So it was completely all-enveloping and not, you know, that can’t be right [laughs], privilege as it was. Yeah, huge privilege. I still feel extraordinarily fortunate to have worked at Centerprise and I’m very proud of what I achieved. And I think a lot of people who worked there were, you know, hugely inspiring and, and it was very inspiring to me to work somewhere where there was a publishing project and a youth project, a newspaper and a bookshop and, you know, just, I, it was a great place to work. But it absolutely took over our lives, well it certainly took over my life. And, I was telling the volunteers that one day somebody asked me where we slept, because they assumed that we slept upstairs somewhere. Because we were just always there. Yeah.
So it, yeah, was a whole… It was like joining a monastic order, you know, except that you could still have sex, but apart from that, it was like being in a, you know, a community away from the world. Well one of those, one of those groups that serves the communities, out in the community. A bit like Sister Act, we just needed to sing and we’d have been away. [laughter]
Janet Rees was born in Swansea in 1953. Her political outlook was formed at an early age by her working class background, rebellion against her family’s Nonconformist Baptism and encounters with feminism and local corruption. She moved to London in the 1970s, worked in housing advice and settled in Hackney where, despite being occasionally attacked and often burgled, she felt ‘at home’.
After she joined Centerprise in 1979 Janet’s main work was in the advice centre, where she combined housing and benefits casework with wider campaigning, collectivising issues where possible. Most significantly, she worked to expose a scandal on Smalley Road Estate in Stoke Newington, where brand new houses had been shoddily designed and were full of damp. The tenants organised to have their homes rebuilt to a better standard, and the pressure they brought to bear, combined with court action and exposure in the media, did the job. This scandal contributed to the Labour Council’s ‘old regime’ being replaced by a more left wing group, led at first by Anthony Kendall, who a decade earlier had co-founded Centerprise and the advice centre.
Janet was strongly committed to the collective management of Centerprise and took its meetings and processes seriously. She describes a culture of holding each other to account across the various projects as difficult and talks about long working hours and the ‘Spartan’ existence of its young workforce. She reflects honestly and critically on what worked well and what she would have done differently with hindsight. After having children and starting to work part time it became unsustainable to stay at Centerprise. Janet went on to a career in local government and remains proud of her time at Centerprise.
Interviewed by Rosa Vilbr (now Schling)