Volunteers and Social Action Leading Change to Address Health Inequalities

Mandy James

 Mandy James is development manager at Volunteering Matters, working to improve the impact of volunteering.

Less of the barriers, more of the benefits

Covid-19 has shone a stark light on health inequality. The virus has had a disproportionate impact on many who already face disadvantage and discrimination. The shame is that this is nothing new. A recent study [1] published in The Lancet Public Health, showed that the health impact of belonging to some ethnic minority groups is equivalent to being 20 years older than your actual age. It might be the largest study of its kind, including more than 150,000 people who self-identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group – but it is certainly not the first to find such evidence.

The Lancet study notes the interconnection of health, poverty and insufficient support from local services including housing, social-care and GP services. In Health Inequalities: Our Position, The Kings Fund states that:

“Evidence shows that a comprehensive approach to tackling them [inequalities] can make a difference. Concerted, systematic action is needed across multiple fronts to address the causes of health inequalities. This includes, but goes well beyond, the health and care system”.

The Race Equality Foundation provides resources that explore discrimination and disadvantage to help overcome barriers and promote race equality in health, housing and social care.

At Volunteering Matters we are looking at how working alongside people and communities, rather than on their behalf, volunteering and social action can play its part in addressing these issues and avoid the pitfalls of outdated models that may unwittingly exacerbate or reinforce inequalities.

At the heart of our approach are three key beliefs:

  • Communities have the power, knowledge and energy to improve themselves from within.
  • We are most effective when we work with people, not on their behalf.
  • Our impact is greater, and more people benefit, when we share and adapt our learnings.

Volunteering and social action as a catalyst to change systems

By working alongside communities, and by working in partnership at a local level, volunteering and social action can act as a catalyst to address the power dynamics that perpetuate health inequalities.

In partnership with Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Race Equality, we are soon starting activity in Ipswich to work with young people from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, as well as local government and health partners. The young people will be co-producing health focused solutions that begin to address the health inequalities that exist in their communities.

The entire programme will be built on young people in communities and their experiences. The methodology of engagement has been built over the last five years through our activity with young people in these communities and follows a four-stage approach:

  • Stage 1: Personal – We start by supporting young people to build a positive relationship with themselves – improving self-awareness.
  • Stage 2: Interpersonal – We equip young people with the skills to empathise and communicate well with those around them – to feel confident in how they interact
  • Stage 3: Advocacy – We enable young people to help those around them to build and maintain positive relationships with each other.
  • Stage 4: Community – Young people develop a sense of belonging and play a central role in creating vibrant communities.

Young people will move through and around these stages at different points and times, but it is the basis on which we are able to engage them in driving and building systemic community-based change.

This in turn will lead to a network of 60 young black, Asian and ethnic minority health ambassadors across Ipswich. As this is a partnership activity involving government and health partners in the region, the health ambassadors will be articulating problems and influencing leaders in-order to build solutions from a community informed perspective.

What next?

The next step in this journey must be to find new accessible and meaningful ways to enable more people to make changes in their communities (and for themselves) through the power of volunteering. This is why at Volunteering Matters we’ve launched our new strategy, shifting our models to enable more people to make change. We cannot do this by ourselves. If you would like to find out more or partner with us, please get in touch.

[1] By Ruth Elizabeth Watkinson, PHD, Prof Matt Sutton, PHD and Alex James Turner PHD

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