Tribute to Yvonne Hutchinson
In the last weeks of her life Yvonne asked me if I would give a few reflections at her funeral and it is a great privilege for me to do so this morning.
Yvonne and I first campaigned together in the 1990s when, in 1995, I was promoting a piece of legislation to restrict the availability of gratuitously violent videos to children.
It was at the time of the death of James Bulger who had been murdered by two children who, among many other factors, had been exposed to relentlessly violent video material. It was a defining moment of the 1990s – and one which spoke volumes about the kind of society which we had created.
I received great encouragement from Yvonne who gave her all to the campaign, which included influential media interviews and a willingness to go to court to challenge the British Board of Film Classification and the Home Office. In terms of our Parliamentary objectives, the campaign was successful and we secured an amendment to the Criminal Justice legislation.
As a result of that campaign, we became good friends and as the years passed I came to deeply admire her rare combination of common sense and compassion.
Her advice and views were always worth hearing. Her integrity, ideals, and street wise knowledge of the realities of life for millions of disadvantaged people, were the marks of wonderful woman who will be greatly missed.
Yvonne was marked out in her generation of activists in being a community organiser and social entrepreneur who stepped into political engagement, but without compromising her faith and integrity.
She wanted to make a practical difference locally, while informing important debates about national questions.
So many people don’t want to get involved in the grime and in the cut and thrust of electoral politics.
But Yvonne was different.
Early in life she saw that to change the world, she needed to work with other like-minded people.
It is this sense of political ‘fraternite’ and combination to achieve bigger purposes that is too often lost today, where the pressure is to surrender to the zeitgeist, or to cynicism; to simply lose hope; to hide behind our own inadequacies and to leave others to it.
How often we are tempted to feel like the child into whose mouth Robert Louis Stephenson wrote the words: “the world is so big and I am so small, I do not like it at all, at all.”
Yvonne was not daunted by the odds which can be stacked against us.
She got stuck in, standing for office and joining with other Christians in the journey of political service through the Movement for Christian Democracy, of which she was an early member – and in 1994 had become the regional representative in West Yorkshire.
But mixed in with her sense of service and desire to work with others in a shared mission to change the world was a deep commitment to look at the world through her lens of faith.
She would have shared with Mother Teresa the belief that “If you judge people you don’t have time to love them.” Yvonne knew the importance of seeing the image of God in everyone she encountered and her activism was rooted in an outpouring of love for the common good.
It wasn’t enough for Yvonne to sign-up to a cause – she pondered her soul and determined that she needed to act from an informed conscience in all things.
And this required that old-fashioned notion of intellectual enquiry and the formation of a Christian mind. She thought deeply.
There was nothing accidental in her application to the challenges of life – her walk with God was intentional and so those around her, who had the deepest of respect and admiration for her values, example and personality knew that if Yvonne was signed up, then the cause was just and the sacrifice was worth making.
Her interest in urban development and housing issues led to her serving for seven years on the Board of the Housing Corporation and to her becoming a Trustee of the Church Urban Fund , where she oversaw the restructuring of the organisation leading to significant devolution of decision making.
As a member of the Corporation she represented the interests of tenants and this led to regular speaking engagements around the country. She commented that “Previously, the thought of public speaking would have had me running in the opposite direction but I surprised myself, taking to it like a duck to water and I haven’t shut up since!”
This passion to address deprivation and the negative conditions which led to social exclusion, homelessness, sink estates, the effects of drug abuse and benefit dependency, had its genesis in 1993 when Yvonne helped to found the Ripleyville Tenants Association in Bradford.
She said ”I had lived across the road in a condemned tower block with my young son and had refused to move until I was offered a flat in Ripleyville.”
The area “felt like a no-man’s-land that everyone had forgotten. Myself and my friend Mandy decided we had to either move out, like everyone else seemed to be doing, or fight for our estate. We decided to stay and fight.” Their fight led to the publication of the guide, “We can work it out” and a £3 million regeneration programme.
In 1997, as part of the Bradford Centenary celebrations, she was nominated by residents as one of the 100 people who represented the ‘Spirit of Bradford’ and her comic book-style portrait was hung in the National Media Museum. The following year Woman Alive magazine published a cover story about her life and the work she had done in her neighbourhood.
Her early experiences in creating social solidarity would lead to her later involvement with the
Georgian Mews Residents Association and the Ferndale Residents Association.
