How Community Alliance Lewisham are having a say in their community, nearly 5 years after their inception

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The group have focused on building solid foundations and are now reaping the rewards of their early effort.


OBV's civic leadership programmes have helped provide a number of individuals with the insight needed to launch their careers in positions of civic leadership. For some, it has played a role in providing a blueprint to national acclaim. Others, however, have used it to double down on efforts to help support their local communities. Last month's cover on the success of the social enterprise group 'Conscious Youth' and the work of Serena Johnson and Sophie Simpson is a first hand example of this effect. But, similarly impactful work has also been quietly taking place in Lewisham, South East London.

Community Alliance Lewisham (CAL) is a community group made of Lewisham locals who are invested in minority ethnic engagement in the local community. Their main aims in supporting the ethnic minority groups in the community include dispensing information, signposting and hosting informative events with a key focus on the areas of mental health, employment and education. An end of September Webinar entitled ‘A HEALTHIER YOU’ saw them run an online workshop with The BAME Professional Network for Lewisham, where they sought to raise awareness and provide clarity to the BAME community, on the impact of COVID-19.

The Healthier YOU session was CAL's first online event.

It is notable that the event was the first online session which they had co-facilitated. It suggests that the organisation which works on volunteer time, is slowly but surely becoming better equipped with managing affairs in the digital space. For the group’s organisers and the community they serve, this can only be seen as a plus. The event also saw the Director of Public Health for Lewisham Council involved in proceedings and highlights a growing recognition of their work and presence at the forefront of their community. In my Interview with Sabrina Nelson (one of the founding members), she explained:

“The Director of Public Health for Lewisham Council (Dr Catherine Mbema) wanted to be able to tap into the community, and have a forum where she could give them the correct information. There’s a lot of misinformation surrounding COVID-19, so Dr Mbema wanted to provide the latest guidance and let people know what was available, if they needed testing.”

On the significance of the event, she added:

“CAL worked in conjunction with the BAME Professional Network, that’s run by staff who work for Lewisham Council. It was our first event really just to raise CAL’s profile and let people know what we’re about.”

Encouragingly, the group don’t appear to be resting on their laurels. Sabrina spoke of the need to now ‘propel forward’ after the benchmark event, with further seminars covering community issues with ‘Stop and Search’ lined up for the first half of 2021.

The upswing in CAL’s social presence has been based on a passion and perseverance that has carried the group through to this point. Don Burford (another OBV alumnus) is the Chair of CAL and was also part of OBV’s 2015 Civic Leadership Programme, which was designed to nurture Lewisham's future leaders. From this cohort, an offshoot of individuals took the responsibility to formally organise their efforts to promote change within the community. From there, CAL was born.

Sabrina explained the process in further detail, stating:

"Don had said that we need to start thinking of doing something collectively once we finish graduating. But what would that look like? Initially, the idea was we'd get together and scope out some ideas of how we can help our community, but at the first meeting, I was like ‘no’... I think we should capture this, take some notes so we can always reflect back…. Things started to take a structured approach from the outset”

She added:

“As things do happen when you have a group of people who seem quite enthusiastic at the start but other things come up, family, work commitments etc, so that just left the core of us. From there it was trying to raise our profile and let Lewisham Council know who we are and what we are.”

CAL had found support from the then Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, who they had contacted, via email, and Sir Steve was responsive to their aims but they soon required further support as he was leaving.

The group's persistence would bear fruit though. Members of the group had kept in touch with some of the mentors from the Civic Leadership Programme who were keen to support CAL and help where possible. Networking is a key feature of the aims of the organisation as a whole and remains an important component of the group’s work - brokering partnerships with decision makers to ensure BAME groups are sought out and included in initiatives.

What makes the work of CAL even more impressive is the makeup of the group. Full time workers with family and responsibility elsewhere, who offer their services in the form of targeted programmes. The group have been meeting monthly since their 2016 inception but with their emphasis on building solid foundations and a strong base, it now appears that Community Alliance Lewisham and the Borough of Lewisham as a whole are now reaping the rewards.

Mayowa Ayodele

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A call to action...

For 24 years OBV have fought to ensure black and minority ethnic participation and representation in civic society. Efforts in continuing to do so though, relies on your help. That way we can continue this fight for greater race equality. What would give us a tremendous boost is if today, you made that small donation yourselves, but even more importantly if you encouraged others to do likewise.

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