Tuesday, 31 January 2012


This evening is the first in a new series of publicly advertised meetings, open to the general public, that we've been hoping to get under way for several months.

For 25 years now, Leicester Council of Faiths has been working to promote trust, understanding and cooperation among the city's faith communities. Much of this has taken place quietly and effectively behind the scenes, depending on personal networks and connections between individuals built up over long periods. Recently, however, we've come to enjoy a higher public profile, reaching out to cooperate with the various communities, cultures, religions and traditions of Leicester, with the Voluntary and Community Sector, with students and teachers, with those promoting the regeneration of the city through public service or private enterprise - with members of the public, whatever their religion or belief.

In 2012 we hope to be working even more openly and inclusively, focusing the distinctive and diverse strengths of the city's faith communities on matters of common interest to the people of Leicester.

We're delighted that City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby has accepted our invitation to be guest of honour at this first one.

This meeting has been on the cards for some time before the English Defence League applied to march through Leicester city centre this Saturday (4 February). Despite this being the case, we can't deny that this subject will come up this evening - and that some of those attending are coming to hear and talk about that topic over and above anything else. Indeed, we have a reporter from the Leicester Mercury with us this evening, whose primary interest is in what may be said about the demonstrations on Saturday. Normally, we can't get coverage for our activities in the Leicester Mercury for love nor money.

We were hoping for an audience of 40 or so this evening. I stop counting at 75, although people were still arriving. A reliable source after the meeting tells me that there were 84, a figure arrived at by counting the chairs after the meeting (everyone had a seat and there were no empty seats). In mentioning the event two days later, the Mercury stated that there were 100 people here.

Our eight member faith communities (Bahá'ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs) are strongly represented here. People from other communities of religion or belief, not formally associated with Leicester Council of Faiths, identify and introduce themselves: Brahma Kumaris, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Pagan, Secular Humanist.

Following a shared moment of silent reflection, Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths Cllr Manjula Sood opens proceedings. She begins by reminding us that this is the 25th anniversary of Leicester Council of Faiths, harking back to its foundation in 1986, under the direction of Cllr Janet Setchfield, who was Lord Mayor of the city at that time (a position that Cllr Sood herself filled in 2008-9, when she became the first Asian woman to be Lord Mayor of an English city).

Vice-Chair Fayyaz Suleman moves the meeting along, offering evidence of the involvement of faith communities in wider society (since that’s the sort of thing that we wanted this meeting to focus on). I've provided him with one headline activity from each of our member faith communities:
Baha’is The smallest member community on the Council of Faiths has run a Sunday morning club for underprivileged children at Northfields Community Centre, using arts, sport and fun activities to help nurture moral values. 
Buddhists The Amida Trust has, for several years, run a Monday drop-in group for adults at the Methodist Church in Bishop Street. 
Christians The Street Pastors initiative has helped preserve the health, safety, well-being and dignity of young people enjoying the city centre’s night-time economy at weekends. 
Hindus Across the city, many Hindu families are actively involved in health promotion activities, aimed at changing lifestyle choices of South Asian communities. 
Jains The Jain Centre on Oxford Street, one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, hosted a national conference for RE teachers: Sacred Spaces Inside Out, Learning Outside the Classroom. 
Jews Leading in the city’s commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, working with young people in schools and colleges to promote the message of tolerance of compassion. 
Muslims The Flashmob Iftar helped feed many homeless and vulnerably housed people during the holy month of Ramadan, an initiative continued throughout the year through “Picnic in the Park” and “Eat and Meet” projects.
Sikhs The Sikh tradition of hospitality as expressed in the langar (The Guru’s Kitchen) which we’ve experienced here this evening means that large numbers of citizens of Leicester who are not themselves Sikhs know that they can come to one of the gurdwaras for hot food when they can’t provide for themselves.

