Committing her Life to Building Bridges and Communities in Kent
“A country that appreciates diversity will always progress,” says Christine Locke, the founder and CEO of Diversity House, the charity she set up in Sittingbourne, Kent to tackle the rising concerns the community was facing after an influx of people from the ethnic minorities set off racial and social tensions.
“Swale country has the fastest growing population of ethnic minorities in Kent,” explains Christine. “Like everybody else, Black and Asian minority communities came from London attracted by affordable housing, good schools and easy commuting distances to London after the millennium. “
Yet with these changes, no one was addressing the underlying issues of discrimination and marginalisation that minority communities were facing.”
The call to do something by Christine came after the failed investigations of a murdered black boy in the Isle of Sheppey fuelled hostilities between the police and minority communities around 2006.
“Police investigations were covert” reflects Christine. “This was leading to growing tensions.” Christine came forward and urged the Police to make a public statement to quell suspicions in the community.
With her background in Community Cohesion, Community Care Practice, Public Health and Health Promotion; Christine was well placed to convince the police to talk with with key informants from the community to release information.
“After this experience, I realised there was a real need for communities to come together, understand one another, ask questions and interact.” Christine recalls. The realisation compelled her to form Diversity House.
“Diversity House is not about a particular set of people. It’s not based on race, ethnicity, gender, age or any other social factor. It’s about seeing people as a whole; as social, spiritual people. The totality of needs that make-up the whole human experience, “Christine clarifies.
“After all every person can experience discrimination at some point. Even mainstream people can be ostracised for how they look. The colour of their eyes, lack of education, alcoholism, for having different social habits.
“We wanted to bring social integration, inclusion and cohesion. An inclusive society is good for growth as it will find different social assets to harvest. It’s good for the public health and well-being. People pull their resources or social capital together and create innovative solutions.”
The first step was to create a Drop in Centre at Diversity House; the channel through which social divisions were broken down. The founders of the charity believed it would create “talking communities” to expose the myths and build bridges in the already fragmented society.
“People were encouraged to drop in at any time and just talk. They soon found they had more in common with each other. They also spoke of their problems – housing, financial, legal, health issues. Problems of unemployment and alienation.
“We were able to sign post members to appropriate organisations for help and we made follow up to check that the issues were adequately resolved.”
Yet the Drop in Centre was not enough. The founders soon realised that greater intervention was needed to address the complex and myriad challenges that surfaced. “We had already built friendships and trust with our community.”
“Why then refer members to other organisations which did not always deal with underlying issues.”
After a consultative period, Christine and her team identified the issue of isolation by women as the main obstacle towards social integration.
“Many of the women wanted to contribute more towards their families but felt trapped by unemployment, lack of skills or lack of good English.”
The team gained funding to set up the project ‘Women Empowering Women’ whereby groups of volunteers and mentors were trained to offer support in the areas of:
- Economic Empowerment
- Psychological and physical empowerment
- Community engagement and participation through volunteering
- Access to social mobility
The project touched thousands of women and went beyond Kent, stretching as far as Cambridgeshire. With success came the demand to address more needs which included, a business advice support network; a service to support women starting their own businesses and an informal English Language programme to support women gaining employment skills.
“I remember one woman who went on the Women Empowerment programme and then onto the Business Support service. She now runs her own personalised laundry business. Another woman came speaking very little English. We put her on the English language programme and then business support and now she runs her own kids’ party business, doing face painting, eyebrow threading. We have put her in touch with so many clients.”
The list of community programmes is endless. One cannot do justice to all of them. (See below for a snapshot of the projects). From a work club teaching young people employment skills, to public health projects encouraging nutrition and healthy eating; a youth club and the recent Benin Heritage project in schools, the rainbow of coloured posters and leaflets advertising the activities is testament to the broad range and deep level of engagement and commitment to the community.
“We deal with real life issues,” says Christine. “The programmes come from the communities themselves. We do not adopt a top down approach. We identify the need before devising projects and then put forward recommendations for implementation. We do not leave the research sitting on shelves. My word is my bank”, Christine proudly emphasises.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that Diversity House has won several awards for Excellence in Community Engagement and is a signed up member of the UN Global Compact and by the time this piece is published, will have heard whether it has won the Annual Excellence in Diversity Awards presented in Leeds.
Yet for Mrs Locke, the public health expert and tireless campaigner for community integration, the real rewards come from seeing the transformed lives of the people touched by the many far reaching programmes initiated by Diversity House.
“People see the change. That’s our best advertisement, changing attitudes so that people become comfortable with who they are. When this happens they can achieve anything. You can’t put a price on growth”
Below is a snapshot of projects presented by Diversity House with added comments from Christine Locke
Drop in Centre – A hub for socialising and information centre for sign posting to other relevant services and authorities.
“Anyone can become a family member. We give a personal touch. We don’t see members as clients but brothers and sisters who have needs.”
Women Empowering Women – A project bringing women together from different backgrounds to increase understanding and support, creating a cycle of empowerment.
“The women became good advocates for the project. Some became public speakers after having started with little or no confidence”
A Youth Project – For children and young people from diverse backgrounds
“An opportunity for children to learn while having fun and learn from each other.”
“In one case an autistic boy, normally very disruptive and attending a Special Needs’ School, started interacting with other children by holding hands.”
A Work Club – Offering training to young people to gain employment skills.
“[Some] young people don’t have role models or know how to build a career. Here, they are taught the value work. One member started as an apprentice and is now going to university”
Learning Alliance on Palliative Care and End of Life – A study of health needs of the Black and Minority Ethnic Groups particularly regarding palliative care and end of life needs.
Informal Teaching English as a Second Language – Part of the training to gain employment in skills
“providing learning whilst networking outside a formal and regimental classroom base”
Eat Smart and Move Smart – Health and nutrition literacy programme
The Heart of Kelmsley – Organised activities promoting healthy lifestyle
Celebration of Cultures – An event to celebrate black history month, rebranded as a Celebration of Cultures “as a way to embrace and celebrate the rich and diverse cultures within the Borough.”
The Benin British Heritage Project – A learning and engagement project for schools celebrating the cultural heritage of Benin and Britain.
“If you don’t know where you belong you cannot have roots. If you are not proud of yourself, you will always be an underdog even when people admire you.”
The list goes on…….For more information on Diversity House log onto: http://www.diversityhouse.org.uk