Ours! Activist-driven community work: the story of Govanhill Baths – an interview with Fatima Uygun

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Fatima Uygun Govanhill Baths Community Trust, UK

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Fatima Uygun works with the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, a Glasgow-based organisation that has been at the heart of some of the most effective community campaigns in Scotland over more than two decades. On behalf of Critical and Radical Social Work, Iain Ferguson interviewed Fatima about the trust’s activities and what she sees as the essence of good community work practice.

Abstract

Fatima Uygun works with the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, a Glasgow-based organisation that has been at the heart of some of the most effective community campaigns in Scotland over more than two decades. On behalf of Critical and Radical Social Work, Iain Ferguson interviewed Fatima about the trust’s activities and what she sees as the essence of good community work practice.

CRSW: Could we begin with you telling me what your current role is within the organisation?

Fatima Uygun (FU): My current role is trust manager, so I’m sort of the CEO [chief executive officer] or overall manager of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust.

CRSW: Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you became involved in community work and community action?

FU: Sure, well, I’ve been a socialist for a very long time. My parents were Labour Party people in Australia, so I was raised with the understanding that ordinary people have to work together, essentially, to make a better world for ourselves. Immigrants, like my family, in Australia suffered quite a lot of racism and Islamophobia, so in terms of being a socialist and an anti-racist activist, my early years were pretty much informed by that. When I migrated to Britain, I moved to an area which was predominately multicultural. I actually searched for this area because I wanted to be comfortable and, in particular, to live in an area that had people like me it. Very soon after moving into the area, a campaign to save a much-loved community facility – Govanhill Public Baths – started. Since then, I’ve been very much an anti-racist activist, as well as a community activist, trying to save our facilities and services from closure.

CRSW: Did you train in community work, or is it something you’ve learned through experience?

FU: No, I trained as an artist. I think everyone in Scotland, by the sound of it, went to art school at one time or another [laughs]. I went to art school wanting to be an artist. I did a bit of community art, but it was really my socialist background that motivated me. I used to use the baths. I used to use a lot of the facilities that ended up being threatened with closure under the New Labour government [1997]. It was really that which got me active, rather than the community work per se.

CRSW: You mentioned the very multicultural area you work in. Could you say just a little bit about Govanhill?

FU: Govanhill has been called the Ellis Island of Scotland, meaning many of the immigrants who come to Scotland tend to gravitate towards here. It has traditionally been an area which welcomed immigrants. We’re very close to the Gorbals area of Glasgow, which is different today, but the Gorbals one hundred years ago would have been very similar to Govanhill now – Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, Irish immigrants coming here to look for work, a whole range of people, Italians and so on, who lived predominantly in the Gorbals but also in Govanhill. The two areas have always attracted immigrants for over a hundred years, for a number of reasons. One, obviously, is that as an immigrant, you tend to go places where you know there are people like yourself, but it also had to do with the fact there was very little social housing in Govanhill. Private landlords dominated the area. This meant you could have two, three, four families sharing a house, with a landlord turning a blind eye, to cut costs. Today, it is one of the most diverse areas in Britain, outside of London. There are almost 60 languages spoken by over 40 nationalities in what is a very small space. It is one of the most congested areas in the whole of Western Europe. More people live within one square mile of Govanhill than in any other area in the UK; it’s quite astounding. It is also the second-largest Muslim community in Scotland. You also only have to walk around to see churches, mosques, synagogues here – the history of that immigration.

It is very different to what you would see, say, in other parts of Scotland. Quite a unique place and also incredibly poor. Poor, for a couple of reasons. Govanhill was surrounded by a mass industry at one period of time, which attracted labourers from across Ireland, Europe and beyond. It was a very poor area then – as you know, the working class didn’t always benefit from the booming industry nearby. Rents were kept relatively low for what was essentially badly maintained slums. It never had the potential to be gentrified in any way. Certainly, there’s never been investment in housing, with social housing struggling to get a foothold in the area because of private landlords. Just a few years ago, the Scottish government did have to step in and start getting rid of some of the slum landlords and forcing them to actually sell their properties because they were in such bad condition. This has allowed the Govanhill Housing Association to come in and start renovating whole streets. If you walk through Govanhill, you’ll see loads of building work going on, and it’s been great. The only problem is that the social housing here is generally at mid-market rent, which means people are really struggling to pay the rent, as rents are essentially set by the private sector. Also, our housing association is one of the most expensive in the whole of Scotland. There is currently a campaign by groups like Living Rent and others to try to reduce that. So, along with the poverty comes the struggle against that poverty and injustice. It’s quite an active area in terms of people fighting for their rights but also feeling supported so that they can do that as well. There’s a lot of grass-roots organisations, from LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] rights, right through to housing struggles, an almost unspoken support network at your door step. You don’t have to go far to find someone or an organised group who can support you. Many of the grass-roots campaigns also tend to support one another.

