Community organising under lockdown in Tottenham

David Lammy MP (centre) with community organisers, Sally Sturgeon (left) and Moussa Amine Sylla (right) Credit: Moussa Amine Sylla

By Moussa Amine Sylla, Community Organiser, Selby Centre and Nick Mahony, Municipal Enquiry

When the UK ‘lockdown’ was put in place in mid-March and the government emphasised we were in the midst of a pandemic, the situation here felt really grave. Lots of people were understandably shocked and worried, local authorities and communities were caught off guard, and the
usual sense of community almost instantly disappeared, at least for a time.

The lockdown thereby set in train a kind of forced devolution. Busy high streets shut down and workers stayed at home. The local government authorities in Tottenham almost entirely vanished overnight.

It was in this context that the Selby Food Hub came about. The project was a result of the Selby Food Bank being unable to operate in the usual way because of the lockdown. The staff at the Selby Centre realised that this would have immediate and negative effects, so a proposal for an independent, alternative food hub was quickly developed following discussions between the Selby Community Organisers and the Selby Projects Officer. This was then put into action with the aim of alleviating the food poverty and insecurity in our community, which was being exacerbated by the pandemic.

None of this could have happened if staff at Selby Trust had not already nurtured a network of social activists in the local area, over several years via the community organising approach. It was through the strength of these relationships that we were also able to link with the over 30 mutual aid groups that had quickly emerged following lockdown. The food hub became one point of focus around which some of this new social action could be organised.

My favourite experience happened as a result of the local CWU (Communication Workers Union) branch secretary getting in touch with us. Together, we talked about how local union and community organising activities could be better connected. Not long afterwards a Royal Mail van pulled into the Selby car park laden with food, donated by local CWU members who the branch secretary had been able to quickly mobilise. We have now begun discussions about how we might extend and develop this relationship, as we are interested in the idea of creating a new food cooperative that could be run by local workers and the community.

The starting point for this and the many other new connections has been the need to survive. This has meant people finding new ways to get together, understand and respond to what’s happening. The mutual aid work has happened in areas that don’t have access to lots of resources so they’ve just had to organise for themselves. People haven’t been able to wait for the professionals to step in and support them, or for the usual agencies to intervene – these infrastructures have broken down.

We have many people from different ethnic backgrounds coming together around food, all in the desire to self-organise and provide mutual aid. People queue together chatting, getting along with one another while respectfully also keeping their distance by being two metres apart.

What we’ve been doing in recent weeks, in collaboration with many people from the local area, builds on what the Selby Centre and the wider community have been doing together here for many years. Now we need to continue to build these solidarities, working together in all of our diversity to help create the alternatives that work for people here in Tottenham –securing food and a better community for all.

The Selby Food Hub is open on Tuesdays (2pm–4pm) and Thursdays (5.00pm–7.30pm) at The Selby Centre, Selby Road, N17 8JL

No referral or voucher required. People with no recourse to public funds are welcome.

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