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What I’ve learnt as an anti-poverty activist

When dozens of people are talking at once, how can you make yourself heard?

When you speak to people in positions of great power, how do you retain your own?

Penny Walters outside Byker Community Association

In this month’s Dignity, Agency, Power story, Penny Walters from Newcastle addresses these questions.

In this blog, Penny talks about her own experiences of campaigning for food justice. She also shares some of the lessons she has learnt along the way. And she recaps on what it is she’s hoping to achieve.

Penny Walters outside Byker Community Association

What do we mean by agency?

Put simply, agency is the essential autonomy and ability of each individual to say and do what they believe in, and to do what it is they want to do.

Social justice movements are made up of countless people, with different experiences and perspectives. Activists, supporters, charities, professionals, politicians and more all come together at times – and often all have a view on what should be done.

At Church Action on Poverty, we believe people with personal experience of poverty should be heard above all others. We have always worked closely with people, and we always aspire to ensure campaigns and media work are led and directed by people who have lived the issues.

Penny Walters at Byker Community Association

Penny's work

In the past few years, Penny has been one of the people with whom we have worked most closely.

She and her daughter Heather have been part of the Food Power Newcastle group. They’ve been interviewed on Channel 4 News. They’ve spoken to MPs and a committee of the House of Lords. They’ve travelled to America to share their insights with international organisations. And they’ve frequently spoken up about the challenges in their community, with a view to making things better – and all while volunteering in local food projects as well.

In a previous blog in 2019, Penny said: “When we went to the End Hunger UK conference in 2018, we just expected to turn up for the conference and talk to some people, and that would be it. I did not expect all the things it would lead to but it has been very exciting and I am pleased with what we have achieved, and certainly there is more yet to come.”

Penny, Cath and Heather are interviewed for Channel 4 News.
Penny, Heather and Cath are interviewed by in 2018 by Channel 4 News, at the End Hunger UK conference

5 tips for aspiring activists

Two years on, Penny shares a few tips she has learnt from campaigning, which others might find useful:

  1. “Speak up. Shout loudest. It’s the only way to be heard. People in power don’t always want to listen, or they are used to listening to each other, or they have their own ideas. You need to make yourself heard. I’ve always had views but for a long time I did not voice them. Now I do.”
  2. “Have someone fight your corner. It can be difficult or daunting doing a lot of things. If you have someone who stands up with you, it makes all the difference. So for instance, Ben at Church Action on Poverty is very good at doing that when he’s working on anything with me. People working with charities should make sure there’s someone they can count on.”
  3. “Don’t think you can’t do it. Inside you sometimes feel daunted, but if you know deep down you can do something, then do it, and you’ll be glad you did. You can do this if you have the will and support. But, at the same time…
  4. Do what you want to do. Make sure you say no if something doesn’t feel right, and make sure you can genuinely give your ideas, so you’re not just going along with what other people are saying.”
  5. Take it step by step. The first thing I did was go to an End Hunger conference and do a TV interview, and from there a lot of other things have happened. Do what you are able to do now, and then you can do a bit more and a bit more.”
Penny Walters at Byker Community Association

How Penny got started

Penny and Heather became involved in Food Power through the Byker Community Trust, a housing association in their neighbourhood, when they worked together on a community survey. They met other campaigners at the 2018 End Hunger UK conference and stepped up their efforts.

Penny says the Food Power experience has been powerful for her personally, and says she is now motivated to speak for those who are rarely heard by the country’s decision makers.

2021 stories: Dignity, Agency, Power

The May page of the 2021 Dignity, Agency, Power calendar

This blog is the latest in our Dignity, Agency, Power series. Each story relates to the photo on that month’s page of our 2021 calendar. All photos on this page are by Madeleine Penfold. See other stories below.

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Inside Your Local Pantry in Peckham.

The compassion in these neighbourhood pantries is fantastic!