The Women’s Institute - Is what you make of it, everything you want it to be and to inspire you. Three key messages that came from this years AGM.
Today I was fortunate enough to go and observe the WI's AGM, held at the Brighton Centre. I took my seat along with over 4500 women, ready to watch the resolution process in action (as a new WI we haven't been involved in voting), listen to some great speakers and meet other WI Members.
The entire NFWI committee sat on stage, i imagine in much the same way as thousands of WI’s sit across the country, behind tables adorned with the traditional tablecloth and floral displays.
We stood and sang a rousing chorus of Jerusalem.
Janice Langley, the National Chair welcomed us all, she talked about the importance of the WI, it’s role in education and described the members as Inspiring women who want to learn new skills, make new friends but above all make a difference.
She spoke in depth about Denman, it’s currently struggling financially due to the increasing costs of maintaining a large grade II listed building, more people need to attend courses and there are various campaigns to raise money to keep the facility open. Only 3% of members currently use Denman which seemed staggeringly low.
Since January 2015 60,194 women have joined the WI taking the total to 226,402 members.
The Treasurer stood and spoke of the WI finances, we seemed to have made significant losses (-£450k) with Denman a large chunk of the deficit, whist Denman was a real concern this years losses had been planned for and covered by previous rebates and VAT refund.
We moved onto the resolutions, having spoken to Shirley our advisor in advance she had prepared me for some passionate discussions and she wasn’t wrong. I won’t go into the detail of the resolutions as we will hear lots about them over the next few months, the first proposed that 'people those with dementia having been admitted into hospital are allowed to have their carers stay and support them’ we heard people talk in support and against, those against arguing that the resolution just didn’t go far enough. The votes were cast and the first resolution passed with 79.4% voting FOR.
Rona Fairhead, is introduced as the first guest speaker, she is Chair of the BBC Trust the first women to hold the post. “As a business women, mother, cancer survivor your work has made a difference to me, the WI’s work has made a difference to thousands of women, of all ages, from all walks of life”.
She then gave a talk about the BBC, it’s role to inform, educate and entertain and that whilst it couldn’t campaign like the WI it could put a spotlight on issues either through documentaries or through storylines, the domestic violence one in the Archers being an example.
She summed up with a story of her son keeping her grounded, when she was promoted to the role he changed her screensaver to a picture of a tractor on a flagpole with the words “just because you are at the top doesn’t mean you are useful”.
We broke for lunch, the sun was shining so en masse we headed to the beach, I met some wonderful ladies from WI’s around the country, given lots of ideas for future meetings and had a few giggles about the idiosyncrasies of the WI.
We returned from our break to hear the second resolution, 'calling on supermarkets to reduce food waste and address food poverty' Again we heard arguments for and against, it was interesting to hear that of the 270k tonnes of food waste each year only around 2% of food waste came from supermarkets and 70% from the home it made me wonder if the resolution whilst well meaning might have been better aimed elsewhere. I agreed with a member who argued we could be better placed in our 'educate' role within our community helping people reduce food waste by teaching them to cook.
A member stood and said that the whole thing was a shambolic, the resolutions were badly worded and the whole process needed an overhaul, she received some backing from the floor but asked to keep to the point by the chair (I was later told that last year was a bit of a fiasco so they were keen to keep it on track this year).
We had counter arguments that supermarkets were being disengenious with the 2% as that was post farm - they actually cause huge waste for farmers by rejecting ugly/damaged/wonky food that is perfectly edible. In the end I think those who voted FOR felt you just had to start somewhere.
The votes were counted and the second resolution passed with 82.7% for.
Baroness D’Souza was our second guest, leader of the house of lords she gave an informative talk on the role of the House of Lords within the legislative process. She summed up its position with a quote from colleague Lord Michael Dobbs (writer of House of Cards) “We are really parliamentary worms, we take all this rubbish that comes from the other end of the building [the commons], and it disappears inside the House of Lords, in darkness, because nobody knows what it is we do, it reappears six month later. It might not be perfect, but it is always more fragrant and more fertile than what went in”
Janice returned to the stand to talk of the WI of the future, as women working together we have a collective voice; women influencing society and women’s roles in society…One person can make a difference; as WI Members we can make a difference, for example by putting forward a resolution. A census of all members will be coming soon and we are urged to complete to make the WI representative of it’s members. She ended with the messages "members are the WI, we all shape the organisation and its future is dependent on all of us"
We then wished the Queen a very happy 90th birthday.
The meeting was closed with music from the Uckfield Concert Brass Band accompanied by singer Sidonie Winter.
In all it was a fascinating day, some inspirational speakers, a lot of traditions (some good some not so much) and a heated, passionate debate. I will be interested to see how individual WI’s are expected to campaign and get involved in the coming months. As for the key messages, I think our WI Is what you make of it, I hope it becomes everything you want it to be and you are inspired.