Tributes to Moraene: ‘Her Soul Cascades Her Shimmering Light’

Above: Moraene Roberts and her allotment garden in Stamford Hill, Hackney. (Photo by Anjali Gupta)
Following the death of Moraene Roberts, many people wrote to pay homage to her life. Her obituary in The Guardian is here. Ros Wynne-Jones published this moving tribute to Moraene in her Real Britain column of the Daily Mirror. That article quoted a message from Ruth Lister, member of the House of Lords. The executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation remembered Moraene in this message. Below are excerpts from several more messages.

Shaeda Croft, a member of the ATD Fourth World core team, said:

“When I think of Mo, I think unconditional love, unconditional friendship, unconditional listening, unconditional time. For the past thirty years, ATD core workers have come and gone. But Mo was the constant guide to ensure ATD  UK was always bringing the voices of the voiceless to whatever table she found herself around, be it at the Houses of Parliament, universities, community centres, or in someone’s kitchen.

“She gave her heart and soul. Even when she had a busy day, she always had time to give to people who sought comfort and a listening ear. She always put other people first. I found it remarkable that even though ATD took up a lot of her time, she always gave so much love to her three children, grandchildren, friends, friends of her children, neighbours and strangers. Her time for people was limitless.

“Even with health problems, Mo couldn’t be held back in making sure people with lived experiences of poverty were recognised in having something to contribute.

“From the earth to the sun, around the moon and among the stars, her soul cascades her shimmering light into all of us.

“We will uphold her legacy to overcome poverty and to be kind and compassionate to all.”

Alex O’Neil, who met Moraene when he was managing the Unheard Voices/Change In Action Programme for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, wrote:

“It’s 2010. Recent conferences, seminars and advisory groups have been about Poverty, Human Rights and Austerity. There’s a lot of anxiety in the room. The political climate will make it more difficult to raise issues of rights. What is the single most important thing to be done to challenge those with power? And there are lots of voices in the room — legal, advocacy, academic, organisational. But I am anxious because there’s one voice notably missing — the voice of people who directly experience poverty on a day-to-day basis. But this was ten years ago, so maybe things are different in 2020.

“It’s so easy for a person with experience to be ignored or co-opted by those with power; to be submissive among “the great and the good”; to be left powerless at the table; to be angry and righteous and ignore others’ experience; to be naive and inexperienced in the usages of power. Or to be dismissed as not being strategic or expert. ‘…In the real world …’ is the usual put-down.

“Then I met Moraene.

“Moraene was always truthful, humorous, insightful, respectful, affectionate and savvy. There was a strength about her. Her own experiences of living in poverty then gave her insights into the consequences of poverty for others (e.g. young people on her street).

“I could never work out if her strength was simply Moraene being Moraene or because ATD is “that sort of organisation”. Singer or song? In my musical experience it’s usually both.

“Over the ensuing years and in the JRF “Unheard Voices” programme, Moraene as a Person in Poverty sat companionably alongside Older People, Disabled People, Mental Health Service Users, people from Black and Minority Ethnic Communities, Migrants. Different experiences but shared experience. Moraene will be missed.”

Susie Devins, a former member of ATD’s International Leadership Team based in Boston, wrote:

“The first time I met her, Moraene was already dealing with health issues. Somehow she didn’t make that the main subject of conversation. And Mo knew how to converse! Each time we met it was though she was picking up the thread of an ongoing conversation. She just opened her mind to you!

“She was uproariously irreverent.

“Once, after one of my teammates had spoken at length, Mo just looked at him and said, “You talk in balloons. Your ideas go up in the air and float away….” We were a bit taken aback but had a good laugh. […]

“Mo didn’t go on the attack with people who could have had power over her and other people in poverty. With great intelligence, she opened the door and invited them in to understand, to recognize our common humanity. I feel she had a Buddhist heart.

“We are all stronger for having known her. Maybe more down-to-earth and open-minded too.”

Marie-Helene Huet, a friend of ATD in France, recalled of her years in London:

“As friends do, Mo and I shared stories of our personal lives. She talked about her childhood, her traumas, her joys, and what she and her children had to endure. I remember thinking that the overall balance was not a favourable one. She was a model to me in how she showed unwavering support for her children as well as unconditional love.

“I bear witness to her fight against arthritis and how it was handled so badly by the medical establishment and social services. She insisted on having a voice in how she was being treated by the so-called care system, never gave up in the resulting fight and paid the price .

“We all know of her strength and great courage in not letting her handicap get in the way of her convictions and her looks. She rarely refused a commitment unless truly too ill to attend.

“She took great care of her appearance. She collected earrings, necklaces, scarves  and perfumes on as big a scale as she could afford. Nothing could please her like feminine attire. We used to compliment each other on every occasion and we often talked humorously about seduction and men because that was one of her favorite topics of conversation.

“Her ability to reach out to and convince others was a major quality and it did a lot of good for ATD. She also managed well cultural and social differences, another of her skills that made her so very special.

