Stephanie Leonard: community organiser

22 Apr

Everyone has a story. Stephanie Leonard hopes to turn 50 young people into community organisers. Here’s how she’s doing it in Islington and Camden by empowering first-, second- and third-generation migrants’ knowledge of blood, sweat and tears. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Stephanie with

Stephanie Leonard with R0jer at an awareness raising at Elephant & Castle collecting migrants’ stories for CitizensUK’s Blood, Sweat & Tears campaign – a new movement of people with global roots giving to Britain.

20150421_190944We meet in a sweet café by Highbury & Islington tube, Sawyer & Grays, on the same day that Russell Brand is announcing his new plan to revolutionise the youth – a Hackney café called Trew Era, notable for it’s good value coffee (£1.80) and witty misspelling of barista as barrister, which is staffed by recovering addicts.

Stephanie Leonard may not have Russell Brand’s beard and beanie but she is as good as Brand at talking change, especially since taking up CitizensUK’s challenge to organise Islington and Camden young people back in January 2015.

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“I know Islington well,” says Stephanie, 25, who grew up in London. “I worked in the post office in Farringdon sorting postcards families sent at Christmas. I’d get up at 5am to get there and leave to go home when it was dark too. I listened to my i-pod all day shuffling postcards. Then I got promoted and was allowed to put the cards into pigeonholes! I also worked at Waitrose in Angel, but that was a disaster. I didn’t like being behind the till or having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. I’ve also helped manage a guest house in nearby Stoke Newington.”

With her in depth knowledge of Islington plus an MA in Social Development Practice it’s no surprise that Stephanie – who has Irish roots – clearly loves finding ways to energise first, second and third generation migrants to the UK (aged between 16 and 30) by introducing them to CitizensUK’s Blood, Sweat & Tears campaign. This campaign aims to get people talking about their families’ experiences of migration.

If it’s successful it should see more young people from BME backgrounds registering to vote; rising numbers of BME organ and blood donors and help tackle the problems many new migrants face – such as being held for months in detention centres and delays to spousal visas. “One man I know found it took nine years to get his wife and child over,” says Stephanie. It’s clear she’s passionate about each strand of the Blood, Sweat & Tears campaign – and talks me through it carefully, pointing out that it was a phrase Winston Churchill used to rally the UK during World War Two.

Rosa

Blood Sweat & Tears campaigner Rosa (in red) asks Rebecca (wearing a scarf) for her migrant story at a recent Elephant & Castle event.

Way to go
“My job is to develop confident young migrants who are proud of being a migrant, who can speak in public and who can negotiate with politicians,” explains Stephanie.

Sometimes she is invited into sixth forms – a recent packed meeting at St Aloysius School has led to 90 students choosing to register to vote. “They seemed sceptical at first, but through games and role play we soon got them talking,” laughs Stephanie. During that game the students discussed challenging topics including ‘do you believe in capital punishment?’, “Should the NHS be privatised?” and “Do you agree with stronger controls on migration?”.

xx

I am a migrant will you hug me? Salvatori offering hug-a-migrant opportunities to help raise awareness for CitizensUK campaign, Blood, Sweat & Tears.

A few days later she was down at the soon-to-be-redeveloped Elephant & Castle shopping centre with some of the young leaders – Rosa, Salvatori, Maria and Keren – who were brave enough to highlight the Blood, Sweat & Tears Campaign by running a unique stall, “I’m a migrant, please hug me” (see photo above).

Pak's on Stroud Green Road has four shops - this one specialises in wigs.

Pak’s on Stroud Green Road has four shops – this one specialises in wigs.

Places Stephanie Leonard likes in Islington
“I’m a Londoner to the bone. It’s my home! I grew up in Edmonton. Then when I was 16 I moved to Bow Road in East London. I live on the Stoke Newington – Dalston border now.”

“I went to school in Camden. My best friend lived on an estate off Essex Road so I spent my teenage years on Upper Street trying to get into bars. We always wanted to go to Slim Jims, 112 Upper Street, N1.”

“I still like to sit outside a café on Upper Street and play chess with my brother.”

“I love the multi-culturalisation of Finsbury Park. And the hair shops are amazing – one of my friends loves dressing in drag so got all his wigs in Pak’s on Stroud Green Road.”

“Islington has a lovely mix. You have very wealthy people on Upper Street and then around Finsbury Park it is very different.”

20150327_160906 (1)Next big opportunity is in April, which will see her proteges turn up at election hustings at City & Islington Sixth Form to quiz prospective parliamentary candidates about migration and employment.

“They are really looking forward to it,” says Stephanie who is well aware that being a community organiser can be slow – and can play second fiddle in some months to revision and exam schedules. But it’s clear she knows this is as much a job as a fantastic privilege developing young people’s skills and helping them hone their ability to find the right person to talk to and then put their point across with conviction and good sense. All power to those trainees.

  • In Islington CitizensUK http://www.citizensuk.org/ works with St Melitus Church; St Lukes, Holloway; Congolese Catholic Chaplaincy, Muslim Welfare House, St Mary Magdalene Academy, St Mary Moorefield & St Joseph’s Church, City & Islington College, Central Foundation Boys’ School; Tollington Parish; City University Students’ Union.
  • Info about CitizensUK North London is here http://www.citizensuk.org/north_london
  • Be a volunteer, or just show support. Find CitizensUK twitter and facebook links at http://www.citizensuk.org/spread_the_word
  • Even if you are too late to vote in the 7 May 2015 election, it’s easy to register to vote for the next election opportunity, see how at http://www.citizensuk.org/register_to_vote

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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