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Right to Thrive

Ella Barrett: "I think the idea of being next to water is transformative"

We spoke to archivist and curator at the Bantu Archive Programme Ella Barrett about the connections between Sheffield's Yemeni community, the River Don and the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal, and how being near water can offer a radical act of healing.

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Ella Barrett leading a workshop at Hallam's Writing the Water.

Andy Brown.
In collaboration with River Dôn Project logo

Right to Thrive explores local people's connections to the River Don through a collection of generative interviews. In this series we encourage people to question extractive, human-centred views of nature in favour of recognising and celebrating its right to thrive.

Ella Barrett is an archivist and curator at the Bantu Archive Programme, a project based at SADACCA which celebrates the journeys and heritage of African and Caribbean people in Sheffield. Since it was founded in 2020, this has taken the form of photography, archive work, artistic responses, film-making, events and even a combined club night and audio-visual exhibition.

Most recently, Ella was invited to take part in Writing the Water, a floating poetry workshop that asked both children and adults to think about how they relate to the River Don and its place within Sheffield. We asked Ella about her contribution to the event, and how she relates to the river herself.

Could you tell us a little bit about your work and how it relates to the River Don?

I work freelance as a community creative, and at the Bantu Archive Programme which is at SADACCA on The Wicker. My work in relation to the River Don was a project where I was employed as a community curator for Writing the Water, looking at how to involve community groups along the river or in relation to the river. For that role I did a photo essay and spoke to a lot of people and businesses along The Wicker, from the arches all the way up to Spital Hill. Then I visited community groups as well, from an allotment in Darnall to the residents on the lock near Meadowhall.

I asked them how life was living next to the river, and then from that I've done more work with people in the community. It's been a nice introduction for me, looking at life on the river but from more of a reality perspective. How are people in and around Sheffield working and living? In quite hard circumstances a lot of the time. It’s a reality check, talking to people on the north-east side of the city.

Definitely. Before I ask about your own feelings towards the river, what did people living along it tell you about how they relate to it?

It was such an interesting conversation, because a lot of people lived or worked near the lock – three people worked in the steel industry. A lot of them compared living on the Don to living in a coal mine area where everyone knows everyone and people's doors are open – that sort of mentality. And they loved it. One person said that him and his wife sold their house, moved to the lock, and then a year or two ago their son did the same. It was a very family-oriented environment. It was still very working-class, and there was no non-white residents. It was a very interesting perspective for sure, and I think you could feel the warmth.

When I went down I mentioned I was bringing cake and tea and coffee and stuff, and everyone came down and everyone was super nice, super warm. Basically their whole life is on the canal. They obviously live there, but a lot of them travel up and down the canal as their holiday, as far as London. As long as the canal can take them, they go.

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Andy Brown.

So they've seen the whole of the country from living there. Their boat is their home but it's also their holiday. It's a different way of life completely. Even though it still had these very objective understandings of community, and even class to an extent – the idea of pit living was the same, which was a very interesting analysis, I think.

That touches on the relationship between the canal and the river as well – one is obviously man-made but they’re kind of like an extension of the same thing. How did you go about interpreting those stories for the poetry workshop we were both at?

I did the photo essay because from what people told me they felt like something was missing. I always start off a project where I'm talking to people with a very thin outline. I can't control what people say and I don't really like to control either. So I just let them talk, and then the narrative is filled in. When I spoke to people I just gave them very generic statements about the canal and the work that I was doing. And that's when you get a mixture of opinions. Quite a lot people did say about the litter and about the pollution. The women's group that I went to which was a creative workshop in Darnall weren't very positive towards it. They were just saying that it's quite dirty and full of shopping trolleys and that sort of stuff.

Then interestingly enough I went to the lock, and behind the lock is a massive green space. The council gave it to a charity, and it’s respite for adults with learning disabilities – they go there and work on the allotment. And honestly it was the most beautiful thing ever, because first of all the allotment was so nice. It was split into ten different sections and each person tended to their area. And whatever they wanted to do, they did within that area. They had so many shopping trolleys, and they reused so much of the litter that the Darnall women mentioned. It was like this idea of renewable practice within the canal – I was so happy I went there, because a lot of it was negative and then it gave you a completely different perspective when you spoke to them.

