You Make It helps unemployed young women of colour living in East London find employment—and a sense of self. But as cuts bite, its own future is under threatby Ciaran Thapar / October 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
In December 2017, Joy was sat in her local job centre in Hackney, north-east London. Having recently graduated from university, home life was becoming unbearable. Whilst her mother battled multiple sclerosis and the discovery of a tumour, Joy was diagnosed with depression.
“I couldn’t decide: should I focus on improving my mental health, or on getting a job? I was stuck. There were times when I questioned whether there was any point even being here…”
Her voice trails off. “Then You Make It came into my life.”
Fast-forward to the summer of 2018: Joy is stood at Spitalfields market, selling her artwork, just three months into You Make It’s intensive six-month program.
The charity helps unemployed young women of colour living in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney to find employment—but also find a sense of self.
“It gave me a platform to be creative, to write and think about having my own business. But I was also supported to be more confident, to work on my mental health, to self-care.”
“The programme is different, because they give you time and encouragement to settle your head first, then they focus on your future and career,” Joy says.
You Make It has supported hundreds of vulnerable young women since its inception in 2011. Its founder Asma Shah was raised in social housing by her single mother, who left her abusive father shortly after moving to the UK from Pakistan in the 1970s.
“My mother died in 2009, and it made me wonder: if she didn’t have people around her who understood her talent and potential when she was starting off on her own, how would she have coped? Where would my sisters and I be now?”
“So firstly, it was about providing inspiration, contacts, networks and self-belief to those who need it most: working class women of colour, who are either unemployed, or underemployed,” she says.
The second of these categories has become more relevant because, as the Office for national Statistics found earlier this year, young women are more likely than any other social group to work under the precarious conditions of zero-hour contracts.
Furthermore, the number of single parents—90 per cent of whom are female—working zero-hour contracts has increased tenfold since 2007.
Shah realised that as her local area was changing, inequality was becoming entrenched.
“Having lived in Bethnal Green for half my life, I’ve seen gentrification bring new opportunities to the local area, but most of those are only accessible to a particular demographic of people.”
“I wanted You Make It to become a vehicle for ensuring local young women wouldn’t be left behind by the change. In 2011, it was towards the start of austerity. I knew women from backgrounds like my own would be the ones to fall through the cracks.”
But because of the compounding intersectionality of class, gender and racial inequality that has persisted for decades in the UK, women, especially those who are poor and of colour, have become the most acutely victimised social group under the Conservative government’s tightening of the public purse.
Services like refuges for vulnerable women have had their funding cut, and restrictions have been placed upon state benefits largely relied upon by women, such as the Sure Start maternity grant and other initiatives which help single parents.
Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, be employed in the the increasingly-stretched public sector, and be discriminated against when they do apply for jobs.
Academics Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel have found that BME women are disproportionately mis-characterised by policymakers, meaning attempts to make their lives better through formal interventions are often flawed.
The way female beneficiaries are all-too-often invisible in policy research and positions of decision-making power, inaccurately diagnosed problems inevitably lead to solutions that do not fit the bill.
I met Shah, and Roxi Jahanshahi, the charity’s Programmes Manager, at a writing and storytelling workshop for You Make It’s participants this summer, held at the Free Word Centre in Clerkenwell, central London.
“From the first day, we will openly sit there and talk about experiencing anxiety, or depression, or going for therapy. Our women see people who look like them, have similar backgrounds, and it makes them feel more comfortable opening up—especially if their friends and family don’t talk about those things at home,” Jahanshahi says.
For a diverse range of compounding reasons, there is an overwhelming tendency for BAME women to suffer at the hands of suppressed mental illness.
On top of the intersectionality of other types of prejudice and discrimination which might lead to someone’s unemployment, Joy explained to me that cultural practices such as “praying your problems away” often take precedence amongst families whose female members might therefore neglect help from counsellors or medics.
NHS figures from last year show that a white person with mental health issues is twice as likely to be receiving treatment than a person with a black or Asian background.
At the workshop I visited, the sixth in a series total of over twenty, the women were sat around a grand table. In one exercise, led by guest facilitators—two young, white female novelists—each participant was asked to choose from a selection of portrait images, create a backstory for one of them, and explain their character to the rest of the group.
“Our approach is about getting women to come to terms with their back stories and understand them in a positive sense,” Shah explains.
“All of our women are resilient. A lot of them have been in violent relationships, many have disclosed being sexually abused as children, or they’ve been neglected and marginalised in school—or they have undiagnosed learning difficulties and we’re the first people to work it out. They’ve often had onerous caring opportunities for their parents and their children.”
“A majority of our women have a deeply complex background.”
Every participant receives a mentor, who are each recruited from a range of professional backgrounds and trained by a psychologist (male mentors are encouraged). The second half of the programme, in the latter months, focuses on practical, employability-based skills—from interview practice to negotiating a salary. At the end of the programme, the You Make It team use their network to broker work placements.
“When you’re working class, there are traumas that become normalised,” says Marissa, a participant in the workshop I attended. Still only a teenager, she signed up to You Make It after seeing her aunt graduate from the programme.
“I had a breakdown during my A-Levels. I was dealing with anxiety and depression. I lost all motivation to do even small things, like get out of bed or do my hair. Then a few months after that I was diagnosed with a brain cavernoma. I was dealing with so much,” she tells me.
Yet despite these barriers, energised by You Make It’s programme, she recently applied to a freelance job with the London Transport Museum. Against all odds, after competing with mostly graduates older than her, she was offered the role.
But in spite of successes like Marissa’s, You Make It’s future is not as secure as it should be.
There is an insidious multiplier effect of austerity’s negative impact, because the same restrictions placed upon vulnerable women’s lives are also placed upon those organisations, like You Make It, who are trying to intervene to pick up the pieces.
“It’s become so much tougher,” Shah says. “Despite our fantastic impact reporting, demonstrable ability to achieve outcomes, strong governance structure, and the fact we are always evolving to meet our women’s needs, funders can’t guarantee repeat funding when there is so much demand on them.”
That demand, she adds, “is rising year on year.”
For the women who attend, however, You Make It is life-changing. “I believed that I deserved to be there when I made it through the different stages of the application process,” Marissa says.
“Now I have a job where people will know who I am. I’m interacting with a group of people here who care about me, and I’ve got an opportunity to go into places I never would have thought possible.”
I ask Marissa if she could summarise the support You Make It has provided her so far.
“How did it happen that this big group of talented women just got missed?” she replies, passionately, in disbelief. “You Make It says: go and do it, because we know you can do it. It breathes life into people who were forgotten.”