Journalist and activist Anita Sethi is founding the I Belong Here foundation to help marginalised groups find a voice through writing – including proposing a ‘Ministry of Stories’-inspired “house of stories of the North” in her old childhood home in inner-city Manchester.
Objectives of the foundation, among which is the creation of a dedicated space for writers in the community she is from, extend to touring a series of workshops around the country, as well as launching a new podcast to “open up international conversations about place and belonging” and a scholarship for someone studying or writing about place and marginalisation. Another element of the project is to address inequality of access to nature, an issue Sethi called “urgent”.
Sethi – who is hoping to attract sponsors for the ambitious initiative – has said she wants to start by transforming her childhood home in inner-city Manchester into “a storytelling centre”. Her vision for the house involves building a library within its walls to provide a space for writers’ residencies and workshops for marginalised groups.
Explaining why she wants to set up the centre in the community she is from, she said that although many initiatives in the “northern powerhouse” concentrate on the city centre, people in the inner-city – who are from one of the statistically most deprived areas of the country – can still feel excluded despite being geographically close.
“The whole point in setting the I Belong Here foundation in my former childhood home, which is in inner-city Manchester, is to give people in the community the confidence to say ‘I am a writer’, as well as to give people a place to go and a sense of belonging,” she said. “Youth clubs in the area and libraries are few and far between compared to what they used to be. The idea, and of running different kinds of workshops, is to give a voice [to marginalised groups in the area] to say ‘I Belong Here’ and to explore other places where they could belong.”
She added, on the topic of addressing a lack regional diversity within the industry: “It is heartbreaking there’s a whole world of stories that are going untold because people don’t have access to the networks of the industry, or they don’t have the confidence to say my story deserves to be told and my story belongs in a book … There is also a very toxic idea that stories from outside the M25 are not ‘universal’. These stories deserve to be told as much as those of so-called mainstream communities.”
Sethi has said she would like the I Belong Here foundation to have “both roots and wings”, with locally rooted initiatives such as the “house of stories”, as well as more mobile initiatives, giving inner-city communities the same access to nature in acknowledgement of benefits to well-being and mental health. A 2019 research report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) found that almost half of the country's most socially deprived areas are more than 15 miles by road from 10 national parks and 46 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).
“My aim is to cover various aspects of belonging, from the sense of belonging that books and stories can bring through the workshops and physical storytelling space, to [exploring] actual place and belonging in terms of getting marginalised communities, like the inner-city BAME communities I grew up in, out into nature," said Sethi.
“Following my experience of being abused, I suffered from depression and anxiety, and walking in nature did wonders for my well-being. As one strand of the I Belong Here foundation, I would like to help socially excluded communities have better access to nature.”
Sethi was prompted to launch the foundation after she was racially abused on a TransPennine train travelling through the North and told to “go back to where you’re from”. Her aim is to be able to “transform my experience of hate into one of hope”.
Sethi is currently seeking sponsors and patrons. Enquiries can be made directly by contacting email@example.com.