It was around three years ago that Alison Jones and parents connected to the Marion Richardson School in East London began to think seriously about bringing together their community. Alison, and the school’s community, have come a long way since.
Alison is ‘Community Cohesion Coordinator’ for the Marion Richardson Primary School and when you take a look at the school statistics you begin to understand both the challenges and the benefits of being Alison.
There are 26 nationalities represented at the school. 80% of students are Bengali, 5% are Somali, and 93% of students are Muslim. It is a state school and has a Catholic head teacher who is committed to breaking down barriers in the community. From this context Alison decided that she would make use of her connections with local parents to begin bringing her community together.
In trying to engage with the community, Alison turned to Near Neighbours. She worked closely with our East London coordinator, Tim Clapton, to develop a grant application. Not long after this, Alison received funding to run an ‘Interfaith Fathers and Children’s Project’ to bring together fathers of different ethnic backgrounds.
The project recognised a need to engage fathers in the community and aimed to bring together local fathers with their children in order to encourage them to become active members of the community. This project included an overnight camp for the fathers and has led to a range of activities including swimming, climbing, a boat trip, and a visit to the coast where these fathers and children had the opportunity to build the kind of trusting relationships that come through shared experience.
The impact of this project was fantastic. Remembering the transformation at the time, Alison commented to us,
“All of these dads were all running these parallel lives whilst their kids spent time together at school and it was so great to be able to shake them out of their routines and bring them together. They have all been such valuable members of the community since! But even greater than that has been watching the friendships that have been made through this.
“I can think of two dads – one a Bengali Muslim and another a Mauritian Hindu—who, even three years on, are still going to the gym together. And then there’s also a West Indian dad and a Lithuanian dad who play football together with their sons every Friday!”
Off the back of this success Alison worked with her community parents to apply for a different Near Neighbours grant and, having seen the success this community had with the previous project, we decided to support their further work as they branched out into other families in their neighbourhood.
Their new work, ‘The Londoners’ project, saw local people who were linked to the school befriend recent migrants to London and help them to settle quickly. They acted to welcome newcomers into London, supporting people from a huge range of countries including Afghanistan, Japan, China, Iraq, Sierra Leone, and many others.
Once more, this project was incredibly successful. Being able to offer a helping hand and a friendly face to someone who has landed in an enormous city is invaluable and Alison told us just how happy she was to have been able to offer that support,
“We see all the time in our neighbourhood people who are struggling to find a sense of community to latch on to. Often they don’t succeed and they become isolated. We’ve been fortunate to cut that isolation off at the root and it’s strengthened our community no end.
“There was an isolated Japanese family who attended the birthday of an isolated Lithuanian family. There was also a Moroccan family who were invited to celebrate Eid with a Bengali family. This came off the back of this Near Neighbours project!”
Because of the continued success of the Londoners project, Alison has received funding from a different source to allow the project to run annually. A local church has also decided to take up the idea and run their own Londoners project.
As Alison has continued to work with this community she has found that people want to stick with it; once they have experienced one project, the want to take part in another and they bring others along with them.
By doing this, these projects provided a springboard for Alison and the community of families linked to the Marion Richardson School. From there they have been able to run a huge range of projects including a series of WASALA (the Arabic verb, to connect) discussion classes where parents have been able to discuss with each other a range of topics related to culture and faith. It has been a safe space for these parents to explore controversial issues.
On top of this, attendees from these projects have volunteered at church night shelters, other attendees have taken part in local interfaith lunches, there have been tea parties for over-60s, father’s football sessions, and a Paralympics sports morning.
Alison has been able to capture the sustainability of Near Neighbours by developing an ever growing network that has continued on long beyond the initial funding from Near Neighbours.
By using a solid base, Alison has been transforming her community since her first grant and there seems no end in sight. Plans are currently in place for the Londoners project to take place yearly, for a new WASALA group to be set up, for new volunteers to help out at the night shelter, and for the footballing fathers to start up a WASALA group themselves.
Alison’s work just keeps on growing and if you want to be able to transform your community like Alison has, take a look at our grants page to find out where you can start!
Author: Mr Tim Burton-Jones
Date: 06 August 2015
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