by Samantha Haran
Sweatshop adopts bell hooks’ notion that social justice can be progressed through literacy; that through reading, writing and thinking critically we can transform a situation.
Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in Western Sydney, devoted to empowering people of colour and First Nations people through reading and writing and critical thinking. I sat down with founding director Michael Mohammed Ahmad, creative producer Phoebe Grainer, and general manager Winnie Dunn to talk about their incredible organisation.
It was 2012 when Michael Mohammed Ahmad was struck with an idea. He had been reading the work of Black feminist and cultural theorist bell hooks when he came across a particular quote of hers. As I sat across the table from him, he recited the quote from memory: “all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture are always dependent on mass-based literacy movements, because degrees of literacy will determine how you see what you see.”
And so, Sweatshop Literacy Movement was born.
Mohammed started building the project initially at Western Sydney University, before incorporating the organisation and moving to independent premises in 2016. Once Sweatshop started growing, Mohammed brought Winnie Dunn and Phoebe Grainer onto his team—two star students from his past workshops. Together, they now run a range of programmes that are as diverse as their community.
First and foremost, Sweatshop runs two writers’ groups: the Women of Colour Collective, and the Western Sydney Writers’ Group. In these collectives, Sweatshop is creating safe spaces for disenfranchised folk, facilitating dialogue that builds community, and, of course, assisting writers of colour develop their craft.
In order to further support those writers, they publish a range of volumes that showcase their work (their most recent being Blacklight: Ten Years of First Nations Storytelling, a gorgeous and powerful collection).
Sweatshop also runs a schools’ program aimed at younger children and a range of performance outcomes, such as panels, seminars, conversations and readings. They recently ran a range of these events at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May.
These performance events are particularly important to Sweatshop’s wider political role in the community; they work with writers that predominantly come from oral traditions, so the written word is not necessarily the only, or even main, way stories are transmitted and shared. Mohammed explains that, whether it’s First Nations, Pasifika, Arab or South Asian communities, it’s important they are supporting their writers authentically and celebrating their practices, histories and knowledge systems; not only in theory, but in practice.
The story of Sweatshop, like all good stories, and all good political projects, is rooted in place. Their offices are on Dharug country in Parramatta, the city centre of Western Sydney. This wider region is one of the most densely populated and culturally diverse places in Australia, with a substantial working class population. Consequently, its residents are widely and maliciously misrepresented in the media through the co-conspiring lenses of racism, classism and colonialism. When asked how this particular place, and the narrative around it, shapes the work that Sweatshop and its writers are trying to do, Mohammed explains:
“On the one end, it’s about empowerment. It’s about subverting those [false] narratives so that we can reflect on the more positive and more honest depiction of who we are… we want to create a positive representation and a complex, nuanced representation.
At the same time, it’s also… [just] a really wonderful place. I mean on one street, a hundred different languages are being spoken. That’s what it means to live in one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. And so we feel that it is also our literary responsibility to create stories and tell stories from this place, because it’s such a unique place. It’s a place that’s worthy of literature.”
In addition to place, Mohammed, Winnie and Phoebe also root their work in radical politics. After all, the movement began with a bell hooks quote. Sweatshop adopts bell hooks’ notion that social justice can be progressed through literacy; that through reading, writing and thinking critically we can transform a situation.
When asked about their other influences, they mention Malcolm X, who theorised similarly that ‘education is faster than legislation… if you want to change the world, educating your community, educating the masses, is a faster way to do it than waiting for policies.’ Mohammed talks about how he understands Malcolm X’s life, specifically his self-made education that he developed in prison, an education that transformed his life and the lives of so many others, as a living example of what bell hooks was prophesying about the revolutionary potential of literacy.
It is this perspective that is so clearly infused into the very fabric of Sweatshop as a movement. Other influences include Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to Tongan Professor Ifelly Huofa, Lebanese-Australian academic Ghassan Hage and First Nations playwright Jane Harrison. Through fusing these different influences, Sweatshop has created a revolutionary model that, unlike other initiatives, isn't focused on gaining proximity, or accolades, from whiteness. Instead, it's about taking back power and creating spaces for these writers to develop their craft.
