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This blog by Anna Garlands at Huddlecraft, was originally posted on Medium in May 2024.

In Spring 2023, Birmingham’s Economic Justice Action (EJA) Network was initiated, with the core aim of bringing folks in the city together to tackle the root causes of economic injustice. In its pilot phase, the Network organisers — Barrow Cadbury Trust, the EJA Advisory Group and Huddlecraft — gathered individuals from impacted communities, community and campaign groups, and civil society organisations to pull focus on the economic systems that perpetuate and amplify inequality in the city.

When we talk about the economy we are referring to complex and interdependent systems related to resources; money, buildings, land, food, energy, people’s time. The economy is about how these resources are used for different purposes, and how decisions about distribution of those resources are made.

The economy is for everyone. We are all part of the economy, and therefore we have a right to input into how it works. Furthermore, we should be able to challenge those in power on their economic choices and values.

“Now I feel a lot more clear on the link between the economy and justice. Seeing how it all interacts has been so helpful. These meetings have taken away some of the fear around the word economics.” Network member

The story so far

The Network meetings began in August 2023, and the Network membership has been steadily growing and gathering on a bi-monthly basis. The key objectives of the Network meetings have been to:

  • connect with and relate to one another as learners and change-makers, reducing isolation and creating a sense of community in what are increasingly challenging times;
  • learn about economic justice through various angles of approach, including gender equality, racial justice and alternative economic models;
  • plot and showcase where positive momentum currently exists in Birmingham, and the organisations, projects and campaigns that are driving change;
  • share opportunities to engage with local action, campaigns, training and events that seek to build a more economically just city.

“The training opportunities that have arisen through being here are amazing. The Network has given me confidence to have an opinion and a platform. I don’t come from an organisation, I’m just here and I feel valued in this space.” Network member

Over the course of eight months a total of 96 people have engaged with the Network, and we have gathered together six times.

Each meeting has adopted a lens with which to examine the different intersections of economic justice. We are grateful to the speakers who have presented research, reports and data related to the various lenses, workshopping key themes, and inviting the group to apply ideas and learning to the Birmingham context. Each meeting has felt unique in its own right, and yet there have been common threads woven throughout the series: the opportunity to meet with and learn alongside new and existing connections; the development of a shared definition of economic justice; and the plotting and synthesising of projects and people pushing for progress in the city and beyond.

“It’s not just about the work that we’re doing but actually how we connect with one another, because what we’ve got to build is an ecosystem. We’re not looking for one solution to this, we’re looking for thousands of different solutions that all fit together in a slightly imperfect way. Even here, we’ve got a critical mass of knowledge and relationships and skills that could be a tipping point, that’s the hopeful thing.” Network member

The pilot phase journey

We began our journey with two events — a Taster session and the Kick Off — inviting people living and working in Birmingham to join us to learn about economic systems, to input on what economic justice means to them and to share ideas on the areas or themes that could be focused on in the ongoing meetings. Read more about these events.

Session 1… As we journeyed beyond the Kick Off, we looked at economic justice through the first lens of Community Wealth Building. We heard from Conrad Parke from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), who presented the potential of Community Wealth Building to re-model the economy in Birmingham. Read more about what happened in the session here.

Session 2… The lens shifted to racial justice and the economy in our next meeting. Asif Afridi from brap and Tanita Lewis from People’s Economy presented on this topic, shining a light on the capitalist economic system and its roots in and reliance on the subjugation, enslavement, colonisation and oppression of minoritised groups. Tanita and Asif proposed that anti-racism and reparations equate to racial and economic justice, and with that sentiment in mind we explored what it would take and what it would look like to build a truly anti-racist Birmingham. The importance of holding city leaders and their anti-racist credentials to account emerged as a clear need, amongst others.

