Leveraging cultural capital for political reform

Sunder Mahendra explores how scholars are using the power of stories to influence positive social change.

Refugee Tales is a fascinating example of an outreach project that deploys cultural tools in engaging with communities to influence change at multiple levels. Building directly on his individual research into the linguistic exclusion of people who have experienced detention, David Herd, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent’s School of English helped co-found the Refugee Tales project in collaboration with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group in 2015. ‘Refugee Tales’, is an advocacy and protest project that marries the worlds of political activism, literature, theatre and history in calling for an end to the UK’s policy of indefinite detention of migrants and asylum seekers.  

Currently in the UK there is no limit to the duration of time that asylum seekers may be detained in Immigration Removal Centres, and ‘Refugee Tales’ protests this state of affairs. The project’s explicit aim is to end such incarceration through political activism. At another level, it contributes to a change in discourse on immigration, to develop a culture that never denies refugees their humanity. The project brings together refugees, writers, poets, actors, musicians, filmmakers and other creatives in achieving its goals. 

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The Refugee Tales project is inspired by the experiences of people held in immigration detention at Gatwick, telling the stories of people affected by immigration detention. Drawing upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the project comprises collections of tales published in textual editions alongside a political campaign to call for an end to the practice of indefinite detention of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The tales that are told take the form of an established writer giving voice to those that are caught up in this inhuman process. Some of the oral narratives come from refugees, some from care-workers and supporters, and some from those caught up in the institutional processes of bureaucracy.  

The project centres on an ongoing series of large-scale public walks in solidarity with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and people being held in detention. The walk is designed to raise awareness of the situation of those held in indefinite detention in the UK and the cruelty of it.  Participants walk across South East England, and tales about detainees are told by well-known writers, poets, artistes and academicians, alongside first-person accounts of the realities of detention. Literary texts, historical sites and documents are also linked creatively to asylum seekers’ histories. 

As Co-Director of the project, Professor David Herd has been integral to all aspects of its organisation and execution throughout. In particular, he has led its cultural inquiry through the commissioning of co-produced tales, the mentoring of people writing first-person testimony, the co-editing of the project’s volumes, and the constant articulation of the project’s findings through essays, broadcasts, and at numerous high-profile political events. In particular, he has framed the space in which published stories are shared, through the verse ‘Prologues’ and discursive ‘Afterwords’ he has contributed to each volume. Herd’s contribution to migration studies through Refugee Tales has been extensively discussed in articles and essays. 

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