The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre

Set up in 1999, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre was named after a Bangladeshi boy murdered in a racially motivated attack in Burnage in 1986. It is a resource centre on everything from the criminal justice system in the United States to the history of the local Pakistani community of Manchester.

Louis Kushnick OBE is the driving force behind the centre and has been involved in race relation issues in Manchester since the late 1960s. It was his personal collection of books, journals, articles and news cuttings that formed the basis of the archive which is located in the University of Manchester campus today. Arwa Aburawa spoke to him about the history of the centre, the projects it has worked on, the changes he has witnessed in the education system and the impact of the recent government cuts on the centre’s future.

Louis Kushnick, who was born in Brooklyn and studied at Yale, came for a one-year scholarship at the University of Manchester in 1963 and decided to stay. Now a retired professor, he has worked as a senior lecturer at the university for forty years, alongside other responsibilities such as chairing the Research Institute for Race Relations and editing the quarterly journal ‘Race Relations Abstracts’. By 1998, he had acquired such a substantial amount of material on race relations issues that it required a separate office to house it.

“It was getting out of hand so the question was well what do we do with it?,” he recalls. “A group of us got together and decided that if we gave all this material to the University of Manchester John Rylands library it would continue to used by academics but that would be it. So what we wanted to do is create some sort of centre that anyone could access.” As there was no money available for a centre, the group approached Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester at the time, to ask for financial assistance. Harris agreed to support the project as it would be located within the university and he hoped it would help encourage a greater diversity of people to attend the university, which had a reputation as a place for white, upper-middle class students.

The group was given a space behind the Blackwell’s bookshop on Oxford Road which had been empty for some time; the rent was paid by the University. Once the premises had been cleaned, the group bought some cheap shelving and started moving books into the archive, categorizing them with the support of MMU postgraduate students.

The Centre Opens & The Macpherson Report

The formal opening of the centre was on February 9th 1999 and in the same week, the Macpherson Report, which identified institutional racism not only in the Metropolitan police but also in the wider criminal justice system, was launched. “I remember that on Radio Manchester that morning, Selina (the oldest daughter of the Ullah family) said that for what it was worth, at least her family got some sort of closure as the boy who killed Ahmed was convicted. She thought the Steven Lawrence family would never get that and she was right.”

When the centre opened there were three people sharing a 0.5 post which was paid for by the University of Manchester. However, the money soon ran out and so the group began looking for more support which they soon found in the Progress Trust, which works to ensure that BME communities in Greater Manchester access urban regeneration funding. The funding allowed the centre to expand its activities beyond its focus on keeping the centre open for visitors, to creating outreach programmes for teachers and working with schools.

Murder and Racism in the Playground

Working in the the education sector, racism in education and the power of anti-racism education are issues close to Kushnick’s heart. It was one of the reasons why he decided to contact the family of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah to ask if they could name the centre in his memory. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was a 13 year old boy of Bangladeshi origin who went to Burnage High School, where a fair amount of racist bullying went on. In 1986, a fight in the playground broke out and Ahmed came to the aid of some younger Asian boys when a 13-year old white pupil took out a knife, stabbed and killed him.

“The boy [who stabbed Ahmed] himself came from an extremely disturbed background and it was a tragedy all round,” states Kushnick. “but the incident did raise the issue of racism in schools, how whiteness becomes an identity. So we wanted to send a signal and use the material in outreach programmes to teachers in schools with limited resources, a narrow curriculum and encourage an environment where all children could flourish. We wanted to challenge stereotypes that Asians should be doctors or that you don’t expect anything from working class children – we wanted to encourage more inclusive ways of teaching and encourage teachers to expect all their pupils to succeed.”

Breaking Down The Stratified Education System

Armed with funding from the Progress Trust, the Millennium Awards and pro bono support of the University of Manchester (which allowed them to use the premises rent-free and also did their payroll), the centre began to put together materials for teachers.

