We speak to Palma Black, Founder and Chief Executive of Soul Purpose 360, about the Resilient Women Build Communities project, and how she’s connecting a network of women to have their voices heard and reduce the mental and physical burden of structural racism.
Palma, thank you for your time. Can you talk about your roles in community development and organisation, and how you started Soul Purpose 360?
I’ve worked in community development for thirty years, a large part of which was spent in housing associations’ regeneration programmes. My work involved going out to the community and engaging with people to support them to get involved in the regeneration of their communities and their estates. People were able to clearly articulate the problems they faced as well as what the solutions should be. But as soon as I suggested they get involved, attend meetings, that’s when they’d start backtracking and giving me all the reasons why they couldn’t be involved: they’re single parents and don’t have time or they have caring responsibilities or they don’t have the right qualifications and experience to get involved. And no matter what I said, it wasn’t going to change their attitude. It was up to me to take the information that they had given me to create plans and move things forward. The fear was always that if local people don’t get involved, things will unravel after I’ve gone.
In 2012 my older sister became ill, and she developed cancer. In the conversations with her in the six years leading up to her eventual passing, I realised just how important confidence is in our lives as Black women. In order for me to be able to reach people, for them to see that their lived experience has value, I’d have to change myself. So, I trained as a personal performance coach and I use those skills in my resident engagement to support people to see why they need to get involved and to help them develop the skills and confidence to create change. That’s where Soul Purpose 360 started.
You mention that local people know the solutions their communities need but are reluctant to try to change things – why do you think this is?
So many things. If you live in an estate and somebody talks with you about your experience and how you’d improve the community, there is a general feeling that a decision has been made on high and engaging will be a waste of time. There’s a feeling of powerlessness.
When you transpose that to the bigger picture, when general election time comes, these communities feel that their votes don’t matter; they don’t get what they want, so voting apathy is high. So I think there’s something there about people not realising the power that they have as individuals and collectively to create change. I have experiences of being able to redirect funding or to get decision-makers to understand a concept or principle or something simply because I’ve been there at that table, and if I hadn’t been there, the outcome would have been different. For people without this experience, it’s harder to envisage how change is possible.
So what we try to do at Soul Purpose 360 is build confidence in Black women to encourage and support them to get involved in civic life. As well as delivering projects and so on, I also take back the feedback women have given me and I’m able to speak with authority in other places and spaces so that I’m speaking on behalf of the members of Soul Purpose 360.
Structural racism affects so much of life for Black communities. Can you speak about how it leads to worse health outcomes?
Where do I start? We as Black people living in the UK are a minority and all areas of our lives are governed by external forces we have no control over. The economy, for example: Black women are most affected by the cost of living crisis. Regarding health, Black women are four times as likely to die in maternity care. In cancer services, Black people don’t get called for treatment. In education, we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly when it comes to young men. Inequality impacts us in our everyday life.
All of these things combine to create a perfect storm. It’s no wonder that we suffer from mental ill health, it’s no wonder that we suffer from worse physical and mental health, because there’s no let up. We don’t get a break from racism; it doesn’t take a day off. Racism is built in to the policies and the structures, strategies and procedures that govern our lives and shape us.
For us, what we understand is that while these forces are outside of our control, it defines a narrative which forms the perception of us as Black people or Black women. What it also does is inform a narrative which we use to define ourselves, which we use to think about ourselves and see ourselves, our lack of opportunity. This impacts our ability to have dreams and aspirations, to have a career path. So it limits our potential in life. It’s huge.
How do you build confidence in Black women while living in structures that are oppressive and never let up?
Soul Purpose 360 delivers a range of personal development programmes. We do coaching and mentoring, training, workshops and events. I do one-to-one coaching with a lot of the women as well.
I’ll give you an example. One of our members who is in her mid-forties suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a coaching session I understood that this came from racial violence she experienced when she was in nursery and primary school– bullying, harassment, beatings. The trauma followed her for the rest of her life. It impacted her personal confidence. She’s now an adult, single and long term unemployed because she’s constantly being triggered by PTSD. As a young person she’d been to counselling with white counsellers who left her with a feeling that she was to blame for these experiences as a child, which made her feel powerless to do anything about it. Now, as a middle aged woman who’s talking with another Black woman who understands her pain and her experience and for the first time in her life she’s not blaming herself. It’s incredible what providing a safe empowering space can be.
Our members can all share experiences where people have tried to make us feel as if we’ve misinterpreted something that’s happened to us. And we’re building a space where Black women can come to be themselves and listen and learn and be empowered.
