Extraordinary campaigner and activist Penny Walker passed away on 25 May 2021 in Leicester aged 70. She spent her long life fighting for social justice and human rights.
She was born in 1950 and from an early age wanted to “help people”. She decided she needed to experience life to understand what this meant. At 17 ran away to Gretna Green and married so that she could not be made to go home. As her children grew she travelled with them overland to India.
In 1996 she began visiting communities around England in order to understand “what community meant”. In 1997 she lived for a year in a caravan outside the Alvis tank factory Coventry as a witness for non-violence.
Penny ran an informal help centre for refugees out of a launderette in Hillfields which developed into Coventry Refugee Centre in 1998, later becoming Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. This now helps thousands of refugees and migrants every year.
Sabir Zazai came to Coventry as a refugee from Afghanistan, went on to become the CEO of Coventry and Refugee and Migrant Centre and is now the CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council. He described how Penny was not affiliated to any politics or religion, but worked tirelessly, quietly and with good humour to effect real and long lasting change.
She was seeing people with human beings with hopes and aspirations, and not numbers. She was seeing them as people with the chance to contribute, and Coventry is now a diverse and welcoming city thanks to Penny.
One of the things that gives me hope is whilst we do not have Penny with us any longer, she’s invested in a lot of people in Coventry and beyond that will continue her ideals of standing up for social justice and refugee rights.
If I was going to list anything, Coventry Cathedral, Lady Godiva, Peace and Reconciliation, Penny would be next to that. She made Coventry a place of peace and sanctuary.
She set up a sustainable housing cooperative from five terraced houses on Stoney Stanton Road. This led to the creation of Coventry Peace House in 1999. In 2003 Coventry Peace House Education Trust began developing environmental and inclusion projects.
Penny also worked with her neighbours, litter picking, organising canal art to prevent vandalism, summer picnics for all, bring and share in local parks. Penny truly lived her values out in her life. People noticed her compassion, positivity, energy, and commitment. Penny led and helped Coventry to be the welcoming city for refugees and asylum seekers that Coventry is.
She moved to Highfields in Leicester in 2011 and soon began writing and editing books including; We are south Highfields, Statelessness, Uncovering Resistance, Highfields in World War one and conscientious objectors in World War one in Leicester.
Penny also edited a booklet on examples of peace-making, based on every-day and personal stories. She organised the laying of a stone and the burying of a memory casket to conscientious objectors in Leicester’s Peace Walk and led local campaigning against militarism, including confronting the army’s recruitment campaigns for 16-year-olds in Leicester.
Penny was an organiser for a national campaign against armed drones and chaired the East Midlands regional organisation for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She was arrested protesting against armed drones bombing in Afghanistan. She worked with the Afghan community in Leicester and with peace activists with links in Kabul.
Penny’s legacy lives on in Coventry through Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre, Coventry Peace House and other organisations she founded.