I gave them hand-drawn maps I commissioned from local artist Holly Kay as part of the project. When I looked at the canal, there's so much around that the idea was to create a map where children at the workshop could understand and conceptualise the canal. They were the first people I gave the maps to and they loved it. They know so much about the canal because they used to collect a lot of the rubbish. They know a lot about the renewable side of it –that side was really nice. That's what made me look at doing a photo essay, with more people’s personal connections around the canal.

I really wanted to speak to a lot of the Yemeni community who worked alongside the river because of the steel industry. You can still see the factories and the old framework of the industry in Sheffield. When we went on the canal for the first time, you see this industry and this framework but it's obviously not there any more – a lot of the buildings have been taken down. Then there's these really weird parts of buildings that are listed, like a steel beam that’s listed or this glass is listed or whatever. It made me think about the history of Sheffield and how the city itself is framed around these grand things like the steel industry and Orgreave. But actually a lot of the people who contributed to that aren't represented at all within this framework.

That's why I wanted to speak to the Yemeni community, because Sheffield housed the majority of Yemeni men and women who worked in the steel industry in the UK. A lot of people say it’s like a mini Yemen. With the role that I had, I just didn't have the time or the resources to spend a lot of time with that community. Plus it would be a disservice for me to go in for two hours to talk to them, and ask questions about a really oppressive time. I've done it within the Black Caribbean community and spoke to them about their role in the steelworks and it’s not nice! They had to put up with a lot of stuff. I would never do that with the time that I had, just for two hours and then leave. I think you have to nurture a relationship with people and be respectful. Plus a lot of those people are over 70 now anyway.

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Andy Brown.

I spoke to a young Yemeni fashion designer, Kazna Asker, who made a film based on the Middle Eastern community in Sheffield. She had already done a film talking to the same people, but they were a bit younger. From that I thought, I’ll do a photo essay around the same area that she spoke to. And I've been in that community all my life because that's where a lot of Caribbean shops are and they stock a lot of Caribbean foods. So Spital Hill was my first introduction to Sheffield. There was a level of comfort within me and them to not be super exploitative with their narrative. I wanted to compose this concept of past and present and future – the Yemeni community came over and they laid the foundations, the framework of the buildings. They might not still be there but the legacy of them moving is there. The legacy is still so present within the journey along the canal, but you can't always see it. So that's how I combined the concepts together.

My next question is slightly more philosophical, and flipping the idea of what people think about the river. What do you think the river would say about us?

I don't think we're very good at it at all really! I used to run a lot, and there’s so much rubbish there, there's so much pollution. And it's in such a nice area. It's actually one of the flattest areas of Sheffield – it's perfect to be with the family, walking, running and cycling. So I do understand that a lot of people feel unsafe, because it can be quite dark and there's not loads of lighting down there. But on the flip side, there's so much natural beauty there. Then when you get towards the locks, that bit is so nice, so open.

I think the legacy of human contribution to the canal – the idea of a canal in general – is just a bit messed up. It's just made for industry. I've always worked in more historical and sociological concepts than science, to an extent. It's just this eternal legacy and continuation of capitalism, and massive spans of exploitation. I think it’s still so present today in the way we just take nature for granted – even in Sheffield. I think the River Don is a testament to the fact that we’ve not looked after nature in the way we should.

It’s very human-centred, seeing everything as revolving around the idea of what humans want. That neatly leads on to my next question, which is a bit more future-focused in terms of how we might move past that kind of extractive relationship with the river. Does the River Don have a right to thrive? And if so, what form might that take?

I think it definitely does. I don't know what form it would take though. Good question. I guess it’d be the ability to govern itself. Can it govern itself? It reminds me in a way of what's happening with Palestine. 100 years ago that land was known as Palestine, and then the UN gave it to Israel. But with the people that moved there who were all from the west, they basically took the land because [the people who already lived there] didn’t govern the land in a western way. So then the Palestinians didn't have a claim over their land because the people from the west had brought a western jurisdiction into Palestine. It made their land void.

