Alison Licorish, Interim faith and social action officer, Lewisham Council, London
How faith groups could help fill gaps in services
Alison Licorish took up the post of interim faith and social action officer at Lewisham Council more than a year and a half ago, but says the council’s commitment to the faith sector “solidified” about five years earlier, writes Lauren Revans.
Licorish says that one of the key vehicles of engagement with the faith sector is through funding, and in Lewisham the council has created a separate faith fund as part of its small grants programme to which faith groups can apply for one-off funding to run projects.
Over the years, successful funding applications have come from youth faith initiatives ranging from projects working with young people looking at identity issues and providing mentoring services, to projects working in Lewisham’s secondary schools and linking with youth community development workers. Members from faith groups also volunteer with support agencies such as Victim Support, mediation services and Youth Inclusion Support Panels.
“Basically, faith groups respond to local needs within their neighbourhoods,” says Licorish. “As a sector, they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of young people, including the hardest to reach. They are also willing to come up with creative and innovative responses.”
According to Licorish, faith groups also represent good value as they often have only a small number of paid staff, with the rest being unpaid volunteers. Through positive role models, they aim to provide a nurturing environment.
“Faith groups might have a holistic approach in terms of personal development and mental well-being,” she says. “It might be about asking people about the choices they are making in their lives asking young people who they are, what they want to be and how they are perceived reminding young people that, if you want to be treated in a certain way, you might need to act in a certain way first. Their work is often about introducing that level of calmness and a different perspective.”
As well as administering the faith fund, Licorish’s job is also about trying to ensure faith groups have more of a strategic impact on council policies. She says this is particularly important given that most future funding will be tied into local area agreements, so faith groups cannot afford to miss out on discussions about local authorities’ plans for shaping their services.
Licorish is based in the council’s community services directorate, which works with faith groups as part of the wider voluntary sectors. She says that her department is further ahead than others in terms of its day-to-day work with the faith sector, but that steps are being taken to bring the rest of the council up to speed.
“The mayor of Lewisham has a faith adviser whose remit is to constantly remind the local authority of the contribution that faith organisations make,” Licorish says. “He makes presentations to the local strategic partnership board, for example.”
Most important, according to Licorish, is for councils to recognise the ability of faith groups to fill the gaps that exist in and between statutory services. “If you are in an area with no social services facilities and there is a church, mosque, synagogue or temple there, there is likely to be something going on even is it is at an informal level,” she says.
“Faith groups make it part of their mission to look at and respond to people not being looked after by the council. They are also more approachable because they are not seen as part of the system.”