The first question (asked by an elderly Sikh gentleman) rather takes everyone by surprise - but pleasantly so. It goes some way toward setting the tone for what follows:

  • "Should Leicester Council of Faiths take steps to improve the local environment, in particular by planting trees?"
  • "What can be done to integrate the growing influx of students more effectively into general community?"
  • "What can Leicester City Council do to increase the availability of social housing and reduce the waiting list for occupancy?"
  • "Is it really necessary for Leicester City Council to raise charges for burial and cremation to the extent that they have?"
  • "How can faith communities engage more effectively with Leicester City Council's policies and strategies on mental health?"
  • "How can faith communities engage better with Leicester City Council's policies and strategies on domestic violence?"
  • "Can the City Council or City Mayor do anything to bring empty buildings in  Leicester city centre into active community use?"
  • "How can it be ensured that the growing number of Free Schools & Faith Schools doesn't increase cultural, geographical and social divisions in Leicester?"

It's not just people speaking from the background of religion or belief who get up and speak. We also hear contributions from who identify themselves with organisations such as Leicester City Council, Leicestershire County Council, LOROS, Midlands Dialogue Forum, Rushymead Foundation, Schools Development Support Agency, University of Leicester. Rather than ask him to prepare a formal speech, we've invited the Mayor to participate in a more off-the-cuff manner, responding to points from the floor as he sees fit. This helps promote a comfortable, informal atmosphere. Inspector Rich Keenan of Leicestershire Police speaks about proposed events in Leicester city centre this coming Saturday. Rich has a lively awareness, engagement and interest in religious and cultural affairs in the city and regularly attends occasions such as the Faith Leaders Forum. He tells the meeting how he trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood, qualified as an RE teacher and taught within a Jesuit setting before joining the police.

Our Vice-Chair closes the meeting by inviting all attending this evening to come to the multi-faith vigil at Leicester Cathedral on Friday. There's a vote of thanks to Gur Panth Parkash Gurdwara for making us welcome this evening - and to Gursharan Kaur Thandi for taking the lead in organising this event.


At Voluntary Action Rutland, Oakham, this morning, delivering the second in a series of seminars for the Regional Equality and Divesrity Partnership (REDP) on the Human Rights Act 1998.

Strictly speaking, the part on the Human Rights Act is delivered by Chino Cabon from The Race Equality Centre (TREC), while I present a Beginners Guide to REDP.

The purpose of these seminars is to help Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations appreciate the relevance of the Human Rights Act 1998 to their mission, to understand its relationship to equality and diversity issues, as well enabling them to take part in the current debate about the UK withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rgihts and replacing it with a new UK Bill of Rights. These topics will feature prominently in REDP's next regional event, in Derby, 22 March.

Gathered in The Gower Centre (photo above) this morning are representatives of ten VCS organisations:


Here's how our open meeting this evening with City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby has been promoted in today's Leicester Mercury:
Mayor joins faith leaders
The council of faiths will be joined by city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby at its first meeting of the year tonight.
Representatives of the various faiths will assemble at Gur Panth Parkash Gurdwara, in Ashford Road, off Welford Road, at 6pm.The council of faiths said it planned to step up its work in the community this year.
All are welcome to the meetings, which will take place regularly throughout the year.

Monday, 30 January 2012


To London today, for the Big Society and Equality Conference, hosted by the Women's Resource Centre (WRC) at the Human Rights Action Centre, Amnesty International UK, New Inn Yard.

The first person I see when I enter the conference room is Ian Robson, Director of the Leicester LGBT Centre and a fellow Core Partner on REDP. We silently mouth "What are you doing here?" to each other as I skirt my way through the tables to find the nearest free seat. I'm here representing both Leicester Council of Faiths and REDP. Ian's here for the LGBT Centre (and has to leave before the end of the morning sessions).

Around 40 organisations (mostly from the Voluntary and Community Sector) are represented here today, including:

Introduction & welcome Vivienne Hayes, Chief Executive, Women's Resource Centre.

Overview of Big Society Sheila Battersby, Policy Manager, Local Intelligence Team, Office for Civil Society.
  • The Big Society fits in with coalition agreements around decentralisation and localism and is about changing the role of central government.
  • Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society is leading on this programme of work.
  • There are three pillars to the Big Society: community empowerment, social action and opening public services.
  • This event is an opportunity for equalities organisations to feedback to Ministers on practical solutions to issues such as innovation, how to improve local democracy and so on.
  • One of the aims of this research is to provide recommendations for an Office for Civil Society (OCS) report. These recommendations will be shared with the wider Cabinet Office.

