I’d love to introduce you to my latest podcast guest, Leonie Lewis, MBE. Leonie has an impressive resume; with a Masters in sociology of education and an MBA in educational leadership, she has dedicated her career to issues of faith, young people, and community development. She is a charity and community consultant and currently works with several charities and consults on a government project. She also holds several volunteering positions.
We talk about everything from the effects of the pandemic on the charity sector and volunteering to her upcoming book, The Tin Lady.
What you’ll hear
● [4.40] Leonie’s work in the inter-faith sectors
● [11.08] The effects of the pandemic on the charity sector
● [19.00] How to find volunteering opportunities in your local community
● [22.45] Leonie on the importance of inter-faith collaboration
● [32.10] Leonie Lewis: author…
Leonie’s work in the inter-faith sector
Leonie has long been involved in youth work in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, and I’m curious to know where her interest in working in the inter-faith sector came from.
She explains that working with the Jewish community wasn’t necessarily prompted by the fact that she is, herself, Jewish, but something that happened almost by default and she’s keen to point out that she’s always been involved in secular and inter-faith work too.
“Youth work didn’t make any differentiation whether you were Jewish or not…Muslim, Black Afro-Caribbean…I worked in all different areas and with different ethnicities.
“However, for 10 years I held the position of the first director of the United Synagogue, heading their community development division, which began in 1994.
There I had the pleasure of working with Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. I didn’t just admire him; he completely inspired and transformed my way of thinking”.
“He was massively engaged in inter-faith circles and he encouraged me to think more about how we could use what we were doing in community development to help people feel more empowered. He thought some of the principles we were working on would work very well in the non-Jewish world and he was already well connected with senior faith leaders so he asked me to take more responsibility for work in the faith communities”.
Then, after 10 years, at a point at which I felt it might be time to move on, Jon Sacks asked if I would work with him as project director, with a focus on inter-faith. It was through his writings and sitting and talking with him that I began to realise what was possible with this type of work.”
Leonie then undertook research on synagogues in the UK and the Commonwealth, and their relationships with the non-Jewish world, looking at whether they were primarily engaged in information-sharing, sharing dialogue or whether there was an element of practical or active outreach work as well.
Her work here led to her becoming a trustee for the Faith Based Regeneration Network and co-chair for Faiths Forum for London (FFFL) and fed her passion for how transformative the faith sector can be when it works collaboratively and when we focus on respecting each other, rather than merely tolerating people of different faiths and beliefs.
The effects of the pandemic on the charity sector
With Leonie being so heavily involved in the charity sector, both as a consultant and as a trustee, I’m interested in her take on how the COVID crisis has impacted non-profit organisations.
“I could say, quite honestly, that the charity sector has been pretty much decimated. A lot of the programs they’d normally be doing and a lot of the face-to-face work that is so crucial for relationship building has had to stop and fundraising activities have had to be curtailed.
“I’ve been involved with three or four charities where they’d normally have a fundraising event and these have had to be postponed. For example, I’m currently working with Camp Simcha, the only UK Jewish charity helping children with chronic and terminal disease, and they have a fantastic match funding campaign coming up and we would normally hold a fundraising dinner that would raise about £2 million in vital funds”.
“A lot of charities have taken their fundraising online, with live virtual events for example, but it’s not the same. It’s difficult to replicate the atmosphere and the energy you would get at a live raffle or auction. And I know lots of charity workers who were furloughed initially and have since lost their jobs”.
“The only light at the end of the tunnel is that I think we will see two things: the charity sector will be forced to think differently about how it does things and we might see more mergers within it and the sharing of resources. And the other thing is the large swathes of people who are coming forward to volunteer — we saw that last April/May when the NHS put the call out for volunteers.”
How to find volunteering opportunities in your local community
While Leonie recognises that there can be problems vetting the large numbers of volunteers that are coming forward right now, she thinks volunteering offers people a fantastic framework for their lives, whether they’re helping with the vaccine rollout or delivering shopping to vulnerable people.
So I’d love to hear Leonie’s advice on how those of us who are desperate to give something back to our communities, can find volunteering opportunities.
Leonie talks about the more usual methods for finding volunteer work — the online sites that most of us are probably fairly familiar with — but she’s keen to point out that there are many more avenues to explore at the moment, such as Whatsapp groups that might highlight the need for volunteers in the local community or even looking out for notices in Chemists or GP surgeries, who might be looking for people to deliver medicines.
“And some charities are still recruiting. I’m working with a charity right now called Goods for Good and they get lots of unwanted goods like prams and buggies that they distribute to asylum seekers and people in need. They have a massive warehouse but the problem is that, because of social distancing, they can only have two people working in the warehouse at any one time, whereas they used to have about 20. So they’re looking for people who can help them move operations online.”
Leonie also recommends checking out places of worship, which might not be open in the usual sense but are still doing work in the community and may need help. And, of course, there are lots of food bank charities, like the Trussel Trust, that need people to help collect and deliver food.
Leonie on the importance of inter-faith collaboration
Leonie tells me that she’s been focusing on inter-faith collaboration during the pandemic via Faith Forums for London, working with City Hall and focusing on things like community engagement, giving and sharing information on mortality and burials, and helping people of all faiths to safely receive the support they need to worship at this time.
She says the work they (and others) are doing in this area, “has given credence to the influence of the faith sector and their ability to reach people.”
Leonie goes on to explain that during the latest lockdown the places of worship were given the ability to decide at a local level whether to stay open or to close and she’s incredibly proud that most of the places of worship she’s familiar with have
“created enormous online programs and opportunities. And many have been addressing wider needs such as homelessness, food poverty”
and she’s heartened to see the level at which inter-faith communities have been working together to help solve these wider community issues.
One of the things that Leonie is working on currently, in collaboration with the Fayre Share Foundation, the FFFL, and Strengthening Faith Institutions, is a government programme relating to the vaccine rollout that is focusing on reaching hard-to-reach communities and working with them to ensure that as many people are possible get vaccinated and that they’re listened to and supported in the way that they need.
“What we’re doing with this project with the government is creating local champions. I think one of the problems with the government, up until now, is that everything has been too centralised, and so we’re looking at more localised rollouts, with local authority working with local public health and NHS. And we’re starting to see the fruits of this now, as people are coming forward to be local champions and spread the message to their communities.”
Leonie Lewis: author…
In further exciting news, Leonie tells me about the book she’s working on, The Tin Lady.
She isn’t entirely sure yet whether she’d call it a book or a guide but it’s something she’s been toying with for 5 years and now lockdown has given her the time to complete the first draft.
Based on her time as a tin collector for Harrow Mencap, a charity dedicated to those with learning difficulties, the book will delve into some of her more interesting tin collecting experiences and features a foreword by Sir Martin Lewis, and amazing illustrations drawn by one of Leonie’s colleagues.
It sounds like it’ll be a must-read for anyone who has ever been a volunteer as well as anyone who’d like to start volunteering. Plus, for every copy sold, a donation will be made to Harrow Mencap.
So keep an eye out for that over the coming months!
About this episode
My latest guest is Leonie Lewis, MBE. Leonie has an impressive resume; with a Masters in sociology of education and an MBA in educational leadership, she has dedicated her career to issues of faith, young people, and community development. She is a charity and community consultant and currently works with several charities and consults on a government project. She also holds several volunteering positions.
We talk about everything from the effects of the pandemic on the charity sector and volunteering, to her upcoming book, The Tin Lady.
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