Reading: A microcosm of the world
PUBLISHED: 11:58 04 February 2016 | UPDATED: 11:58 04 February 2016
The county town may not yet have achieved city status, but is already 'a microcosm of the world'. Claire Pitcher went to find out more
Many of us may already know about the good work and facilities to be discovered at RISC, in Reading. However, for those unaware of their presence on London Road for the last 30 years or so, the Reading International Solidarity Centre continues to raise awareness of global issues through education.
It wasn’t always based in Reading. Pre-1987 home was in Slough, on a double decker bus. One of the people who can recall those early days is centre organiser Martin Mikhall. He explains: “I became involved with RISC because I felt, and still feel, that it’s very important people are made aware of our position in the world. So much power and influence over big decisions emanate from places like the UK and the USA – a lot of that is because of our colonial past.”
When Martin heard RISC founder Anne Yarwood speaking on the radio all those years ago, she was recruiting people for the bus project. The bus would tour around, running workshops for children on global citizenship issues. “I was unemployed at the time and thought ‘That fits with what I really would like to do’. I wanted to raise people’s awareness in this country, though education.”
A move to Reading
Reading was quite a different place 40 or so years ago. Martin can recall: “It was a small, provincial market town when I moved here in 1977. It’s now a microcosm of the world, really. Not to say that in ’77 there weren’t communities existing here already. There were large Polish, Irish, African and Caribbean communities. Later there was a south Asian community, those from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.”
It was very apt, therefore, that RISC should open its doors in the county town to begin its education work: “That’s our primary focus,” says Martin. “Whether it’s with teachers to give them confidence to deliver global citizenship in the classroom, or part of a public events programme we run.”
The Global Café and the World Shop have always been popular in the town. The shop stocks a plethora of Fairtrade items, from woollen brooches to books and beads, and the café serves up some wonderful Ethiopian cuisine and often hosts musicians from across the world. World Café wines, spirits and ales come from at least 23 countries, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Finland, Paraguay and Barbados.
“There’s also our edible roof garden,” Martin points out. “Everything up there can be eaten in one way or another. With all we have here at RISC, it means that people can, in a practical way, support communities in other parts of the world who are working to help themselves.
“It’s one thing to have your awareness raised about an issue, but then it’s quite frustrating if there’s no sort of action you can take. We provide suggestions and ways in which people can.”
Above all else however, Martin and the rest of the ‘collective’ at RISC are most proud of the centre being open for anyone to walk through the front door. “Normally if you go into an information and advice centre you have a specific question or a problem, so you don’t even get a chance to look at the leaflet rack.
“You wouldn’t go to a Citizens Advice Bureau if you had no issue but just wanted to look at the noticeboard and pick up leaflets. We wanted to be really upfront and public. Anyone can come in here. Plus, if you want to take it one step further and become a volunteer here or attend events, you have the opportunity.”
To be continued
So, having been open to all for the past three decades, those at RISC must have seen change happen, perspectives altered, education improved thanks to new technologies? “Well, they have and haven’t,” ponders Martin. The issues might change, but it appears certain attitudes haven’t. “Some people see portrayals of particular communities and groups and respond in a very positive way. They perhaps then want to find out more about them, or assist them if help is needed.
“Others, however, respond in a very negative way, as we have seen most recently with a small minority of people and their attitudes towards the Muslim community.
“You could even extend the same argument to women. That if you portray women in a very negative way, with some people it will bring out a negative reaction, which could increase violence against women, even abuse. Some people react in a compassionate way, others don’t.”
It would seem, then, that some things haven’t really changed. “There were human rights abuses 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, even today,” says Martin. “They are just different places, different contexts, different people. In my view it’s important we continue to communicate about these issues, internationally and locally.”
RISC – A potted history
Reading International Solidarity Centre was first known as World Education Berkshire (WEB) and was set up by Ann Yarwood in 1981. In the beginning, WEB was simply a double decker bus, painted with the slogan ‘Think Globally – Act Locally’, and toured schools and community groups from its base at Burnham.
By 1987 the charity decided to find its own place, so rented 103 London Street, naming it Reading International Support Centre. However, the building soon outgrew the needs of the charity, with its small fair trade shop, tiny offices and a small meeting room.
RISC bought the old London Street Bookshop in 1995, and after 18 months of hard work and with the help of many volunteers, the team transformed the place into what it is today. The World Shop opened and within two years RISC was also operating a café. In 2002 the edible roof garden was completed.
2016 diary dates
• Fairtrade Fortnight - 29 February to 4 March - Each spring the Fairtrade Foundation hosts Fairtrade events, publicity, meetings and exhibitions throughout the country.
• Reading International Festival - 15 to 29 October - Two weeks of events celebrating Reading’s diverse communities and action groups. The programme highlights the internationalist activities, twinning links and solidarity in Reading. The Festival includes Black History Month and One World Week events. See www.risc.org.uk.