Sarah Whitehead became a community activist and leader after taking part in one of our Schools of Participation. Sarah recently took part in a digital communications conference organised by Sound Delivery, and wrote this blog for them about her experience of empowerment.
At the age of 26 I was living a hopeless existence. Having come through a difficult childhood, growing up around drug addiction and social care interventions in one of the UKs most deprived cities, I had somehow managed to scrape through mainly working cash-in-hand jobs at fish and chip shops. At the age of 23 I became a single mum, a week later I lost my own mum and at that point I started to shut myself away from the world. I cut off all my friends, yet I was desperate not to be alone.
I had spent almost three years on benefits. I had really started to absorb the negative poverty rhetoric that we see in the media – it had become my inner voice. Lazy, scrounger, single mum who pops out kids for benefits. In all honesty, I didn’t want to work, I wanted to stay at home and be a great parent – why pay a fortune for a stranger to bring up my child when I am able and willing? What effect would the pressure of managing work and parenting have on my mental health? And my finances? My fears were much greater than my ambition and my inner voice kept whispering that I would not be able to cope.
‘I had found MY voice and my existence was no longer hopeless.’
It was then, in 2009, that I decided I wanted to get out of my house and start to make some new friends. I saw an article in the local paper looking for people who wanted to get involved with their communities whilst receiving a certificate from the university. It was called a School of Participation. I decided to apply and a week later I received a call to say I had been accepted. I was gripped by fear and trepidation – can I go to the university? Will I feel welcome? What if people don’t like me? I vowed to push through my fear and attended the first session. It was like a light had been shone straight through the darkness. At the time I likened it to a spiritual epiphany, as I suddenly began to realise that my life was not the normal life I had become conditioned to think it was and that it is not OK for people to be abused, oppressed and living in such poverty. My life experiences and subsequent knowledge and learning from them were very powerful, I was not a lazy scrounger and my ideas were valid and meaningful. I had found MY voice and my existence was no longer hopeless.
“Uncovering your story is a very raw emotional process of self-discovery and self-empowerment.”
I began telling my story and speaking of my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to own their truth and to realise that we are not defined by what we have been through, what we own, or how much we earn, but by how much we love and the actions we take now to create positive change for ourselves and others. Uncovering your story is a very raw emotional process of self-discovery and self-empowerment. Some are not emotionally ready to face the hardships they have been through and many fear being judged. I told my story of benefits, bailiffs and bereavement with pride, I was not embarrassed I was empowered. Once I began to admit to my experiences and stop denying them or hiding them I was then able to start to fix them, heal my emotional scars and create long lasting change in my life.
By 2015 I had assisted with the facilitation of three Schools of Participation and had become well known as a local activist volunteering and chairing several constituted community-led groups to help improve the local area and speak out to tackle stigma. I was working part-time as a volunteer coordinator when I heard that the organisation that had helped me so much was being dissolved due to Sister Anne Stewart returning to her commitments as a nun. Suddenly the ambition kicked in. As a facilitator and a participant I had a huge passion for this method of working and a true belief in its success. I wanted to revive Community Pride, I wanted to keep the methodology of Paulo Freire alive in Salford and continue to help people discover their voices and power to create change in their lives. I wanted to start a truly grassroots-led movement of empowered people who could take action on the socio-economic issues that affect them daily and build resilience in communities to with stand the impact of government-driven cuts and stand together to survive whatever life throws at them.
“Nothing about us without us is for us”
Now in 2017 at the age of 32 my co-director Joyce Kay and I have been operating as Community Pride CIC for almost two years and it has been with much learning and success! As well as delivering Schools of Participation with ex-offenders, people in temporary accommodation, and partnering on some community-based research projects, we are also working with Church Action On Poverty delivering the Salford Poverty Truth Commission, which has the message ‘Nothing about us without us is for us’ -where we are working to create those honest spaces for conversation and new relationships to begin between public life influencers and those who experience poverty. I never expected this is where I would be today but it’s where the power of story telling has brought me and the journey is not over yet. There is power in your story, use it to change the hearts and minds of people.
This post first appeared on the Sound Delivery blog.