Joanna Zawadzka, campaigner for cross-cultural exchange & positive attitudes towards migrants

PORTRAIT_photo Tomasz Duda,
Photo: Tomasz Duda,


Joanna Zawadzka moved to Edinburgh from Poland in 2006. She is a figurehead in a movement to promote positive attitudes to migrants and encourage cross cultural exchange between Polish and Scottish communities. Some highlights in a decade of activism include organising cultural festivals, instigating initiatives that encouraging migrants to vote and founding the blood donor campaign ‘Bloody Foreigners’. She was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit from the President of Poland in 2014.

My first thought when I read Breaking The Mould was ‘I don’t think I deserve to be mentioned here as someone in the next generation of activists, I don’t compare’. Then I realised there is a lot more work to do. When you look at the women in Breaking The Mould you appreciate that many of them worked alone and had to sacrifice their whole life to achieve what they did. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if these women hadn’t built the foundations yet despite so much fantastic work there is still inequality on every level. I think my activities are just a little contribution; I work with many people but I’m often the most visible.

I noticed there was little ethnic diversity across the woman featured in the publication. But that is proof of how invisible women from ethnic minorities are. So much work has gone on and it’s hardly mentioned anywhere. From my personal experience women from minority communities face increased barriers and don’t get enough recognition for their contribution which is very sad; I’ve met a lot of women who deserve to be mentioned and recognised.

My biggest aim is integration, to see real integration; people enjoying their company, understanding each other, people respecting each other and sharing what they’ve got. That can happen on many levels. Hence my projects have such a huge variety. I feel this needs to happen on a lot of different levels – political engagement, communities getting involved through culture. There are so many levels to this. You have to look at the bigger picture. Every project I’ve ever been involved with is contributing to that one aim – to create a cohesive and integrated society.

If I think back on all the activities I’m involved in, it seems like I’m just putting puzzles together. It’s all based on personal relationships. Like ‘ok we’ve got that person and that person, that person can do this…’ I’m not taking the credit for all the things we have done, it’s the community. If you’ve got good friends you can pick up the phone and say ‘ok, shall we do this?’

At the start our ambition was to demonstrate that Poles have something more to offer than only being hard working people, there’s more to us than our economic contribution. With my partner Lidia Krzynowek we started our own organisation Polish Cultural Festival Association and began organising exhibitions, concerts, very small events. We had a medieval festival in Leith Links, a Polish-Scottish ceilidh, exhibitions and film screenings. It was the first series of events of that kind in Edinburgh on such a large scale; seven to eight thousand people came.

The Scottish Polish Cultural Association was vital in the development of our first project. It was set up by Scottish wives of Polish soldiers that were left behind during the war. I think they are the longest existing Polish cultural organisation in Scotland and they wanted to get new, younger people involved. Izabella Brodzinska is a figurehead in the organisation and has been – for god knows how many years – an ambassador of Polish culture in Edinburgh, everybody knows who she is. Her vision was always to get young people involved and it worked.

In the run up to the referendum we got a group of Polish activists together to organise voting campaign, because we feel like we are a voiceless community. We didn’t encourage them which way to vote; just said they should place a vote. When we started people said ‘I’m not sure if I should vote, it’s not my country’ like they don’t yet feel as though they are at home; that’s why we called the campaign ‘Vote you are at home’. There are an estimated 90000 Polish people in Scotland and 12,000 kids at schools and we don’t have a single councillor even, no MSP, nobody who would voice our concerns or opinions. This year we hope to widen this campaign to other migrant communities who can vote, from other EU countries. Often people have no idea that they actually can vote and are totally unaware that they have any rights in Scotland.

The people who are directly affected by the EU referendum are terrified yet they can’t even vote on the issue. They don’t know if their families are going to be able to visit, they don’t know if they’re going to be able to stay here. They don’t have a vote. British people who stay in EU countries they too don’t have a vote, it’s insane not to be included in such an important decision.

Over the past 3 years I worked on the Polish-Scottish heritage project to gather stories about places, people and events that connected Poland and Scotland throughout the history. The project aimed to be cross-cultural and cross generational; to give an opportunity for Scots and Poles to engage and our younger generation to start a dialogue with the older generation. The whole concept was to create multi-media content that would then be archived on the website. For example in our oral history project we trained volunteers to make podcasts. They went into the community and interviewed people; there are 15 podcasts on the website, 10 short documentaries and about 20 stories. At the end of the project we had a week-long festival of Polish and Scottish heritage at Summerhall.

Small actions can have a big impact.  One of the stories we gathered in the research was about a Polish folk dancing group that danced in Edinburgh for 20 years, led by Stefan Boron and his wife. The group disbanded several years ago. I visited Stefan before festival of Polish and Scottish heritage and said ‘Stefan why don’t we get the group back together for a ceilidh.’ He said ‘this is ridiculous, how? It’s only six weeks away!’ I said ‘I’ll get the people, you just teach them to dance’. We did it and the dancers are active again; Polish Song and Dance Ensemble ‘Ojczyzna’  are going dance at the Leith Festival and are also performing for the Queen at the opening of parliament on the 2nd of July.

Bloody Foreigners came about in an indirect way. I’ve been involved in all these Polish activities and knowing that we are the biggest minority I thought it would be good to do something for everybody. There was increasing negativity in media about migrants and EU migrants, and people coming to live in Britain. I’d heard the phrase ‘bloody foreigners’ a few times. I was sitting on the train thinking ‘bloody foreigners, bloody foreigners…’ and then I thought ‘well, maybe we can turn this phrase into something positive’ and the idea of blood donations came to me. It’s a beautiful message that we can share blood and help each other by sharing a very valuable thing that can save lives. The message was ‘migrants want to integrate, we want to contribute, we want this contribution to be acknowledged’.

I think Bloody Foreigners was a very successful campaign, the focus was Edinburgh but about 50 organisations across the UK took part. In Edinburgh we projected an animation about the Bloody Foreigners campaign onto a large public building and advertised through graffiti, using chalk paint. We actually got a complaint from the French consulate as we wrote ‘bloody foreigners’ on the pavement outside their building– they called the police, thinking it was a hate crime. But the police knew about the campaign and explained it to them! Other amazing things happened. On Facebook I asked for a paragraph about the campaign to be translated into as many languages and in 24 hours it had been translated into 35 languages. There was coverage in the papers and we were on the radio. We even featured in a Daily Mail next to a picture of Nigel Farage!

Role models? There are too many. I find female activists very inspiring. I suppose all the women in my family are very strong. At every stage in my life I have had a guide or female leader. So many woman have inspired me it would be unfair to mention one person.

We’ve had so much help from people who believed in us and donated their time and skills to make things happen. For example the animation for Bloody Foreigners was donated by a famous animator – he heard about the campaign and emailed us, saying ‘I’ve made this short film, hope it will help’.

The challenges have changed over the years. When I moved to Edinburgh it was very difficult because I didn’t know anybody and didn’t speak much English. For a long time it was impossible to make a living from organising events and I had many different jobs. To name a few, I worked in the chippie, I was a cleaner, I was a housekeeper and I worked in a Polish building company. Activism also takes over your life; you work all the time and form friendships with people working with you and there’s no time or space for anything outside that world.

At the start we had to overcome cynicism and ageism–people who believed we couldn’t do anything or didn’t have enough experience. So when we said ‘we are a group of young people and we want funding to do something’ if we were lucky, the response was ‘yeah yeah yeah you can have 300 pounds, just go’. But we aimed for something big!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s