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The Sheffield activists fighting debt and food insecurity with mutual aid

There’s a new group in town, and they have free curry!

Jubilee Movement Sheffield
Jubilee Movement

At the turn of the millennium, the Jubilee 2000 campaign secured $100bn of debt cancellation for the poorest countries. In the last couple of months, a new campaign called the Jubilee Movement – inspired by the 2000 campaign – has launched a new branch in Sheffield. Both groups get their name from the original meaning of jubilee: a celebration of debt cancellation.

Going into 2020, Sheffield had the 8th highest credit card debt in the UK. Last year a report on UK debt statistics found that in Q1, average debt level across the UK was at £15,924, this rose 11.93% to £17,823 in Q3 of 2021. The same report named Sheffield the 20th highest city for average personal debt in England.

Ci Davis is part of the Sheffield group and on the Jubilee Movement National Strategy Team. He outlines the group's mission as “the cancellation of unjust debts and striving towards a socially just world that promotes equality and where people can live freely in thriving communities in balance with the earth’s boundaries. We work in communities fostering the unity, resilience, and strength that builds for local power to challenge the violent system that threatens humans, non-human and healthy connection with nature.

“We identify debt as a unifying issue, but not a single issue, in building solidarity for action to confront the climate emergency and injustice.”

Jubilee means cancel debt
Jubilee Movement

The Jubilee Movement is linked to the global-south-led Debt for Climate campaign. In October, Esteban Servat, one of the co-founders, will be coming to Sheffield to speak to workers, trade unionists, and global justice campaigners on the important link between cancelling debt and being able to tackle climate breakdown.

The group are worried about the effects that climate change will bring and argue debt will only exacerbate problems further.

“Debt underpins inequality – it maintains it and it perpetuates it. It is the payment of interest on debt that necessitates infinite growth on a planet with finite resources, and for individuals it means selling your labour and your time at a price you do not control” says Davis. “It is the cause of massive extraction from people and the planet to enable the wealth of a few to grow exponentially.”

In 2021, global debt reached a record $303 trillion, according to the Institute of International Finance. Developing countries are predicted to be the worst hit by climate change and, as it gets worse, the Jubilee Movement are adamant that what is not needed is “regarding the climate and ecological emergency as a problem to be dealt with in isolation from the other challenges that people experience.”

Instead, they want to raise awareness of the role of debt in climate change and the current crises through mutual aid projects. Alongside supporting Don't Pay, asylum and migrant support groups and workers' struggles in the city, the Sheffield branch are working in the community providing free meals.

“Mutual aid is one of the diverse tactics that will be needed to solve the emergencies and crises experienced. Food is one form of support, something that the Black Panthers were very aware of when building the Community Breakfast Clubs, but they also developed 69 other community support initiatives. None of these were seen as directly leading to liberation but all of them contributed to developing the power and solidarity needed” says Davis.

They hope the space will create opportunities for those facing difficulties to come together, share stories and build solidarity over lunch.

Davis continues: “In the space created by solving problems it is possible to discuss the bigger problems… Mutual aid creates a space for those discussions to be held. It is not a linear relationship that feeding a person who experiences hunger leads directly to debt cancellation, but what it does is create space where the issues can be explored and create the bonds of solidarity from which power to confront the system can be built.”

The end of July marked the first of these monthly free meals. From 12 to 3pm the organisers put on a spread of vegetarian curries and chili, naan breads, pakora, pasta and cakes. They estimate they gave out around 75 meals to Sheffielders outside Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA) on The Wicker.

While handing out meals, the group had conversations with those getting food and passers by.

“The energy crisis was the main topic, for obvious reasons: people are worried. Some people wanted to debate the big issues. Locals, activists, and passers-by discussed debt, climate, government, revolution – all on the street.” says Davis. “Others in those conversations expressed fear of incurring debt; going cold was widely considered better than debt. That could spell real harm for vulnerable people.”

He is keen to stress this is mutual aid and an act of solidarity, not charity. Everything they are offering is offered unconditionally.

“Some people did not want to talk – that is important. The meal is not conditional upon having a conversation, it is not provided with strings attached, it is not charity.”

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