Equalities and the Big Society Natalie Ntim, Policy Officer, Women's Resource Centre.
  • Greater equalities awareness is needed amongst public bodies
  • A survey by WRC acknowledged the lack of capacity within organisations to engage with the programmes within the three pillars.
  • Case study of Equality Cumbria – a social enterprise made up of equalities networks that has supported 13 public bodies over the past three years in a variety of ways. They work in partnership but apply for contracts separately to cover their individual core costs.

Community First Grants Programme Ian Beason, Programmes Manager, Community Development Foundation.

The Community First Grants programme is an £80 million government-funded Big Society initiative. It aims to get people to give time, money, goods, services and facilities to improve the quality of life of local communities. The initiative replaces the last government’s Grassroots Grants programme which aimed to provide small grants for local community groups. However, rather than just awarding small grants to community projects, it requires government funding to be matched with community contributions. The programme aims to encourage community self-reliance; increase participation of all parts of the community; strengthen communities by identifying local priorities; and provide a source of grants in the future.
  • The aim of the programme is to make communities better to live in.
  • The Community First Grant is a neighbourhood level matched fund.
  • Decisions of who receives funding are made by Community First Panels. Panels are self selecting and determine their local priorities. After a year, they’ll firm these up by creating a panel plan.
  • Panels will nominate a Panel Partner- they will have to say that the panel is actually a representative group of the local population.
  • Projects are match funded 1:1 – although the organisation does not have to match the amount purely in money terms, it could also be volunteer time for example.
  • Over 250 panels have submitted applications already.
  • The programme has links with other programmes and partners e.g. Community Organisers, Business Connectors, Community Foundation Network, Asda stores, youth orgs, local authorities etc.
  • Q&A session:
  • Q: Accountability of Panels? How will CDF manage any possible conflict of interest?
  • A: Ian stressed the importance of website connection to panels, who will have to upload information about decisions made regarding funding. He said there is no specific equalities angle in this initiative and was unsure whether minutes displayed publicly will be obligatory.
  • Q: How will CDF counteract homogenous panels and encourage representation of equalities?
  • A: All local authorities have received a letter from CDF saying they should be representative. Local authorities generally haven’t sat on the panels in order to create distance between themselves and the decisions made. They don’t want to appear like they’re running the show to their own priorities. However, no equalities data is being collected on the membership of the panels.
  • Any organisation can become a panel representative and organisations don’t have to be based in the ward or even be a constituted group.
  • RECOMMENDATION: disaggregate panel membership by equalities data
  • Q: What is the process for financial accountability?
  • CDF are in charge of financial accountability. They then have to account to OCS.
  • Delegate Comments:
  • Harder and harder to get the most disadvantaged people to engage because it’s getting harder and harder to survive
  • Website accountability – disadvantaged people less likely to use the internet
  • Mistake to link equality and local level projects. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it will be meeting equalities obligations. For example, LSPs were local and were also male dominated. Will be too late in a few years to see that all the panels are run by white men.

Local Integrated Services Victoria Westhorp, Policy Manager, Local Intelligence Team, Office for Civil Society; Martha Earley, Public Health Manager for Inequalities & Team Leader for Community Development, Royal Borough of Kingston.
Local Integrated Services is a new approach to delivering local services which brings together budgets and local assets (such as buildings) and puts communities in control of co-producing and commissioning the services that they need. It looks at ways to effectively use existing resources and explores the benefits of pooling budgets. The government supports the testing of community commissioning to see if it can produce better outcomes and create financial savings.
  • Community commissioning is statutory commissioning devolved down to community level. It’s more about communities being involved in decision making about services rather than directly handing money to communities.  
  • Past interventions (e.g. health action zones) focused on particular streets/areas of deprivation. The Marmot Review said that a universal approach benefits the poorest people more than specific interventions. So Kingston council wrote to the Cabinet Office to propose a new approach- working with everyone in the ward. Within this approach, the council identified the need to:
    • Develop community voice.
    • Pool money and resources for a single pot of money.
    • Increase partnership work between individuals and agencies.
    • The council ask the community what to focus on, without a pre-existing agenda. They used some previous research to find out what community members had already identified. There are monthly project meetings for all partners to get around the table. They have aimed to circumnavigating the segregation model- where someone is targeted just because they live on a particular estate - which stigmatizes people and discourages them from getting involved.

