One might think some people have the inherent capability and drive to become an active citizen, set up a charity or a project and that is how the amazing local initiatives are born. However, things are not always so straightforward. In fact, we all have what it takes to make a difference. In the end, we all wish to belong and be part of the communities we live in.  Sometimes, we just need some encouragement, knowledge, and support to get started.

We interviewed Jenny Oklikah, a social capital coach about her work and how with a little support, communities can become stronger and how people marginalized before can turn their past experiences into strengths and help hundreds of others.

We hope this interview gives ideas to each individual who may be thinking of contributing to our society, but do not have an idea how. Also, we hope companies consider funding and supporting initiatives, which operate as a catalyst for change in communities over a longer term. This means funding early-stage initiatives and projects, and supporting structural work of charities.

You work as a coach helping individuals build social capital in local communities. What does this mean in practice?

Building social capital is the foundation of our work. It means building trust amongst people and the public organisations working on their behalf; positive behaviours, attitudes and values; and connections and support between people.

What this means in practice is that we value people’s strengths and unique experiences, and decisions about each programme are made by community members. Our strengths-based approach means that we are successful in engaging people – from teenagers to pensioners – who feel marginalised or are seldom heard by public services.

Why do people need coaching to become more active citizens?

Research shows that people achieve more with the encouragement of a high-quality coach than on their own. The distinctiveness of our community coaching programme is that participants have a passion to make a difference in their communities and focus on community-related goals. The coaching gives them the space to think about what they can achieve.

Goals have included improving local parks, promoting services for young carers, raising awareness of autism, and promoting a community boxing club.

Participants also develop personal skills and, where relevant, work-related skills too. They build the confidence to connect with others in their community and successfully identify ways to have greater influence.

You also work with people who may be affected by or involved with crime. What has been the effect of this?

We typically work in communities that experience poverty or higher rates of crime. I have worked with people who have experienced personal challenges such as poor mental health, bullying, physical abuse, addiction and involvement in crime, but we do not use these as labels to define people. Everyone is treated equally. Participants often feel deeply about wanting to do something positive in their community to help others avoid the challenges they have faced or the mistakes they have made. Or they simply have strong values about making a contribution and improving the lives of others. Their life stories are a powerful motivation for personal change and it is a privilege to work with them.

What would you say to a person interested in being active in their local community, but doesn’t know where to start or where to look for opportunities?

I would say think big and start small initially.

Look for opportunities on local council, police or NHS websites – they usually have the heading ‘getting involved’. Or go to their Twitter and Facebook sites – they often use those to broadcast opportunities.  Or you can look at the website ‘doit.org’. You could also go to a site like WhatCharity.com and see which voluntary sector organisations are offering volunteering opportunities in their local area.

What examples do you have of people deciding to have an impact in their community by caring and contributing?

We have seen survivors of domestic abuse set up their own safe spaces and run a successful organisation as a result of engaging in our programmes.

We have seen women promoting access to mental health services to support young people affected and exploited by drugs gangs.

We are working with a young person who has been in care to train and support her to express her views and develop a dialogue in her community around serious violence, an issue which is important to her.

This involvement in the community brings about increased confidence, uncovers positive skills and values that they and others might not have seen before, and connects people in a meaningful way.

One participant who had a wealth of life experience, and was taking steps to stop rubbish being dumped on her local streets, told me, “Before if you’d asked me what I was good at, I would have said being a wife and mother and housewife. For the first time, I am saying that I am good at other things. The coaching has changed the whole way I think”.

What are the benefits of being an active citizen and contributing to the good of the community?

There are many benefits of being an active citizen like:

  • Connecting with new local people who share a passion to make a positive difference
  • Learning about new cultures and experiences that can enrich a place
  • Having conversations with people who are paid to serve the local community
  • Understanding the challenges that decision-makers have to make and helping them to use local insights in their decision making
  • Influencing local services
  • Feeling valued by others
  • Being able to value others
  • Developing new skills of negotiation, collaboration, and speaking in public
  • Unleashing personal confidence and energy to see that change can happen
  • New friendships are developed

When they take the first step many other opportunities open up.

Jenny Oklikah is committed to changing society for the better. Her core values of integrity, compassion, justice, authenticity and perseverance shape her work and life. Jenny is just starting a new role as UK Managing Director with the charity, Fight for Peace. In her other role as MutualGain lead for Community Coaching, Jenny promotes active citizenship by supporting and empowering people to have influence local services and make real improvements in their communities. 

She is an experienced public sector leader, having worked at senior levels in government, including as a Director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and as Head of Violence and Youth Crime at the Home Office where was responsible for national policy on gangs, gang-related sexual violence, knife crime and firearms. She also chaired the National Women, Girls and Gangs Working Group.

 Jenny is a certified coach and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitionerand a Group Leader for the DrivenWoman network. She is committed to making a meaningful contribution to society, including as Trustee for Safer London which helps young people break free from gang violence and exploitation.

mutual gain MutualGain is a company with a social purpose that helps organisations across the UK build social capital and develop active citizens in their communities. We work with any organisation that wants to have more meaningful dialogue and engagement with the public such as police services, local councils, NHS trusts and the community and voluntary sector.

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