Shanthi – director of the Women’s Cultural Arena

Shanthi is an unpaid director of the Women’s Cultural Arena CIC, which she set up in 2017, to bring together women from diverse cultures and different ethnic backgrounds for mutual recognition, support and celebration.

 

What prompted you to set up the Women’s Cultural Arena? It is a long story that starts with me and who I am.

Let’s start at the beginning: During my childhood, everything that we did was on a sharing basis, without seeking any payment or anything in return. On top of this we had a high level of concern for society. This was my upbringing. That formed the values I have and the principles I believe in. Together with my education this forms a set of skills that I call my human capital. I just want to invest it.

There are different ways to value your human capital. One way would be economic, but that’s not the way I value my human capital. I value it in social terms – that explains why, as a director of the Community Interest Company, I am not being paid. Sharing my human capital and the social value issues are much more important to me than financial gain.

How did your background and human capital lead to the Women’s Cultural Arena?  When I moved to the UK to complete my higher education, I saw that I was in a minority and saw that people did not all get treated in the same way, which I saw as a challenge. I like a challenge!

I had finished my degree and was about to go back to Sri Lanka but then I found my soulmate and got married here. This forced on me the reality that I had to find a job here. I found it really difficult to find a meaningful job to fit with my passion and my skills. The money didn’t matter, but the type of job did.

Many of the organisations supposedly representing minorities were making decisions on behalf of others but they themselves do not come from a minority background. For example, they fight against hunger, but have never experienced hunger.

I decided to look for volunteering opportunities in various local community organisations and met with a couple of ladies working at the Wycombe Mind Centre, who led a group labelled the Asian Tamil group. We talked about whether they were happy with what they were doing there. Like me, they had experience of the cultural centres back in their home country and we decided to start our own community organisation.

Do you have any success story you’d like to share?  In December last year we organised our community fridge with support from the Rothschild Foundation and the Hubbub Organisation. We collect supermarket surplus food, store and then distribute it to people free of charge. No referrals are needed and there’s no stigma attached – I really, really hate stigmas. There’s no categorisation, discrimination, filtering or anything else. It is now up and running successfully. It is going so well that Berkshire County Council came to visit us to learn from us about how to run the project, as they want to initiate the same sort of project in an extremely deprived area in their county. Interestingly, we became mentors to other grass root level organisations

How much of your time does your role in the organisation take up? I am there for WCA activities during the official opening hours – every Tuesday 10.30 to 1.30 at All Saints Church, as we don’t have our own work space yet. Unofficially I spend about a third of my time on WCA.

How long have you been a director and what is it like?  I have been a director ever since December 2017 when we started up the Community Interest Company. For me it is all about sharing my human capital – my role in the Women’s Cultural Arena gives me the capacity to achieve my goals.

What are your ambitions for WCA: We are looking to open our own café. This will be a cultural café which is not only for food – a range of cultural activities will also take place. That is our dream and what we are working towards today. We are also looking to position ourselves as an international organisation. Once we have the café, we will have our own space and we will be able to have an international hub in High Wycombe and a cultural hub at an international level.

What have you found challenging?  Getting recognition for WCA from society – we are maybe 50% of the way there, so it still remains a challenge, which I enjoy!

Has being in a minority position caused any problems? Most of the members of my organisation come from a minority group. Because I have been in both situations (I was in the majority where I grew up) I can see things differently to them. Many people ask “where are you from?” just because of my colour, hair colour, skin colour or accent. My answer is always “I’m from High Wycombe”. If they ask “where were you before you came to this country”, I will ask them why is it necessary to ask that question.  We are together to talk about an issue or a problem so it isn’t relevant where I was born. That is the starting point of discrimination. I say “be with the positive thinkers”.

What would you say to someone thinking of starting up a community group or CIC? Believe in yourself, have faith, be with positive thinking people and just go for it.

For more information about the Women’s Cultural Arena and how to get involved, please see its website here.

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