Twelve years ago, during a lecture at the University of Strathclyde, I heard for the first time about an innovative housing project taking place in the Seven Towers in North Belfast. The work sought to engage the community in monitoring the right to adequate housing as well as supporting them to create opportunities for accountability. I remember the moment quite clearly, but at the time I had no idea about the resonance that that ground-breaking project would have for me or for the people I would eventually work alongside.
Since that time, I’ve been lucky enough to learn much more about the approach directly from PPR, as well as having the opportunity to put it into practice alongside some incredible activists. I’ve spent the last six years as Participation Officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission. During that time, I’ve sought to embed meaningful, inclusive and purposeful participation into the Commission’s work with a particular emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights. A huge part of this was working alongside a community experiencing poor housing conditions in Leith, Edinburgh, following PPR’s model developed at the Seven Towers. I also had the enormous pleasure of setting up and facilitating a Leadership Group of people experiencing poverty, whose insight, wisdom, political nous and healthy challenge have kept my feet firmly on the ground.
Before the Commission, I had a research and policy role in a learning disability organisation. With the newly minted Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities providing plenty of fresh impetus for change, I wanted to explore what this meant with people with learning disabilities. I supported a group of people with learning disabilities from across Scotland to engage with the CRPD rights and submit an easy read report on the state of these to the UN Committee which monitors the treaty. In the midst of austerity and enormous changes to the social security system, their voices resonated strongly.
Coming to work in an organisation like PPR means recognising the powerful legacy of Inez McCormack and the extraordinary work of PPR’s staff and activists, both past and present. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Dessie’s contribution to continuing Inez’ vision. But there’s also something else about PPR which is less tangible and harder to define. It’s a subversive spark, a joy in the work combined with a genuine, unconditional invitation of friendship to come in and be part of a transformative process. I felt it strongly at a meeting of all PPR’s activist groups at the MAC in 2019. I was thrilled that day to be one recipient of PPR’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ Award alongside residents from Leith. You can imagine how I feel now!
COVID-19 has brought the importance of economic, social and cultural rights into sharp focus. The barriers faced by many to accessing food, medicine, appropriate support, internet, education and adequate income revealed structural inequalities which could no longer be brushed under the carpet or explained away as an anomaly affecting a small number of people. Had human rights already been embedded into law and policy making structures, people’s experiences of the last year or so may have been quite different. There is an opportunity now to restate the value of human rights and the standards they set for our lives through participation and activism. Such participation can anchor discussions on greater legislative protections for rights happening now in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. I look forward to joining an incredible team, whom I know are engaged in this with both head and heart.