During the pandemic, MPs and high-ranking scientists made announcements – dramatically changing millions of lives – from behind a lectern, in front of the national press. But in a year which saw people take to the streets to protest systemic inequality and thousands of households struggling to put food on the table, ordinary people had to battle to make their voices heard.
As a result, one group of campaigners was determined to give them a say on the pandemic and what kind of world they want to build after it. They created the People’s Podium, a project taking a lectern to UK town centres and giving locals – those who kept the country going during the crisis – a chance to show what it would look like if they were in charge of giving official briefings.
“I don’t know what having that equal standing feels like,” said Wajeeda Joseph, a poet in Leicester, who made a speech about facing racism while trying to look after her own wellbeing during the pandemic. “There’s always some element of discrimination that I could be the victim to in every situation”.
After a pilot in Tower Hamlets, the People’s Podium team spent April touring towns including Leicester, Margate and Redcar, giving a platform to dozens of locals. Some were grassroots activists invited to make prepared speeches, while others were passersby who took their chance to talk about what mattered to them.
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Speakers included an Extinction Rebellion activist, a mental health worker, a non-binary teenager, a drag artist, an HIV activist, a prison guard and an 82-year-old poet, covering a range of issues from the climate crisis to violence against women.
“The People’s Podium has been a really moving experience,” Ruth Newton, creative producer for Glimpse – the campaigners behind the initiative – told The Big Issue. “It reminded us how rarely everyday people are invited into crucial conversations about the world they want to build.
“Lots of the participants had never spoken in public before,” she added. “They said that being given this platform gave them the confidence to share their story.”
The colourful lectern will follow public demand, the team told The Big Issue, ready to station themselves in any UK town where people want to be heard and encouraging people to nominate someone in their own community for a chance at the podium, with plans in the pipeline for a short documentary to be screened at UK film festivals.
The project is backed by the National Lottery’s Emerging Futures Fund.
The People’s Podium team works with community groups in each town it visits to run workshops which build people’s confidence for public speaking and connect them with other locals who want better for the people in their area.
People “would feel safer,” if everyone felt they had a voice, said Linda Bradshaw – a teacher in Leicester – after taking to the lectern to speak about the struggles teachers faced during the pandemic. “People would feel they had a right to exist.”
Nominate your town for a chance to speak here.