Day 1 – Sister Christine Frost

April 5, 2011 § 3 Comments

In her early 70’s, Sister Christine looks like just about any older lady you’d see on the street. Raised in Ireland, she has lived in Poplar in the East End of London for the last 41 years. She runs Neighbours in Poplar, a grassroots community project that brings together local residents at bingo nights and Sunday lunches, and South Poplar & Limehouse Action For Secure Housing, an advocacy group working on social housing in a place that has become a ‘no-man’s land’. Both are facing cuts. The small church and community centre where Christine is based has been overshadowed by the towers of finance in Canary Wharf and the constant drone of airplanes flying in and out of City Airport for the last 25 years.

“That’ll be them heading back to Frankfurt and New York” she says as the pace of flights picks up towards the end of the day.

Inequality

The contrast is stark. Families live with 3 or 4 children in one-bedroom flats, and primary schools have children arriving yet to be potty trained. These communities are overlooked by the banks that operate in a virtual tax haven filled with eager young graduates like so many of my peers – all of them driving up the prices of local rents and pushing local communities further to the margins of society.

“When the developers first came all those years ago, we believed what they promised us. We believed there’d be jobs for local people, that the traffic would stay on the main road, that wealth would trickle down to families living here. We accepted the mass clearing of social housing because they promised us newer and better homes. None of that has come true. We’re not so foolish now.”

Local communities are ignored completely by banks and their workers. Neighbourliness is in short supply. Little attempt is made by the financial institutions to support community work; they favour the en-vogue charitable causes with recognisable brands that will feature prominently in this year’s CSR report.

Resistance

But Sister Christine has been fighting for her community since the 1970’s and knows that amongst her neighbours lies power.

“What I struggle with most is helping people realise that they are the experts of this area – not the planners or the commuters. In a planning process they’re voices are valid and must be heard.” As she speaks, I can see that she’s losing her ‘interview’ face and becoming genuinely incensed.

She describes a billboard that advertises new luxury flats being built among social housing that has been left to fall apart. “I want to go and put on a hoodie and graffiti it”, she says.

But it’s not just money. “With everyone living in eggboxes, nobody here has time to reflect on where we’re going, or the meaning of where we are. If the developers ever threatened our last piece of open green space, I know that the women of the estate would lie down in front of those bulldozers. I don’t know about the men, mind, but I know the women would.”

I ask her at the end of our time together what gives her hope amongst all this struggle. She smiles, mentions the need for a sense of humour, and says,

“As long as there are people, there is hope.”

Lessons

  • Relationships take time. Working with a community needs someone like Sister Christine to build the trust, to understand the local tensions, and to build their confidence.
  • Radicalism lies at the grassroots. Never again will I misjudge someone’s willingness to take direct action by their age or perceived role in society!
  • I (we) live in a bubble. I found it really difficult not to be personally indicted by some of what she said. My life is so much closer to those in Canary Wharf than it is to her community’s. As change-agents, is it possible to live in that duality?

Hope this was useful, thanks for reading.

§ 3 Responses to Day 1 – Sister Christine Frost

  • John Stewart says:

    Hi Casper,

    Give my regards to Christine. She was a stalwart in the campaign against road building in the 1990s. She fought a second Blackwall Tunnel which would have devastated her local community. And it still hasn’t been built!

    • cterkuile says:

      I should not be surprised that you know each other John! So thrilled to hear she was part of that movement too – what a lady!

      One day soon I will organise some sort of skill-share/story-share day between stalwarts like you both and younger campaigners…

  • Barbara Norden says:

    I am so glad to have found this blog. I heard Christine being interviewed by Zubeida Malik on Radio 4 this morning, and was so moved….I just wanted to voice my admiration. It is heartening that you, Casper, are blogging about good news….not boring anodyne good news but people actually doing something! I am only sorry that the removal of the flag at Christine’s request was so misunderstood in the media, but I suppose we have to expect that.

    I hope to return to your blog, and perhaps report on things that some of us are working to achieve here in Birmingham.

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