When Ngozi Fulani, founder of domestic abuse charity Sistah Space, first mentioned her plans to buy a canal boat, they laughed. But she’s not joking – far from it. After a high profile dispute with London’s Hackney Council over the charity’s residence, which resulted in the organisation being served an eviction notice in the middle of the COVID pandemic by the authority that should have been helping them, finding somewhere secure is Fulani’s first priority.
“You know what, every time I said it, everybody laughed,” she says over the phone. “It is funny…[but] also, why can't we enjoy the water?”
It was a turbulent year to be asked to leave your premise as a domestic abuse charity for Black women in 2020. It was the start of a pandemic, one where ethnic minorities were disproportionately affected by the virus. It was also in the midst of concern over rising domestic abuse rates globally, as lockdown meant victims were trapped inside with their perpetrators. All the while, a worldwide reckoning was taking place over the treatment of Black people through the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While all this was taking place, Sistah Space – a charity with only three trustees and a small but growing group of volunteers – was fighting. Despite the eviction notice presented to them in August last year, Sistah Space came to an agreement with Hackney Council, which meant they were able to stay in their building until January 2021. After this, a charity that Fulani says wishes to remain anonymous, has provided them with a location until they’re able to fund somewhere independently.
“It's a complete contrast to where we were, and how we were treated,” she says. “The property itself is beautiful. It's a big enough space. We can do all of our work from here very safely and very comfortably.”
Their struggle was picked up across the UK media, garnering donations worth over £100,000 on a GoFundMe. It was also noticed by BLM UK, the group which had received over a million pounds in donations in the wake of the death of George Floyd. In February, BLM UK announced it would be drawing up a list of Black-run organisations to pass on the donations to. The organisation initially released £170,000 worth of funds and will release up to £600,000 worth of grants by the end of this year, according to Huffington Post. After putting in an application, Sistah Space is set to receive £10,000.
“Black Lives Matter [UK] – we've watched them monitoring us on what we do, because of the stuff with Hackney council,” says Fulani. “I don't think there were many organisations, Black run or not who weren't somewhat disturbed by the Hackney Council's treatment of a tiny charity like ours. Ours is completely unique, you will not find another domestic abuse charity, for African heritage women by African heritage women.”
Fulani says the money will go towards a wide selection of things, including researching how domestic violence and police services impact Black women, training, legal lobbying and some more ambitious projects.
“We can get further in because people will understand that we understand,” she says. “When people are secure in the knowledge that you're not going to be judged on your experiences, they're likely to tell you more. We know certain things because we've experienced it. So there are questions that we don't have to ask, [like] “What's it like being black in Britain?'”
They hope to apply this research to improve training around domestic abuse. “We are going to be offering basic training to a few organisations, DV [domestic violence] organisations, and to individuals from the community so that they also understand what domestic abuse is,” she says. “Because you would be so surprised to learn how many women still think that if you don't receive a physical blow, it's not domestic abuse.”
And then there’s the boat.
“Having been displaced in the midst of COVID, where we are amongst those at highest risk, we sat down and I thought to myself, how do we make sure that we're never in this position?” explains Fulani. “Again, we can't afford to buy a property. But what we can do is have a space where nobody can take us away from. We've decided that we're going to raise funds to purchase a canal boat.”
“We are the Windrush generation or descendants of the Windrush generation,” she continued. “We came over here, or our parents came over here on a ship. Those of us who came via slavery back in the day also came here on the ship. And one of the things I noticed is, we all came from the Caribbean, African places where we are by the sea, but when we come to these shores, we don't get to access houses by the sea, or a canal boat because we're economically disadvantaged.”
After a year of turbulence, the charity hopes it can find some security in a future of the canal, while fighting for women who are the victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
“It will be a tribute to those who have come away from the sea, via the sea, denied the sea. And it will be a space that we can conduct our training on,” Fulani says. “I mean, we'll only be able to go up and down the canal, but it's still something. And most importantly, nobody can evict us from that.”