’). But don’t get caught out by ‘kefir’ – it might look like normal milk from the packaging, but it’s more like a thin yoghurt that’s used in baking.

It’s good for a hangover!” chimes in Krystian, a helpful regular customer. Krystian visits the shop every couple of days for his basic amenities.

The beer is cheaper here than the Co-op,” he boasts, “and there’s a lovely selection of treats” pointing to the shelves of biscuits and chocolate.

Drworek is a brand of soup (zupa). “It’s like the Polish ready-meal,” says Krystian. Pomidorowa (tomato) and kapuśniak (cabbage) are easy to heat in the pan and serve 3-4 portions.

Most of the products in Janosik are Polish, with a small selection of Romanian items available at the back of the store – such as Zacuscă, a vegetable spread that goes nicely on that fresh chleb (bread).

But there are many basic household products that you can buy in Janosik, everyday essentials, that are all too familiar on shopping lists across Erdington. The shop also boasts a pharmacy, a fresh meat counter, and a variety of other foodstuffs.

Shopping at Janosik, and other Eastern European shops, in Erdington might be the perfect way to avoid those High Street queues – whilst supporting more of our local businesses during lockdown.

To find out more about Janosik, situated at 203 Erdington High Street, visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/JANOSIKSUPERSTORE/

For more about the Polish community across Birmingham, visit the Polish Expats Association at www.facebook.com/polish.expats