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This Londoner Wants To Take Back Her City

When Amina Gichinga isn't working as a singing teacher and instrumentalist, she can be found performing poetry on the top of London buses, organising art and music nights, and coming face-to-face with bailiffs evicting families.

Next week, this charismatic and energetic 26-year-old East Londoner, who is nothing like your usual politician, is standing for the City and East seat in the London Assembly election. And she's running a campaign that is refreshingly different to the name-calling, stat-bending, dog-whistle tactics that have come to characterise British elections.

Growing up in Newham, a Labour stronghold and one of the most deprived parts of the UK, Amina feels that mainstream politics don't represent her or the communities she works with. That's why she's running as the candidate for Take Back the City, a grassroots political organisation comprised of disillusioned Londoners, tired of working for a city that doesn't work for them.

Speaking to communities, students, migrants and refugees across the city, Take Back the City has created what they call a manifesto for the people. The group uses art and music to get its message across, drawing inspiration from the movement behind housing activist Ada Colau, which saw her become mayor of Barcelona.

I meet Amina in the cafe of the historic Theatre Royal in Stratford – a quiet spot just a stone's throw from the Olympic park and busy megalith shopping centre Westfield that have transformed the area she grew up in – to talk politics over a cup of tea.

What inspired you to get involved with Take Back the City?

I went to the first ever meeting in January last year, walked in and thought 'this is so different to any activist meeting I had been to.' The diversity in that room of 40 people was great – people of colour, young people, old people. It looked like London in that room.

One of the founding members, Jacob Mukherjee, talked about a plan to run for mayor – and that person needed to come from a community and be real. And that for me was ambitious. As an activist, you are always knocking on the door without the opportunity of going in and getting people to listen to you. And so this really attracted me to Take Back the City.

Would you say you've always been political?

I don't think you can grow up in this city without being political. Especially in Newham, you see the poverty – and just travelling across the city, you see how different it is to other parts. I've always had this idea that we're getting a raw deal, but I didn't know that I'd become really politically active.

My activism started in 2012, just after I’d been to Goldsmiths and studied international relations. I found that quite an alienating experience, with a lot of middle class kids, who were really good at arguing their case, but I didn't feel like it was a safe space for me to be in and talk about my politics.

I was studying colonialism and my family's history is part of that: my Dad was Kenyan and my Mum is Singaporean. I was reading about loads of white people talking about that and also not really feeling like I had anyone to talk to in-depth about that topic, which was resonating so closely with me – I was learning about the trauma and injustice my family went through.

I came out of uni and my old media teacher asked me if I fancied taking part in a project called the Momentum Project. We were doing consultations and starting to think about how we can turn Newham around so it will work for the community. I've been very active in that community since then. I run a community choir called the Royal Docks Singstars, in a community centre beside London City Airport. That community is facing the airport's desire to expand. Newham council is all up for that. Injustice is on my doorstep.

Tell me about your campaign and people's reaction to it so far?
It's all boots on the ground, because everyone involved with the campaign is either studying full time or have full time jobs.

One of our tactics is reading a poem on buses Rohan [Ayinde] and I have written called, Can you see us now? It's almost a rallying cry to the people of London. We did this because the normal ways of political engagement – to make a speech, or knock on a door – are sometimes really boring to people and they don't want to be spoken to like that anymore.

The reactions have been incredible, rounds of applauses on tops of buses, people taking their headphones out. Everyone's eyes were up, and that's what needs to happen. We need to engage with each other on a human level, people are actually crying out for that.

What has been your experience being a young woman of colour entering this political sphere?

Oh boy. It's been hard. I don't want to be like, 'woe is me', because as women we're facing various struggles throughout our day. But being in these environments has opened my eyes.

I'll give you an example. I went to City Hall to be part of a conference run by Just Space, which is an awesome organisation bringing communities together to support each other on London planning. Loads of community leaders were there from across London. A lot of them were academics and it was mainly a white male environment. When a panel opened up to the floor, this old white French guy alluded to it being up to communities to understand planning law: 'If you want to write something you have to do your research.' I interpreted that as 'if they don't do their research, how can they expect change to happen?' I was so angry. I said I disagreed and that I work with communities that sometimes have English as a second or third language, and they are not being consulted for a reason. He interrupted me and said 'you're too busy watching TV to do your research,' on the basis of me being a young person and a woman of colour.

You heard this collective intake of breath in the room when he said that. But after that, I had this moment of reflection, thinking, does everyone think I am a crazy, angry black woman? I was blaming myself.

A lot of people say young people just aren't interested in politics. What do you say to that?

Well I don't blame them. If they ever tune into the news and see the debates that happen in Parliament, it just looks like a playground. And they don't see anyone like them in there so they don't feel represented. No one ever asks young people what they want for London. It is partly because under 18s can't vote, and 18-24 year olds aren't likely to vote. If they do talk to them, it's a photo opportunity and I think they see that. So I want to stand for those young people who feel unrepresented.
If you get elected to the London Assembly what do you want to do?
One of our policies is to bring back educational maintenance allowance. We feel that young disadvantaged children are being mugged off. The way we want to do that is by removing charitable tax status from private schools.

Housing is a major issue. We really want rent caps in the city. As people are being forced more and more into private rent, they need a safety net.

What was London like for you growing up, versus now?
London has always been the most expensive place in our country, but now it's a playground for the rich, essentially. My parents were nurses here – my mum still is. They were able to have a council flat, bring me and my sister up. They worked bloody hard but they were able to do that as public sector workers. Now we're seeing that people that keep our city running can no longer afford to live in the city. That's terrifying. The people make the city what it is. By keeping the people in the city, London can thrive.

What are your ambitions – both from a personal point of view and for Take Back the City?
I want to continue the work that we're doing, building this movement. But this isn't an instant thing. It takes a lot of undoing: undoing of the trauma that's been forced on our communities, undoing of the powerlessness that our communities feel. This takes a long time. But I definitely want to be at the forefront of that, fighting and resisting in solidarity with communities across London. I see that as a future for myself. And with song at the heart of it, of course.