By Molly Gorman
“Gosh, we can change. Communities can change services, we can change and create a better world for all. There are so many ways that people can support, whether physically in person or online.”
Molly Gorman interviews Safia Jama MBE, the Chief Executive and Founder of Women’s Inclusive Team (WIT), a Tower-Hamlets based organisation which serves Black and ethnic minority communities. Their expertise lies particularly with supporting Black, Muslim Somali women and their families, which they’ve been doing since 2003.
Having been to a workshop hosted at Women’s Inclusive Team’s centre in Bethnal Green, I’ve seen the incredible work that the organisation does, and felt the warm welcome from the Somali women who spend time there. From developing a range of programmes supporting women struggling with domestic violence to helping those who are socially and economically vulnerable, with a food bank, community kitchen, and creating a test and trace service in response to the pandemic, WIT’s impact is formidable. Safia and the team at WIT have highlighted the lives of Black, Muslim, Somali women and their families who experience extreme inequality and racism, and are passionate about making the world around them a better place.
I witnessed the team’s leader Safia in action, just before she was fittingly listed to receive an MBE this year. She’s a natural leader, commanding the space so effortlessly while translating between Somali and English to include everyone. It was evident that she’s heavily integrated with her community, who trust and value her massively.
Alongside being a CEO guiding and creating the strategy of WIT and doing community-facing work on the ground, Safia is a mum of five, a Board Director of Tower Hamlets Homes, an Independent Police Adviser and a Mental Health Trainer. I was lucky enough to meet her for a second time via Zoom to have a conversation about why the work of WIT is crucial to improving the livelihood of Black and minority ethnic families in Tower Hamlets and beyond.
Molly: Why did you create WIT and what were the initial aims of the organisation?
Safia: As a young girl that grew up in Tower Hamlets, I saw my experience as limited compared to my peers, which was largely due to cultural and religious barriers.
Creating a safe environment for young girls from Black and minority ethnic communities is so important to me - it means that they will have the same experience as their peers, enabling them to flourish. One of the first projects we did was a youth project that enriched young girls - who are adults now - to have experiences as they would not have had otherwise. I guess WIT is a tool that enables me to solve problems… problems that I may have faced, that other people of ethnic minorities face, a tool that enables me to fill gaps, to ensure that our society is more equal and fair in terms of providing opportunities to all.
Molly: WIT primarily supported Black, Somali and minority ethnic women and their families for 16 years. You now support men too - was that always an aim?
Safia: We used to be called Somali Integration Team before Women's Inclusive Team. The story behind ‘Somali Integration’ was just my experience of growing up in Tower Hamlets in a large Somali family. As I mentioned, because of protection, safeguarding and cultural dynamics, I wasn't able to have the same experiences as other girls, like going on school trips and or other activities.
It wasn’t that my mum didn't want me to have those experiences - she was worried about my wellbeing and racism. Back then, racism was really rife. Racial slurs were used as a norm. In fact, my father was physically assaulted in a racially-motivated attack and he's disabled as a result - so that’s why my mum said we have to protect each other. I think she saw the worst of it as a person who didn't grow up here herself. So, although it came from a really good place, it still prevented me from having those experiences. We know that it’s really powerful for young girls to be able to aspire to bigger things, reach their potential, whatever that might be - so I wondered how I could create that safe environment where girls can go and mothers can trust that they’ll be looked after. So, WIT was based on lived experience and the problems I saw around me.
When COVID came, I think we definitely looked long and hard at what we do at WIT. Even though we are a specialist women's organisation and we're a specialist Black, specifically Somali organisation, we will never turn anyone away. Hence why we said let's drop the Somali - because we have Arab, we have white, Bangladeshi and more communities who access our services. Also, our staff and trustees reflect the local community.
The majority of our services are not men, but we welcome anyone who needs help, regardless of who they are.
Molly: In 2016, research by Public Health England that highlighted Somali women had the fastest rates of mental health deterioration than any other group, and mental health became a core element of your mission. Have you noticed any big changes within the Somali community since 2016?
Safia: I think mental health affects all communities and at WIT we run a number of different services specifically aimed at mental health. On a personal level, I witnessed mental health issues, inequalities and challenges in my community long before the report came out - so it was really powerful when Public Health England acknowledged it.
A lot of Somali women come from large families, where the men are physically absent (back in Somalia, the man will go out and take the camels to milk). This means that a lot of the hard work, like looking after the children lies, on the shoulders of mothers. This cultural dynamic (interpreted as unhealthy in Western countries) has been brought to the UK. In today's society, that means dealing with a number of issues - supporting children of different ages, overcrowded houses, the pressure to gain employment, access and barriers to healthcare and then racism. How can they possibly look after their own wellbeing?
We also know that Somali kids and young people are disproportionately killed on the streets of London. Cressida Dicks actually came to our centre to discuss the fact that 30% of young black men that are killed on the streets of London are Somali, which is unbalanced to the number of Somali kids that we have.
Those are huge things for a community who might not understand the system or can’t get help from it due to language barriers, or don’t have any confidence or trust in the system. I think we haven't even scratched the surface - there's a massive piece of work that needs doing around mental health, but it will take a long time because there's stigmas, cultural taboos and religious elements that are really intertwined. Stakeholders really need to understand the issues and deal with them in a way that’s culturally sensitive.
Molly: How do you think local and national governments should better recognise the work of grassroots community organisations in bringing about social and economic change?
Safia: Now is the first time that I have a huge sense of hope. I guess a silver lining that came out from COVID and Black Lives Matter is that local and national governments know there's a problem and they’re actively trying to find those solutions.
I feel for the first time that they trust us as the experts of our own community. We’re specialists - a third sector organisation and grassroot. I knew that I had to be in meetings to make sure that our voice was heard; I always say, “if you're not around the table, you're on the menu.” And although I can’t say that I am the voice of all Black or all Somali or all Muslim people, but I can give the narrative that I've seen, heard and felt within my community.
It's always about bringing other experiences of all women into the wider picture - women who don’t speak English, women who've experienced racism, mental health or other social issues - and just making sure that I speak about access and representation. Whatever the platform is, we have to ensure that those different voices are heard.
I have to say that I feel confident that they're listening more and our borough is actually funding us specifically to do work around healthcare, which is a big deal considering that historically they haven’t. They’re now utilising their relationship with us and have put effort in building a rapport, trusting our connection with our communities and recognising how important that is .
I can see some real changes in front of me which is really powerful and gives us the fuel to carry on.
Molly: How can readers of Mission Statement Magazine support WIT?
Safia: I always say that a donation is not just financial, although I know that small charities need donations even more to be able to carry on. The donation of your time and intellectual assets is the most valuable commodity, and the passion that comes with it.
Gosh, we can change. Communities can change services, we can change and create a better world for all. There are so many ways that people can support, whether physically in person or online.