Dragging ourselves up by our bootstraps is common ground

Croydon charity sector leader BUSHRA AHMED was asked recently to be a judge at a national awards event. Here, she explains how she took inspiration, and fellow-feeling, from some of the award-winners

Like-minded: Bushra Ahmed with award-winner Jack Monroe (left)

Each year, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation celebrates the best campaigns and campaigners, to find those who have made change happen most effectively, creatively and courageously.

This year, I was fortunate to be asked to be an awards judge, which meant that I was among those invited to last week’s presentations.

All the campaigns featured on the awards shortlists shared a determination to secure a specific change that would make things better – whether for an individual, a local neighbourhood or for everyone.

The ceremony was held in the offices of our sponsors, Tortoise Media, the slow news people, who very kindly opened up their newsroom the event.

The nominees were a truly diverse set of cross-community campaigners, including
Kwajo Tweneboa, the activist from Earlsfield who was named the Young Campaigner of the Year for his impressive work in the social housing sector (the full list of nominees can be found by clicking here.)

Congratulations are due to all the amazing winners and nominees.

But for me the standout at the event was the Campaigner of the Year was Jack Monroe, the former food bank-user and anti-poverty campaigner sometimes known by her Twitter handle as Bootstrap Cook, who accepted the award very humbly.

It was obvious this attention on herself as an awards winner wasn’t something she relishes, but was a side to her vital social justice work that just had to be endured. After the awards, we all stayed for a Tortoise Think In – basically, Jack in conversation for an hour with David Taylor, the Tortoise editor.

I’ve been to many community events over the years, but this was so different, a slow-paced and thoughtful conversation, that allowed us to see the person behind the headlines.

Jack was absolutely hilarious at times with her self-deprecating words, but behind it all we got a sense of the hard anger she has for her detractors and the deep sadness that she feels for those who are suffering.

Pound a bowl: Surrey Street Market, still a place to find good food at good value

She exudes a steely determination to do whatever it takes to help as many as she can, she’s ready to take on the Government and the trolls, even the Office for National Statistics. She says that she can’t rest until there is no one in need and we have a just society that looks after everyone.

The audience was just captivated by her: she’s charming, funny, genuine, but above all just so endearing. Of course, after the conversation ended, everyone wanted to meet her.

As I stood in the queue, I was becoming more emotional thinking of my own mum and how she struggled to bring up eight kids on very little. Jack’s story about standing in the shopping queue, being forced to choose to take something out of the trolley because she didn’t have the extra 3p to afford the supermarket saver jam – as she said, “I mean, who doesn’t have 3p extra?” – the embarrassment and shame she felt, brought it all back to me.

We would go as young children on a Saturday morning to Surrey Street Market, then to a couple of different supermarkets, all to save a few pennies here and there. As a small child, I hated the market and often would ask why we couldn’t just go to the nice shops.

It was only as an adult and mother, going through that struggle myself, losing our first home and business to Thatcher’s interest rate rises in the early 1990s that I was able to understand the kind of desperation and shame the feeling of not being able to provide for your family can bring.

So when I reached Jack, I was a little teary. That connected us in that moment, when I talked about my mum to her and she knew immediately how I was feeling. We may have come from different generations yet, somewhat sadly, we shared a common experience of growing up and living with tough financial pressures.

She has a such an empathic personality, she stayed and talked to each person waiting, taking pictures giving her full attention to everyone. Her humanity radiates from within. In all my years as a community campaigner, outside of my own community (and, of course, family), I’ve rarely come across someone as lovely a human as Jack Monroe.

Can’t wait to take up her offer to sit down with her and chat over that coffee and cake.

  • Jack Monroe’s website, Cooking On A Bootstrap, including lots of helpful budgeting advice, can be visited by clicking here
  • Bushra Ahmed founded West Croydon Voice to fight for the victims’ rights to compensation after her family’s Broad Green business was destroyed in the 2011 Croydons Riots. She is a trustee of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, for HomeStartUK, a member of the Survivors Advisory Forum at National Emergencies Trust, and a member of the Victim Care Improvement Forum at Met Police. She was recently profiled in the Charity Times and named as one to look out for on International Women’s Day 2022

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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