“At the time, Britain had a highly stratified education system. Working class students were 8 times less likely to pass the 11+ exams than middle class ones,” says Kushnick. “Meanwhile teachers went to school everyday and very few of them woke up thinking ‘another day to mess over some working-class kids, another day to lessen their self-esteem and another day to convince them to have no or very limited aspirations.’ But everyday they went to school thinking that white working class parents didn’t care about education, that girls will go off and work in Woollies for a couple of years, get married and have kids. Meanwhile the lads could get an apprenticeship, settle down, marry the girl who used to work at Woollies and have kids…”

People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities were also approaching the centre and them asking it about their history in the country and in Manchester. The team quickly realised that whilst they had lots of really great resources on race relations, there was very little primary information or secondary sources when it came to the local level. “The people’s stories about how they came to this country, their experiences, how they created their own religious and housing education, how they dealt with the education of young children – we had very little of that,” remarks Kushnick. The centre decided to tackle both these issues through their outreach work at schools by asking pupils to collect information and stories about their communities. Not only would this help fill a gap in the archive but it would also raise the confidence of BME pupils whilst educating others about the history of the wider BME community.

Collecting Stories from Manchester’s BME Communities

BME pupils interviewed their grandparents and found that some had great aunties who worked in the Land Army in World War Two or family who served in the British Army. The interviews – 144 of them – were transcribed, printed and kept in the archive alongside family photographs and heirlooms. Children from Sikh, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean communities contributed interviews, and four girls from Levenshulme turned these interviews into a book called ‘Strength of Spirit’ which is full of interviews and photos from the Bangladeshi community. The centre also spent a year working with Refugee Action to put together an exhibition and teaching information pack on refugees in Manchester and the hardships they face on their journey to the UK.

Over the years, more and more of the centre’s projects consisted of producing material which would contribute to the archive and also help build a record of the local BME community which was later used for teaching materials, travelling exhibitions and the annual Black History Month. Working with primary schools in Rusholme, Moss Side and Whalley Range, the centre helped to put a book together retelling the story of Olaudah Equiano, an eighteenth-century slave who was freed in London and became one of the leaders campaigning against the slave trade. A book was also published on the life of the former slave Mary Prince (c.1788- death date unknown), who presented her testimony about the horrible conditions endured by the enslaved in the Caribbean, and Noor Inayat Khan who was captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo and was executed at Dachau in 1944. Khan was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the British George Cross in 1949.

Kushnick says that the centre’s future projects will continue to focus on anti-racism education and adding material to the archive. Some of the projects currently underway include school schemes exploring international folk tales as well as a funded initiative looking into the Yemeni community in Salford and documenting its experience. However, the cuts in government funding are worrying for the centre, which will be looking to find new forms of financial support in March 2012. “In this crisis no one is sure how they are going to be affected,” says Kushnick. “Of course we hope everything will be okay and we can keep the centre open but, in all honesty, we have no idea what will happen.”

The Race Relations Archive is located near Manchester Piccadilly station and includes over 8,000 resources available for use by students, practitioners and the general public. For more information and visiting hours see the centre’s website.

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Abundance Manchester

Abundance Manchester was established in the summer of 2008 with the aim of collecting fruit from public trees and people’s gardens and redistributing it to people in need. The volunteer-run organisation now collects fruit from around 60 gardens every harvest and drops off the produce on bike trailers to a homeless shelter, a centre for destitute asylum seekers and the Salvation Army in south Manchester. Inspired by groups such as ‘Grow Sheffield’ which highlights the amount of food waste that occurs in an urban environment, the volunteers at Abundance Manchester also say their work illustrates the ways that environmental groups can help with social issues such as homelessness.

“It’s such a simple idea, you take fruit from people who don’t want or need it and then you give it to people who do. Most people can’t believe it hasn’t been done sooner – everyone benefits,” beams Nicola Scott, a volunteer at Abundance Manchester. Passionate about growing food locally and organically, Nicola says that what drew her to Abundance was a realisation of the amount of food waste that occurs in people’s gardens: “People seem to just inherit these fruit trees or buy houses with existing trees and just don’t know what do with them…There are some people who really care about their trees but then you do get people who still go out and buy apples from their local supermarket even though they have an amazing apple tree growing in their backyard!”

