By Connie Hunter, Co-Director, Women's Environmental Network
Today is my last day at WEN. I’ve been here for 6 years, and it’s been pretty hard to say goodbye.
I wanted to share something about my experience here, to help people get to know WEN a bit better, and to say thank you to all the brilliant people I’ve met during my time at WEN.
Most people get involved with WEN because they are feminists who also have a deep concern for our environment. Often people say, “I can’t believe I’ve found an organisation that works on both things I really care about- now I don’t have to choose which one is most important to me!” I think lots of us feel the same way.
WEN works on issues that overlap between women and the environment. Many people have heard of WEN because of our previous work on real nappies, breast cancer prevention, chemicals in cosmetics, re-usable menstrual products and healthy households.
However, I first got involved with WEN because I was really interested in the Local Food Project, supporting community food growing and particularly BAME women in Tower Hamlets, East London. Tower Hamlets has the largest Bangladeshi population in England- making up 32% of the population, and overall the BAME community make up 55% of the population.
Throughout the UK, poverty rates are higher for all ethnic minority groups of women than for white British men, with Pakistani and Bangladeshi women having the highest poverty rate at 50%. I was really interested in WEN’s work in the area, because community gardening can often be seen as a white middle class ‘luxury’, and something very different was happening here.
The main project at the time was ‘Spice it Up!’ a participatory introduction to organic food growing course, for BAME women in Tower Hamlets. When I started coming along to help out at the sessions though, I realised it was much more than that. Of course, it was designed with the goals of developing new skills for low income or unemployed women, building confidence, enhancing social inclusion, improving access to healthy and affordable food and a whole host of other benefits. But I will take away something different as the best part about this project.
Spice it Up! sessions created a space where traditional knowledge around food and farming was valued and shared. Staff facilitated the sessions so that participants, who often had extensive knowledge themselves, could share this with others. In our urban economic lives, this knowledge can often seem redundant. Spice it Up! shone a light on that knowledge and reinforced its value. Spice it Up! was breaking down barriers between people and bringing them together through something we all have in common: food. You can read the evaluation of the whole project here.
The other arm of the Food Project was the Tower Hamlets Food Growing Network, still going strong with about 1,500 members. If you haven’t come along to a Network gathering yet, then you should!
You’ll get to meet the chickens form Winterton House Organic Garden in Shadwell,
Hear a talk about climate change, air pollution or biofuels,
Learn about healthy cooking,
And go on a tour of a local community garden:
You can sign up for the THFGN newsletter here
Gardens for Life
The biggest project that I worked on was Gardens for Life- a project commissioned by the Public Health department at LBTH to create 15 new community gardens in 15 months. Yes- 15 in 15 months. It was a pretty busy time! We set up 7 of these on housing estates, and the others were in a range of different community settings. Our method for finding people who were interested was to go to an area of land identified as a good possible site by the RSL, and knocking on people’s doors to ask if they were interested in growing their own vegetables or flowers. This meant we met lots of people who might not have responded to an ad in the paper or on facebook.
I could write a whole book about this project so I won’t attempt to do that here, but really it was simultaneously the most difficult and rewarding project I’ve worked on at WEN. It went from the lows of waiting for a compost delivery at 7am in Poplar in the rain, knowing we were going to have to shift 96 bags by ourselves, and getting phone calls telling me that someone has built a new kodu structure in front of someone else’s window, to highs of partaking in a shared lunch with all the gardeners, and hearing that Mr Islam hadn’t had to buy any vegetables for two months.
You can read the Gardens for Life report here.
The next project I worked on is called WENterprise- whereby we earn money from delivering workshops and contracts to subsidise our charitable work. You can find out more about our workshops here.
My personal favourite is Fruity Beauty; learning how to make your own natural cosmetics.
One thing that's great about WEN is that most people arrive caring about one particular topic, for me it was food. But once I got here I started learning more about so many other issues I hadn't even thought of before- like what's in my shower gel? Do I want to put that on my skin? How do I make my own deodorant? And what happens to tampons? Why aren't they all made out of organic cotton? WEN provides information and practical positive alternatives, so that women can make informed decisions about their health and that of the environment.