CRSW: You’ve already raised a lot of issues, some of which we’ll come back to later, but I think there was one particular issue that led to the creation of the trust in Govanhill, and that was around the closure of Govanhill swimming pool. Can you say a little bit about that?

FU: It was 20 years ago last month – time flies, doesn’t it! I used to use the pool when I moved here; it was beautiful, an Edwardian swimming baths, but what was particularly special about this building was that anyone in the community could use it and feel like it was designed to serve them. What I mean by that is that as a Turkish woman, having a Turkish baths by your door was just fantastic. I can’t swim – I’ll put my hand up to that – but I used to go there on women’s nights, which was just for women, and staffed by. It was great. Muslim women, Jewish women, women with body issues, women who just wanted to be in a safe environment could turn up and feel quite welcomed there. I used it for socialising, and then we found out it was going to close, which was pretty underhanded, as the council didn’t consult anyone. We were pretty outraged; we thought the building belonged to us. It had been part of our community for over 100 years and the thought of it closing was unacceptable. We initially got news from the janitor and the pool attendants, who all lived locally – most of the staff in these buildings tends to live locally. They told us that they’d been told that they would have to be moved to another facility.

I just want to talk to you a bit more about the make-up of the users of the building, which gives you a bit of an insight as to why these buildings are so important. I’ll give you the example of ‘men’s nights’. Just as we had women’s nights, we had men’s nights. We had this wonderful situation where gay men – openly gay men – Muslim men, Jewish men and other men would all share a sauna together. They were there to use the facility. They had negotiated their own space, as you do in these environments and congested working-class communities. It doesn’t matter what you think of each other; at that moment, you all know that the facility is important to you. We had these situations all the time. Where people from different walks of life made it their home. There was everything, from illegal home brewing going on with the workers, Asian women’s self-help groups, as well as elderly folk and kids learning to swim for the first time. The facility also added to the social cohesion of the area because there aren’t opportunities for people who don’t necessarily mix in the same social circles to meet. Glasgow’s not great for socialising outdoors for most of the year because it’s cold, so parks and facilities like this are really, really important for ordinary people to meet one another. You might not necessarily talk, but at least you see Muslim women and you see Roma kids in a close environment. It was also a very safe place. You gave your kid a towel and you could send them to the swimming baths, and you knew they were safe because you knew the janitor or you knew the attendants. This relationship with the community had been going on for a hundred years. Your granny went there, your mum went there and so on. So, it served a huge role in the community, and people absolutely loved it; they loved the facilities.

But without any consultation, the council just said, “We’re going to shut this place”, and the people who instigated the campaign, who were parents of the local swimming club, said a collective, “No”. Kingston Swimming Club, who had been there for decades, were told to look for other premises. The club had 200 children on average a week using the facility. They decided to hold a meeting at Billy McNeill’s pub – he’s a Celtic Football Club legend – again, you can see the Irish immigrant connection there. This is important: all the businesses locally relied on the swimming baths in one way or another. You know, you dropped your kids off, you went to the pub to have a pint, or you went and got a newspaper and waited for them in a café, or afterwards you went and got a takeaway. The whole community benefited from some of these large buildings and services. Billy McNeill was equally outraged, saying, “Absolutely, come to my pub and we’ll stop the closure.” This was his community as much as anyone else’s. The meeting was massive. The parents of the Kingston Swimming Club led the meeting, but it was apparent from the meeting that there were a few socialists in the audience who made suggestions about how we could take this further. It’s really interesting, at key moments in our campaign, the role socialists played. We argued very early on that what we needed was a petition: we needed to inform and unite the community as quickly as possible to fight this, as well as express our anger as clearly as possible. We got 30,000 signatures – this was before the Internet; it was by hand. Given that the population of Govanhill is only 15,000, 30,000 signatures was quite an achievement. Everyone had petitions, school kids and teachers, local shops, etc, people were just desperate to do something, to play their part. We then argued that we needed regular meetings to make sure everyone was on board, open meetings that anyone could attend. People like myself argued that what we needed was to get people active into areas where they felt comfortable and they knew they could do something. So, for those who were a bit braver, we had a ‘direct action group’. We had people who were really concerned about what the closure meant for the health and well-being of people living locally, but also future generations, so there was a group set up to look at that, to research the impact on health, and they did quite a wonderful study on it. There was another group who were actively trying to lobby the politicians, and we had a media group to see what we could do in terms of publicity. All of which was great; it was inclusive because you could either come to the full meeting or go to a subgroup. We were really keen that every single person within the community found a role to play. We also had a children’s committee because there were kids – I don’t know if you know, but as soon as you have a picket line in a community, the kids just gravitate to it, it’s exciting for them – so we had a children’s committee which allowed young people to be active.