“I watched her grow from a convinced and often uncompromising activist who participated in training young volunteers to becoming a member of the national coordination team of ATD in the UK and being a strong and acknowledged voice of the poor worldwide.

“What a life! It certainly ended far too soon but was filled with relentless drive, generosity and sparks.

“Somehow she was a star and stars carry on shining long after they are gone.”

Daniel Kenningham, of the national coordination team of ATD Ireland, wrote:

“Mo often helped us to put words on very complex ideas and concepts very easily. With grace and soft tones, she could find the best way to say things that brought others into the discussion, even people who may have had very opposing views.

“She enriched our work in ways that cannot be overestimated.

“Relentlessly, she supported so many of us to try and be the best of ourselves no matter the challenges we face.

“When myself and my wife started with ATD Fourth World 22 years ago, it was Mo who not only welcomed us but inspired us to get involved and to remain. I remember during that first year her saying at an event when our parents were there: “Thanks for letting us borrow your sons and daughters. It’s a real privilege to get to know them”. Wow. I never knew then what a privilege it would be for us to be on this journey with you Mo, thanks again for your endless giving.”

Matt Davies, a regional co-director for ATD Fourth World in Latin America and the Carribbean, wrote:

“My overriding memory of spending time with Moraene is one of listening and learning to listen. And not just because I often couldn’t get in a word in edgeways — although there was that too! — but because Mo was a genuine source of knowledge and experience of life, on so many levels. I don’t know what we would have done without Mo who was constantly able to span the transition between one coordination team and another with her immense experience and knowledge of UK anti-poverty work, and adapt to our many idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

“In ATD’s policy team, we got to know all the travails of being pushed and pushing a wheelchair around the streets of Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, or trying to enter supposedly wheelchair-friendly buildings. Mo helped me learn about the struggles people face if they have reduced mobility.

“Mo was also fantastic at explaining ATD’s work. I remember a particularly excruciating meeting with a funder.

“While I was starting to break out in a cold sweat faced with his questions, Mo found the way to explain our work that really cut to the chase.

“Needless to say, no thanks to me, we got the funding! And it wasn’t just with funders, but also with other people in poverty that Moraene came into her own. They especially sought her out, especially those who came from further afield in Glasgow, Jersey, or Hull.

“All in all, Mo was a source of inspiration, learning and especially friendship.”

Delivering a eulogy at her funeral, Thomas Croft, Moraene’s teammate in the national coordination of ATD UK, said:

“For Moraene, the struggle and the movement to end poverty transcended and preceded ATD Fourth World — both in her own life and in history. But ATD is where she made her home and her mark; her indelible impression in the fight against poverty.

“In ATD’s core team, we try to walk alongside people in poverty, accompanying them in their hope and their courage, bearing witness to the injustices they suffer. But Mo turned this sentiment on its head. For Ben, Dann, myself, and Diana – her teammates in the national co-ordination, as I’m sure for everyone who worked closely with Mo over the past thirty years, she was our companion, our confidante, our support and our security.

“Even when we were pushing Mo over the cobbled streets of Brussels or navigating incredibly wheelchair-inaccessible transport systems — not to mention traversing gravel traps  — Moraene was always guiding us, keeping us on track.

“During our recent activist capacity-building session, we took time to share memories of Moraene. The atmosphere was one of thanks not sadness: thanks for having had the chance to know and be cherished as friend and a peer by Mo.

“Seamus spoke about how if Moraene saw that you were judging someone, she’d quietly find a moment to tell you to stop being judgmental, reminding you that nobody knows what someone else has had to put up with. Alison remembered how Mo would always lift you up with compliments. Patricia recalled that she didn’t show her anger. James spoke about how Mo was literally a second mum to him, and a mother figure for many, many others.

“Mo always saw the beauty in people. And she was a great lover of art and the beauty of words and of nature. She was also very creative herself. Not just in her thinking, but through her poetry and her artistic eye and feeling. Sometimes she would protest this and decry anything that could be described as forced creativity but this was also her way, I believe, of leaving space for others to shine. She knew how important free self-expression is to those who have been denied a voice. […]

“Even when she was angry — and let’s be clear, injustice got Mo fuming mad — she didn’t show it. Even under provocation, she remained a very compassionate communicator, always taking great care with people’s feelings. One example of this is that it often took me several days to realise that a nice conversation I’d had with Mo earlier in the week was actually her giving me a bit of a telling off.

“Yes, Mo was a human rights warrior, a fighter against injustice but she always came in peace and her weapons were humour, joy and optimism.

“Personally, I never had the chance to meet Joseph Wresinski, the founder of ATD, with whom Moraene — apart from being a woman, a pagan and not at all French — shared a lot in common. But I am lucky, because I can say with enormous pride that I was taught by Moraene Roberts, a remarkable woman, an extraordinary human being.

“Moraene you will be sorely missed but your legacy of love, peace and light will carry on guiding us.”