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Word of Advice: Unleash the Power of Presence

Advocate for social change, Maya Mehta in 2015

Advocate for social change, Maya Mehta in 2015

When you hear Londoner and lawyer MAYA MEHTA speak, you listen.   We Are Daytrippers recently attended an event called Putting the Soul Back into Business which was hosted by Harvard Club of the United Kingdom and co-hosted by Ms. Mehta.  Not only did Maya project the presence of a strong woman who genuinely cares about social change, but she also seemed to make sure it was going to happen; there was something extra-special about her.  We reached out and found out how she continues to intend to move mountains for the greater good.  Maya has founded Microfinance Groups at her current and past employers with law and investment firms.  In 2004, she established an advice surgery for Asian victims of domestic violence and forced marriages in East London.  Maya studied law at Oxford and in 2013 she co-founded the Harvard-Oxford Alumni Social Business Group, a forum dedicated to bringing “social intrapreneurs” together to use business as a force for positive social change.  Her message encourages all of us not just to sit there and tsk-tsk about social issues we notice or feel passionate about: but to do something:

THE POWER OF PRESENCE

Feeling Powerless?

When I hear about the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram and dragged into the forests of Nigeria, or rather when I don’t hear about them anymore because the world forgets so quickly and moves on to the next popular hashtag or the next ice bucket challenge, I feel powerless.
But then I remember how I felt back in 2004, when I kept reading stories about young Asian girls who were forced into marriage, or even worse, subjected to honour killings by their own families for choosing to be with the person they loved, or who committed suicide because they did not want to marry a complete stranger.  I couldn’t just turn the page of the paper and turn a blind eye.  But then I couldn’t exactly fly to Pakistan, India or Bangladesh and catch the perpetrators.  However, I could change things here at home in London.   

I would travel on the DLR to my law firm in Canary Wharf, watching children playing on the estates of Shadwell, their mothers hanging laundry out of the windows of the surrounding tower blocks.  The juxtaposition of the gleaming glass towers of Canary Wharf and the relative poverty of the surrounding areas was striking.

Mobilising Resources Around Us

Having met with a local charity, the Newham Asian Women’s Project, it became clear that the abuse of Asian girls was happening not just a million miles away, but right here on my doorstep.  I knew I had a wealth of resource at my fingertips– professionals such as lawyers, IT experts, secretaries, all of whom were passionate about helping others and were willing to give up their lunchbreaks to do so.  We weren’t experts in the field of domestic violence, far from it, but we had a basic skill to offer – the skill of listening, of being present.

Having asked the charity what they needed and having enlisted support from my law firm and my peers, the “Newham Asian Women’s Project Advice Surgery” was born.   Each week my colleagues would travel two stops on the Jubilee line to lend their ears to and give basic advice to the women of Newham.

Before we knew it, word spread like wildfire around the local community and women, often with their children, were lining up for advice on all sorts of issues.  It was often so simple.   One young girl ran in and told me she had been beaten up by her boyfriend.  She just wanted to enlist on a journalism course so that she could learn how to write well and tell her story.  We heard her aspirations and pointed her in the right direction.

Another lady was living in fear of her stalker ex-husband who was subject to an injunction but she still did not even dare to take her child to the local playground in case he showed up.  When we suggested she go further afield and take a trip on the Jubilee line to London Zoo she looked at us as if we had suggested going to the Moon.  She didn’t know how to use the tube.  But when we showed her a tube map and explained how to get there, her face lit up with an empowered sense of liberation – a whole new world of possibilities outside Newham had been presented to her.

Just by being present and engaged for one lunchtime a week (often less of a commitment because we had devised a weekly rota), we were able to instil a sense of self-worth into victims of abuse and remind them that they do have a voice, they do have a choice and that no-one could tell them otherwise.

The more complex issues were referred back to the charity but even in those instances we were able to use our basic professional skills to interview the women, elicit information, identify red flags, make phone calls to specialist services and point them in the right direction.  This saved the charity valuable time.

10 years later, now with clients of the firm involved and thanks to the dedication of colleagues who kept it going when I left the firm in 2011, the advice surgery is still going strong.