Unsurprisingly Yvonne also became involved in politics and was, for thirteen year a member of the Labour Party. She spoke at the national Party Conference, served as a local Ward Chair in Huddersfield, and as Women’s Officer of the Bradford branch of the Party. With great integrity, and not holding to the old mantra “my party, right or wrong”, Yvonne left her Party in 2007 and in 2008 stood as a local government candidate as an Independent. Although she was unsuccessful she said:
“It was a two horse race from the start but a well worthwhile experience and I enjoyed every minute of it! I’ll always be a political animal but for those of us who put serving people before personal power, grass-roots action will always be the best way to get things done for me.”
She also became a Trustee of the Lighthouse Group – which understood the central importance of never writing off young people and, through education, giving them an opportunity in life; and through the Chantelle Bleau Memorial Fund she championed the cause of young people whose lives had been claimed, like Chantelle’s had been, by substance abuse. Chantalle was 16 years old and Yvonne said:
”The vivacious, fun loving 16 year-old was a member of the choir at my local church and I had only seen her full of life a couple of days earlier. Chantelle and a friend had decided to experiment with sniffing lighter fuel while baby-sitting at a neighbour’s house. No one, least of all my friends who were Chantelle’s parents, could believe that sudden death could be a consequence of sniffing a substance so easily available.”
Through her work as UK and Ireland Manager of the international NGO Tearfund she learnt to paint on a wider canvass – and on one memorable occasion she helped me to persuade that charity to address the problem of a well which had become poisoned northern Kenya.
She had gone to Kenya with her church and, after visiting the Joy Church in Nakuru, helped establish the Joy Academy at her website. Yvonne said that she had lost a lot of personal confidence when she dropped out of school at 14 and this development work gave her the stimulus to re-engage with education.
Nelson Mandela would have approved, having , correctly observed that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, or, as the Nobel laureate, Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to murder, after Malala spoke up for the right of girls to receive an education, said: One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
When one of the UN’s greatest Secretary Generals, Dag Hammarskjold, a Christian died after his light aircraft crashed in Africa, a copy of The Imitation of Christ was discovered in his brief case. He understood the fine balance which must always be struck between the things we crave, the rights we cherish and our commensurate civic obligations as citizens, and the role of Faith in animating the life of our communities:
“The health and strength of a community depends on every citizen’s felling of solidarity with other citizens and on their willingness in the name of this solidarity to shoulder their part of the burdens and responsibilities of the community. The same is, of course, true of humanity as a whole.”
Yvonne understood this idea and knew that everyone is born into a network of relationships – beginning with our families – and this is a partnership which must spread across generations.
The African concept of Ubuntu – which is sometime translated as “humanity towards others” – informed the sort of questions which Yvonne believed we should ask about ourselves and our relationship with the wider community:
Do we respect one another; do we respect our parents and families; do we respect our civic institutions; do we respect those who are different – perhaps for reasons of race, religion, class, gender or orientation? Do we encourage one another?
How do we ensure that vulnerable groups are not made more vulnerable or stigmatised – especially engendering respect for people with disabilities or the elderly?
Do we respect the finite resources entrusted to us?
Do we use them in a sustainable way?
Do we respect our environment – from the streets and neighbourhoods where we live to respect for the natural world?
Do we ask what creates respectful and good communities?
Do we understand the importance of respectful relationships in sustaining society?
How can we strengthen the local and unleash the power of creative citizenship?
Yvonne asked these sort of questions and she discovered the answers. That is why she confidently encouraged us to “Make that change” – “make that change.” But she also said “To make a change you’ve got to have faith and to make a difference you’ve got to have charity.”
She told me: “I never intended to become an activist: I just saw something that needed doing and did it” and she passionately believed that the place to begin the change was through community politics, saying: “For me grassroots action will always be the best way to get things done.”
It’s simple, isn’t it? If you want to change the world, you have to change the country; if you want to change the country, you have to change the community, if you want to change the community, you have to change yourself.
That’s the sort of challenge Yvonne would have thrown at each of us here; and she would have stood four square with the Jewish sage Hillel, who rightly said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
All those who encountered Yvonne will know what a yawning gap is left by her far too early death. But during this season of Easter I can imagine her saying: If your eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord why would you want to linger here? If heaven is real, death is a happy ending.
C.S.Lewis captured this hopeful thought in his wonderful final Narnian Chronicle, The Last Battle: he said that in the world beyond, every day is better than the one which went before, every chapter better than the one which preceded it. And now, after her own last battle, in the place where there are many mansions with many rooms, we can all assume that Yvonne will be organising a heavenly tenants association, setting up some celestial community initiatives, and using her advocacy skills on our behalf. May she rest in peace.