DOING IT FOR THE KIDS: Carlene Firmin MBE says she works to bring about change rather than gain accolades
WHEN CARLENE Firmin became, at 27, the youngest black woman to be awarded an MBE for services to women and girl’s issues in 2011, it was an impressive feat by any count.
However, the modest Cambridge philosophy graduate said: “You don’t do your job to get awards, and you definitely don’t do it to get an MBE. The thing I would be more proud of is changing government policy.”
Firmin, who until recently was the principal policy advisor to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, now works as a consultant on the project.
But, as she explained, her career in social justice happened by accident.
“I started off as a journalist as that was what I wanted to do, but after a few weeks I realised I was only interested in covering social justice issues and as a writer you cover a whole range of issues,” Firmin explained. “So I decided to try and get a job working for a social justice charity and build up my expertise there.”
She was hired as an administrator at the charity Race on the Agenda (ROTA), and went on to lead its female voice in violence research programme.
“When we looked back at the time, there was nothing that reflected those experiences so I asked the organisation if we could develop a specific piece of work that could look at it in more detail,” Firmin said.
The project was backed by the Lottery Fund to originally carry out a study in London, but quickly expanded to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham over a three-year period.
In 2010, Firmin founded the Girls Against Gangs (GAG) project to give young women a voice in policy and services.
She said it’s those women who motivate her to continue with her job. “Once you’ve interviewed enough women who have [experienced abuse, violence and exploitation] you’re pretty much committed to doing the work.”
The inspirational young woman – named one of the UK’s most influential people under 40 in the Powerlist – currently runs a three-year funded project called MsUnderstood, in partnership with the University of Bedfordshire and Imkaan, a UK-based black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing violence against women and girls.
The partnership aims to improve local and national responses to young people’s experiences of gender inequality. It is also currently offering paid internship placements to young women.
WINNING: Firmin won the Precious leadership award (Pic: Ruth Harding)
Firmin’s reputation for spearheading research on young people helped her win the leadership category at the 7th annual Precious Awards, set up to celebrate the achievements of inspirational women of colour.
She said: “It’s great to be nominated and you’re always surprised as it means people you don’t know are talking about you and you wonder why. But at least it raises the issues you are working on which is a good thing. I was very grateful to be considered.
“I didn’t bring my mum with me and she was really annoyed as I didn’t really think I would win.”
The north Londoner credited her mother for her “good education” and being the backbone of her career.
Recalling her time at Cambridge, the award-winning campaigner said: “It was a really interesting experience because it’s very academic and you are taught how to think for three years and question things that you are told.
“You have to be willing to work hard and I was willing to as it’s very intense. Obviously, you are in the minority and there are certain things I had to come home back to London for because I couldn’t find an African Caribbean hairdresser or couldn’t find hard dough bread.”
Speaking on the myth that Cambridge is not diverse enough, Firmin said she was surprised that in her college, Fitzwilliam, the majority of her fellow students hailed from state schools.
The 30-year-old is now juggling a PhD on peer-on-peer abuse, with a monthly column for Society Guardian.
She added: “My mother has been my biggest inspiration. We lost my dad [when I was] 14 and she raised me and my brothers on her own after that point. She has never buckled under pressure. She has always been amazing, encouraging and raised us to believe we have a right to a voice and so that’s why I do what I do, to make young people believe they have that right as well. She is definitely the driving force behind everything and I always want to know her opinion!”
Firmin hopes to share her experience through building a team of young competent women to work alongside her to continue her quest to help those young people in need.
She continued: “At some point I do want to have a slightly less hectic life, to be able to share the work with the others because you can only be called out to so many conferences. Currently, I am speaking at five conferences a week, which shows the national demand for this type of work.”