Call to Action

What I have learnt is that if there is a social issue that disturbs us, we don’t have to wait for government to take action, for students to take to the streets or for celebrities to tweet.  And we certainly don’t have to feel like our only option is turn a blind eye.  If I hear about something awful and find myself constantly thinking about it as I try to proceed with my day, that is my call to action.

This happened recently when I saw on the news a beautiful Eritrean girl who was languishing in the notorious refugee camp of Calais, “The Jungle”, having been trafficked for thousands of miles across Africa.  She had so much hope, promise and defiance in her eyes, I couldn’t forget her.  The obvious next step was to brainstorm with my peers about the issues faced by victims of trafficking and to partner with a charity who might welcome some different skillsets and a few extra pairs of hands.

Unleashing the Power of Presence

There is so much we can do just by asking a charity or other expert on the ground what they might need (to ensure we are a bonus, not a burden) and offering to spend precious face-to-face time listening to and engaging with victims of poverty, trafficking, domestic violence, the elderly or disabled, whatever the issue may be.  This is how we can unleash the power of presence, a weapon too often forgotten in an age of smartphones and social media.   This is the offline revolution.  This is the power of that is within each of us to drive forward social change.

The Daytrippers Team:  Thank you Maya for your contribution and we wish you the very best.

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MY STORY: Sarah Stevenson and Captain Jack

7-year-old Jack Stevenson

7-year-old Jack Stevenson

CAPTAIN JACK‘s mother, SARAH STEVENSON from Bicester Oxen, England shares her story with We Are Daytrippers:

I think for any parent, making decisions for your child is always difficult and especially so if you have a child with special needs. I am Mum to Jack who is 7 years old and born with Down’s Syndrome. At our 20 week scan they told me and Jack’s Dad Mark, that’s there was a chance that our baby boy would be born with Down’s Syndrome as his neck measurement was slightly larger than average. We chatted to the specialist midwife about our options, but for us there were no options. We would have our baby regardless. No amnio and no abortions. It was a short chat with her!

Jack decided to arrive into the world slightly earlier than planned (6 weeks too early in fact!) and was almost born on our neighbours decking as I was adamant I had indigestion! First time Mum and all that. After a mad dash to the Horton Hospital, Banbury Jack shot out an hour later after the mention of forceps! After a short cuddle he was whisked off to the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU). The consultant told us that they thought he had Down’s Syndrome. At the time we didn’t cry or get upset we just knew that we would care for and love our baby no matter what. Jack was in SCBU for 6.5 weeks which was quite hard going but he finally came home only to be admitted again after 3.5 months for open heart surgery. We didn’t care that he had Down’s Syndrome just as long as he survived the operation. Looking back now I don’t know how we coped seeing our baby connected up to all the tubes and wires on the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit but we knew he was in good hands and you just have to get on with it!

Newborn Captain Jack

Newborn Captain Jack

We had a few visits to hospital over the next few years mainly for chest infections. He vomited up to 7 times a day every day due to the build-up of mucus on his chest and faulty valves at the top of his stomach, and failed to put on weight. We used to carry a plastic ‘sick’ bowl underneath his buggy just in case! We didn’t let this stop us doing anything travelling to the Seychelles when he was 6 months old for our honeymoon as well as Lisbon, France and Cornwall! Through all of this Jack was still a contented baby taking on these challenges as they were thrown at him. At 2 years old we went on a holiday to Crete and he suddenly became a different child with regards to his health. Virtually overnight he stopped being sick and started to put on weight! He was also a floppy baby and didn’t walk unaided until he was 4 and a half years old. Mind you that didn’t stop him bombing around on his bottom and then later on with his walker. If you see him now it is difficult to believe how poorly he was early on because now he runs very fast and eats loads! He is very sociable, but very stubborn and only wants to do what he wants to do!

When Jack was 4.5 months I joined our local support group Down’s Syndrome Oxford which has been invaluable to me over the last 7 years. I took over as treasurer and have currently just handed over to another volunteer after 5 years in the role.

