Why do Disabled People Against Cuts organise as disabled people?
Linda Burnip: It is really important for us that we organise as disabled people because historically disabled people have been viewed as dependant, charitable cases. The government and councils tend to ignore disabled people and their views and speak to the charities who speak for us, who are not always saying what we would want them to say. So for us part of setting up DPAC was that we would be campaigning as disabled people for ourselves and not being spoken for by other organisations. Particularly we have problems with a number of the charities who actually make a lot of money out of disabled people and more or less treat us as commodities.
What would be different if you were organising as part of a broader alliance with the disability charities? Would there be problems that you would encounter?
Linda Burnip: For instance, there is a major problem around the workfare programs and the disability works program. On the one hand you’ve got nine of the major [disability] charities saying they are campaigning against welfare reform and on the other they are bidding for £678 million to get disabled people into work because apparently they have the experience to do it and they can do it well. I think it’s a conflict of interest and I don’t think you can do both
Why do you as Women Against Fundamentalism organise as women?
Helen Lowe: It feels like the arguments are lost in the mist of time! It comes from being involved in mixed organisations and feeling that the left-wing political organisations didn’t take woman’s issues seriously. So we separated ourselves and organised autonomously. It is really important to keep these arguments alive and explain to young women why it is necessary to do that. Young women come in with their own reasons for wanting to organise autonomously. I think there is something of a rebirth of the feminist movement among young women now. It is so important there is a voice that can speak out clearly on behalf of women, even when it engages with other issues which affect men and women. I think it is also important for lesbian and gay groups to be doing the same thing.
Pragna Patel: For black minority women autonomy is not separation actually. Autonomy is a space you need because you are invisibilised by everyone else and you need that space because that helps you to come together and to articulate what your needs are. For us it also means placing ourselves in wider progressive movements. It’s not just about separating ourselves off completely. But autonomy is as necessary as it ever was because I think that otherwise certain voices just completely get drowned out.
That’s what is interesting about the Big Society and the cohesion agendas. It assumed that there is a level playing field now and there isn’t. One of the things we were told when we lost our funding was that “We don’t need specialist organizations anymore. It has all been mainstreamed; we can do it all. A mainstream generic organization can meet the needs of all women as well as meet the needs of black minority women”. So the assumption is that we are living in a post racist, feminist, classless society now! In fact we were told that we were in breach of the Race Relations Act because we were organising as black women and that therefore we were separating ourselves and we were being discriminatory to other women. So it was turning concepts that we have used to understand situations, to understand powerlessness on their heads. The majority is suddenly the minority and it acts like a besieged minority, as if everyone else is getting privileged positions in society, whether it’s disabled people or black people or some other vulnerable group. It’s that that is really scary I think. So I think autonomous spaces, the need to organize as women, or as disabled people or as lesbians and gays or as black women is just as great as ever because we haven’t dealt with the structural inequalities.
For those who organise in broad groups, how do you deal with unequal power, for instance between women and men or people of different backgrounds?
Jim Cranshaw: There is a tendency for people to be middle class, white, although that might be because we live in Oxford! In terms of meetings we rotate facilitation, we have working groups, we rotate as many roles as we can, so its just simple stuff but I am not sure we’ve got the balance right yet so I would be happy to learn from others.
David Milner: There is no getting away from the fact that individuals do have authority but they have authority by virtue of their knowledge, their experience, their intelligence, the empathy that they have with other people. There is a difference between that authority and the authority which is imposed in some kind of hierarchical structure. One way to get around that within a group is to rotate roles in some way, to have meetings where you don’t have fixed roles but the group decides on who is doing what within the meeting. Decisions are made, not necessarily by voting because there are no guarantees that most people will be right, but by some kind of consensus so that everyone’s views are heard and listened to. And go-rounds obviously are one means of doing that. Even in a go-round you can have one person who speaks for two seconds and someone else who hogs the meeting for ten minutes, so you need some flexibility in your structure.