A photo of two models wearing clothes from the fashion collection All Our Children by Bethany Williams.

Upgrade Yourself: In Conversation… Bethany Williams and The Magpie Project

13 Oct 2020

To celebrate designer Bethany Williams’ new flag commission for Somerset House we met with Bethany and collaborator Jane Williams of The Magpie Project to learn more about the work.

Our Upgrade Yourself: Peer Exchange digital strand of our Creative Careers and Skills programme commissioned young creative and Creative Careers Academy alumni Hodan Ibrahim to author our first Upgrade Yourself article. Bringing research, interview and writing skills together, Hodan focused her pen on conversations around community, collaboration and female leadership with Jane Williams and Bethany Williams

Jane Williams is the CEO and the powerhouse of The Magpie Project. Established in Newham, the project is a charity supporting mothers and young children residing in temporary or unstable accommodation. We caught up with Jane, and Bethany to discuss their work launching the collection All Our Children, inspired by the women and children from The Magpie Project.

Flag for All Our Children is the culmination of the project undertaken over several months by Bethany. Working in partnership with the charity, Bethany invited us to reflect on future generations and consider what legacy we’d collectively like to pass on to those who come after us. 

How did the Magpie Project begin?

Jane: We started in 2017. I was on the governing body of our local children’s centre and becoming increasingly concerned about the standard of housing in temporary accommodation, hostels, and domestic violence refuges in the area. We were worried that not all the children were finding their way to the children’s centre to get help and a place to play. I asked mums why they didn’t use the children’s centres. The answers were harrowing: “I don’t have enough to eat”, “I don’t have the bus fare and my children don’t have shoes or a coat to walk in the rain”, “I am afraid they will ask about my immigration status”

I took these issues to the council. The response I met shocked me. The council argued “these are not our children”, meaning they were “out of borough” and not owed a duty of care. Working together with volunteers we set up a pilot to see how many women were in need, who would engage, and to ask how we could help. We offered breakfast, lunch, nappies, clothes. We didn’t insist on a mass of information on the front desk, we said “just drop in, you don’t have to do, be, or say anything – and when you are ready to share your concerns we will see how we can help”.

Six weeks later we had met 25 families and proved that not only was there a need, but that women and their children were desperate for the help. We never set out to create a charity but 2,000 under-fives are homeless in Newham alone, and without a national register for under-fives, they are shunted from borough to borough in temporary accommodation, they are in danger of becoming invisible.  

Knowing this, I couldn’t walk away, I couldn’t sleep. I had to do something. So, my message is only set up a charity or a creative venture if you can’t sleep unless you do it!

Why does The Magpie Project mean so much to you and what are the long-term goals for the impact of this project?

Jane: My question is, why do these women and children, not mean so much to everyone? How is it OK that we endanger the health and future of one in 12 children in Newham by subjecting them to horrific housing conditions and homelessness?

Our first goal is to put a safety net under these mums and children, today, now. Because childhoods can’t wait months or years for housing or social care – every bad experience these children have is one too many. Our long-term goal is to advocate for our mums and children so that they can secure what they need, in order to be the best mums, they can be, and raise strong, healthy and creative children.

As a female leader, what has been the most difficult obstacle within your career and how did you handle it?

Jane: The biggest obstacle for me was a lack of self-belief, going with the flow instead of making a stand, and thinking that “Oh that’s the way it’s done, it must be right” rather than going with my heart.  I tried too hard to fit in with other agendas, swallowing my ethical unease at some of the things they were doing.

I learned quite late in life that authenticity and a strong belief that what you’re doing is the right thing gives you energy and makes waking up in the morning a pleasure. So, I think it is important to find your tribe, find your passion and to be you! I think many people who are brought up white, male, and privileged in this world kind of know that intrinsically. After all, this world was generally built by and for them -  but I took a long time to learn to give myself permission to be me.

Tell us about the collaboration between The Magpie Project and prize-winning designer Bethany Williams.