When Jack was ready to start school we decided to put him in to our local mainstream school in Bicester, Oxon since most of the advice we received suggested that children with Down’s syndrome benefit from being around other ‘typical’ children and could learn by copying them.

During year 1 Jack’s behaviour became worse (he had always been a thrower!) often reluctant to line up, go into class, stay on task, to do as he was told by his teacher, or sit on the carpet so we agreed for him to repeat the year. This didn’t help his behaviour and if anything the situation continued to get worse. This was a very low time for me and as every time I collected him there was negative comments and his whole education was becoming about his behaviour not what he had learnt. I didn’t know what to suggest or do. I contacted various professionals to try and get some advice but nothing really helped. The Educational Psychologist involved in school suggested he have his 1:1 sessions as normal but that he went back into reception (joined with nursery) at other times to try and build up his social interactions with the younger kids. Unfortunately this did not help and Jack would still lie on the floor, refusing to budge only wanting to have an adult’s attention. He would also behave like this at home so it just wasn’t at school. Every morning when I tried to get him to eat his breakfast or get changed or go to school he would refuse, lie on the floor and refuse to budge! I did go through a couple of very low weeks last October when I just was about to give up but then Jack comes along gives me a big smile, a huggle (a hug and a cuddle) as we call them and tells me he loves me.

The Stevensons

Smiles all around

Earlier this year when the Head teacher had said they didn’t know what to do with Jack in September I knew the problem with his behaviour wasn’t going to get better here and that this mainstream school despite the care of the staff was not right for him anymore. So when the Ed Psychologist mentioned perhaps having a look at our local special school we decided to make an appointment.

I was very upset at the time (February 2014) about Jack attending special school but was impressed by what I saw when we visited. All the questions and concerns I had were answered by the Head teacher and Mark and I both liked the idea of smaller class size and that this would probably benefit Jack. I think I was so upset about special school because I worry about what will happen to Jack when Mark and I are no longer here and who will help him. At special school the staff teach the children about being independent such as cooking, getting dressed, money etc. which are essential skills needed to look after yourself. We also sat in on a lesson in the class that Jack would be joining should we decide to send him there. There were 6 children, 1 teacher and 3 teaching assistants and I was surprised how calm and quiet the environment was. Each child could be taught at their individual level and with the specific help they needed. We decided to get Jack into the special school ASAP as I felt he was not achieving at the mainstream school. He started after Easter with a few mornings accompanied by his TA’s from the mainstream school before attending officially after May half term. He also gets transport to school provided which I wasn’t so sure about but as school has been so good at communicating with me I don’t feel I am missing out on the after school chats when I would have pick him up. He seems to enjoy travelling on the bus with some of his class mates!

The Stevensons

The Stevensons

Well what a surprise in the first full week it was like having a different child. He actually wanted to go to school! He liked his new Teacher (Mr M) and was keen to talk about his new class mates. I haven’t had the battles I was having every morning to get him to school. He is more willing to get dressed and wait outside for the bus to arrive. Obviously, we do still have the odd battle and refusals to move or do anything, but generally he seems happier. This makes home life much better. So now he has been at special school for 5 weeks and I think it was the best thing to do. His speech has improved as well as his behaviour. Whether it was that the mainstream school we chose wasn’t the right place or the fact that any mainstream school would never have been right we’ll never know and it is very early days at his new school but it seems to be going in the right direction at the moment.

Sarah watches as Jack feeds the Giraffe in 2013 at London Zoo.

Sarah watches as Jack feeds the Giraffe in 2013 at London Zoo.

We became involved with Daytrippers after we’d been to the Special Need’s Day at London Zoo. This has been our fourth year attending. Last year Jack was the Daytrippers Ambassador and was allowed to feed the giraffes. He loved it. We also attended Daytrippers 10 year Party and a music event that was held in London. We have just attended the Brighton Sealife Centre Trip which was at the weekend. Jack loved the sharks and feeding the turtles! Thank you Daytrippers.

Please feel free to contact me regarding anything I’ve talked about!

sarah.stevenson68@yahoo.co.uk

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