Community Organisers Programme Lawrence Walker, Programmes Officer, Locality

The Community Organisers Programme is a £15 million government-funded Big Society initiative. The programme aims to recruit and train 5,000 Community Organisers to help local communities come together to tackle social issues and develop community projects in deprived areas in England. The programme started in February 20112 and will run for the lifetime of this Parliament (until May 2015). Through the programme, government wants to strengthen community spirit; encourage participation of the local community; increase the effectiveness of existing community groups; create new community groups and social enterprises; and support communities to tackle local issues important to them.
  • Q&A/Comments:
  • What are the real costs of Community Organisers? Hosts will not be getting full cost recovery. Community development officers get paid more than the wages being paid to community organisers and they are very similar jobs.
  • Q: Can anyone become an organiser and how do you recruit them?
  • A: Yes anyone can become an organiser, follow the website and find a local host organisation to apply to.
  • Q: How are the expenses of community organisers paid?
  • A: Learning expenses are covered; the host provides liability insurance for the volunteers.
  • Q: What connections do you have with previous community organiser projects?
  • A: It refers back to previous community organiser projects, but the larger scale of the current movement means it’s an innovative new programme.
  • Group Discussion:
  • How could the Community Organisers programme benefit the groups that you work with?
  • It is another way in which our organisations can have some form of influence
  • One organisation said that they are being selective about which parts of the Big Society they engage with due to capacity and lack of finance. This organisation will not engage with community organisers as they are concerned about the legacy component- the political landscape is likely to change in 3 years’ time.
  • What is wrong with existing voluntary sector work? Fantastic organisations already do this work e.g. in Barnet.
  • Unsure as to what value the programme will bring to the sector, it seems the government are reinventing the wheel. We already know what people need, why we don’t use the money to fund what they need.
  • Community organisers should be coming to the voluntary sector first rather than us having to engage with them. They should be aware of and build upon our work. --- Locality see the community organisers programme as complementing the work of the voluntary and community sector.
  • Organisations are currently losing funding, expertise, knowledge and relationships. The organisations that would act as hosts are closing on a weekly basis. If the macro-level is taken away what use is developing the micro-level,
  • Recommendations:
  • Need to encourage those who don’t feel empowered to engage with the programme; need to support these groups to create a plan of the change they want to see.
  • The programme needs to manage financial expectations. If there is no money after the initial community organisation programme, it will be difficult to achieve any long-term positive outcomes.
  • Have organisers been CRB checked and how will you ensure they are protected if they are engaging with people in personal spaces, such as their homes?

By this stage in the proceedings there’s a negative atmosphere; a palpable air of anger, anxiety, depression, disappointment, disbelief, fear – I could go on. Suffice to say, a black cloud has been forming over the room, although it doesn’t seem to be overshadowing those on the platform or podium. The fellow sitting next to me has been responding to each new PowerPoint slide with a muttered, “Oh, for God’s sake!” After a while, I ask him if he’s aware he’s doing that, or if he thinks he’s just thinking it. Those taking advantage of the opportunities to ask questions and make comments become fewer and fewer. More people are just staring at their shoes or at the table tops; some have their heads in their hands.

I feel moved to comment at the end of this session (on the Community Organisers Programme). Bearing in mind the primacy of courtesy, and taking care to avoid giving the impression that this is any kind of ad hominem attack, I feel I have to take a few minutes to articulate what I believe most people in the room are thinking.

Addressing a group of patients who are struggling with a terminal illness and telling them that on top of that, they’re now expected to take on fostering duties.

