Some bloggings from the network to give a sense of what we're doing and why, and what we're learning along the way.

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There's something extra to Black History Month in Hackney

Walk through Dalston’s bustling and vibrant Ridley Road Market over to the raw and atmospheric Gillett Square, and it’s easy to see why Hackney has become something of a beacon for cultural diversity. The community is mixed (only 36.2% White British, and as many as 23.1% Black British) but there is a togetherness - 90% felt Hackney was a place where people from different backgrounds got on well together (Ipsos MORI, 2013). 

Such a rich and multicultural community would have been a dream to my grandparents Bernard and Ruth Gosschalk. They lived a stone's throw away from Gillett Square in 1953 - 1954, before returning to South Africa to oppose the Apartheid regime - a stand that led to Bernard being twice imprisoned and forced to leave his homeland with his young family. This was before significant international immigration in the 1960s, including from a number of different African countries and the Carribean, and Hackney resident Bigs McGeachy of Rockers Hifi believes we are reaping the rewards of openness: "Hackney is the creative centre of London, and there's a very good reason for that".

Moussa Sow, Director of Africa Fête London, believes cultural exchange is key to the spirit of togetherness and self-expression. He recalls bringing the likes of Baaba Maal, Pape Fall & African Salsa and the Guissé Brothers to Hackney in the 1990’s and 2000's: "These musicians were bringing music with a spirit that everyone could appreciate and dance to, so the crowds were mixed, and the atmosphere was special. These big personalities and uplifting occasions inspired cultural integration in Hackney, but they also provided money, jobs and pride for people in the musicians' homelands".

But as always, the times they are a-changin'. Last month, Moussa and I were amongst hundreds to join a high-spirited march organised by Bigs to save Passing Clouds, one of the symbols of creativity in Hackney. Only weeks after their sparkling 10-year anniversary celebrations, the venue is desperately appealing for help from the masses and authorities in a fight for it's future. It's an increasingly familiar story, that often starts with rising property prices and profiteering developers, and ends in expensive flats. A similar story unfolded nearly 20 years ago with The Four Aces Club - a venue that pioneered black music in Britain in the '60s and '70s. 

The community gathers outside Passing Clouds during the March to Save Passing Clouds on September 17th

The community gathers outside Passing Clouds during the March to Save Passing Clouds on September 17th

Rising house prices are both a symptom and a cause of change in the community - with others including changes in the global economy, in local business, and in Hackney Council policies. Even the population is changing: Black Caribbeans are down from 10.3% in 2001 to 7.8% in 2011, while there's an ongoing boom in men with facial hair (guilty). In a climate of gentrification and inequality, Ruth's words come to mind: 'The places we love we seal with a kiss'.

But if you're worried about Hackney's multicultural scene, hare are some reasons to be positive.

The first thing I've noticed is the energy there is to fill the gaps to support diversity and cultural exchange. People like Moussa - who's organising a Papa Wemba tribute on Friday 21st - are invigorated, while venues see this as both an opportunity to develop their business and their passions. MostArt Centre in Stoke Newington - which 'provide activities for communities to interlink, understand and accept differences, and share their cultural heritages' - and the The Vortex are two examples of venues that have opened their arms to the Passing Clouds community and to community occasions like Black History Month and Rio in Dalston.

Secondly, new ideas to promote cultural exchange are being cultivated, and collaborations are forming. Urban MBA graduate Jade Benn launches The Black British Library on Thursday 6th at Bootstrap Company: an exciting project aimed at bringing to life the stories and experiences of black and ethnic minority groups online. Jade hopes that this will be a platform for voices previously ignored - an ideal shared by my old friend John Lubbock of Wikimedia UK (the foundation behind Wikipedia), who we put Jade in touch with and will be sharing his views on the need to empower minority communities to write their own history.

Lastly, these kinds of communication tools are allowing collective action on a larger scale. Ngoma Bishop, chief officer of Bema (formerly B.E.M.A, the Black and Ethnic Minorities Arts Network) and Director of House of AMAU, recalls how a petition helped to save the name of CLR James in the now-named Dalston CLR James Library: “I was fortunate enough to be there during the naming ceremony of the CLR James Library in 1985. It was such a positive statement by the council, and retaining the name was an example of the council responding to organised pressure from the community". Then there were over 2,500 signatures, and the Passing Clouds petition on Change.org is around 10,000 at time of writing towards it's target of 15,000.

Should they reach their target, Hackney Council will be under increased pressure to consider Passing Clouds as an 'Asset of Community Value, and issue Article 4 Directions which would protect other venues and bars in the area from being closed down'. It's hard say if this is a likely outcome, but it's certainly encouraging to see the council's cultural department listening to and working closely with people like Ngoma during Black History Month. The council is supporting their own selection of events, which include the "Bema art" event Fire in Babylon at the Dalston CLR James Library on Thursday 13th, and this Saturday's Francophone Black History Month celebrations in Gillett Square.

But whatever happens, and whatever your feelings towards Black History Month, this October's events and activities show that the community spirit is very much alive and kicking, and perhaps that's worth celebrating in itself. As local musician and Ridley Road Market-trader Sky puts it, "Hackney is constantly changing, but listen too closely to the mainstream media and you might forget how lucky we are to have such character, community and creativity on our doorsteps".

To join in the celebrations, visit www.hackneyroots.org/events and www.hackney.gov.uk/black-history-month.

Update: Congratulations to Moussa, who was presented with the Francophone Black History Month Community Award by Cllr Rosemary Sales at Francophone Black History Month celebrations! .

Written 06/10/2016 by Marc Gosschalk, Founder, Hackney Roots