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Activism

How a grassroots group is reimagining community activism in east London

“It really concerns me that marginalised communities are just not at the right tables,” says Coffee Afrik founder Abdi Hassan.

Community activism usually takes place in village halls and community centres. But for Hackney-based Coffee Afrik, meetings with those it helps can often take place outside crack dens.

“You need to meet people where they are. As someone who used to use substances, I know I wouldn’t have gone into a clinical space,” says founder Abdi Hassan.

“I think that’s the kind of work that’s needed, that direct, non-enforcement approach. Because we can’t continue as we are, it’s just not working. 

“The war against substances and drugs is not working. It needs to be reimagined in a new way that has depth and has culture and that honours people, and really respects people and speaks to them using their language.”

This is all part of the approach of Coffee Afrik, a social enterprise which works with marginalised and vulnerable people. It also blazes a trail for how truly radical thinking can help communities create lasting change.

If you want proof of how this is going, look to the teens who ran into a burning building in Bethnal Green to rescue vulnerable people.

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They were participants in Coffee Afrik’s Young Black Men scheme, on their way to the project.

Coffee Afrik
Hassan at the Young Black Men awards. Image: Supplied

That scheme, which Hassan describes as ​​”focusing on enterprise, liberation and healing work across fertile soils with a healthy dose of dream matter” has been backed with a £25,000 investment from Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of the Big Issue.

Hassan, who grew up in a single parent household, was homeless and a drug user, but also worked as an accountant for PWC. He speaks about “reimagining what community spaces should look like”.

Coffee Afrik began life in 2018 as a single crisis cafe, focused on healing and trauma, with a food co-op to empower people in the community.

Now it spans 15 projects and five hubs, with a vast range of projects. At its hub in Amhurst Road in Hackney, it offers hot food, spiritual classes, and conversations. A pair of Coffee Afrik ‘navigators’ go out and meet people where they are to connect them with help.

For Somali women in Hackney, who often have undiagnosed mental health issues, Coffee Afrik created a digital peer-to-peer support project, purchasing tablets for clients to speak to a Somali therapist over Zoom. It’s an example of the focus on culturally sensitive methods.

Coffee Afrik
Coffee Afrik founder Abdi Hassan. Image: Supplied

An absence of these methods, Hassan says, holds people back. Language barriers and overly clinical settings in homelessness and substance abuse can actually lead to relapse, or re-traumatise people, he highlights. Language used around enforcement hinder engagement. The way forward is awareness and respect.

“We need to urgently reform and look at what culture looks like and how it appears for people, and to honour people’s indigenous wisdom and practice and honour their faith,” he says. “Too much of the third sector, public sector, is just not engaging with faith.”

A lot of grassroots activism paints itself as too busy for highfalutin ideas and theories of change. But Hassan does not. A conversation about his work is peppered with concepts from around the globe: Tree of Life therapy, doughnut economics, reparations and divesting from whiteness, intersectionality, and regeneration by design. He cites projects in Bristol, Birmingham, and the Bronx as inspiration.

“We dream a lot, we map a lot, we discuss a lot. We sit in it, we sit in space, but fundamentally spaces designed by service users,” he says.

“We have to, because of how the world has totally changed because of the pandemic, the crises of global warming, climate crisis, inequality, racism, George Floyd’s murder. I think anyone that carries on as they are, or any organisation, is totally doing a disservice.”

This radical thinking, he says, is fundamental to making sure change happens.

“It really concerns me that marginalised communities are just not at the right tables,” he says. “We are actually the dinner or the lunch that they eat.

“I passionately talk about new ideas and emerging futures, because it worries me that we deliver, deliver, deliver, but what are we really doing to empower and totally transform?”

This approach is rooted in empowering people, giving them control, and learning from their experiences. Hassan thinks others trying to transform their communities can learn from this.

“To be honest, I think we need more compassionate leadership. Leadership which comes out of their ivory towers and actually visits grassroots organisations to touch and feel and connect and ground themselves. Instead of telling people what they want, asking them what they want and designing it with them.”

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