Many of the people here today – and more people whom we know back in our communities and organisations – have worked over years (over decades in many cases) to develop a level of compassion, confidence, cooperation, courage, diplomacy, expertise, judgement, knowledge, rapport, sensitivity, sympathy, trust. Why should we be glad, grateful or thankful that the Coalition sees fit to jettison so many of these people and the organisations for which they work and that it offers something (in the form of the Community Organisers programme) that is a poor shadow of what we’ve spent all this time and effort developing? The creation of a stratum of Community Organisers as has been described today would be welcome if the sector as a whole is facing a collective death sentence.

I end by saying to the speaker that I don’t envy his position. I have no desire to “shoot the messenger” but I have to say that I wouldn’t be doing his job for all the tea in China.

As I'm leaving the venue at the end of the conference, one of the delegates wishes me farewell and hails me as the "William Wallace of the equalities world". I know that she's latching on to my Scottishness and my outspokenness but I can't help but be flattered by that - until I remember that William Wallace gets disembowelled at the end of Braveheart!

This event has vexed me for some time now. That’s partly why it took me ages to write this blog post. The reason why I found it so disturbing only became clear after I attended another national conference on Big Society a month later, in Bradford (see blog entry, Wednesday 29 February 2012). This event today was a showcase for those organisations which have won contracts to deliver Big Society initiatives; the Bradford conference was quite the opposite in tone.

The word "equality" is used often at this conference and in the material that accompanies it. But actions speak louder than words. It seems to me (and, from a straw poll of other attendees) that equality is conspicuous by its absence from the initiatives and programmes described here. It's well known that the Coalition has shifted government support from equality to "fairness". the latter could be said to be subjective. It's not enshrined in or protected by legislation, nor is it measurable - which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see or state whether or not it's changing for better or worse. It could be said that from this side of the fence, there is no equalities agenda in Big Society (whatever that is, since by the end of today, we're none the wiser except to say that what we do see of it, we don't much like).

A word on the idea of "replicating innovative projects", a phrase that is used often today. Some of us support the notion that this is akin to being a butterfly collector: spotting something attractive and different in the wild, netting it, gassing it and pinning its dead body to a board for display behind glass.


At Christchurch, Clarendon Park, for the third session in the course, "Mindfulness & Wisdom", offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme. The eight-week course has been devised by Ian Grayling and Kevin Commons from the Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.

Our topic this evening: "Wisdom and the Concept of 'Stages of Faith'".

To quote Bob Dylan (not something I often do, faithful reader) "I'm not there". At the time of this meeting, I'm swanning around the Frederick Gore Retrospective III at The Gallery in Cork Street, London, being mistaken for a successful documentary film producer.

So, thanks to Kevin for sending me notes of this evening's session, so I could maintain the blog for the course. 

Ian began the session by inviting responses from attendees, who'd been left at the end of the last session 2 to consider aspects of their faith and its history that demonstrate "spiritually intelligent or spiritually dumb behaviour." The principal issue arising from this discussion was that there had been plenty of examples of spiritually dumb behaviour exhibited by key figures or institutional bodies within the faith traditions represented in the group. There was further elaboration of this point with reference to failure to recognise the interdependence of humanity and an attachment to independence.

Kevin then introduced the main topic of the evening, which involved looking at James Fowler's Stages of Faith, which are as follows:

  • Stage 0 "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterised by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). 
  • Stage 1 "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.
  • Stage 2 "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.
  • Stage 3 "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence) characterized by conformity.
  • Stage 4 "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-20s to late 30s) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.
  • Stage 5 "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems.
  • Stage 6 "Universalising" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment".

Kevin reminded us how our behaviour seems to change from "dependence, through independence to interdependence", which points to a line of human development that had surfaced during the first two weeks of the course and indicated how Fowler, a Christian theologian and developmental psychologist, takes this idea further in his work. He made a very brief presentation of Fowler's taxonomy, pointing to its connection with the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, that had been touched on in the Mindfulness and Morality course last year. A chunk of time was allocated for participants to study a printed summary of the Fowler's stages and the points of transition between them. Kevin pointed out how stages 1-3 built authority on external factors, whereas internal factors become the source of authority from stage 4 onwards and the independence involved in this becomes the springboard to notions of interdependence in stages 5 and 6.