When it was first suggested that we talk to a menswear designer about a potential collaboration I was sceptical. What did the world of fashion have to do with us, and vice-versa? But meeting Bethany was a joy. She lives her values and ensures that everyone involved in her process is heard, spotlighted, empowered, and treated respectfully.

She came to us and said, “I want to tell the story of Magpie Mums and Minis, I want to lend them my spotlight, I want to give them a platform”. This is nothing like a brand printing the latest slogan on sweatshop produced, unsustainable fabric to make throwaway garments. Bethany and her collaborator Melissa Kitty Jarram spent days at the project, making tea, serving soup, chatting, singing, and rolling play-doh. Bethany included them in every stage of the development of her fashion line No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). This term is used by the government to categorise migrants,, preventing access to the welfare safety net of housing benefit, universal credit, child support, or even free NHS treatment.
Entitled All our Children, our second collection draws a connection between every child’s need for a childhood and a safe home, here, abroad, and in the future.

Bethany: Working with The Magpie Project is a reflection of the mother’s experiences of an uncaring society, a society that is keeping her children destitute and in need. I learned and understood from the last collection NRPF that families live in terrible conditions without enough to eat, or a place to be warm or safe. When Covid hit, I thought how much worse it was, how terrible the conditions are and how inhumane it is. What I have learned through working with The Magpie Project is the strength of the Magpie Community and the power simple acts of kindness can have. 

Having worked alongside The Magpie Project and Somerset House with a series of workshops, installations, and program, what do you look for in collaborations?

Bethany: I believe that creative collaboration is really important. It opens your eyes to situations that you would not know existed. When I work with Melissa Kitty Jarram, I see her do things that I couldn’t imagine. I have learned so much from Jane that I would never have known.

Jane: Honesty. It is important to say, “this is what I want from this collaboration, what do you want?” If these aims work together then that is a great basis, if they don’t, it’s best to know early and walk away. 

Bethany is the most generous collaborator. She needs nothing from us. She does things not because they are popular or will sell clothes or draw attention but simply because it is the right thing to do. How else would mums have got to tell their story in Vogue, how else would this flag All Our Children be flying above Somerset House? 

What were the challenges you faced during this project and after?

Bethany: We had to go digital, connect online, Melissa did a YouTube workshop so that the mums and minis could send in drawings of each other to become the basis of the prints she is using for the clothes. We needed to creatively think outside the box.

Jane: I think the mums and minis being locked down during this process was tough. Firstly, because keeping well mentally and physically takes up a lot of energy, secondly because a lot of what we do is about sharing space, holding babies, eating and drinking tea together! Creating and maintaining a sense of involvement in Bethany’s project at a distance was a challenge, but I think we really adapted well.

How has Covid highlighted areas of concern regarding The Magpie Project and what were the solutions you found?

Jane: There were a lot of contradictory aspects to Covid. In some ways the lives of our mums improved. We advocated very early on that for their safety families should be moved out of accommodation in which they shared bathrooms and kitchens with up to five other families. This was done for all of our families except those housed by the Home Office. We also advocated that our families be fed by the Public Health response who were sending food parcels to vulnerable members of the community. Suddenly there were in better accommodation and getting food (from us and later from the local authority) weekly.

Our mums are used to living with uncertainty, so the difference that Covid made was less pronounced. We have been worried about the mental health of our mums – many of whom have suffered immense trauma. We were also worried for the young children who with no gardens or outdoor space are woefully overcrowded in their homes. For this reason, we are offering art therapy for those worst affected by lockdown, and we are looking to work with health visitors to screen for vitamin D deficiency.

One good thing to come out of Covid is an awareness of families living in destitution. We closed our doors to usual service on 13 March and opened two days later as a delivering food bank. Community members stepped up and came to donate, sort and deliver food to our 140 families in need. Companies, churches, mosques, temples, running groups, rugby clubs and schools all collaborated to make sure our families ate, and had clothes to wear and someone to talk to.
We hope that this spirit of community and outpouring of love will continue long after lockdown.


Images courtesy of Bethany Williams.