Community Champions: A resident-driven initiative tackling health & wellbeing inequalities in Camden

by Irene Facchin | April 30, 2021

When Covid-19 hit London in March 2020 Marie felt an urge to help her community. Mark did too. They both ended up volunteering for the Bengali Workers Association, delivering food to those in need. There they met Ellie Rudd from Fitzrovia Youth in Action (FYA), one-of-three coordinators of a new resident-led initiative in Camden called Community Champions Camden.

Covid-19 forced the UK to shut down, but Camden residents like Marie and Mark were determined to continue supporting their communities. Joining Community Champions Camden as recruits, several dozen residents received training to develop projects to strengthen health and well-being in their neighbourhood. This “by the community, for the community” approach hopes to tackle the significant health and social inequalities across Camden that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mark and Marie on a litter pick around Regent's Park Estate, Community Champions Camden (photo credit: Ellie Rudd)

The issue

Community Champions is a three year programme funded by the Camden Council that is currently running in Regent’s Park Estate, Kentish Town and Kilburn. The 2019-20 Annual Public Health Report warns that these areas have ‘some of the starkest inequalities in health in the country.’ As seen during the pandemic, these inequalities result in significant differences in life and quality of life outcomes. For example, people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have a disproportionately high risk of death from Covid-19, compared to people of white British ethnicity. “Other ethnicities have between 10% and 50% higher risk of death,” says Abdul Hai, Cabinet Member for Young People and Cohesion and Co-chair of BAME Inequalities and Covid-19 Working Group.

However, Camden Council has taken steps to change this. In August 2020, the Council published ‘Building Equal Foundations,’ a report that focused on the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on BAME communities and detailed an action plan to address racial and health inequalities. This report echoed the key findings from the 2019-20 Annual Public Health Report that stress the need to take a resident-centered approach to address these issues. Director of Public Health for Camden and Islington Julie Billett states simply: “We know that connected, empowered communities are fundamentally healthier communities.”

This is where the Community Champions initiative comes in. Each area (Regent’s Park Estate, Kentish Town and Kilburn) has a coordinator that recruits, trains and empowers its volunteer Champions to set up projects and events that improve their community’s health and well-being.

For example, two Champions from the Regent’s Park Estate – one of whom works in a bank – are collaborating to create an informational video about how to protect yourself from scams. Another Champion from Kentish Town is hoping to set up a community basketball club as an engaging way for young people to exercise, socialise and leave their house if they need a breather.

Having only started a year ago – and with the challenge of moving everything online due to Covid-19 – Community Champions Camden is still in its beginning phases. Across all three areas the first cohort of Champions has recently completed training. The Champions are now proceeding to having one-to-one meetings with their respective area coordinator to discuss their ambitions and next steps.

Existing community-centered initiatives

While this initiative is still relatively new, other well-established community-centered projects and organisations across London demonstrate the potential impact of Camden’s Community Champions.

The London Tri-Borough has been hosting its own Community Champions projects since 2013, with the first End of Year Highlight Reports for the areas being published for the 2014-15 year (Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham). In 2018, Envoy Partnership, an independent social impact consultancy, was commissioned to produce a Social Return on Investment (SROI) evaluation. The report estimated that a yearly investment of about £930,000 in the Community Champions programmes produced approximately £5 million in social and economic value in the targeted communities. Furthermore the majority of the generated value was directly related to key issues in health and well-being: ‘prevention and delayed onset of health and mental well-being conditions; community cohesion and resident participation; reduced isolation of families and older people; and sustained tenancies.’

Some of the Champions’ before and after health behaviour changes are displayed in the graphics from the SROI report below (p.8 and p.9).

The staff at Brompton hospital meet the Chelsea Champions

(Credit: Photo from the Community Champions UK website)

These graphics show that, for example, the number of people eating balanced health meals at home increased from 48% initially indicating they did this “all of the time” or “often” to 95% indicating this after participating in the Community Champions initiative. Similar changes were observed across the different health and wellbeing indicators. Regarding feelings of depression, stress or anxiety, only marginal improvements were seen for those who initially reported experiencing these feelings “all of the time” (constant rate around 6-9%). Nonetheless, a reduced occurrence of these feelings – a shift from “often” to “none of the time” – was evident for those with less frequent forms of depression/anxiety.

The report concluded that:

‘In our view the programme offers one of the strongest semi-structured community-based approaches in London, and is ... [delivering] health and care that is "owned by communities and shaped by their needs". Therefore, funding should be continued.’

This approach of community empowerment is also prominent in Community Organising. For example, Citizens UK, an organisation that challenges injustice through Community Organising, bases its core principles around a community-led approach. In January I attended a Citizens UK workshop for my undergraduate class at University College London called Educating and Organising for Social Justice. Hannah Gretton, the Community Organiser leading the workshop, emphasised phrases such as “people before programme,” “power with people, rather than power over people” and “never do for others what they can do for themselves.” On its website, Citizens UK highlights its belief in a community-centered approach, which can bring about change by fostering leadership at the local level. This approach parallels Saul Alinsky’s world-renowned Community Organising practices, that connects different community groups – from ordinary citizens, to unions, to schools – to build power “with” to catalyse social change. Using this approach, Citizens UK achieved one of its most notable practical successes: creating the Living Wage campaign to pressure businesses into paying higher wages, resulting in over £1.3 billion of additional wages for the lowest paid workers.

