Justice at the margins

Today’s post is something a bit different to my normal. It is a bit of a reflection on some values that I hold and why I think they are important now more than ever.

Throughout my life I’ve had an affinity to people who are marginalised and treated unfairly. Probably a lot of this stems from my upbringing in Northern Ireland – the 1970s and 1980s, not exactly a great time for justice and equality here. So I guess you could say I am sensitised to issues of justice and equality. I am also interested in history, conflict and war. In particular, I’ve had a fascination with World War I and II for as long as I remember. Yeah I know, strange! Again, I can trace this back to my childhood – we didn’t have a phone in my teenage years so a kindly neighbour, a World War II veteran, allowed me to use his. He often told me stories of his time in the army and I loved to listen. It was a strange juxtaposition – at the time, the British army were not held in high esteem in my community so to hear first-hand from someone who lived and worked through a war situation was a real eye-opener for me. It taught me to always look at the other side of the story.

When I was 16, I opted to continue my education at a technical college rather than go to a catholic grammar school. I had never been that academic but I enjoyed playing around with computers and ‘the tech’ offered a good two-year course. There was a route to university from the course but I wasn’t really considering that at the time. I was just glad to have passed some exams and to have something interesting to do for another two years! The narrative that goes on around you has a huge impact, even if it is unconscious. In the media and in my community we constantly heard – harder to get a decent job if you are catholic, a woman and if you are from a working class background. As I was all three of those, my ambition for the future wasn’t that strong. I didn’t know the words for it then, but my world was narrow and marginalised.

My life changed a lot during the time I was at the tech. I essentially moved from a very small community to larger one. The narrative surrounding me changed – university became a possibility and it opened my mind up to lots of other opportunities. I was also lucky to be encouraged by a great teacher. I would have been the first person in my family to go to university and had convinced myself that I wasn’t ‘university material’. This lady helped me to expand my perspective.  When I made it to university, my world suddenly opened up even further. I no longer felt marginalised. There were lots of women embarking on careers from all sorts of backgrounds. And largely the issue of religion all but disappeared from my life. I sought out and found people from so many different backgrounds, social classes and religious persuasions. It enriched both my life and my thinking.

Minorities and majorities
So what has this got to do with the price of bacon? Growing up I felt in the minority. Widening my perspective and going to university changed that. It showed me how minority and majority can be quite fluid. If you look at the history of most wars, the minority is often marginalised and especially demonised. Once you demonise someone, they become a 2nd class citizen and this ‘allows’ the majority in society to turn a blind eye to all sorts of atrocities. It’s harder to care about someone you don’t think is worthy of your attention. This one of the reasons why for example, slavery went on for so long. There are countless other examples – If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender then you’ll face both greater health inequalities and poorer financial/career prospects.

If you look at how people campaign for justice, often they stick within their communities and fight within their minorities. The narrative is ‘us’ versus ‘them’, vying for attention from the majority. It is often a zero sum game. Today’s society seems to be based on a lot of minority groups fighting for justice and I’m not sure it’s the best model for change. What I have noticed is that once justice campaigns widen their perspective, and do this intentionally, change and progress comes about much more quickly. At any one time, we can either be in the majority or the minority. As a female working in the world of IT, I’m in the minority. I never looked at it like this though. I felt that because there wasn’t so many women, I’d stand out more and it would be easier for me to get a job!  It’s that perspective thing again.

A model for justice campaigning
Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of following and being involved in a small way with the #JusticeforLB #107days campaign on Twitter. You can read more about it here.

This campaign has been characterised by its openness and inclusivity. Dr Sara Ryan is a university researcher and a parent of a young man with learning disabilities who died in (still) unbelievable circumstances under the ‘care’ of the NHS. Aided and abetted by the fabulously energetic George Julian, these ladies to my mind have created a new model for social justice campaigning. I’m guessing that for Sara, it has been difficult to balance her story, her family tragedy with running a campaign that so obviously has wider concern for all people with learning disabilities.

There was nothing marginal or exclusive about the #107days campaign. The brain-child of George, every day for 107 days, people contributed their stories, their insights and their creative tributes about all things learning disability. There was such a variety of contributions; parents, families, professionals, interested individuals and learning disability organisations spoke passionately about celebrating value rather than documenting restrictions. We had shared insights on how people with learning disabilities can and should be treated more equitably, and we had music, laughter, joy – the things all of us should have in our lives.

At the so called margins of our society, many of us sit – we are women, men, older people, people with mental health problems, LGBT, ethnic minorities, immigrants – the list is endless. But actually collectively, we are just people. The labels don’t really help. When we add labels, we offer the opportunity to demonise and de-humanise. The very fact of adding a label often causes the marginalisation. Yes, #justiceforLB and #107days focussed on people with learning disabilities but it also made people think – what if Connor Sparrowhawk was your brother, sister, son, daughter? Do we really want a society where anyone is made to feel less than human? It is all about perspective again.

Sara and George’s perspective was to shine a big stonking light and scream from the rooftops about injustice. It is forcing us to re-think the narrative around (learning) disability and JusticeforLB has used inclusion to reduce the exclusion! Sara and George asked and keeping asking questions about the society we live in. All of us have a role in trying to get answers.  What’s the alternative? Most of us will find ourselves in a marginalised minority at some stage of our lives. That isn’t ever an excuse to be treated unfairly. All of us must get better at noticing the narrative that goes on around us. People with learning disabilities can’t work? People with learning disabilities can’t contribute to society – what nonsense! One teacher, when I was 16 helped to change the course of my life. We all have the power to influence and change each other’s lives – we all have more power than we think we have but not if we stay in our minority mindset.

Oh and why 107 days? 107 days was the length of time, Sara’s son was in the Assessment and Treatment Unit before he died due to neglect and couldn’t be arsed treating people fairly professionals.

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3 thoughts on “Justice at the margins

  1. Fiona this is the most powerful writing about the 107day movement that I have read so far. It has a beautiful structure in really giving your “why”. So personal and right. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks so much Mike – always lovely to get comments. I feel strongly that injustice should matter to us all, or else we are just sleepwalking our way through life while people suffer.

      Thanks again
      Fiona.

  2. Pingback: A fascination of false dichotomies in social care | George Blogs

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