An atmosphere of quite reflection was built up as individuals considered whether the material presented was borne out by their own spiritual journey. The plenary discussion which followed suggested that what Fowler has to say strikes a chord with many people.


This article is published in today's Leicester Mercury:
Holocaust horrors inspire children to poetry
Children paid tribute to victims of genocide at a memorial event.
Speak Up, Speak Out, took place at the University of Leicester on Saturday to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, which took place on Friday.
Young people spoke about school trips to Auschwitz, before the launch of an anthology of poems about hatred and genocide, written by pupils in Leicester.
Manjula Sood, chairman of Leicester Council of Faiths and assistant mayor of Leicester City Council, said: "It is important to remember the lessons from history from the holocaust and other forms of genocide which have taken place since.
"Pupils from schools across Leicester have been taking part in work looking at tackling all kinds of hatred and discrimination, which is an especially important message in a multicultural city such as Leicester."
The event was run by Leicester City Council, Leicester Council of Faiths, the School Development Support Agency and the university's Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust Studies.
For more information on Holocaust Memorial Day visit: www.hmd.org.uk

Sunday, 29 January 2012


This evening Cllr Manjula Sood (Leicester City Council Assistant Mayor and Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths) and I appear together live on BBC Radio Leicester, speaking about preparations for events in the city centre next Saturday.

Kamlesh Purohit (photo above) broadcasts music, entertainment and news from an Asian perspective every Sunday between 2000 and 2200. Manjula and I are live in the studio with Kamlesh for 20 minutes or so early in the show, responding to  his questions about the city's faith communities and the upcoming demonstration by the English Defence League and counter demonstration by Leicester Unite Against Fascism. We're also able to say a little about the forthcoming open meeting sponsored by the Council of Faiths with City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby at Gur Panth Parkash Gurdwara, Ashford Road, this Tuesday evening.

Saturday, 28 January 2012


The city formally commemorates Holocaust Memorial Day this evening. The event is jointly sponsored by Leicester Council of Faiths, the Schools Development Support Agency (SDSA), the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council. 

The annual commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day officially falls on 27 January, which was yesterday - a Friday. Since the Jewish community plays such a prominent part in this annual occasion, it would be daft to hold it on a day on which they'd be unable to take part.

Leicester's Holocaust Memorial Day has obtained funding from the Big Lottery's Awards For All scheme this year, which has allowed preparations for the event and the commemoration itself this evening to step up a gear.

There are 140 people attending this evening, in what is a new venue for this event: Embrace Arts at the University of Leicester's Richard Attenborough Centre.

The programme is introduced by Tony Nelson (Chair of Leicester Holocaust Memorial Day Committee and Treasurer of Leicester Council of Faiths - and my line manager). Tony welcomes special guests, including Cllr Robert Wan, Lord Mayor of Leicester; Lady Gretton, Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire; and The Right Revd. Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester. Apologies were received from Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester.

Charlie Neale and Joe Flavell from English Martyrs Catholic School, Laura Whitehouse and Craig Heffernan from Beauchamp College speak on their experiences of the Holocaust Educational Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz Project, then answer questions. 

