Spark & Co – no social justice without racial justice: a pandemic-inspired start-up

Shehan Perera – Content Manager at Social Enterprise UK

“everything we do is meant to have an empowering aspect to it”

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement last year led to a renewed focus on structural racism and the barriers still faced by racialised communities across society from the workplace to the criminal justice system. 11% of social enterprises have their core mission as one of supporting individuals who experience discrimination due to their race and ethnicity, breaking down the barriers of access and opportunity faced by too many.

When COVID-19 hit it quickly became apparent that we were definitely not all in this together, something social entrepreneur Ishita Ranjan noticed when the news broke that the first 8 medical professionals to die during the pandemic all came from racialised communities.

The pandemic exposed pre-existing racial inequalities with people from racialised communities more likely to die from COVID-19 and being overly represented in frontline, riskier employment. Ishita realised that information about the pandemic was not being shared in a way that was relevant and accessible to these communities. Over the course of a weekend in April she identified 300 support organisations and created a resource directory with the aim to support racialised people and communities to access information and support that was trustworthy and accessible. Spark & Co was born.

Within the space of three weeks the fledging social enterprise had secured £120,000 from the National Lottery Community Fund, turning a part-time project into working business. It now employs three members of staff and works with over 75 partners to deliver its work.

Spark & Co’s mission is to tackle the inequalities exacerbated by COVID by equipping users with knowledge, information and resources. COVID related topics it has covered included vaccine myths and hesitancy, navigating healthcare during lockdown, and processing grief remotely.

Since starting in April 2020 it has grown and developed into an information and support hub far beyond just COVID support, taking an intersectional approach to its work to ensure marginalised voices are heard and supported. As Ishita puts it “COVID exposed things that existed before the pandemic and will exist after.” Resources can now be found on issues as diverse as trans rights and accessing health services to gender-based violence and support for specific faith-based communities

As well as an resource hub the social enterprise runs online events including a course it delivered on navigating mental health delivered with three partners all from racialised communities.

Working in partnership

Core to Spark & Co’s ethos is the importance of working in partnership with community groups, activists and people with direct experience of the issues they are set out to address. As Zoe Daniel’s their Online Community & Content Manager puts it “we don’t tell people what they need, they tell us.”

The small team at Spark & Co make sure that they work with people with lived experiences to put together content, making sure resources are relevant, sensitively written and empowering. In just over a year it has created a network of content creators from across the communities the site is set up to support. Remarkably this has also resulted in the creation of 40 paid opportunities.

Spark & Co Social Enterprise Stories edit
The Spark & Co Team

Tackling Digital Exclusion

As more and more service providers from schools to food banks moved vital services online, the digital divide in the country became all too apparent. Spark & Co partnered with frontline organisations to help bridge the digital gap, providing funded bursaries to allow groups to access equipment from data to laptops. All the organisations it worked with specialised in working with racialised people and communities from refugee and asylum support services to organisations tackling domestic violence. In total, the social enterprise, through its partners, supported 378 families deal with digital exclusion.

As well as the online resource hub, Spark & Co has started a consultancy and research branch helping organisations develop anti-racism strategies and making sure these are actionable. It has recently partnered with a major national charity to support it increase its understanding of the complex issues around diversity and inclusion. This consultancy service will play a bigger role in the social enterprise’s future and become a major source of revenue.

A Challenge to the Sector

Spark & Co is a brilliant example of a social enterprise set up to work with and empower the communities it is set up to serve. It also embeds ant-racism and an intersectional approach to justice across its work – recognising how different forms of oppression interlink. Diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords for this social enterprise, rather it is embedded across its operations from who it partners with to the resources and events it runs.

We know social enterprises are outperforming traditional businesses when it comes to leadership and representation but the sector still has work to do both as employers and in supporting racialised communities. From access to funding and who sits on boards to difficulties tracking businesses’ own impact on anti-racism, there are still barriers to break down and voices which need to be raised up. One thing identified by Ishita is that social enterprises need to be comfortable passing the mic, lifting up racialised communities rather than acting for them.

As she puts it “we as social entrepreneurs really want to tackle and solve problems, but don’t always stop to think about if we’re the right people to do that – we need to get comfortable passing the mic”

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