This is so nerdy, but in 1648 there was the Treaty of Westphalia which was the start of western bureaucracy and the legal system – all that sort of stuff. And that's the energy it gives me in a very weird way. Us as western humans are completely different entities to the concept of a river. How do we give it what it needs? Because it's always going to be underpinned by what we are, which is this very bureaucratic, legalised species, I guess. That's why I think it becomes complicated. And that's why I think you have to be creative – philosophical in a way. Does that make any sense?

Yeah, definitely. It’s trying to make existing parts of the living world or existing groups of people fit into a western legal framework, and then using that as a tool of oppression.

Yeah, and that's why I think it needs to be something more creative, and maybe more indigenous as well. I don't know how indigenous communities in Australia or America, even like Mexico, how they've navigated it. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s any community indigenous to the River Don. But maybe it’s about trying to take a philosophical angle from how they've done it.

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Andy Brown.

Because I think for a lot of those communities the river and the water is an essential part of not just understanding their land but also understanding their religion and their community. Could you ethically use that framework in Sheffield? I'm not sure.

I guess if there aren’t any indigenous communities on the Don, maybe the closest is the people you spoke to who live there now. They're the people who are most invested in the river, and who might be best placed to offer solutions in terms of how we might move from a mode of extraction to one of helping the river thrive.

It's an interesting dilemma I think. Because by buying a boat, does that give you the right to control? I don't know if it does.

My next question is slightly more personal. What would you like your relationship to the river to be like in 2050?

The community allotments that I went to were so nice. I think my face said so much when I went to the canal, the one near Meadowhall. I couldn't stop smiling. They took so much pride in what they've done – it was such a beautiful energy. I’m such a vibes person and an energy person. As soon as I walked in and I spoke to them, they were so lovely and they were so excited to show me around. They were so excited that someone had come to them and asked them about what they were doing. You can understand why gardening is a type of therapy.

Then when I went to the other community allotment in Darnall it was exactly the same – a grandmother came in and she brought her three grandkids. They were just talking to me about rubbish, these three kids but honestly I loved it. The grandma was just having a nice cup of tea in the corner because they were hard work, bless them, but they were so sweet. They have like eight cousins or something crazy so they were talking to me all about that.

And the woman who runs it told me that a GP from Darnall started the allotments as a type of therapy – to get people out the house and just have something to do on a Friday. And no matter what the weather was, they're always there.

We have so many issues, especially from Covid, with anxiety and depression. You look at the world we live in and it is so depressing – it's heart-breaking. But then as soon as you step into those spaces it almost doesn't matter because you're working together. I think it's about separating national and international issues that you can't control but you get so upset by, and focusing on the local and on the people who live ten minutes down the road who might be ill or distressed. When you come into that space, you have a completely different focus. I think the idea of being next to water is transformative. It's a sense of belonging as well. You go to those places and you have a purpose – there's always something to do. I think it's really enriching.

Doing the poetry stuff that we did on the boat was really lovely. I think we take nature for granted so much, and then when you stop it makes you feel so much lighter and so much more ready for bigger conversations, which I think we all need to do anyway. But it gives you a more grounded perspective than before.

Do you think the proximity to the river has something to do with that kind of community spirit?

Yeah. I was in Liverpool a month ago and it's so funny because obviously it's on the coast but you kind of forget. And then you're like, ‘no actually the sea is just there’ and you can feel the water. I think when you’re around the river it definitely has that energy. I think it's the softness of the water because it's not too crazy. It’s weird because I feel like all Caribbean people have that energy as well. Me and Danaé [Wellington, who convened one of the eco-poetry workshops] were speaking about it – a lot of Caribbean people are naturally drawn to water. It’s very weird because it’s half traumatic, half element of freedom as well. I think for different communities water means a lot of different things, and it's either this element of violence or more like a holistic sort of relationship. I think it’s pretty transformative.

I think that's the perfect place to end it really, that idea of people's connection to the water. Thank you so much for speaking to me.

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