Originally published on Huffington Post Women, 26th January 2017

From Surviving To Thriving – Why My Day Job Is Changing The Lives Of East End Displaced Women

For five years You Make It has been working to empower young unemployed and under-employed women, largely of Black and Asian heritage and all of working class backgrounds, to succeed in life. We are often expected to justify our existence by reporting on the hard outcomes for women achieved. However, our intention with the work we do, and the power and passion behind it, is more about cultivating authentic relationships and dialogue with women in order that they reframe how they see themselves, and recognise their true worth. This rounded approach to our work means that to date we can report 80% of our graduates are in a mix of largely full time employment and formal education, with some also juggling these commitments to develop their own start-ups.

What keeps my team driven is witnessing the steady build up of belief amongst women that they deserve a happy and fulfilled life, and that it is within their power and capabilities to get one. This begins during our very first point of contact with them at local job centres, where around 85% of our outreach takes place. It’s here that we first learn about the kinds of issues our women have been silently grappling with (some of which our staff share that they have in common and have overcome), which have eroded their confidence, derailing them from opportunities to be well and earn.

We hear stories of neglect – often linked to having to care for younger siblings or parents with mental health issues and addiction. We hear women talk often for the first time about childhood abuse, chaotic home lives, violent relationships, self-harm, suicide attempts, failing in formal education because of poorly diagnosed or ignored learning difficulties, and frustration at having no one in their lives to hear and guide them. Further, we hear how these women increasingly feel they have no role or part to play in London – where ethnically diverse and poor inner city boroughs are being rushed to by the wealthy and privileged.

One of our recent beneficiaries, a young Somali Muslim from Hackney, commented, “I see less people who look like me. I see them look at me as though they don’t think I belong.” Six months later and towards the end of one of our programmes, this same woman reflected, “I go to new places now and think it doesn’t matter that I don’t see people like me, I can participate anyway.” What gave rise to this shift? Engagement in our intervention that from the outset equips women with the attitude, confidence, networks, skills and experiences needed claim a right to their city and to make the very most of opportunities in it. Our approach is to celebrate difference and foster in our participants a sense of pride in their cultural and social identities.

This all happens through a mix of activities that enable women to build a new social and professional network; establish relationships with a range of cultural, creative and City based organisations in and around the East End; participate in workshops that focus on self awareness (with sensitive individual and group reflection of their lives so far); create a vision of a future linked to core values, beliefs and passions; as well as access to practical support with job search and business start up efforts, 1-1 mentoring with dedicated and diverse professionals, and work experience in high band value organisations.

The stories of our women reveal to us what no-one has specifically told them before, but what we make sure they hear – that they are resilient, strong, caring and responsible – positive attributes that all count for a lot in work and business, and aren’t always found in those who have had more straight forward life experiences. We are also mindful that the need for our women to survive often such difficult life experiences have come at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. It is no surprise to us that recently the ONS reported that Tower Hamlets, a borough that we have worked closely in since our launch and one of the most deprived in the country, has seen a decrease in wellbeing in the last year.

If you’ve been neglected and abused, side lined to the fringes of society, then being well, self-care and feeling entitled to happiness is a tough one to get your head around. However, within the context of being held safe and valued through our work, staff team and all who deliver on our programmes, women become receptive to having a mirror put up to their life styles, and begin to take steps to ensure that they stand the best chance of not just surviving, but positively thriving. As part of the acceptance that they deserve more, we have found really positive responses amongst many of our women to offers of referrals to free locally based counselling services. Further still, we’ve seen many go on to listen to and take action in response to our advice to go to their GPs for longer-term therapy.

It’s clear for us that our holistic approach to working with our women is what leads to sustained ‘hard’ employment and other outcomes so sought after by mainstream provision but rarely achieved as well as they could be. As one graduate of our programme recently said, “The programme works on you from the inside out.”

Asma Shah, Founding CEO


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