Linda Butcher: Why we must remember our greatest campaigns

New projects documenting influential campaigns of the past will inspire campaigners and help them measure their successes, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

I've been thinking about how we can learn from and be inspired by campaigns and campaigners from the past, and help campaigners claim their place in history. Many, if not most, get too little recognition for what they have done and the impact they have made.

The charity SMK was established to commemorate the highly influential Sheila McKechnie and develop a new generation of campaigners. With backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we've recently started to pull together articles, campaign materials and personal reminiscences to establish an online and physical archive of Sheila's life. Called The Mark of a Great Campaigner, it will help others learn from her successes and failures and ensure this amazing and effective campaigner has a permanent historical legacy. If we don't protect our history as campaigners, who do we think will do it? I fear too many people have remained invisible because they are not part of official history.

There has been some movement to do this already. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is a partner in a new project to archive charity sector documents. The project recognises that by protecting historical documents we can show how a charity's mission and values have developed over time and how, for example, our relationships with government can change.

In terms of campaigning, the exhibition Make Life Worth Living, currently running at the Science Museum in London, exhibits photographs taken by Nick Hedges in the 1960s for the housing charity Shelter. Over three years, the distressing conditions faced by more than three million people throughout the UK were documented, helping Shelter to demolish the myth that only people living on the streets were homeless. Nick's photographs were central to this message.

And others are gathering and sharing our history so we can learn from it. The Campaign! Make an Impact initiative of the British Library uses historical campaigns to inspire young people to speak out and become active citizens. These examples from our past, such as the campaigns for woman's suffrage and to abolish slavery, can inspire us and help us to learn from those who have gone before. What worked for them? What could we copy? What would we have done differently?

A number of heritage organisations, including the Bishopsgate Institute, collect and protect information on campaigns and protests. The Women's Library @ LSE in the London School of Economics documents all aspects of women's lives, with a particular emphasis on the political, economic and social changes of the past 150 years. The George Padmore Institute has materials relating mainly to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe, producing educational resources for people and campaigners in this field.

Looking back helps campaigners avoid having to reinvent the wheel and allows us to measure our successes. Campaigns don't always achieve the big wins we want, but we can change attitudes on an issue over time. Sometimes we know how far we've come only by looking back.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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