In the last year we were lucky to receive funding from the Cabinet Office to run WENterprise, but also to spend some time working on our internal systems, in a project called the Local Sustainability Fund.
As part of this, we started something called the WEN Forum, a quarterly event bringing together a diverse range of voices on a key environmental topic. We launched it this January with a title of 'What's feminism got to do with the environment?' with Natalie Bennett as a keynote speaker, and since then have held events on the topics of the link between menstruation and the environment, gender and climate change, and sustainable diets.
One of the most exciting things about the Local Sustainability Fund project is that we decided to formalise our previous loose, de-facto, non-hierarchical system into a shared leadership model of four equal Co-Directors. We shared the responsibilities for managing WEN between ourselves, and lucky me ended up with Finance and HR. We share decision making responsibilities, develop WEN’s strategy and plan for future projects. This was a great challenge, and one I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to take on in many other organisations. That is absolutely down to the openness and participatory nature of WEN.
I started at WEN, as 3 out of the 4 current Co-Directors did, as a volunteer. WEN is a brilliant place to be a volunteer. Volunteers are nurtured, encouraged and supported to take initiative, work on things they are passionate about and grow in a professional capacity too. Sometimes they go on to work at WEN, and sometimes they move on somewhere else. We want to be an incubator for those women who go on to work in other organisations, because we think this is a great place to get motivated about the kind of change we want to see in the world. Just during my time here, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people who’ve gone on to do amazing things. Really there are too many to name, but I wanted to mention a few.
Georgie started as a communications volunteer, then became a paid intern in our WENterprise project. She single handedly re-designed our whole website, trained all the staff on how to use it, and recruited archival interns to archive our old material relating to previous projects. She is now a Social and Multimedia Editor at Greenpeace’s Energydesk , and Assistant Editor at Skin Deep magazine.
Rosie started as a Membership and Communications volunteer and she re-designed our membership packs and secured discounts for WEN members at ethical companies. Her passion was for sustainable fashion, so she organised an event to screen the film ‘True Cost’ with an amazing panel of people from the sustainable fashion sector. She now works at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion.
Natasha came to WEN to revive our environmenstrual project, and is helping us to set up a crowdfunder campaign to raise money for environmenstrual workshops for young women and girls. Ruby also volunteered on our environmenstrual project, and just set up her own company, WUKA Wear, which produces eco-friendly period underwear.
We have recently secured funding from Rosa UK to run a paid internship programme for young female environmental leaders from Tower Hamlets, in an effort to better support our volunteers and widen access to those who might not be able to volunteer their time for free. You can read all about it here.
I am leaving WEN, not to work in another organisation or set up my own company, but to spend time wwoofing around Europe, to see if I can hack it as a real farmer. But I know WEN is going to do great things while I’m away. My colleagues will keep running the WEN Forum, and Soil Sisters will finally start this autumn; a project which will use food growing as therapy in women’s refuges in London.
I feel very proud to have worked alongside such passionate, dedicated and inspiring women, including Kate, Julia and Beth, who will carry on as Co-Directors without me! Shirley, who left but is coming back with a different 'healthy cooking' hat on, Glenda, who hopefully thinks I've finally gained sense at 26, and knows everything about plants, Melody and Siham, who have been so patient in trying to get me to understand accounts, Tara, who knows what I mean when I talk about the highs and lows of Gardens for Life, Heidi, who made the WEN Forum possible, and Georgie, Rosie, Faysal, Bex, Alison, Sarah-Jane, Natasha, Sophie, Nichola, Ruby, Grace, Anais, Lynette, Emmett, Carolina, Kaltun, Margaret, Megan, Thea and Manon to name a few, who gave their time freely because they cared so much.
We are called Women’s Environmental Network for a reason; all of these people, past and present, are part of WEN, and we will continue to amplify women’s voices in the environmental movement and shine a light on issues overlooked in the mainstream. So I know that even though today is my last day at WEN, I’m not really leaving.
Nandi, A. and Platt, L. (2010) Ethnic Minority Women’s Poverty and Economic Wellbeing, London: Government Equalities Office.