I came to the Mandela Community Centre not really sure what to expect or what role I would play as a volunteer or part of the team. To be honest, before I started I had questions buzzing through my mind as well as expectations - ”Will it be challenging enough?”, “Will it be interesting?”, “What will I gain or take away from this?” etc. Eventually, after some discussion with the manager, Sonya Robotham, it was concluded that I would take up the role of Project Assistant for “DEEDS NOTS WORDS TOWARDS LIBERATION”. Now, DNWTL is a project that focuses on Women’s Suffrage and The Women’s Liberation Movement” in general (both past and present).
Prior to being introduced to this project, I had almost ZERO knowledge or appreciation whatsoever concerning the struggles for Women’s Suffrage and Rights. I mean, I did know a bit about political campaigns (especially the more current ones) for reforms on concerns such as equal pay, domestic violence, access to education etc. but I didn’t really know about the personalities involved, the grounds for these activisms, the stories of the women (and men) involved including the many struggles they went through for the cause(s) they believed in…To put it briefly, I didn’t know the ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of the fight for equality as well as the ground-breaking ripple effects of these activisms around the world.
My job as a project assistant entails doing some research work so during my first week as a volunteer, that’s what I did. I did some research on Women’s Movement with more emphasis on British Women’s Movement and I was totally gobsmacked! I can remember asking myself how I didn’t know all these prior to my research! I asked my sister just recently, “An election is coming up soon and we’re all going to vote but do you know the historical movement that made it possible for you to vote TODAY?” it only took that question to introduce her to a world and historical knowledge-base previously unbeknownst to her. The discovery alone was weighty and now when next I go to the polls to vote, I’ll remember that there were some dedicated suffragists and suffragettes who made that possible, some with their lives. I could ask you …”Ever heard of Emmeline Pankhurst or her daughter Christabel. Or I could bring it closer to home and ask about Hannah Mitchell or Alice Wheeldon (whose former home is 12 Pear Tree Road, Normanton, not too far from the Mandela Centre).
In our bid to recognise Derbyshire women and to create a platform for their voices and stories to be heard, Sonya proposed that we would be interviewing the present women MPs of Derbyshire. The first woman on the list was the Rt. Hon. Dame Margaret Beckett. She is the longest-serving female MP since women were first elected to the House of Commons in 1918. What an accomplishment! Intrigue and naïve excitement trailed the days to the interview. I was going to meet with a woman who had just made history or in this case “HERstory”. It was one of those opportunities life rarely presents to me and I cherished it.
I also had the opportunity to visit the Derby Telegraph with Sonya for a meeting with Jane Goodard (you know the “Bygones” section in the Derby Telegraph? Jane’s in charge of that) concerning writing a piece on the project in order to promote general awareness and encourage public knowledge and interest. We met her with some artefacts from the centre which included two pieces of clothing - a silk coat and a lace gown from over 100 years ago as well as buttons from the Women's Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst which bear the “Suffragette Colours” - green, white and purple.
Another particularly interesting experience I had was a training at the centre which was made open to the public. It was a training on how to conduct oral history interviews. So we had Colin Hyde, the East Midlands Oral History Archive Researcher and Outreach Officer come to deliver the training. Again, I didn’t know what to expect. I was almost certain it would be boring (which I admittedly relayed to one of my colleagues later on). Fifteen minutes into it, I was forced to eat my words because that training was anything BUT boring! I actually wished it could go on longer! It was one of those “don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover” moments and I sure am glad I was proven wrong.
An aspect of starting work anywhere (whether voluntary or paid) which some people tend to find rather daunting is meeting the people they’re going to be working with. We all want to get along with our colleagues and we all want to be able to work in a relaxed, friendly environment where all’s rosy and no awkward stares or silences or remarks chase after your every move and conversation. Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit but you know what I mean. I thought about all that too before commencing work here at the Mandela Centre. However, the staff here are extremely warm and friendly…that’s the reception I got when I came on board and that’s what it still is now. So definitely no awkward vibes here! On a more serious note though, I’ve never been made to feel like I wasn’t a valued part of the team.
Here at the centre, there are all kinds of artefacts - shoes, dresses, hats, paintings + pictures, diaries, books etc.- which date back to the early 1900s. Some of them were actually used by the suffragettes/suffragists and the collection is just incredible. I’ve seen most of them but even now, when I come across them, I’m still astonished. There’s going to be a display of the collection pretty soon and I just can’t wait for the public to view them!
All in all, I’ve had a great and enjoyable experience at the Centre so far. I honestly can’t fault my time here. I’m learning and developing myself, skills, knowledge and experience. It’s not all fun but it certainly is worth it and it’s a chance to be a part of something bigger than myself.