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Tower Hamlets Resident and Project Manager at Tower Hamlets Mediation Project (THMP)

Q: Please tell me about yourself.

A: My name is Irene and I have lived in Tower Hamlets for 40 years. Initially, I had set up a Mother and Toddler Group on my estate in Shoreditch which was open on Wednesdays from 9am to 11am. Within about 3 to 4 months, it was open 7 days a week from 9am to 9pm. It was packed with all the Bengali families from the community because they never felt comfortable in the local toddler groups. We realised there is a lot of domestic violence in the area, and so we started supporting the mothers in abusive relationships by building their confidence, going to different events together, looking after their children while they went shopping just so they could have time for themselves. It became such a big thing that a reporter found out about us, and she came over to interview me. She said that she had just done a piece on Tower Hamlets Mediation Service (THMS) and that they were looking for people like me. This is how I started my career in mediation. THMS was a voluntary organisation in the borough. It was set up in 1996 and I started volunteering with them in 1999. By 2001 I was working for them and by 2005 I was the Director of the Mediation Service. I left in 2009 when I got breast cancer. A new person had taken over THMS, maybe they lost funding, but within a few years the mediation service was gone. So, there was no service in the borough and I did not know how to go about setting one up. Then a colleague of mine at the time introduced me to Reed Smith LLP, which is a massive international law firm. They are right on the border of Tower Hamlets, and they see LBTH as their back garden. I met the pro bono manager Becca Naylor, and we came up with a collaborative project to bring community mediation back to TH. I would train their internal trainee lawyers as community mediators and support them when they did their mediations. I met with the housing officers and Social landlords. I asked the Tower Hamlets Council to advertise our services.

The referrals started coming in. However, the problem was I had 16 wonderful and keen new mediators, but because there had not been a mediation services in the borough for so long, we were getting through a massive amount of referrals, and they were really difficult and challenging cases. A lot of them were from the Anti-Social Behaviour (ABS) panel, a lot of them involved violence, arrests, domestic violence, attacks, alcohol, and drugs. We realised very quickly that the newly trained mediators were not going to be able to handle these cases. We sat down and came up with an expansion idea. Because I have such a large network of mediators, we sent an invite to any external mediators that might like to join our project. They would be more experienced. I was expecting around 6 mediators to get back to me, but I got 50. We ran into a new problem, because now we have 66 mediators, but we do not have enough cases. I had to go back out again to the community to find other cases. Within the first couple of years, we won an award for Community Mediation Initiative at the National Mediation Awards, which was organised by the 2 professional umbrella mediation organisations .

Q: What are your aspirations and challenges?

A: My aspiration is that mediation services become well known and easily accessible in the Tower Hamlets, and that our mediation service would be the first port of call once somebody starts mentioning that they do not get along with their neighbours. When I was working at the THMS, we had contracts with all the local housing associations, and we would be getting 4 to 5 referrals a week. But even back then it was hard to get the word out, mediation was the best kept secret of the borough. We used to attend events, go to ABS panels, the little one stop shops, we also had leaflets and posters everywhere, just to get the word of mediation out and let people know that we are here to help.

There are many challenges. People are just genuinely unsure how they feel about mediation. As it stands now the cases have dried up quite a bit and the ones that we get through are still normally a bit messy. That is why we decided to setup a website

I live in the borough, and I hear about problems, so I know they are out there. The thing is, that when it comes to conflict in Tower Hamlets, mediation does not have the appeal of other interventions such as Coaching and not a lot of people understand it at all. It seems to be because people feel embarrassed that they have had to use mediation. They find it very hard to even agree on mediation, because they do not want to be in the same room with whoever they have had a fall out with. All they want is to avoid them at all costs, even using different routes so they do not have to pass by the other person’s home. They even go to different shops just so they do not have to encounter each other. The natural response to conflict is fight or flight, so we usually get a lot of the fighters referred to us, the ones where it is about absolute escalation, police are involved, social services, schools. But the ones who do the flight, they are the ones that we really need to reach. And when we do reach them, they don’t want to have a conversation with the conflicting party, they are afraid of them, they are nervous, feel embarrassed, and humiliated. The last thing they want to do is sit in a room with a person they have conflict with. Even now, since COVID we have had all our mediations online, so people do not have to leave the comfort of their own home. There can be all sorts of reasons that people avoid that difficult conversation, which is a shame because when mediation works it is so powerful. And it brings back so much positive change improving people’s lives no end.

What I am also doing now is coaching focused on conflict, and it is about upskilling yourself to deal with conflict in a different way, in a more constructive way. So, you feel more confident when dealing with conflict.

Q: What do you like about living in Tower Hamlets?

I absolutely love Tower Hamlets. My husband has been trying to get me to move to Kent for 22 years and I am still here. It is going to be hard to get me out of the borough. I love the diversity and the vibrancy of it. Especially once you get to know people, it is a such a friendly place. I suppose I have been in this very small circle as I have moved 3 times, but it has always been within Tower Hamlets, from one block to another. I know grandparents now that were children when I moved to the borough, so I do feel part of the community and I have always been involved. I would really miss that if I went anywhere else. I just do not know if you could ever replicate the relationships that I have here.

Q: What do you dislike about living in Tower Hamlets?

The thing that I dislike and frustrates me the most is the lack of joined up services. This leads to people falling through the cracks more often than I would like, particularly around mental health which is a big problem in Tower Hamlets. We meet so many parties to mediation that have mental health issues, and it just seems that the level of support required is not there. Of course, this is not an issue presented only in our borough.

Q: What changes would you like to see in Tower Hamlets?

One of the things I have noticed is that people can get a little apathetic. They don’t get involved in decision making that will impact on their lives. I would love to encourage people to get more involved in their community and to be more involved in decision that affect them and their families.

Q: What is your message to the women in Tower Hamlets?

My message to the women in Tower Hamlets is to recognise that each one of you has a voice. Do not be afraid, find a way to use it.

Q: And what is your message to Tower Hamlets Council?

Spread the use of mediation, we are here, use us before you lose us.

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