This week on the #MYCHARITY series, we speak to Lousia Mitchell CEO of West London Zone, a charity offering children and young people access to new opportunities in their community.
Location: West London
Current job: CEO of West London Zone
One word that best describes how you work: determined
Your biggest success: every child who has overcome a challenge or achieved a goal supported by West London Zone
Your greatest fear: giving up on hoping for a better future
Your biggest dream: that the children and young people we support go on to thrive in adulthood and our west London community becomes a more equitable society
Your favourite movie: Good Will Hunting
I started my career in finance. It was a good role for developing my ability to focus, pay attention to detail and work hard, but my heart was never in it. I went on to work in ‘socially responsible investment’, journalism and policy, and it was this plus some travels around the world, that got me into working with children and young people and through which I found what really motivates me, what I feel really passionately about. It’s pretty simple really, I just don’t like unfairness. I can’t bear that some children in our country, which is full of opportunity, are not furnished with the tools to thrive in life and I believe we can change that, with the right support in the right way at the right time.
We are aiming for a west London community where all children and young people have access to the support they need to enable them to overcome challenges and achieve their goals so that they can go on to thrive in adulthood and contribute positively to their community.
We provide a personalised 2-year programme of support for every child we work with using our team of trusted adults – West London Zone Link Workers – who are based full time in a school and know the children really well. They guide and champion each child and are responsible for designing and facilitating each child’s 2-year programme with them, their families and their teachers. Programmes often include specialist support such as therapy, drama, sport and catch up literacy, delivered in partnership with organisations working locally.
During the first lockdown, when schools were closed, we were unable to deliver the specialist support children needed, so our Link Workers shifted to daily wellbeing check-ins and facilitating emergency support as needed – food, technology, paying bills, activity and learning packs in partnership with the schools. By the summer, we managed to mobilise some remote specialist support – therapy, catch up tuition. In the Autumn term, every Link Worker has been in school, guiding the children through the return to school and mobilising as much specialist support as they can to keep the children engaged in school, remaining positive and focused, and addressing their learning loss.
My team is working in very tough and restrictive conditions at the moment, so my job has been to keep us financially robust and to ensure that everyone has the training and support they need to do their jobs well and keep their wellbeing in check. For example, all Link Workers were trained in trauma-informed practice before they return to school in September and have additional clinical supervision this term. I have never been more proud of my team, every single person at WLZ has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to getting children and families what they need this year and empowering them to take ownership of their futures in an increasingly difficult landscape.
We have had to adapt quickly again and again in order to provide what children and families need in a constantly changing environment. We are a small organisation so we can be nimble, and our model is to provide personalised support for every child – and every child is different. So we were naturally able to pivot and provide what they needed in a new environment. My team showed extraordinary adaptability as we gripped how to work with new tech platforms and how best to communicate with each and every child and family. We also have a diversified funding model and are deeply embedded in schools and working in partnership with other local organisations and services, so those partnerships held us in very good stead.
But the pandemic has put the charity sector under enormous pressure as the demand for services is rising all the time, but fundraising opportunities have been lost. I fear that this situation will continue to escalate for many months, years yet and I am constantly trying to look and plan further and further forward to ensure our sustainability while also having to adjust and adapt daily in the here and now. Technology is a massive help, but it isn’t the whole answer. For example, we have had to make group tuition and other sessions smaller and shorter for the children to keep them focused and make the most out of each session, so it’s difficult to get them all the support they need.
I always say that ours is a very practical model of support. We operate according to the principles of ‘Collective Impact’. For us, partnership is not me, as the CEO, sitting around a table with other CEOs talking about how we might strategically align our organisations – although that’s important too – it’s about practically bringing people together, on the ground around individual children, one child at a time.
Our focus is the children. Every person and every organisation involved in our network is focused on the children and therefore wants the best for every child. We have learned over the years that if we keep that focus, it is not challenging to align. It’s when other things get in the way that challenges arise. And when that happens, we have learned to drill down to the individual child or children involved, and then we can nearly always get there.
We are very relational in our approach to all our work – it’s one of our values. So our delivery model is all about relationships, and that spills across to all our work that supports that delivery. We have always done lots of meetings, school visits and events with the children, but that has not been possible this year. So we have stepped up our virtual communication – through video briefings including a range of team members, and more regular written comms via our ‘insight of the month’ newsletter and a more systematic approach to how we communicate on social.
I’m not very good at forgetting about work. My whole team is incredibly dedicated and works very hard. We are all passionate about what we do and I love the fact they send me podcasts, videos, articles and books on social justice issues because they care so much. I’m not sure if listening to or reading those counts as recharging. I often listen to them when running or walking. I like to be active and the increased number of hours at the computer over recent months has been challenging for me – while I am indebted to Zoom and Google hangouts and Teams and so on, I don’t enjoy using them one bit! Aside from that, meals, games and outdoor activities with my family are the times I guess I really forget about work. I learned early on when my own children were young that whatever else is going on, when you are with them, you need to be mentally and emotionally present…because you get back what you put in. They are my greatest battery re-charger and inspire me daily…and sometimes they are my greatest exhaustion!
During the first lockdown, we set up a West London Zone book club to provide the team with some relaxation and social activities. Books have been around the theme of inclusion as we work hard to ensure that the values we adopt in our work with children and families every day drive towards inclusive practice and we need to translate those across the whole organisation too. The latest book was Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams which gripped my attention with some brilliantly unexpected twists in the plot.
I am continually impressed by so many of the people I meet who are trying to develop the systems we need to support children well in this country, particularly those trying to adopt a collective impact and deep partnerships approach. In particular, Ed Vainker, CEO of Reach Hub Feltham continually inspires me. As do many of the headteachers I meet in our Zone – too many of them to name but their dedication and commitment is incredible. As do my West London Zone Link Workers – again too many of them to name, but Farial Missi, our Deputy Head of Link Work who was one of our first Link Workers back in 2015 is an inspiration to us all at WLZ on a daily basis.
My father worked incredibly hard his whole life and he used to cite the wartime quote: ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted’. I think it’s another way of saying: ‘It’s all in the preparation’. I do believe in luck, but I also believe in preparing for every meeting, every eventuality and in forging really strong and positive relationships. If you do that and you work hard, you can be pretty sure you will be ready to never waste an opportunity. I can’t bear a wasted opportunity.
My first job wasn’t in the charity sector, it was in finance as I’ve explained earlier. Although I didn’t love it, it furnished me with great skills. I think it’s really useful to go into a first job that is going to provide pragmatic and useful skills to fall back on throughout life and throughout different careers. This might be in the non-profit sector, or might not be. But I also think it’s important to enjoy work, so if you end up in a job you don’t love, you need to find another reason to stay in it and treat it as a stepping stone to a job you really do love. It’s also useful to supplement your life with other things that are going to motivate you and provide you with satisfaction in other ways while you cross that stepping stone. Volunteering can be a really powerful tool for that. If you do embark on a career in the non-profit sector early on in your career, I think it is important to find the cause that really speaks to you as it is a tough career path if you don’t feel wholly mobilised and driven by it every day. But I always remind people that you aren’t necessarily going to love every day at work, whatever you do…so be realistic!
You can follow West London Zone on Instagram @westlondonzone
We love to interview charity’s leaders and listen about their work and their way to create great partnerships. If you want to learn more how your Purpose-Cause match can be effective and well-communicated check how we can help.