Many like it HOT: Building hope in Halifax

We’re interviewing local activists who are leading by example. This week we meet Alison Haskins, who taught sewing in Lesotho before helping to revitalise a community in a diverse area of Yorkshire. Kindly supported by Power to Change.

Tell us about Halifax Opportunities Trust (HOT). We’re a local charity with our roots and most of our activity in Park Ward, Halifax. We were set up in 2000 by local residents and our purpose has always been ‘to work to make a vibrant, multicultural and self-sustaining community’. We achieve this by helping people find good jobs, build new social connections and tackle low confidence; by providing learning opportunities; helping parents to bring up healthy, confident and happy children and providing affordable business space.

How did you end up in this work? Oddly, I began life as a fashion designer – setting up my own small business with a friend after we both graduated. We ran this for several years until I got itchy feet. I saw a job advertised to teach garment design in Lesotho in southern Africa, was offered the post and spent two years teaching women to pattern cut and sew at a vocational college in the capital Maseru.

This experience had quite a profound effect on me, opening my eyes to structural social and economic injustice. After I completed my two years I moved to Johannesburg. It was just after Mandela had been released from prison. It’s really quite difficult to encapsulate the mood of the country in the run up to Mandela’s election in April 1994. I just feel extraordinarily privileged to have been there and to have taken part.

Fast forward a couple of years and I came back to the UK with my young son and completed an MA in Development Studies. I secured my first paid role for The Scarman Trust – one of the first organisations to tap into and promote Asset Based Community Development. I’ve now moved from a regional/national role, to my current local role with Halifax Opportunities Trust.

What drives you? I’m driven most of all by a belief in providing opportunities for everyone to make a good life for themselves and their families. What I saw in South Africa is that ideological suppression of a whole swathe of citizens is not just morally repugnant, it is socially, economically and politically irrational. Inequality creates a worse society for everyone, so it really is a stupid system to perpetuate! By creating conditions for everyone to thrive, contribute and participate we support individual, community and national wellbeing, which to my mind is what life is all about.

What do you like most about your work? My job with Halifax Opportunities Trust means that I can realise my own personal beliefs about fairness and justice, through the work of a charity which has this as its purpose. On a more practical basis, I really like being a CEO! I love setting strategy, direction and aiming to create a positive working culture, working with a fabulous set of colleagues who share the passion and drive to bring about positive change.

What success has HOT had? Every day, about 1700 people benefit directly from activities, projects and services that HOT provides. For every £1 we spend, £2.48 of additional local value is generated because we spend locally and expenditure ‘sticks’ within Calderdale. Our enterprise centres facilitate 300+ jobs and £14m contribution to local Gross Value Added.

For me the biggest success is that we are still here after 20 years, are still working with the community and have had significant impact on many people’s lives. Because we are local we see people’s individual progression. Our staff and trustees live locally so we are still accountable to, and embedded within, the local place.

Tell us about Park Ward. Park Ward is a densely built residential area close to Halifax town centre. 77% of the population have a BAME background; 62% have Pakistani heritage. ‘Place’ statistics for Park are better than the UK average with positivity around culture, heritage and leisure. Despite high unemployment and low skills, there’s an entrepreneurial and community spirit fostered by local religious centres and community organisations. The area has a young demographic profile but lower life expectancy than other parts of Calderdale.

What’s most difficult about working for a small community organisation? Our challenges are often with structures and approaches that disadvantage local not-for-profits, e.g. delivery opportunities that benefit national organisations that chase contracts and leave no legacy within our community. We overcome challenges by trying to get around influential tables; by producing evidence of the effect we have locally; and by being awkward sometimes. We have been around for 20 years, serving local people and just getting on, so we often simply outlive the challenges around us!

What are your aims for the future? We are going to develop a new Wellbeing and Opportunities Centre to deliver our activities and projects. Our vision is for it to be a beautiful, sustainable, welcoming building with plenty of communal space where people can mingle and find all sorts of fulfilment – via HOT, via other organisations and from their neighbours. We are also starting to research housing opportunities to tackle the problems of affordable homes locally.

What are you most looking forward to about the Stronger Things conference? Being inspired, making great connections and sharing stories from Halifax and Calderdale!

What does Community Power mean to you? Collective, collegiate action to achieve positive change in local places.

Follow Alison on Twitter.

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