When discussing how the team assists their writers in overcoming industry barriers, in a way that remains true to Sweatshop’s political mission, Mohammed explains: “what we’re about is self-determination… saying as a community, we’re going to fix this problem ourselves… not waiting around for good, well-meaning white people to open up their doors.”
Their commitment to honouring self-determination, safety and community for these writers is reflected in every aspect of their work, down to the way they facilitate their workshops. Winnie explains, for example, that when she first attended a Sweatshop workshop, she was incredibly excited to be immersed in methodologies that were familiar to her Tongan culture:
Winnie: “It was the first workshop in a university setting that I went to where people were sitting in a circle, facing each other, talking to each other and listening to each other… and that circle in Tongan is called talanoa.
In talanoa, everybody’s equal, you all have your turn to speak, you all have your turn to listen, your turn to learn from each other through that dialogue.”
As Amiri Baraka said, art is supposed to be a part of a community, and this is something that Sweatshop understands deeply about the art of writing, which is refreshing.
One of their most incredible workshop programmes is run in schools. Phoebe explains that these workshops generally involve going into Western Sydney schools and asking the kids—predominantly from communities of colour—to write about their morning. But this simple exercise goes a long way. This extract from our conversation about the school workshops succinctly summarises the political value of the work Sweatshop is doing:
Winnie: We start simple by just asking them about their morning. But then, me and Phoebe and Muhammed, as facilitators, we’ll ask them to dig a little bit deeper - what does your house look like? Who’s in your house? Who are your siblings? We get them to build up on their story, add more information.
And then all of a sudden it becomes this rich microcosm of the experience of growing up as a poor person of colour in Western Sydney. But of course, we don't start off with that premise with the kids—we don’t say ‘talk about being poor and brown.’ We just start them off with something very tangible, and then from there we teach them that those tangible examples of storytelling are political, in of themselves.
Mohammed: The power of it is that you’re owning your voice, you’re owning your community… most of the kids we work with, it wouldn't have even occurred to them that their lived experiences are even worthy of stories.
Winnie: The question that the kids ask me all the time in those first few workshops is ‘who cares? Who actually cares?’ That’s what the kids ask me. When I say, why don't you write about your house or your siblings or what happened between you and your Mum this morning… they ask, who cares? And it's through the workshops in the term that we have with them that they start to realise that they themselves should care about owning their own voice, telling their own story.
Through the simple practice of facilitating writing workshops, Sweatshop is teaching the next generation of writers in their community that their story matters too, in a world that tells them the opposite. Through writing, Sweatshop is gifting them their power back; to re-imagine the narrative they have been told about themselves.
What a beautiful, loving gift to give.
Samanth Haran is an Australia-
based culture writer and abolitionist organiser. You can find her on Twitter @DECOUTURIZE
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and editor of After Australia. In 2012, Mohammed received the Australia Council Kirk Robson Award in recognition of his outstanding achievements in community cultural development. His debut novel, The Tribe, won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists of the Year Award. He has since also written The Lebs and The Other Half of You.
Winnie Dunn is the General Manager of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and the editor of several critically acclaimed anthologies, including Another Australia. She is a writer of Tongan descent from Mount Druitt and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Western Sydney University. Winnie is currently completing her debut novel, Dirt Poor Islanders, which will be published by Hachette in 2023.
Phoebe Grainer is a creative producer at Sweatshop Literacy Movement and co-editor of Racism: Stories on Hate, Fear and Prejudice. She is a Djungan woman from Far North Queensland. Phoebe has performed in Saltbush, Two Hearts, Serpent’s Teeth, Doing and Rainbow’s End. She was recently shortlisted as a finalist for the Queensland Premier's Drama Award 2022-23.
Learn more about Sweatshop Literacy Movement here.