Lessons from Welsh women: An excerpt from Tom Hansell’s After Coal

Tom Hansell’s After Coal will be published by WVU Press in November. The book traces a long-term exchange between mining communities in Appalachia and Wales, looking at how resonances between these regions—often depicted as victims of globalization—can be a source of strength. As Hansell puts it: “Taken at face value, international commerce seems to erode community self-determination, but can international connections also support local control?”

Here Hansell presents a first-person account by Mair Francis, founding member of a grassroots feminist organization dedicated to community regeneration in Banwen, Wales.

I was the founding member of DOVE, which stands for the Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise. Our story is the story of a group of women who, during the miners’ strike in 1984–85, embarked on a journey that changed our lives forever, and made a lasting impact on other women and men in our community.

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Mair Francis.

When the strike ended in 1985, most of the miners’ wives were exhausted from worry and despair. But a small group of us continued to meet. The support group we formed during the strike provided us with experiences that lead to the creation of DOVE.

The women in our support group became active on the political stage during the miners’ strike. We spoke alongside union leaders and politicians (who were usually male), marched in demonstrations, and picketed. We met other political groups of women who were involved in the peace movement, such as the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and during this time we had the opportunity to meet feminist writers as well as leaders in the gay and lesbian movement.

These political experiences allowed us women to learn how to work collectively with others. We had a democratically structured committee—which was very important because we needed to have women be in control of our own thoughts and ideas. Through the support group, women were given the opportunity to become politically active.

The primary objective of the DOVE Workshop was to improve learning opportunities for women in the valleys. Women in our area were given secondary roles, they were invisible. All of the organizations within the valley were controlled by men, men were the voices. So, women had a backstage role, and there was no real encouragement for the women to come forward and take control. And so we knew that when we set up DOVE, it had to be run and organized by women for women. And there were criticisms—you know, what about the opportunities for men? Well, men have always had opportunities, let’s give the women opportunities first.

We had to overcome many barriers to achieve our vision. We knew from the start that we had to provide free childcare facilities. We couldn’t expect the women to come to an educational training program if we didn’t provide childcare. It had to be a flexible learning environment, so everything had to be part-time and within school terms, and any holiday period there were no courses running. And of course, we had to provide transport. We were in a rural area. The bus service was nonexistent. Forty percent of the people had cars. So we worked out a way to provide transport. Our first minibus was the van that was donated by the gays and lesbians from London to the miners during the strike. So when the strike ended in 1985, we took over using that van in order to get around to meetings.

Next, we had to find a building. At the beginning we used a temporary building that had been a pool hall. The building that we eventually were able to use was the opencast building that was owned by the National Coal Board. This building was in Banwen, which is a small village of one street at the top end of the Dulais Valley, and one of the most deprived wards in the area. There was a large room for the crèche (day care) that was the one exciting thing about it. There were rooms for seminars and meetings.

Once we had a building, we had to identify tutors. We didn’t want a top-down approach. It was a grassroots approach. We wanted our women to become the tutors. So we found tutors that were sensitive to the needs of women. Then we needed funding. At the beginning we were able to get some small grants for voluntary groups. We set up our committee and applied for various bits of money, but we failed many times before we were successful.

The building also had extra of offices that became accommodations for the extra-mural learning department of Swansea University. This department became known as the Department for Adults and Continuing Education, and this was the first time that a city- based university was locating itself in the valleys on a permanent basis.

Eventually, we started offering flexible, part-time courses as a way of inviting women in, and making them feel confident and giving them the opportunity to do video production and learn computer skills. Through this work, we were able to build links with the local college in the town of Neath and with the Workers Educational Association to develop a curriculum so that women could build skills and opportunities as they advanced from one course to another.

During this period, we never lost our aim and our passion to set up a cooperative. We knew that we couldn’t rely entirely on public funds. We wanted to develop ways to earn money, which would help us fund the rest of the activities in DOVE. At that time, the main planks of the cooperative were video production, desktop publishing, the café, and the nursery. We figured out how each of these activities could earn income for DOVE.

And, of course, all of this development with the cooperative became the set for the social enterprise initiatives that are so successful in DOVE today. Now, the social-enterprise arm covers the DOVE day nursery, the community garden, and the café. And, at this moment, the community garden is developing into a trading arm. They sell the produce from the center, and the local marketplace also sells the produce—not just fruit and vegetables but preserves—jams and stuff like that. And the DOVE day nursery now provides an after-school club for primary school children. They’ve got a pickup and drop off at schools service. And the café has just expanded to a fifty-seat restaurant with a state-of-the-art kitchen for catering.

Eventually DOVE was seen as an example of best practices for women-specific training. We developed techniques for women to learn alongside women, and we identified women that were coming through on courses to become peer tutors. There would always be one woman in a course that was a good communicator, bright and feisty and intelligent. And we would ask that woman: “Would you like to try being a tutor? We can send you on a mentoring course to university, we’ll give you all the help and support that you want.”

The two women that run the center at the moment, Lesley Smith and Julie Bibby, are examples of two women that came through as volunteers and went on courses, got more and more qualifications. Last year, they both qualified for their master’s degrees in lifelong learning. So, those are real success stories. But there are many success stories like that.

 

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