John & Stephen

There are two core volunteers in TFS Belfast – the magical Wood Brothers – John and Stephen. Without them, Tools For Solidarity wouldn’t exist.

On the left, John, on the right, Stephen. The Wood brothers

John Wood, Belfast

When did you first start Tools for Solidarity?

Tools for Solidarity came into being in 1992 when 4 people sat down in a friends house and discussed establishing an independent tools organisation. Before this we were part of Tools For Self Reliance (TFSR), located in Southampton.

We first started doing tools in Belfast in 1984 by collecting tools for another local organisation. Over the next 8 years we refurbished tools, held many international work camps and started sending tools to projects independent of TFSR.

Why tools and not something else?

If you think about it, without tools we could not make or repair most items that we see around us. Water could not be delivered to our homes/villages, building could not be made and food could not be cultivated. It is the one thing that has allowed human beings to develop and progress. The choices we make are a different issue but tools enable us to do things.

How did you come up with this name?

Establishing an independent organisation was easier than picking the name. At the time there was a lot of discussion and I can remember that the use of Solidarity was in the news in regards to the Polish Trade Union Movement and it was a term used by the left in politics (though the conservatives then made use of it). Why the name was chosen and why it remains an important part of the organisation is that it states a process were we not only say we will provide the resources to develop together but that we are together in trying to improve and develop a better way forward.

What did you do before committing yourself to Tools?

I was re-assessing what I wanted to do. While doing tools, which was only for one day a week, I decided I wanted to work in the area of water provision. This I pursued and then worked for a total of 4 years on water projects in 2 overseas countries.

Do you ever think about changing life completely?

It would say it has not crossed my mind. I really enjoyed working to provide water to people in villages but you cannot do all things and you do make a choice. Working in tools is very much the type of development that is needed. I think in the last 4 years we have achieved more and see new possibilities. The work before that was essential in building a good foundation from which we have been able to achieve that.

Stephen Wood, Belfast

When did you first start Tools for Solidarity?

One of the key inspirations for starting TFS was a visit I made to the Garvald Factory in Edinburgh. It was amazing to see their workshop and meet the volunteers with extra support needs. It was obvious from the start that the volunteers had a real sense of pride in their work and could speak with joy about how they were helping people in Africa have a better life. At the time (1988) we were not working with supported volunteers in Belfast.

In 1991 we decided to explore the possibility of opening up a workshop full time and to incorporate a supported volunteer programme. The original intention was to raise funds to employ 3 members of staff (so I would then be able to go off and do something else). We contacted Glyn Roberts – founder of Tools For Self Reliance and asked for his help with a business plan we were writing to submit to founders.

We met with Glyn in 1992 at the annual Tools For Self Reliance gathering. He said to us that we should set up an independent organisation from TFSR – at the time we were a local group of theirs. We had not considered this option but he argued that since we had run our group without any real support from TFSR and he believed in decentralisation it would be better all round if we were a separate organisation.

We thus became independent in 1992. However to this day TFSR still count us as a local group of theirs despite many complains from me.

Why tools and not something else?

I got started in tools because I was very frustrated, angry and dis-empowered through learning about ‘development’ and social global injustice. What could I do to change all this? Then someone told me about TFSR and I immediately found something that I could do at home that encompassed what I believed in and was working in a direction I could support completely.

When we started TFS we wanted to incorporate bicycles but found the problems of supply and the variety of models and suitability too problematic.

The best reason why tools for me was given to a UN conference – “A continent can only develop when basic tools are readily available to the majority of the people. Tools should not be seen as a technology of the past, but for what they are the most appropriate technology for most working people on earth. Tools remain, cost for cost, one of the most environmentally-friendly, the least wasteful, the least polluting, the most versatile, the most job-creating and the most power-sharing politically and as such they are a key technology for the future”.

How did you come up with this name?

Solidarity is as our leaflet states a sharing in the problems that face us all and realising that we must all be part of the solution. John mentions the Polish Trade Union. I suggested the name despite this connection, not because of it. Solidarity was not a word in common use (except above) but reflects the values I hold dear.

There was a real division in the group about the name (again because of above and the thought that people would think us communists) but it was agreed on a vote – a rare event in those days. I used the name first in Berlin where I started a group in 1990 Werkzeug Zur Solidaritat.

What did you do before committing yourself to Tools?

Not sure when I committed myself to TFS. We had a meeting to discuss whether we would accept the money we had got from founders – about 25% of what we had asked. If we accepted then we would have to run the organisation with volunteers (rather than paid staff).

I was the only person present at the meeting who said they would give a 3 year commitment – John was in Africa – that was in 1993! I was involved in all sorts of different groups and campaigns around volunteers – International Voluntary Service, cycling – the campaign for cyclists rights in Belfast, local planning etc. I came back from living in Berlin (1991) with the idea to see if we could open a full time workshop.

Do you ever think about changing life completely?

I took a real break from TFS in 2000 when I went to Scotland to live with Nancy and Louis – though I did start a tools group there in the same year.

I have also suffered quite badly from depression and this has had a major impact on my ability to cope with the stresses and strains that come with working with TFS – especially in relation to the workload.

I have thought about other avenues of life I would love to walk down but I know that whatever I do the values would remain the same. I have also thought that it would be great to let others run TFS to see how they could develop it and what new ideas and paths they would find. One day.