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Democratising public services for minority communities

By Raheel Mohammed

Ella Baker, the African-American civil rights campaigner, argued that “strong people don’t need a strong leader”. It was a rallying cry in 1960’s America for participatory democracy where everyone had the right to be heard and play a part in forming society and fighting social injustice.

Ella Baker, a central leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), believed in creating new leaders and erasing the distinction between leaders and followers. Professor Linda Gordon of New York University has argued that although this may have been a utopian idea, having such a high aspiration led to a more respectful way of working with non-leaders.

This idea chimes with much of our work where we see the communities we work with as assets rather than a group of people who need to have something done to them, the classical top down approach.

For instance our mental health resource we are currently producing requires talking to patients, therapists, GPs, imams, and members of the Somali community who may not feel comfortable accessing therapeutic services. It requires a great effort and is in contrast to the standardised approaches that you might currently find in the NHS. At present questionnaires such as the PHQ9 are used by GPs to score whether a patient may be suffering from depression. This questionnaire does not take into account culture, faith, class or education and both patients and doctors have pointed out this obvious flaw. This absence of a holistic approach can be particularly detrimental when tackling conditions linked to mental health which can have a variety of connotations across different communities and societies.

A standardised approach may be easier to implement and measure but it will not get to the root cause of problems and certainly not involve communities in the decision-making or creative process when tackling social issues.

As Professor Linda Gordon points out: “Campaigners such as Ella Baker wanted to enable people to take responsibility of the political and social structures in which they lived. This should be a serious aspiration for any progressive movement. This is what citizenship should mean."