Now, normally when I hear anyone introduced as a "Performance Poet" my eyes dart to the nearest exit (and in my previous incarnation as a Creative Writing tutor, I've had to do that plenty of times). But this evening, I'm glad to say, Leah Thorn is definitely the exception that proves the rule. She makes a wonderful contribution - touching, moving and uplifting, engaging and involving - occasionally bringing us up short with moments of insight or revelation. She's accompanied on a variety of musical instruments by her partner, Arike. Leah has spent time in five Leicester schools working with pupils, coaching them in writing their own poetry about appropriate themes for Holocaust Memorial Day which are relevant to their own experience (later in the week, the Leicester Mercury gives good coverage to this part of the project). The poems have been collected in a booklet, entitled "SPEAKUPSPEAKOUT: Holocaust Memorial Day Poetry Collection 2012", which is distributed free of charge to attendees here this evening. Here's Leah's introduction to the booklet:
I arrived in Leicester on the 4th of December 2011 to lead a week of poetry in workshops in Leicester schools for Holocaust Memorial Day 2012. I was to work in a boys' secondary school, some primary schools and I was excited to meet the young people. I was also curious. How would we get on? In a period of a few hours, would it be possible to create a safety and an atmosphere in which young people could share honestly their thoughts and feelings about genocide?
My mother was a Holocaust survivor and when she learned of my work with non-Jews on the subject of the Holocaust, she tellingly asked, "Do they listen? Do they care?" Thinking of the young people I met during my week in Leicester, my answer is a resounding "YES!"
The young people, aged ten to fifteen, cared a lot. Whether we were looking at bullying as the first step to genocide, or at the role of the bystander, or at metaphors for the Holocaust, they were attentive, thoughtful - and full of poetic ideas. They surprised themselves with their achievements, and I appreciated the warmth with which they welcome me and listened to my poetry and my stories. The poems they created are a powerful testimony to their talent and to their sensitivity.

As well as Leah reading some of the children's poems, she mixes in some of her own, reflecting her family's recollections of the Holocaust. A few of the children are welcomed onstage to read their contributions. The Leicester schools with which Leah worked were:

The Holocaust is a choking sound,
a shattering sound around the whole world;
the screeching sound of a blackboard being scratched
and a building crashing down.
The Holocaust is dark silver, the colour of upset,
the blue of tears and the sleepy pink of smoke.
It is a journey stuck in freezing snow.

It stings and pinches skin. It is a bruise.
The Holocaust is a draught up your arm,
a spider creeping up your sleeve.
The Holocaust is rough on the tongue, like sharp metal.
The Holocaust is a game of Hide'n'Seek.
It is an explosion of destruction.
The Holocaust lives in an abandoned castle
with boarded up windows.
It is a ripped-up teddy bear
with its stitching dropped.
It is a rocking horse, rocking backwards and forwards.
It is a heart full of ice.
It says to me, "Everywhere I go,
everything nice dies."
The Holocaust lives in a dark, mysterious forest,
in the cold with dust.

(group poem by Year 6 pupils, Queensmead Primary School)

Next in this evening's programme there's a more formal musical interlude (two Chopin Preludes) by Markian Lachmann from English Martyrs at the piano.

Siobhan Begley presents certificates to the young people who have participated in the Speak Up, Speak out! project, in memory of her late husband, Paul Winstone.

Professor Aubrey Newman (Past Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester) addresses briefly this year's theme: "Speak Up, Speak Out!"

In the photo above (left to right): Tony Nelson, Juliet Martin (SDSA), Leah Thorn, Arike, Cllr Manjula Sood.

Some thoughts on "monitoring" are appropriate here: at the last few commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day, I've put out the forms required by Leicester City Council as part of their monitoring regime on the seats before anyone turns up. And whoever's been chairing the meeting has waved the forms from the front and asked attendees to complete them before leaving. Knowing how much store our various monitoring officers at City Council set by these forms, I'm always anxious to ensure as many of these forms as possible are completed and collected. I've had occasional comments - verbal or in writing - from attendees that this may be seen as a bit obtrusive. This evening I wasn't able to leave the monitoring forms on the seats before the meeting began, but lay them out on chairs and tables in the cafe, so that attendees can complete them during the reception after the formal part of the programme.

This time however, I'm slapped in the face by the irony of asking people to declare disability, religion and sexual orientation at an event, commemorating victims of the holocaust and of genocide who were persecuted, tortured victimised and done to death for possessing characteristics in those three areas that deviated from some arbitrary norm. Inside 20 minutes I go from (politely) butting into conversations round the tables, encouraging everyone to fill out the forms and explaining why we need them to do so, to going round collecting the unfilled forms and binning them. I have a conversation later with Rev. David Clarke about this and he offers to write supporting comments on one of the forms and sign it.