We moved from surfacing the learning around this crucial intersection of economic justice, to a dynamic workshop on Movement Ecology, delivered by NEON. NEON offers training for campaigners, organisers, communications and operations teams working across social movements, and their session with us examined the alchemy and ingredients of movement building. NEON presented their three approaches to social change:

  1. Personal empowerment: empowering, developing and healing individuals, so that we can move towards a more holistic and compassionate society that will in turn create the foundations for wider systemic change.
  2. Building alternatives: alternative institutions and cultures creating change by experimenting with alternative ways of doing and being in the world.
  3. Challenging dominant institutions: challenging governments and corporations so we can change life more significantly and for more people than by other means.

The group split up to represent these three approaches, expanding on the merits of each, and driving home the point that we need people attending to all three areas in order to enable effective movement building.

“There is a real sense of how there is absolutely a role for every single person in every single experience and single way of working to change these systemic realities that we all try to survive within, because this economic system just fundamentally isn’t fit for people or planet.” Network member

Session 3… The next meeting adopted the lens of gender inequality and economic justice. We were joined by Mary-Ann Stephenson from the Women’s Budget Group, who offered compelling data that opened our eyes to the glaring economic disparity between genders.

‘How do we break the cycle?’ Source: Women’s Budget Group

The data shared by the Women’s Budget Group was complemented by a session with Emma Marks from The Equality Trust, and specifically the Community Reporting project. Community Reporting is a storytelling movement that supports people to tell their own stories, in their own ways and, furthermore, to weave these stories together to create a shared tapestry of care and community. We heard from Community Reporters who are trained to gather the stories of people living on the hard edge of economic injustice, and we tried using some of the tools and methods ourselves. At the end of the session we were treated to a moving performance from the Choir with No Name, a national initiative bringing people affected by homelessness together to sing and connect.

The Choir with No Name performs after the Network meeting

Session 4… In our final session of the pilot phase we were joined by Kavita Purohit, who shared the work that CIVIC SQUARE have been doing in Birmingham around demonstrating alternative economic systems. Kavita deftly explained that this demonstration is a critical part of the story when we are looking to influence emerging economic strategy. Economic systems are in obvious decline and when they fail, we will need alternatives to come into play. This is the work that CIVIC SQUARE is driving forward in Birmingham and beyond, with mutual care and community at the core.

In the latter part of the meeting we took some time to evaluate the journey of the Network in its pilot phase, asking the group how the space has impacted them, what they would like to see more and less of, and the actions that have arisen for them personally, as a result of attending the Network. Some feedback from our Network members can be found below.

  • “I’ve appreciated the different themes in each meeting, I’ve learnt so much each time. Sometimes I come into the meetings thinking ‘I’m not sure how this fits with what I do’, but there is always so much to explore. It has really shifted my thinking.”
  • “There aren’t many spaces in Birmingham where people can come together and have a shared value system. Everyone here is passionate about justice.”
  • What has emerged is opportunity. Opportunity to implement change and have a positive impact in Birmingham as a collective unit. I have been to two sessions and I can see how it could all come together. I can see the vision.”

What does the future hold?

We understand that these spaces for community, learning and action are desperately needed in these times, and so we will continue to meet, building the movement towards a more economically just Birmingham.

We have seen impressive turnouts at each meeting, with a steady growth of interest and engagement. Feedback from members shows that people feel empowered by the knowledge they have gained in the meetings, and that a crucial sense of belonging has been cultivated through the development of strong relationships.

Many questions have emerged through the pilot phase, and we are holding the following enquiries (and more!) with curiosity as we move forward…

  • Who is missing from the conversation, and how do we engage a Network that is representative of the city?
  • How can we influence change outside of the Network space?
  • How do we build a truly co-developed and co-led Network?
  • Where are the gaps in our knowledge about the economic systems that we live within, and who can help us to plug those gaps?
  • What alternative economic models do we want to learn about and test within Birmingham and beyond?

Email [email protected] to receive details and registration instructions. We look forward to welcoming you.