OUR STORY 2008 - 2023

Foreword by Harriet Jones

In 2007 I was a reporter on the Hull Daily Mail. I thrived on ‘hard’ news, so when I was made the “Wilberforce reporter” I was cross. William Wilberforce was an independent MP for Yorkshire between 1784 and 1812.

He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Hull was to have a celebration to mark the bicentenary of the act. For me, initially it meant having to dredge up stories with little or no backbone about a far-off event. I questioned the relevance of the year, both in terms of Wilberforce’s work and to life in Hull at that time.

I went to secondary school in Hull and when I was about 13 we all visited Wilberforce’s family home, a museum called Wilberforce House in Hull’s High Street. The slave ship housed in the museum at that time had a profound impact on me. The sound of people groaning in pain and distress was gut wrenching. At the beginning of the bicentenary year I found it hard to marry up the up-and-coming celebratory events of 2007 with my understanding of slavery. Wilberforce had strong ideas of morality, and plans to mark the freedoms he fought for and won for slaves didn’t always seem to tally with Wilberforce’s world view. I suppose I was asking ‘why celebrate, when there is still so much wrong in the world?’

One story I wrote for the year was about a band called Freedom Road, which had recorded a song. I feel a sense of shame to write this now, but I thought of the project as something that was worthy but a bit throwaway. I was more drawn to the ideas expressed by Freedom Festival which still celebrates William Wilberforce’s work with thought-provoking and amazing cultural and artistic performances paired with talks and exhibitions.

Often events like Wilberforce 2007 happen and it is easy to think they have offered momentary escapism, changed little or nothing, and have left little or no legacy. However, Freedom Festival has always been a beacon to look to and to remember why Wilberforce’s work is relevant to this day. I fell into the trap of thinking Freedom Festival is the legacy of 2007 as it has a high profile in the city of Hull. However, quietly the band that became known as Freedom Road has developed in quite unexpected ways.

In the fourteen years that have elapsed since 2007 I have become a mother to three children. I can see how apparently small things like recording a song have a big impact on the individuals involved. I was utterly humbled to hear the story of the origins of Freedom Road from Ian Bolton and Iain Thompson. To learn how recording a song took a small group of Hull’s most troubled children to the House of Commons, then to Oxford University and finally Australia. It was a springboard for so much. Around 1000 children and young adults have had the good fortune to be a part of Freedom Road.

For many it has been utterly life changing. Within this book you will see snapshots of the good the charity has done and continues to do.

For me to hear the stories of young people who believe Freedom Road has saved them from prison, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy and suicide is at once troubling and heart-warming. Hull is beleaguered by problems, hundreds of children are growing up in care, and being excluded from school. One thing that is striking from talking to the people featured in the book is the move from primary school to secondary school. It is life-changing and for some people it is a damaging experience. Families already struggling for a multitude of reasons then really begin to struggle to manage their children, who become more and more trapped in themselves and a series of damaging choices. These young people are effectively enslaved within themselves, or to a herd mentality that protects them from being the victim of bullies at school. It is heart-breaking.

Iain and Iain would be the first to say that Freedom Road Creative Arts hasn’t worked for everyone. However it is clear that it has for many. William Wilberforce was a great believer in education, teaching morality and in reform. All these things come in many forms. To me Freedom Road Creative Arts is an embodiment of something that Wilberforce would want for the people of the city he lived in. It has truly given freedom and long may it thrive.

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