Sixty Second Interview with Angela Sarkis
Angela Sarkis is the new chief executive of YMCA England. Maria Ahmed talks to her about her background and her aims for the organisation.
You are the first black woman to head the YMCA movement in England since the organisation was founded in 1844. Why do you think the organisation has taken such a long time to appoint a woman at the helm and is there a need for more women – especially those from minority ethnic backgrounds – in senior positions within the voluntary sector? What barriers do they face?
I am delighted to be joining the YMCA as National Secretary and in particular that the organisation has recognised the additional benefits I will bring as a black woman. This is a bold step and signals that the YMCA is taking diversity seriously and as such has become a leader in its field, being the only major charity to have a woman from a minority ethnic background in such a role. The YMCA has demonstrated by my appointment that it is willing and able to move beyond the rhetoric of diversity and take decisive action in an area where so many other charities are failing. Women, and in particular those from minority ethnic communities, continue to face barriers in achieving the top positions in voluntary organisations, despite the wealth of talented women working in the sector. The reality is that voluntary organisations are falling behind public and private organisations in putting diversity into practice and have allowed glass ceilings to restrict the potential of the sector. Voluntary organisations need to change and more accurately reflect our multi-cultural society. The YMCA has recognised this and is embracing change and flexibility so it will be better able to support the diverse needs of all our young people.
What experience do you bring to your role?
I have worked with young people both in the public and voluntary sector for over thirty years. I have a combination of direct experience working with young people in local communities across England and at a policy level. My experience in the Probation Service and developing youth projects and programmes in the voluntary sector has taught me the importance of long term investment in young people if we are to achieve sustainable change. I also believe my wide experience of organisational and cultural change management, and involving staff in the process, will assist me in this new role.
What issues are you most passionate about, and what action would you like to see to bring about change on these issues?
I am passionate about improving the life chances of all young people and in particular those who are vulnerable and find themselves disadvantaged by social exclusion. Youth homelessness, poor education, racial discrimination, unemployment, offending and addictive behaviour all contribute towards social exclusion. There is a tendency to address these difficulties in isolation, to be unrealistic concerning the timescales for positive outcomes, and to exclude the voices of young people themselves in finding solutions. Vulnerable young people have a variety of needs which can only be resolved by taking a holistic approach and including them in the process of change.
Recent research suggests that an average of just 17p a day is spent on youth services for each young person every year. What changes do you want to see in terms of how the government prioritises and invests in youth services?
Unfortunately we are living with the consequences of underinvestment in both the statutory and voluntary youth services. Hopefully this is now recognised by government and recent consultations across the sector have resulted in bold proposals under the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda, which should see an increased investment in working with young people. In the past, government policies have not always delivered the required services for all young people and it is essential that youth agencies continue to raise their concerns. The challenge however is a positive one and I look forward to seeing how the proposals are implemented in practice.
You are a committed Christian. What role does your faith play in your professional motivation, and how can faith groups contribute to action on change for young people?
I believe faith groups have a vital and dynamic role to play in challenging social and political inequities in order to protect and provide support for society’s most vulnerable members. The YMCA is probably the best example of how a Christian ethos guided by the core values of social justice and opportunity for all, regardless of race, creed or gender, can make a tangible difference in the lives of disenfranchised young people everywhere.
My faith is extremely important in this respect. My vision of young people living better, healthier and more productive lives, free from the constraints of social exclusion and a lack of opportunity, lies at the very heart of my religious convictions. The concept of universal equality is a personal principle I have abided by and endorsed throughout my life. I am therefore looking forward to the challenge of exercising my faith to achieve very real and positive changes in the lives of vulnerable young people.