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“If there’s something I really believe in, I’m going for it”

12 March 2021

An interview with Janis Walton, community champion

For International Women’s Day 2021 we’re featuring some fantastic women on our channels who are doing really inspiring things.

We had the pleasure of meeting Janis Walton through our engagement work on the White City Central project. Her energy, drive and passion exemplifies the crucial network of community champions across the UK who have held their communities together and supported those hardest hit by the pandemic. She’s started a number of hyperlocal initiatives and supports other residents to do the same.

Tell us about yourself – how did you get into community work?

I wasn’t the best kid at school. I didn’t care for it much and always got into trouble. They didn’t diagnose kids back in those days – if you had ADHD or additional learning needs, you were just treated as a ‘naughty’ child. They sent me to the food tech teacher – she was really strict and all the other kids were scared of her, so the school thought she’d be able to manage me. She was one of the first people that actually listened to me. I was in all her lessons, I’d help her set up – I learnt a lot from her, learnt a lot about my behaviour. 

I left school with a food tech qualification. One of my first jobs was as a chef – they had agencies back then and you’d sit there, and put your hand up when a job came in. I didn’t know anything about the job but put my hand up and said, “I’m going for it”. That’s been me all my life. If there’s something I really believe in or think I can do, I’m going for it. 

After that I started working with young people who were refugees, then decided I wanted to be a youth worker. I’ve done everything since then; social work, young offenders institutes, children’s homes, mentoring, education, truancy officer. Anything I could do to support young people to think outside the box and believe in themselves – that became my life. I spent over 30 years working with young people in various different sectors. I’ve always found it so rewarding to see their appreciation – when they got the exam result they wanted, when they stopped getting themselves excluded, when I managed to get them a place in further education.

Tell us about your community

I’ve lived on the White City Estate in Shepherds Bush for over 40 years. I love how multicultural it is; I have neighbours in my block from so many places. We learn from each other, build off of each other. 

There was a period where things dropped because financially it became more difficult to do things – I’d say over the last 8+ years. The estate became a ghost town. I used to wonder where the young people had gone, but there was nothing for them to do. Programmes at the youth club dwindled because they couldn’t get funding. Austerity played a massive part. It caused a lot of damage and young people were no longer thought about. From the outside, people just saw our area and people as deprived – as nothing, nobodies. It was like, “Why should we help? Why should we build? Why should we care?”

One thing I’ve learnt about White City in the last year or so – residents are willing to do so much, as long as they’re given the chance. You have conversations with people and you’d be surprised by the things they’d like to see or get involved with. They often just don’t know how, or where to start. The community stopped believing in themselves for a time. In the last year with the help of wonderful people, we’ve been able to build strong initiatives that are for the community, with the community. We’re just trying to be the platform to help residents go forth and flourish.

What are some of the initiatives you’re currently working on?

I am the Vice-Chair of W12 Together a resident-led partnership between Wormholt and White City that provides Big Local funding to local initiatives. It’s about supporting the local community with ideas they have, so they can build for themselves. I’ve lived in this community for years and know it so well, so I wanted to be a voice for residents.  

Along with a group of wonderful friends and neighbours, we’ve co-founded Community Number 1. We’re supporting members of the community to develop their ideas. Stuff like how to get established, how to get funding, how to use social media. We’re looking at different needs – elderly, young people, children, health and wellbeing, the environment, education. We want residents to know that at last, they have somewhere they can turn – they can feel comfortable, their ideas and opinions won’t be shut down. They will be practically building up White City.

Along with another resident called Danny who runs Switch Sports, we also established an initiative called Black Role Models. It was a response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. We wanted to identify more Black and Asian role models like ourselves in the community who could mentor young people, encourage them to create their own spaces and enterprises. It’s still in its early stages due to Covid but we’ve got lots planned. 

I also helped a resident called Rochelle set up a project to empower girls to have a voice, as well as providing fun activities in a safe space. We are looking to set up a support group for girls who are victims of violence and mental abuse, which is something we’ve seen is needed in our community.

Where do you get your drive?

I’ve always been myself – I’ve never changed who I am, but I’ve had to struggle to get where I am. Up to this day I still have to struggle with people believing in me, but I’ve always believed in myself. I’ve gone through some difficult times but am blessed to have people in my life that have believed in me, no matter what. Every time there’s something I want to do or achieve, I remind myself of how far I’ve come. 

I also just enjoy what I’m doing, working with the people I do. 

What do you think are the best ways to bring people together and find common ground?

Using the skills that we have – communication, listening, understanding, respecting each other. Having empathy for others also requires having empathy for ourselves. 

I’m always thinking about what’s going to happen when we come out of lockdown – I think it’s going to be madness. I think we’re going to need a lot of things in place when we come out of it, especially in a community like this which is deprived. Otherwise, things will get worse. Our kids will get worse, our community will get worse, our environment will get worse. 

We’ve got to be communicating more. We’ve got to be listening more. Respecting each other; that includes people in positions of power. Don’t look down on us – respect us, hear us, because we’re living it. Understand each other. Take time to try to understand the situation for different groups and communities

Could you share a piece of advice for people to access their power and exercise it positively on their communities? 

Always have empathy in your heart, mind and soul. Believe in yourself and the rest will follow. Go for it and if you fail, that’s fine. 

How do you feel about the future?

It fills me with hope, positivity, new things. I’m going to see things I’ve never seen happening before in White City. New growth, empowerment; I’m going to see fun, laughter and happiness. 

Now when I look at my community, I see promise. I see so much.