Local resident Jenni Regan writes about founding The Alternative Chingford Group – a left-leaning Facebook community hub for E4, with almost 1,300 members…
Newcomer, looney leftie, communist and the admin of a group which is a ‘cesspit of hate’ – those are just a few of the ways I have been described over the past year. But for so long, I had never been particularly aware or involved in politics.
Though when my family moved to Chingford from Walthamstow, nearly five years ago, it was a bit of a culture shock.
It is such an incredible area – which I now know is brimming with community and surrounded by forest. However, I moved just after the Brexit vote took place. I was horrified that many Facebook groups I joined contained racist comments. Celebrating that soon people would be ‘going home.’ And that we would be ‘getting our country back’.
Certainly not the Mini Holland and helicopter moans I had become so used to.
I decided that although Chingford was my home, my heart was still in Walthamstow. I joined a couple of groups in middle-ground Highams Park trying to find people with similar views on life.
I felt out of place for years, until I was shocked into action – when racism hit my daughter’s school.
We had a new headteacher, which was incredibly exciting. She had come from an inner London school and was brimming with plans to improve things. She is also a practising Muslim. The school isn’t particularly religious, but does celebrate the tradition of Christmas: carols in the local church, a nativity, the explanation of the story of Christmas.
The first I knew of an attack against her was a MailOnline article. It alleged she had decided to change the words to a traditional carol (from Lord Jesus to Baby Jesus) – an inclusive decision, it seems, for a diverse school.
Not according to the subsequent Britain First petition – which claimed the headteacher was ‘ruining Christmas’ and ‘eroding our Christian values’. I felt incensed. I reached out to her to offer support, and became a parent governor late last year.
Then, when Covid struck in March 2020, I started coordinating the Mutual Aid in Chingford. I finally start feeling like part of the community – as I met and supported people of all ages and all views. It felt like everyone was coming together at last and that we really did have a strong and strong community.
Through this work, I learned that many of us felt out of place in the area. Most of the social media groups around here have a strong right wing bias – and some of us had been called ‘snowflakes’ more times than we could recall.
So we decided to start our own group: The Alternative Chingford Group! We’re very clear that we’re more left-leaning than others in the area, but not in any way a political group (as none of us, to my knowledge, are members of any political party).
We now have a membership of almost 1,300 people. Together, we’ve achieved so much in a matter of months.
When we were able, we organised wellbeing walks and talks, so that people could meet up with dogs and kids and discover the forest. Many people told us they were very isolated for many reasons, and this was the first time they had met people in the area.
We held a world puddle jumping competition event, which required participants to turn up with donations for the local food bank. We then took pictures of kids (and dogs!) getting muddy.
Then, we started supporting asylum seekers being housed in London hotels, which has become the group’s key project. My garage is now a collection point, and many of our members have helped me collect, sort and drop off donations. We’re now working with other hotels, a local baby bank and other homeless outreach.
So many of our members have never volunteered before and tell me that they are loving having a purpose.
We’ve carried on the Mutual Aid and have built a really strong network in Chingford: links to other groups, food banks, GPs and Waltham Forest Council. Many more of us now have food drop-off boxes outside our houses and volunteer at the food bank.
We have been supporting teachers and key workers throughout lockdown. In December, we had a project called cake for teachers where every Friday we clubbed together and delivered cake to different schools. We have supported the local care home with care packages.
Friendships and smaller groups have developed, too. The Discovery Space is running a series of events including Writing for Wellbeing workshops (which I lead), as well a musicians’ jam, knitting sessions and quizzes.
We are now talking about how we can become a registered group so we can support the community more. But for most people, the feedback I receive is that members are just happy to have a space free of prejudice.
Different viewpoints do pop up on the group, though – but we discuss and debate without straying into arguments. We also share local pictures, news and businesses like other Facebook groups, and our engagement is really high.
This has been my lifeline during lockdown, to have such an incredible group who are helping by raising money, volunteering and donating items. Many of whom I have met on my doorstep, metres apart, wearing masks.
It turns out there was a whole community in Chingford feeling as though they didn’t fit the mould, but we’ve managed to come together.
To find out more about the group, visit The Alternative Chingford Group
Jenni Regan is an author and mental health activist, who has lived in London for more than 20 years. Visit her official website