We also wanted to ensure that people who don’t always get a voice had a voice, and so it was really important that the Asian community were involved. The building meant a lot to them in different ways. All the other swimming baths were like glass fishbowls: women or anyone swimming, you could be seen from outside. There was little privacy. Our baths had served generations of Muslim women and men, and would continue to be important to them, and we wanted to make that clear. Not consulting with the community meant they hadn’t taken notice of what it meant to people who had additional access needs, or who had particular religious requirements. All in all, it was a racist decision to close this building because no other buildings served that purpose. It left all sections of our community unable to go elsewhere. The Asian community were able to galvanise their own community into the campaign. Another thing I think is really important is that, very early, socialists like myself were arguing to escalate the campaign: we argued for an occupation of the building. This was a community which had socialist Sunday schools, Irish republicans, a history of socialist movements, a strong Labour tradition. So, people knew about these things; they knew that’s the sort of thing you did. We argued for an occupation, but we also argued for a picket because an occupation’s nothing if you can’t also protect the people inside. We had a 24-hour picket alongside our occupation. We were able to do all this because we made sure the workers in the building were also involved in the campaign. The council had said they were going to close the building on 23rd March, but the workers who didn’t want the building closed told us, “The Council plan to close it a week early.” When we learned this, the direct action group met and the mothers of the Kingston Swimming Club children decided that they were going to chain themselves to the sun loungers on the last day, which is what they did. It didn’t occur to us that the police could just lift the sun loungers along with the women and carry them out of the building! But of course, they didn’t do that. The police thought we’d just last the night, but we lasted 141 days – the longest occupation in British history of a civic building. This was a big community effort, united, diverse and determined, and, yes, 20 years later, we’re still here. We won.

CRSW: That’s an incredible feat of organisation which clearly has relevance for a lot of campaigns that are currently going on in Glasgow and elsewhere against closure, and we can talk a little bit about that later. Can I just ask, just as a matter of interest, was there any professional involvement in this at all from community workers, from other community organisations in the area, or was it entirely done by local actors and local volunteers?

FU: Entirely done by local people. There were community workers involved, but they weren’t there in an official capacity, they were involved as community activists in their own time. It was individuals, it was students, it was pensioners, local business, users of the building and those who had previously used the building, but no professional organisations that I can think of.

CRSW: It’s an interesting contrast because, actually, about 20, 30 years before in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, there was a huge campaign around anti-dampness, around houses that were very, very damp, in which local community workers were very heavily involved and stood on the picket lines.

FU: They were legends.

CRSW: It’s a reflection of how community work has shifted in a sense that now, for all sorts of reasons, professional workers are a lot less likely to be involved in campaigns and campaigns like this.

FU: Funny you should mention that because we’ve been very conscious that we have been filling that gap as an organisation. What makes Govanhill Baths Community Trust different is that we’re an activist-based organisation. We work with community groups in terms of providing solidarity, resources and capacity so that they can lead their campaigns and make them a success. Everything we do, whether it’s delivering well-being workshops or yoga, right through to working on anti-racist festivals, we make sure that it’s activist driven, that it’s about recognising that we as a community can actively change society. That we’re not passive or voiceless. It is very obvious that our communities need community workers. It’s very obvious that we need actual social workers; it’s just that that culture and services are no longer there. So, we’re sort of making that happen with very little resources. There is a huge need for community workers who are paid.

CRSW: Absolutely. It seems that much of the work that is being done by the Govanhill Baths Community Trust is very similar to a radical community work tradition that existed previously but has now disappeared. Before we leave the baths campaign, could you say just a little bit about what the outcome of that campaign was, and then we can come on to talk about the kind of activities that you’re involved in now?

