We interviewed Nana Agyeman the Co-founder and Director of Access UK. He explained the ideas behind the charity, some of the current work they are doing and their plans for the next year.
Access UK are based on the ground floor of the 639 Centre on Tottenham High Road. The organisation was started by Nana Agyeman and Chris Ankobia, the Operations Manager, in 2013. The pair met whilst they were both working for Ingeus. Nana and Chris currently run the organisation and they have around four advisors that come in on an ad-hoc basis. “Me and Chris realised the one-size-fits-all approach applied across most employment service providers can’t effectively tackle the specific barriers young BME jobseekers face and therefore recognised a need for our services.”
“I sold my property and left Ingeus, and then used some of the proceeds of the sale to set up this organisation. We knew we were going to find it hard to find funding initially… so we had to make some sacrifices of our own.” Nana explained that he felt so passionate about the cause that he decided the only way to move forward was to invest his own money. “I’ve always been active in the community anyway but I just didn’t have a means to channel my passion.” Nana told us that he did some work in Tottenham around the 2011 riots. “I was part of a steering group that was looking for the reasons for the riots.” He was bought in by various grass root groups to look at unemployment and suggest solutions.
Nana decided to create a bespoke careers guidance service for BME candidates. “If me and you walk into a Jobcentre they’re not going to think, ‘OK, I’ll tailor the support for you because you’re black or you’re white.’ It’s this standard service that they offer to everybody but that’s the problem… We’ve discovered the number one reason for BME youth unemployment is what they call employer unconscious bias. If I go into an interview and the person interviewing me is a middle aged white man, the stats show that that person is more likely to pick somebody that looks like him.”
Nana told us about some research that the Jobcentre did where they sent out a set of CVs with ethnic minority sounding names and another set of CVs with English sounding names to various job vacancies. “What they found is that the sample that had the English sounding names would get more interviews even if they have the same set of qualifications. Once you look at the facts then it affects how you go about helping a particular group of people. For example if someone walks in here and they’re a young black male and a graduate, I know that they’re three times more likely to be unemployed than a white graduate. I may advise that individual to tailor their CV and application with the knowledge that too much information can be harmful. I would suggest that they put their address as London instead of Tottenham, and also encourage that individual to target employers with a strong diversity agenda.”
Nana told us that Access UK acts like a broker between their clients and potential employers. “We currently working on contracts with Bosch, World Bank and the Land Registry which is specifically supporting these organisations with recruiting more BME candidates. Our role is to identify, it’s not about employing somebody just ‘cause they’re black. What we’re trying to show is that there are people that are intelligent, hardworking, got all the qualifications, they just need a break.” They also support people to become employers themselves and have connections with employers abroad in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who are looking for recent graduates.
Nana couldn’t give an exact figure of how many clients they had successfully placed in work overall but told us that in their current programme, which had been running for about twelve months, they had placed about 100 out of around 150-200 referrals. He explained that referrals come directly from people who have heard about the organisation by word of mouth or via the Jobcentre. Anyone contacting Access UK is given their services for free and the organisation receives some funding from the people who are referred to them via the Jobcentre.
Access UK receive some funding through contracts with employers but Nana is still running the organisation from a lot of his personal pot. Nana told us donations so far have been very minimal. The majority of their income is from the Department of Work and Pensions, the Jobcentre, his own pot and a couple of other grants.
We talked a bit more about Access UK’s plans for the future. Nana explained that they plan to use what they are already doing in Tottenham and replicate it as a model across a bigger geographical area. “It’s just expand our operations really and our cash flow in terms of what we do and then take it from there… the contracts are obviously key to that because they will help us be self-sufficient, not rely on grants or donations. A lot of me and Chris’s time is spent on strategy and working out how we can make Access UK self-sustainable.”
Access UK also work with a number of partner organisations who have specific skills or expertise which compliment what they do or employers who’ve got a focus on diversity and inclusion.
A key programme that Access UK run is Gang Stars which looks at the issues surrounding gangs. Nana told us that this is not necessarily about helping them into work – it’s about changing their mind set. He explained mainstream services only offer two solutions which is to provide training or a job. “You’ve got a young gang member coming in to your organisation, they’re earning X amount of thousands of pounds per week from selling drugs. What makes you think that giving them a job which pays them £8 an hour, or that some training is going to help them to miraculously change their lifestyle? It’s not going to happen.”
