Interview with Ellen Bassam, on repair cafes, coronavirus and much more.

We’re running interviews with Interesting People (TM).  Here’s the latest, Ellen Bassam.
Who are you (how did you come to be in Manchester, what have you studied, what else do you do)
I came to Manchester initially to do my undergraduate degree in American Studies at UoM. I then returned to complete an MA in Governance and Public Policy a year after graduating as I missed the city. In the year between studying I did an internship at the UN Refugee Agency, where I learnt more about how to create practical positive change, which inspired me to pursue policy. I also co-established The Office Girl, an Instagram-based political opinion outlet. This was born out of a desire to help educate young people through an accessible medium and talk about issues that aren’t discussed in the mainstream enough.
You studied repair cafes for your research What was the motivation, what was the process, what – in a nutshell – were your findings?
My initial motivation for researching repair cafes came from seeing their founder, Martine Potsma, speak at the Sustainable Consumption Institute’s Festival last year. I really liked the idea that practical solutions that challenge the ingrained capitalist-driven consumption habits could also bring benefits to those who, in the context of the UK at least, are facing the effects of years of austerity and a lack of services. I therefore wanted to pursue this specifically in Manchester, where there is this idea of a co-benefit approach to environmental policymaking. The process was somewhat affected by Covid-19 as all repair cafes shut down just as I was beginning my research, but I took a qualitative approach and interviewed organisers of the repair cafes in Levenshulme, Moss Side and Boothstown and had volunteers complete questionnaires. This allowed me to get a real ground-level understanding of the context for each repair cafe and their benefits. Ultimately, my findings demonstrated the role of the community and how the interconnectedness of the three prevalent themes; environmentalism, social capital, and wellbeing show the importance of approaches to sustainability that really do bring benefits in other areas as well.
What would you say to someone who said “yeah, it’s great that people are getting to fix things and feel good about themselves and their community, but ultimately, most of the junk in our lives is being foisted upon us through sophisticated advertising campaigns, and is being designed to breakdown the day after the warranty expires and be unrepairable. So we should all be campaigning to change the system, not teaching each other to fix toasters”?   (other than ‘wow, that’s quite some cynicism there.)
Systemic change is undoubtedly needed, however, I think the simplicity of repair cafes’ goals provides some positives going forwards. Firstly, I think people can only call for systematic change when they understand how the system affects them personally, and for some, that might start with a broken toaster. But, by learning about the wider ramifications about the stuff you own and learning new skills at somewhere like a repair cafe it can raise awareness and willingness to act on a bigger scale. Secondly, you need strong cohesive communities to call for demands for change that reflect the needs of the communities, and local sustainability initiatives therefore have a role to play in this. Finally, I think there has to be an understanding about people’s capacity for action, drawing on the strengths of those who have it, to help those exposed to the impacts of environmental damage and more broadly, cuts to services.
What next for you? what would you like to study, be involved in?
In terms of what next, ideally i’d like to continue exploring how environmental targets will be reached in practice and put pressure on authorities to achieve them, and continue to research and learn about community sustainability.
With regards to the petition for a seventh scrutiny committee, dedicated to examining climate policy in Manchester, what advice do you have for people trying to get additional signatures?
To increase engagement in petitioning for a seventh scrutiny committee I’d say it’s demonstrating its relevance and simplicity is key. I’d also say try and find the local networks online across Manchester (smaller organisations etc). Any campaign needs key messages and motivations and consistent themes across social channels.

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