Mary: tackling poverty via radio, art and a newfound resolve

Change comes, not from looking and seeing - but from taking action. And Mary has certainly done lots of that.

Mary Passeri stands smiling in front of some of her paintings
Mary Passeri, at her art studio in York. Photo by David Harrison.

Are you ready?…

In the past eight years, Mary has spent time:

  • tackling social isolation
  • cooking and sharing food
  • improving coordination between food banks
  • helping journalists improve media coverage of poverty
  • speaking up about injustice
  • highlighting ways to improve support for carers
  • working to make her own city better
  • helping politicians understand what went wrong with food systems during the pandemic
  • listening widely to people on low incomes
  • sharing her own wisdom and first-hand insights
  • talking to people in poverty, to politicians, to journalists, to researchers, to church leaders and to an Archbishop
  • working with others to carry on addressing injustice

Briefly, among all of that, she paused for a week of vital and rewarding rest and reflection with fellow activists on the Scottish island of Iona… and came back reenergised more than ever.

People at the 2022 pilgrimage gathering on Iona.

Mary: a sense of peace and purpose

“When I was in Iona, I just got the feeling I was around really decent human beings.

“It can be really lonely and isolating to speak up on issues, you can feel like you’re yapping away. Being on Iona, and meeting people face to face, sharing a laugh together and learning from each other’s ideas and mistakes, was amazing.

“I came back and it had quite a lasting effect on me. For me, it brought peace and purpose. I felt at ease and thought: ‘You know what… maybe we can do something more’.”

Mary: speaking up matters

Mary Passeri & Sydnie Corley sit in a small radio studio, speaking into microphones.
Mary (left) and friend Sydnie Corley, speaking up on BBC 5 Live, about the solutions to poverty.

Mary is now part of the national Speaking Truth To Power programme, in partnership with Church Action on Poverty, working with others around the UK on a national panel to address big issues.

“I wanted to get into the national stuff with Church Action on Poverty because it had a real focus but was still flexible. It didn’t over-promise, but has real targets.

“I took part in the Food Experiences During Covid-19 project, and I loved that. I found it really interesting, and because it was so wide, I was talking to people in Cornwall and Newcastle and hearing people encountering very similar issues in all these different places.

“Having done that, I then wanted to do the Speaking Truth To Power work as well. I saw, more than ever, the need for people to be heard. It’s too easy to discount voices. I realise I have done it myself, and not always listened to everyone equally, and sometimes have to force myself to listen better, but it’s important.

Mary: speak up in the church

A shot of people around a large table, including the Archbishop of York
Mary (back right in the picture below) was one of the people who took part in the roundtable on tackling poverty, with the Archbishop of York in 2022.
A posed group shot on the steps of Bishopthorpe Palace, of event attendees

“Voices of people in poverty need to reach people in power. I am not a church person, and don’t like a lot of churches, but the churches have a wide network and a nationwide voice, and I like where churches have put their head above the parapet and said things that need to be said. I took part in a regional roundtable event with the Archbishop of York last year, and it was excellent, as people were heard.

“My health and my care demands mean I cannot do full-time employed work, or as much work as I used to – but I can do this, and I feel if you can contribute, you should. Church Action on Poverty is about pragmatic responses. It’s looking to resolve things, not just looking and seeing them. It supports people to speak up and articulate what you are feeling.

“When I was working professionally, I was used to running departments and being heard, but after I became ill, after my strokes, I lost all confidence. The sense of being able to use my voice, and being heard, was gone – but through being part of this work with Church Action on Poverty, I will not let that happen again.

“Every time I put my head above the parapet, I got shot down – but now I have confidence again. I have gained a lot by being part of this work, raising awareness of poverty and what it does.

Mary: speak up with young people

“There are issues I hope we can highlight through the Speaking Truth To Power work. My generation is largely okay, but a lot needs to be done to support people with caring responsibilities. Caring allowance is not enough and there is not enough support.

“And we also need to do more to create opportunities for young people. We are at risk of alienating our young people and we need to create more opportunities. Sometimes around here I see what I call “30-year-old teenagers” – people who have not been supported and who have been denied opportunities when they were younger that could make a difference.

“I also think that everything that comes through Parliament now is about scapegoating. They talk about getting people into work, but don’t recognise that some people cannot. And everything carries a warning: “Do this…. Or else.” We need to engage people.

Mary: speak up creatively

Sydnie Corley and Mary Passeri with some of their art, including pictures, decorated tote bags and wall decorations
Above and below: Mary (right) and Sydnie, at their old art studio and food hub in York. The friends are both talented artists and passionate social justice activists. Photos by David Harrison.
York artists Sydnie Corley and Mary Passeri, who run the York Food Justice Alliance at SPARK in Piccadilly, York. Picture by David Harrison.

Mary’s recent years of activism began around 2015 really, through a café called Chill In The Community, near her home in Acomb in west York.

“We had a table with surplus supermarket food that people could take, and the idea was that the free groceries might help people to afford to have a coffee and to be in the company of other people, so it was tackling social isolation – and we didn’t let people go without, so it was very welcoming.

“After that, I started working with the York “Food Not Bombs” group, cooking and delivering food, supporting people who were homeless. Soon after that, York Food Poverty Alliance was set up, and I got really involved in that, as it meant all the York food banks started talking to each other more. We were also running a food unit in the city centre, where people could access food without stigma.

“After a while, it became York Food Justice Alliance, and I became co-chair with Sydney, and we said if it was about justice, then we needed to have an activist element, rather than just discussing how to hand out food. That didn’t sit well with everyone, but we felt it had to happen.”

Mary: speak up in the media

Gavin Aitchison, Martin Green, Sydnie Corley and Mary Passeri at an NUJ meeting in London
Mary Passeri, right, during an event in London to discuss ethical media reporting of poverty

In 2018/19, Mary took part in a York Community Reporters project, where several women made smartphone videos, explaining and showing the realities of food poverty locally. 

The film was shown at a public event in York, and soon afterwards Mary and Sydnie featured on the national BBC 6 O’Clock News, Radio 5 Live and on BBC Radio York, talking about hunger in the city, and the particular challenges caused by the low level of carers’ allowance.

She also worked with the NUJ, journalists and other campaign groups, to help produce new guidelines for reporting on poverty.

Most recently, Mary has used her artistic skills to lead creative sessions among the Speaking Truth To Power groups, encouraging people to visually capture the nature of poverty and solutions. 

Mary Passeri sitting at a table, being filmed by a TV camera crew.
Mary Passeri is interviewed for BBC News in 2020.

Mary says: “I like working with Church Action on Poverty, because everything is transparent. They never make promises they can’t keep, or say we’ll definitely achieve what we want to – they say how they will take things forward, and that they will try to achieve our aims, which is all we can keep doing.”

Speaking Truth To Power

Mary is part of the Speaking Truth To Power national panel. You can learn more about two more of the participants below, and look out for more insights over the coming months.


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