“We need to get to the mind-set of a young particularly male person in a gang. Especially if they’re black. The police claim that there is an over representation of young black males in gangs. So our question was: If that’s true, what’s behind it?”
“We work with a black historian, Robin Walker, who looks at the historical root of all these things… If young black males are in a system, they don’t understand who they are, they don’t understand their historical background, their contribution towards the UK, how they fit in, ‘am I African, am I Caribbean, am I British, am I black British am I black and British?’ It’s an identity crisis which can lead to dysfunctionality and certain behaviours within this group. One of the ways you can deal with that issue is to give people more opportunity to learn and understand the contributions of black people to UK society, provide the historical context of different professions and role models young blacks can look up to, which helps to encourage a more positive mindset rather than a negative one.”
Nana says that Access UK deal with topics that get to the heart of the issue. “They realise, ‘OK, so let’s start looking at myself then. Why have I got issues with that person? Why am I going to shoot somebody or stab somebody ‘cause they looked at me in the street and I don’t know them?’ It’s much deeper, hence why we use Robin to complement what we do… he gives them that historical perspective which is there to effect a change in how they think, how they go about things.”
He explained that they also explore the issue with postcodes: “if you live in Tottenham and you’re relocated in Edgware… You live in Edgware now – does that mean you’re going to have issues with someone that lives in Hendon? But you had issues in Tottenham? What I’m basically trying to get at there is what do you own? How do you claim an area which you don’t own anything in? You don’t have no ownership… so when you talk about this is my ends or this is my manor, how does that constitute your manor? Because you live there? Is it worth risking your life over the issues that may arise from postcode conflict? ”
“It’s looking at how stupid some of these thought processes are and then making them come to their own conclusion so they have ownership of their behaviour. Once you’ve given these base examples, they own it, it’s not a lecture… it’s consequential thinking. It’s making sure they’re always thinking on that level rather than being in auto pilot.”
“You’re dealing with people with complex issues.” Nana told us that you have to instinctively know how to push someone forwards. “Even if it’s not into a job. Even if it’s training, up-skilling, just to put them on to that journey to find work. Even if it means getting them counselling sessions… It’s about giving support to people as well as getting them into work so you’re doing a lot more in the background.”
“The root of the problem is … that person at the end of that chain who doesn’t like that young boy coming through that door, doesn’t like the look of him, and is not going to give him that job. Fixing someone’s CV alone will not address why there is a disproportion of young BMEs unemployed, the reason is much bigger than that.”
We asked Nana what he liked most about working in Tottenham: “Tottenham is vibrant. It’s got a lot of interesting characters. It’s got a lot of problems that we would like to resolve. My passion has always been helping people, helping the community, so the work is my extension of my passion. You have to be passionate ‘cause there’s a lot of frustration as well, lots of knock backs, lots of disappointments. We’ve had numerous grant applications rejected. Most people would think, ‘you know what forget this’ but you have to persevere, especially if you believe in the cause, you have to persevere.”
We talked about the regeneration of Tottenham and how Nana thinks it is impacting the area. “It’s had a disproportionate effect on different groups of people that live here, so they’ve been pushed out. All across London they’ve been pushed out… into neighbouring areas and you’re finding that there’s been hikes in problems in these neighbouring areas because of that. It’s just like pushing the problem to the side and not really looking at the root of it. If you don’t deal with the root of the problem, invariably it will come back up again. If you also look at the opportunities in a particular area – primarily in retail, customer service – what about the people who aspire to do other stuff? It’s about aspirations and expectations as well. I don’t think things are that great and I don’t think the regeneration helps… Overall if you weigh out the pros and cons I think the cons outweigh the pros. It’s fantastic for people moving in, crime, poverty, but what happens to the actual grass root people that have lived here for years? They’ve got no voice and they don’t even know how to exercise their voice and their power. They’re completely disconnected from policy makers and people in positions of influence.”
If you’d like to find out more about Access UK and the work that they do you can visit their website at http://accessuk.org/