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Meet Sweatshop Literacy Movement

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 Literacy Movement, literacy based activist group using literature to empower minority communities
Sweatshop Literacy Movement, Facebook

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.

Sweatshop Literacy Movement, an activist literature group working class writers marginalised writers of colour
Sweatshop Literacy Movement, Facebook

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.