Martin Mikhail, a co-ordinator of community center RISC, talks about challenges they are facing, the importance of educational work and openness towards their local community.
Photo: Nina Klarić
RISC (Reading International Solidarity Center) is an organization and community center located at the very heart of Reading, UK. The Center offers a mix of commercial and educational activities. It provides global citizenship education training for teacher and students, organizes lectures, discussions and cultural events to raise awareness on global issues and on its premises RISC runs a fair trade shop, bookshop, a coffee shop, public garden, it rents office space, conference and meeting rooms. Martin Mikhail, who has been involved with the Center since it’s beginning, started his work in schools promoting global citizenship education, and now he is mostly involved in Center’s commercial activities. After his talk on a panel Practices for socio-cultural cooperation and networking at Clubture forum, we got a chance to talk to Martin about RISC and the political and economic strategies that make RISC sustainable after 30 years.
KP: Could you introduce us to RISC, what is it about?
The roots of organization are in development education, an attempt to raise awareness on global issue. It's about solidarity with people around the world, supporting people who are fighting for greater equality, understanding relationship between richer countries and poorer countries and understanding that we in UK are as rich as we are because other people in the world are as poor as they are. That takes us back to looking at the issue of colonialism and to challenging stereotypes about people around the world. The organization has been running now for 30 years. I think that words of Elvira Alvarado sums up what we are about: We are not asking for food or clothing or money. We want you with us in the struggle. We want to educate your people. We want to organize your people. We want you to join our struggle. Don’t be afraid gringos. Keep your spirits high. And remember, we’re right there with you.
The organization works in Reading, a town 60 kilometers from London. The town is in fact a "mini London", home to people from every corner of the world. 20 or 30 years ago we were working on projects with refugees and as result of that educational work, a group set up a refugee support center. At the time that was set up, there was a huge number of refugees from former Yugoslavia that found themselves in Reading. So there are people from all over the world, an extremely multi-ethnic and multiracial community. That is why the first big difference I noticed in Zagreb was that there are no black people around, that is, no people that are politically black.
KP: Could you tell me a bit about the premises where your center is located?
We have been based in Reading for 30 years. First ten years we were in rented space that had one meeting room, we did education activities and began with a first fair-trade shop and book shop. When the opportunity has showed itself, we bought a building in the city center with a loan from Triodos, an ethical bank based in the Netherlands. There was a lot of volunteer work involved with getting the building into shape, but owning the building has given the organization stability and the possibility to invest in the building to make it an environmentally sustainable model by reducing energy consumption etc. The ownership of the building has been very important to us because it has given us financial independence.
KP: There was a lot of talk about collaborations in the panel, how come you have decided to go into this alone?
In getting the building it would have been extremely difficult having more organizations. It would have been hard steering it and making necessary decisions. If you have five organizations that all have to refer to their own members its extremely hard to move forward and the thing can stagnate. However, we are an open organization, we recognize the importance of collaboration and networking and have over 250 organizations that use our space. If I was going to set up a similar place, I would look for partners that want to set up a fair trade shop, or organic food shop, something that is in line with the ethos of organization, because the commercial partners can help to contribute to sustainability of the place.
KP: What does financial independence mean to you, how do you keep the organization financially sustainable?
Because we trade, we have been able to continue to provide educational activities for free, and to organize events that we think are important. However, we are part of a network of development education centers in UK. Ten years ago there where 50 centers all over UK, but they became very reliant on grant funding from government. When the Conservatives formed the government in 2010 they cut the funding for development education. There are now only about 15 left out of 50, and some of them only have one person working, because the power was with the funder, and they have been very vulnerable to the cuts. We have managed to work because we have a number of activities to sustain us, and that is what I mostly work on. The funding climate for more radical work is extremely challenging in the UK at the moment, and ultimately whatever you do, you have to have money. You can run on enthusiasm for a while, but ultimately people have to live, they can do things voluntary for a while, but ultimately having money is relevant.
KP: How is RISC governed?
RISC is a community run organisation that was set up as a private limited company with charitable status. As such we have a voluntary board of Trustee Directors who are elected annually and are ultimately responsible for ensuring the organisation meets its objectives. They meet bi-monthly.
Operationally we have a flattened hierarchy, managed by a workers collective of twelve members who together act as the organisations Chief Executive. We all have different areas of responsibility within the organisation and meet bi-weekly. There are various other staff who are managed by a Collective member as well as about 80 volunteers without whom the organisation couldn’t function.
KP: You mentioned educational activities are roots of the organization. You have been focused on global citizenship education. Could you tell me a bit about your work?
Yes, I also started as an education worker, trying to get people to look at things in a different ways, and to challenge their stereotypes. Global citizenship education is fundamentally important so we can understand our position in the world. It's a non-eurocentric way of looking at things. If you take an issues like climate change, it will most affect poorest communities in the world. It will affect us in UK, but less than people in Bangladesh. Global education offered opportunities to thank about social justice issues in global terms, but it is very important to start from where someone is themselves and encourage empathy that leads to solidarity and not charity.
Because we have limited resources, we made a decision not to work directly with pupils, but to be more effective working with teachers and students training to be teachers. Giving one teacher confidence to speak about controversial issues gives you the opportunity to reach thousands of students. Because of limited resources, we work with students in oxford university, one university in London, and one university in Reading. Hard work and a lot of networking made the university accept our collaboration. Our work was well respected, and we used to be founded by previous government and the EU which gave it status.
KP: What gained my interest, exploring your website, was the "soft" activities and more explicitly political activities. Is this a strategy for RISC?
Yes. If you want to reach new audiences, you have to use different activities. For example, we organize something with ethnic music that attracts people, a "soft" activity, but it would have a serious undertone on looking at issues in Iraq. 200 people come to listen the music, but before it we talk on political issues. Let me give you another example, lately we have come under attack for campaigning on Palestine. An organization that works with Palestinians what set up by people that met in our center. People that met in one of our events went to the olive picking harvest and decided to provide a market in UK for the olive oil from Palestine and this is now a very successful company. It's in a way an incubator, fertile ground to politicize people. Soft can lead to the hard, but if you start hard, you may frighten people off.
For that reason, we run a very open building. Everyone knows how to enter a shop or a bar, you can come in and grab a cup of coffee, don't have to engage with anyone, and you can leave, but if you get attracted by things that you see, and leaflets that you read, than that's a start, because you might decide to come to an event, or a film screening and get interested, maybe join a group and get more involved, but at any point you can disengage. This building that is open to every member of the public is a good starting point. Everybody knows how to enter a café or shop.