Strengths and Challenges of Community Champions Camden

Community Champions Camden organisers Ellie Rudd and James Easey both said they consider the local and resident-focused approach as a key strength of this initiative. Developing skills to empower the already passionate volunteers to catalyse change in their communities should theoretically generate a long-term approach to address key issues in these areas. Both Rudd and Easey expressed that their end goal is to have established tools, resources and training in these communities that will enable some of these systems (running projects, applying for funding, etc.) to continue existing for residents beyond the end of the coordinators' involvement with this project.

“You know you’ve done a good job if you can write yourself out of your own job when it comes to community stuff,” said Rudd.

By helping the Champions and residents develop intergenerational and intercultural relationships and build relationships with local charities over the next two years, Community Champions aims to have a long-term sustainable impact.

Another strength highlighted by Rudd and Easey is the flexibility provided by Public Health England and Camden Council, the organizations overseeing and funding this project. “[They] are very open to experimentation and really want to see what does work and what doesn’t work,” said Rudd. This flexibility is also evident in the structure of the Community Champions initiative.

Champions are able to participate at different levels of commitment based on their availability, and are able to move up and down the scale as they become involved with different events and projects:

  1. Organisers: Lead the projects/events

  2. Assistants: Support the organisers

  3. Occasionals: Support on an irregular basis by attending some meetings and the final event(s)

  4. Participants: Champions or residents who participate in the events but are not involved in the organising process

Residents are also able to get involved with the organisational aspects of a project without officially being a Champion by contacting their area’s coordinator. Opening up organisational positions to all residents aims to increase engagement with the programme: “We're very aware that doing action is also going to attract more people to then become a Champion and potentially initiate their own action within the Community,” explained Rudd.

Collaborating with local charities has both been a source of strength and caution. Rudd explained that developing awareness of existing charity initiatives in the area is important because Community Champions does not want to “create something just for creation’s sake.” In fact, Champions do not have to start a project from scratch, they could choose to collaborate with existing initiatives and expand them in their neighbourhoods.

“I see the fact that there’s so much community and voluntary stuff happening in Camden as a strength. We are super keen to partner with various people around the Borough..I think the culture in the Borough of Camden is super progressive...A place where you feel like you can really make change…,” said Easey.

One challenge that the coordinators are aware of is making sure this initiative does not over-promise and under-deliver. Especially in Regent’s Park, Rudd explained that the residents are “surveyed out.” People are constantly asked about their wants and needs, however, the same questions are asked repeatedly. To address this, Community Champions is hoping to create a repository of resident responses/research. These surveys tend to also raise the expectations of residents. Rudd is cautious about “not suddenly becoming yet another project that asks a lot of questions and does very little.”

Next steps for Community Champions Camden

The current cohort of Champions is incredibly diverse, with participation from individuals aged 16 and older. Champions range from students to parents to retirees. Some participate with their family, while others volunteer with their friends. Importantly, these volunteers are eager to take action and build relationships in their community. Community Champion Mark explained how he was looking to transition from his work in finance into charity work. Community Champions became an opportunity for him to “develop skills and meet people” with the aim of eventually leading his own community projects.

Marie, a longtime resident in Regent’s Park Estate and mum of two, initially became involved through the local food drive. Coming home from school, her daughter would occasionally help her, along with her partner. All three of them have since become Community Champions. Marie hopes to help her community feel more safe and connected now that Covid-19 restrictions are starting to ease up.

Tyler, a Master's student in Industrial Design, decided to apply his field of study to the real world by becoming a Community Champion. While he originally started working in Camden as part of his MA project – during which he met Rudd – he decided he did not want to continue his project as an outsider. He signed up for the Community Champions training, eager to “experience what everyone else was going through.” Recently, his project, called “The Cumberland Workbench,” has transitioned from phase one, “ideation,” to phase two, “implementation.” Now under construction, Tyler’s community workbench is much like a narrow wooden desk, placed on the side of a paved road, a basketball court on one side, a playground on the other. Next to the desk lies a welcoming “suggestions” box. Over the next five weeks, Tyler’s vision is for this space to transform into an area where residents can be creative and crafty: a makerspace. A resident who saw the space on the first day that it was set up expressed his desire to create a bookshelf. Importantly, Tyler’s main goal is to have the residents shape what this space will turn into – by the community, for the community.

Tyler setting up the Cumberland Workbench, Regent’s Park Estate, Community Champions Camden

(Credit: Photos from Ellie Rudd)

This diversity and enthusiasm has generated a wide variety of project ideas. Rudd and Easey are training and supporting volunteers to work on the following potential projects:

Regent’s Park Estate:

  • The Champions are organising community well-being and sustainability walks that would combine litter collecting with an artistic element of creating something out of the collected litter, such as rubbish bins or bike stands.

  • Two Champions are producing an anti-scamming video to inform residents on how to protect themselves from fraudulent schemes.

  • One Champion is part of a community garden near Munster Square. They also identify as a gay man and is interested in developing a gardening initiative to promote intergenerational relationships between younger and older queer individuals.

Kentish Town:

  • Community Champions is planning a Sunflower Giveaway, which is a sunflower growing competition between young people in all four estates in Kentish Town to learn about gardening and responsibility.

  • Some Champions are eager to set up a support group for parents with children who have children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).

  • Some Champions want to set up events to inform residents about physical health and health services that are still available during Covid-19.