By Kirsty Wright, Otesha co-director. September 2016.
“Otesha”; a Swahili word meaning “reason to dream” or “to plant something and make it grow”.
After nine amazing and fruitful years, The Otesha Project UK, as we know it, is sadly coming to an end. We’re in a place where we’ve had to close our programmes and say goodbye to our fantastic staff team. The trustees are taking stock and working with our Alumni to discuss our potential next steps. Throughout its history, Otesha has achieved so many wonderful things, inspired many people, sparked many actions, cycled thousands of miles and worked across many spaces, from primary schools to prisons.
Since 2007 when we started, the world young people live in has changed dramatically. The rise of student fees mean young people face finishing university with massive debts, or have to choose not to go at all. Austerity policies have meant cuts to vital youth services, benefit clampdowns and an ever-dwindling number of decent jobs, especially entry-level jobs. Life for young people is becoming increasingly tough. And with that, having the time and energy to participate in the kind of programmes The Otesha Project used to run has become much harder for young people, especially those who are less privileged.
The staff team at Otesha has learnt a lot over the years. From the challenges in non-hierarchical organising and flat structures, to the importance of really understanding each other’s needs in order to allow ourselves to flourish both as individuals and as a team. In our recent strategic review, we reflected a lot on the environmental movement as we know it, and we’ve recognised its limits. In spite of a growing awareness of anti-oppression work within the movement – something we have tried to pioneer across all our programmes for a number of years – there’s still so far to go in terms of creating spaces which feel inclusive and which don’t marginalise people. To put it bluntly, the environmental movement is still dominated by white, middle class, privileged people.
When we really looked ourselves in the eye, we realised that some of our programmes, in particular our flagship cycle tour programme, were inadvertently perpetuating this. Of course, cycle tours, for example, have done amazing things in themselves, leading hundreds of young people to do incredible things, inspiring creative change with thousands of others along their way. But as the world has become harder for young people, participation in these kinds of activities has become increasingly difficult for people on low incomes. Like often criticised unpaid internships, Otesha’s cycle tours have inadvertently played into the cycle of privilege, creating great experiences for some amazing young people, but experiences that were exclusive to those that could take the time and raise money to go on them. So we were unintentionally reinforcing the same social divides we were trying to undo – increasing division between people who had the privilege to do these things, and those who didn’t.
Meanwhile, over the past few years, austerity has meant that getting funding for our kind of work is increasingly difficult, and the struggle of challenging injustice, heightened in a post-Brexit world, has become increasingly complex. We have tried to re-model our work to take in to account the change we wanted to bring about: personal transformations that can really begin to unpick social and economic structures that systematically oppress and exclude people, as a starting point for unpicking wider environmental, social and economic injustices.
But there were huge challenges in bringing our externally facing programmes into alignment with the emerging values we now felt were critical to genuinely reshaping our work. The kinds of shifts that needed to happen – not just in Otesha, but across the movement, though very deep, can seem subtle and intangible to people looking in. Ultimately, we found that it was hard to make a case for this work with funders who are driven by assured targets and outcomes, especially when the need for so many programmes has expanded so much, so quickly. In short, we found that funders wouldn’t support us on the evolution we needed to undergo to truly embody the values we felt were important in today’s world. We realised that rather than adapting our programmes to things that were fundable, it felt best to make the difficult decision to stop, and give space for new things to grow.
Coming back to the meaning of Otesha, ‘to plant something and make it grow’ we don’t see this as an end, but as another step in the cycle. We’ve sowed lots of seeds. Our alumni network will continue to flourish, as will the strong bonds of friendships that have been created through our programmes. Workshop 44 where we have most recently been based in a housing estate in East London, has grown into a thriving community hub, and will continue to evolve and develop alongside the people from Regent Estate. And our anti-oppression workshops will continue in some of the poorest schools across London.
So as one seed dies, many seeds will germinate, many dreams will continue to grow. It has been an amazing journey, thanks for being part of it.