Paul Streets: The local charities that reach ‘invisible’ people

Niche organisations matter – they embody ‘lived experience’, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

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This blog was originally published in the November / December 2018 edition of Third Sector magazine.

As a sector we have quite rightly been challenged to demonstrate our connection to the lives of those we exist for.

Large organisations frequently set up complicated, sometimes expensive mechanisms to do this. And they often don’t work, becoming highly unrepresentative or tokenistic.

But for many small local organisations it’s part of their DNA. I recently visited two charities with our London grants manager that exemplify this, but which highlighted for me that it’s not as common practice as it should be.

The CSO team has plans to use a Lloyds Bank Foundation grant to meet the demand of service users. It will create employment and business support for recently arrived refugees, in a community with many talented entrepreneurs.

The Council of Somali Organisations is an umbrella body of more than 100, often small, Somali groups, mainly in London. It has only one full-time employee and four part-time staff. By contrast, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service is much longer established, with a team of 20-plus.

The CSO believes there are about 400,000 people in Britain who call themselves Somali, although no one knows for sure because the data lumps all “Africans” together.

And the LAWRS estimates there are about 250,000 Latin Americans in the UK.

But the factors that brought these migrant populations to the UK are different.

The CSO and the LAWRS illustrate why local niche charities matter: they embody “lived experience”, reaching people and places invisible to most of us.

Britain has a historical connection with Somalia, with sailors serving in the Navy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the chaos of Somali civil war driving a more recent exodus. Many Latin Americans came here for economic reasons, yet sadly often occupy menial employment here, as cleaners or, more tragically, trafficked as sex workers.

Both charities are largely run, staffed and led by their communities, and it’s this that drives their ambition.

The CSO team has plans to use a Lloyds Bank Foundation grant to meet the demand of service users. It will create employment and business support for recently arrived refugees, in a community with many talented entrepreneurs.

Lucila Granada, director of the LAWRS, told me about the women she serves. Some were facing abuse from violent partners or severe domestic exploitation. She also spoke of people experiencing “honour-based violence”,”corrective rape” forced upon gay women, forced abortion or pregnancy. Intra-family rape is often unrecognised to “protect the family”.

Combined with the undocumented status of many of the victims, or the fact that their continued residency is sometimes dependent on EU nationals, you have a number of crimes that are often unspoken and rarely reported.

It’s why the LAWRS is running its Step up Migrant Women campaign. It is making headway in its influencing work with the London Victims Commissioner and the Mayor of London, bringing together about 30 local and national supporters, including Amnesty International and Liberty. But it has some way to go.

It’s hard enough to contemplate how domestic abuse victims cope, even with possible recourse through the law, and many of these people can’t even count on that. So it makes sense that you’d need a charity that speaks your language – literally and figuratively – to fill that gap.

The CSO and the LAWRS illustrate why local niche charities matter: they embody “lived experience”, reaching people and places invisible to most of us.

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