Can you talk me through a specific example of work at a local level in Croydon and the impact Soul Purpose 360 has had?
The murder of 15-year-old Elianne Andam has obviously really affected the residents in Croydon. Many local people were calling me asking ‘What can I do? How can we support or get involved?’ As Soul Purpose 360, we were able to help them coordinate activities and bring women together.
We had members who were coordinating with others to go down to the vigil. We had women who were available to support one another emotionally. What I could see was organisation and coordination, a voice, and support and networking and that real sisterly love that they were bringing to one another. It was really traumatic for all of us, partly because she was a young Black girl. She could have been my daughter and that’s how we feel as Black women. I needed a space where I could cry and share that with other Black women who felt the same as me – we had that connection. To me this is one of the biggest impacts Soul Purpose 360 has had to date at a community level. We didn’t feel the need to make our presence known, but the members felt connected to one another because of Soul Purpose 360’s Resilient Women Build Communities programme in Croydon.
How important is the sense of social connection to women in your group?
One of the things I’m able to say with a huge amount of confidence is that Soul Purpose 360 is reaching Black women where other organisations fail - they don’t even know they exist. Women are coming to the group, mainly through word of mouth, who haven’t ever engaged in anything in their community or through statutory or third sector organisations.
It's also worth mentioning the assumption that all Black women get on with other each other. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions. Black people are the most diverse group of people on the planet. Often, when I tell people we have this Black women’s group, they’re hesitant, but when they come along, they’re amazed. Members meet outside of sessions; they’re going out, they’re socialising. The friendships that they’re building are just phenomenal. One member in her forties told me that she had an accident recently where she was unable to get out and come to meetings. The other members were ringing her and visiting her, bringing her food. She was literally in tears saying that in all her life she’s never had this kind of support and connection. She added that without their support she is sure she would have fallen back into a depressive state that has governed much of her adult life. So, we are connecting women, building friendships, helping to reduce social isolation, improving their mental health and physical health – literally so much, just by putting on these two workshops each month.
You emphasise the need for Black led and influenced solutions to health inequalities. Can you talk about why this is so important and some of the barriers in the way of achieving this?
Years ago, I was involved in the Anti-Racist Alliance which was an alliance between Black and white to challenge racism and change the law to make racial harassment and violence specific offences. What became really clear to me was that, whilst our allies were quite happy to support us with the notion that we were Black-led, there was an underlying attitude that maybe we as Black people didn’t have the right skills, knowledge and experience needed to actually lead the organisation. It led to its demise. Now we’re empowering Black women to speak for themselves.
Soul Purpose 360 has grown by us listening to what Black women need and giving them a space to speak their truth. Our approach is that ‘this your life, this is your truth, and we want to hear it.’ We need to hear it so that we can build something that meets your needs, so that you feel legitimised, so that you feel your voice is being heard and so that you feel you can create change in your life.
In all our programmes we ask what it is that people want from the next workshop, so women are defining what we do. A member asked for a workshop on the joy of getting older. I thought it might be a narrow topic, but it was one of the best workshops we had.
Tell us about National Black Women’s Networking and Empowerment Circle and the importance of establishing networks to share knowledge.
After my sister died, I thought I could help coach Black women working in community development – as I had for many years – and help them to strengthen their organisations. I planned to work with four women I was working with in Newham and four women in Croydon where I had strong links as a former resident and community activist, so it started off as nine of us.
The following month when lockdown came, one of the women asked if I could set up a WhatsApp group which I hadn’t done before. I started getting texts from women asking if they could join the group and it began to grow organically. Women started joining from places across the UK. Today we’ve grown to about 600 members from across the world: members from France, Spain, Portugal, African and Caribbean Countries.
Local groups are run by volunteers who we provide with resources. They connect women from across a spectrum: some have joined without knowing much about it, others are women running social enterprises, businesses, heads of departments, doctors, lawyers, councillors. They provide support, they share knowledge and skills, they set up businesses and partnerships, they offer jobs to one another. If someone posts in the group about a concern, another woman will come in with a solution for them. It’s been phenomenal.
I may have set it up, but it’s the members who are the network. I set this up while I was grieving for my sister and didn’t want anyone else to die full of regrets, and then my Dad died at the start of the national lockdown. It was the women who were the early adopters of the group who comforted and supported me and kept the group growing. I myself have made the most amazing friends and social networks out of this. It has changed my life too.
Palma Black is the Founder and Chief Executive of Soul Purpose 360.