This appears in the Editoral Opinion column of today's Leicester Mercury:
EDL's letter does not reassure us
The English Defence League has written an open letter to Leicester businesses in which it states that its only intention in coming to Leicester next Saturday is to stage a peaceful protest.
We sincerely hope this is how things turn out but the EDL cannot be surprised that people are fearful about its return to Leicester. On the last occasion it staged a protest here, in October 2010, people in the EDL section pelted police officers with bottles, cans, bricks and coins.
At one point a Leicester Mercury reporter and photographer had to flee a building as debris crashed through the windows. Another group of EDL followers broke through police lines to engage in running battles with local youths and officers. In contrast, Unite Against Fascism, which the EDL tends to accuse of provoking trouble, staged a counter-protest which seemed to us to be entirely peaceful. This is not propaganda, as the EDL would no doubt suggest, but what our journalists saw with their own eyes.
The EDL in its open letter is also at pains to assert that it is not seeking to divide communities but to unite them. However, earlier in the letter it says, without a shred of evidence to support its claim: "It has become increasingly evident that there is an anti-English sentiment amongst some communities of Leicester."
It is hard to imagine a much more divisive statement than this.
The EDL believes that there is a "two-tier justice system" at work in the UK where Muslims are treated more leniently than English people. It is coming to Leicester because its supporters think that a court case last year at the city's crown court illustrated this.
We are not going to go through all this again – we did so at length last Saturday – suffice to say that what actually happened in court does not bear out the EDL's view. We know because our reporter was at the hearing.
The EDL's open letter is articulately expressed in measured tones.
Some people might conclude that it is perfectly reasonable. However, our experience of this group is not a good one and we think that what its supporters say and do is frequently divisive and damaging. That is not scaremongering or propaganda but is based on what we have seen for ourselves.


This article is published in today's Leicester Mercury:
City businesses have nothing to fear, insists EDL
The English Defence League has told businesses they have nothing to fear from its supporters during next weekend's planned protest in Leicester city centre.
The EDL, which says it was created to combat Islamic extremism, plans to stage a protest in the city centre on Saturday, February 4.Leicester Unite Against Fascism hopes to stage a counter-protest on the same day.
Police are planning a major public order operation to "facilitate" peaceful protest and to combat any potential for a repeat of the violence which broke out when the EDL last staged a major protest in the city.
On that occasion, in October 2010, many businesses chose to close for the day and many premises near the protest site in Humberstone Gate East were boarded up.
Now, the EDL's local leadership has written an open letter, on Facebook, to city businesses to urge them to ignore "propaganda" it claims is being spread about its supporters' behaviour during protests.
It has passed a copy to the Leicester Mercury.
The EDL letter restates that the purpose of the march was to highlight the group's anger that, in a recent court case, four Somalian women "escaped jail for a savage street attack" on a white woman.It says: "It has come to our attention that many communities and businesses prior to our demonstrations are misinformed by certain groups or individuals as to our intentions, and many places of business are advised to close.
"We feel this is an attempt, merely to raise tensions and undermine our message.
"I would like to assure you there is no need to close because of an English Defence League demonstration.
"We have marched through many cities and towns across the country with zero disruption to communities and that is our full and only intention for February 4."
Chief Superintendent Rob Nixon, head of city police said: "We trust that EDL will fulfil their promises as set out on the letter.
"The police have a legal duty to facilitate peaceful protests.
"We take our role of protecting our communities seriously and there is a significant policing operation in place as a precautionary measure."
Martin Traynor, chief executive of Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce, said: "I'm encouraged by the police approach of trying to control this march. However, based on past experience and people's perceptions of them this will still have a detrimental effect on the city centre."
Suleman Nagdi, spokesman for the Leicestershire Federation of Muslim Organisations, said: "What we have seen in other parts of the country does not instil confidence in this letter.
"So, we welcome their undertaking but we have doubts this will be the case on the day.
"If violence does break out – and we hope it does not – will they blame a fringe group they have no control over?
"They are responsible for bringing people to Leicester on that day and they have to rein in any fringe groups."
Mayor Peter Soulsby said: "We are talking to business leaders about our plans for the day, and these discussions will increase next week as more details become available.
"The success of city centre businesses is vital to Leicester and we will do whatever we can to ensure they can operate normally before, during and after the demonstrations.