FU: The Govanhill Baths Community Trust moved from being a campaigning organisation called ‘Save our Baths – Govanhill Against Closure’, to becoming Govanhill Baths Community Trust in 2004. We had to do that for a number of reasons. We had become a charity in order to actually have a legal say on the future of the building. We established a ‘Friends of Govanhill Baths’; we got the building listed and onto the Buildings at Risk register. These were things we had to do to make sure we saved the building from destruction – because the occupation didn’t win; they took the building off us. To get back into the building, we had to set ourselves up as the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, a legal entity. We established an office straight opposite the Baths, called ‘The Centre for Community Practice’; the title, I think, is a wee nod to radical social work. It’s taken us 22 years to raise £10.2 million to reopen that building. Most of that is to fix the damp and weather ingress during that time. We haven’t saved all the building, so the big pool, the jewel in the crown in many ways, is going to be left for the next stage because we couldn’t raise the additional million and a half to do that.

It wasn’t our intention to run the building. We fought for over a decade for the council to take it back in-house. In the end, we had no choice but to take ownership, but in that time, the aspirations for that building completely outgrew what we initially fought for. Initially, we just wanted to go and have a swim, a sauna, we wanted to do yoga, we wanted to do all the lovely things that we just took for granted we would always have. During closure, the community’s demands, aspirations and needs have grown. The building is now a focus for delivering a diverse range of social, health and well-being activities. There’s a lot of issues around welfare, mental health, food poverty and so on, so this building is going to be more than just a swimming pool; it’s going to be a real, genuine hub for grass-roots groups to enable them to deliver the activities and services the community needs. I don’t like the term ‘regeneration’, for a number of reasons. However, for want of a better word, our activities have helped transform the area. We have been heavily involved in a lot of campaigns to improve services, greenspaces and so on, but also campaigns to fight government cuts that have affected the area. We have set up a People’s Pantry to provide a more dignified response to food poverty. We work with local schools to fix their playgrounds up with art projects. We run an annual anti-racist festival to combat racism, which is now the biggest in Scotland. And the building itself is so important to the wider community; it’s not just bricks and mortar. We started off as a community campaign to save the building, and the community have kept fighting for more. Ninety per cent of the work we do at the moment is around community regeneration or community activism. We’re helping lots of groups who are fighting cuts and closures locally, as well as in the wider Glasgow area.

CRSW: Final question. On the basis of the experience of the past 20 years, what do you see as the key elements of effective community campaigning?

FU: God, that’s a hard one. I think people have written books on this, haven’t they? Well, from my experience, no campaign will succeed if you don’t make it as bold as possible and inclusive as possible and welcoming as possible. Saying that, you also have to have ways to ensure that there’s no racism, there’s no division, there’s no bigotry because you can’t have unity if people are going to think other people are inferior or treat them in a racist or homophobic way. An example of this is from day one of our picket line: we put up a poster that said, ‘No homophobia, No sexism, No Racism’, but also, ‘No drugs, No drinking’. We wanted everyone to know we were serious. We have a very complex community, with lots of issues that come with poverty, just like everywhere in the world, but I think having principled positions on unity is really important, but also making sure that we actively work hard for that unity. So, keep it inclusive, broad as possible, welcoming and, finally, militant. You would be surprised how militant people can be; give them the opportunity and they go for it. When people realise they’ve got a bit of power – ‘If we got together, we can actually stand up to these people’ – it can be quite infectious. We saw that on the picket line. That picket line became a hub of people, people being creative and drawing, give the kids some chalk and they would do an art work, people were making banners, reading poetry, singing songs. Every Wednesday, we had people singing to keep the people occupying the building knowing they weren’t isolated. The people occupying the building were well cared for: local businesses were giving us food, people gave us money, unions gave us money. Now, bear in mind this is 20 years ago, we were raising £50 a day in donations, people were honking their car horns as they passed in their cars and throwing change into our buckets. Money meant we could organise better, we had walkie talkies, better picket shelters, got T-shirts printed, etc. Another key element, I suppose, is to recognise that everyone in our community can contribute something, no matter how small, and that our victory would benefit others. The building, the community was, ‘Ours!’. That term has stayed with us for 20 years. It’s our motto. Ultimately, you can’t build something with just leaders; you need grass-roots activism. Anyway, there you go. ‘United We Will Swim!’

Acknowledgements

With thanks to TP Transcription Limited, who transcribed this interview.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

Fatima Uygun Govanhill Baths Community Trust, UK

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