Tackling Food Waste In The City

Once the organisation was set up, the core members set about tackling this issue of waste by advertising their project and asking people who had a glut of produce to contact them so that they could collect the extra fruit. Gradually, they built up a list of available fruit trees and so they started working on developing links with local charities and organisations who could make use of their harvest. “We had one volunteer at the time who worked with an asylum seeker project called The Boaz Trust – they help destitute asylum seekers who have no recourse to any funds at all, either because their asylum application has been rejected and they are going through the appeals process or they have just newly arrived in the UK. It was decided that they would be the key recipient.”

Since then, Abundance Manchester has worked with projects such as the Cornerstone in Hulme which helps homeless people, the Safestop Hostel which assists young homeless women as well as the Salvation Army. They have built up an e-list of 300 volunteers offering to pick fruit during the harvest season – which runs from late July to the end of October – and also to make chutneys and cook fruit pies for those organisations without a kitchen. As they rely on bike trailers to transport their goods, the projects focuses on small area in south Manchester which covers Didsbury, Chorlton, Withington, Whalley Range and Ladybarn. Despite this limitation, they often struggle with the logistics of carrying the abundant fruit they pick, “Sometimes we have so much we have to drop off the first lot at our base and come back for the rest- it’s amazing how much free food is available even in inner-city neighbourhoods,” says Nicola

‘It Doesn’t Look Like That At The Supermarket!’

It seems that hundreds of fruit trees across the city go unpicked because people think it’s not safe to eat fruit from the trees or they are not sure who the trees belong to. “People are so disassociated from where our food comes from that when the fruit has got blemishes – which are completely natural – they think well it mustn’t be safe to eat,” explains Nicola. “It’s a shame really, we’ve become so detached from our food, we expect it to be all shiny like it comes from the supermarket.”

The reluctance of people to pick from public trees is also an issue which Nicola thinks could be easily resolved with a couple of signs encouraging people to take the fruit at the time of harvest. “Last summer we found that there were loads of cherry trees in Moss Side, literally ten metres away from Princess Parkway and so we started picking the cherries in late June. We got loads of people coming out of their houses saying ‘What are you doing? ‘These are public trees, are you allowed to pick them?’ and we were like ‘Yeah, of course’ and eventually there were loads of people coming out to pick the trees.”

Growing With Asylum Seekers

As well as connecting people with the food available on their neighbourhoods, Abundance Manchester has also helped raise awareness of social issues such as homelessness and immigration amongst people who wouldn’t normally engage with such matters. “Working with Abundance meant that I got to find out more about asylum seekers through our workshops and they taught me stuff like how in Zimbabwe they use the young leaves of courgettes as spinach leaves,” says Nicola. “So you get all these cultural exchanges and I learnt about issues I normally wouldn’t be involved in.”

Nicola adds the fruit donors, who open their gardens to Abundance volunteers, also make links with socially marginalised people such as refugees and homeless people. “When we go to the richer areas of Manchester where we collect fruit, it’s very unlikely that these people will be in contact with destitute asylum seekers and I think sharing the food is a way for them to give and help other people.” Indeed, Nicola says that what Abundance Manchester wants to see in the future are more people and organisations with fruit trees taking their own initiative to link up to local groups and charities who could put the food to good use. “For example, the Hulme garden centre asked whether we would take their excess fruit but then we realised that there was a community café round the corner from them, so it made a lot more sense for them to just get together and work out a way to share the produce,” explains Nicola.

Sharing Food and Becoming Sustainable

In January 2009, Abundance Manchester acquired an allotment in West Didsbury which its now uses as a base to store fruit and as a drop-off point for those wanting to donate a glut in fruit or vegetables from their own allotments. The allotment also means that they can now host workshops encouraging locals to grow food in their own homes and gardens with limited resources, space and time. “I think with food price hikes as a result of climate change, we’re going to need to know how to be more self-sufficient and growing your own is a simple way to live more sustainably,” says Nicola. “It may not be for everyone, I understand that completely, but I think there are things that everyone can do like growing salad leaves and herbs in a container on their balcony.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa