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Reena Jaisiah: full profile

BA (Hons) Sociology, 2003

Community Engagement and Leadership

Reena Jaisiah is an inspiration to people throughout the West Midlands and beyond, thanks to her involvement in a number of projects which help to bring diverse communities together. From sex workers and caste discrimination victims to female prisoners and war-affected youngsters, Reena uses her expertise to engage marginalised groups through the arts.

She fits this work around her full-time role as a curriculum support officer in an inner-city school in Coventry, where she regularly goes above and beyond her official role to run programmes that help to raise achievement and remove barriers to learning, such as helping fathers and sons to bond and work more effectively together, and helping to set up the school radio station. She also has a part-time role running drama sessions and doing one-to-one therapy as a sessional youth worker.

Reena has dyslexia so the work she has done is more challenging for her than most, but this has never held her back. Having received extra support to overcome these difficulties during her time at Birmingham City University, she now dedicates herself to helping others do the same.

She said: "I was attracted to the course because I wanted to tackle social issues, but I wasn't expecting to go to university because I wasn't a very academic person and people had told me that I couldn't do it. However, Birmingham City University was very supportive and the people were very down-to-earth, helping me to believe I could do it.

"The course was fantastic – the teaching was very practical and everything was explained to us so that we could apply it to everyday life. I learned so much from my peers as well as the course. The tutors were brilliant and I was given all the extra help I needed to cope with my dyslexia, including a one-to-one tutor who would help me to plan essays read and source literature, and get used to using the facilities such as the library. I also had access to computer equipment with voice-activated software. This sort of help wasn’t available at other universities at the time, so the on-going support I received was a great help.

"In my second year, I did a placement with an arts project in Birmingham where I was able to get involved in all aspects of project management, which provided a great background for a lot of the projects I'm involved in now. One of my tutors had suggested I did a placement and it really inspired me – I was thrown in at the deep end and excelled, and if I hadn't done it, I probably wouldn't be where I am today.

"As a Curriculum Support Officer I shadow a lot of young people that need extra support, giving them one-to-one help in areas such as maths if they have fallen behind – in a similar way that I was given help when I was at University. Because I wanted to work with young people, I thought I would be good at it and, after I graduated, I worked for an agency which allowed me to get experience on a wide range of projects before I got my current role."

Reena is a member of an ethnic group that has faced caste-based discrimination worldwide and, having been bullied at school, she decided to take a stand and is believed to have been the first person in the UK to speak out publically against caste discrimination back in 2003 when she joined Caste Watch UK. She used her artistic talents to form a theatre company called Caste Away Arts, and co-wrote and directed a sell-out play called The Fifth Cup which tackled this issue creatively. Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, discrimination on the basis of caste was specifically outlawed for the first time in the 2013 Equality Act, which is due to come into force in 2015.

"I'm the kind of person that, if an issue affects me, or I see it affecting other people, I have to do something about it. Caste discrimination was something that had touched me and my community, and I wanted to be proactive and bring the issue into the open. Because I've always been a creative person, the obvious way for me to do raise awareness was through an arts-based project, which I thought would reach a different audience than if I'd written something down. I had a really fantastic response and the audience would often want to stay behind after the play finished to talk to us about the issue and find out more."

Following her success in this area, Reena continued to use her own experience and contacts to launch other projects. She co-owns a business in inner-city Coventry which has often been used as a refuge by vulnerable women and, as a result, she approached Kairos, a Coventry charity which supports women in the sex industry or at risk of sex work and prostitution, and offered to put her drama skills into practice by running an initial six-week voluntary course that celebrates female voices. The group, Women on Top Community Theatre, performed its first showcase to an invited audience in 2011 and has since gone from strength to strength, performing on Hillz FM community radio and at the University of Warwick.

"I'm just so passionate about that kind of thing – when I was young, I was silenced from speaking out about things, which I now regret, so if I come across an injustice now I will always look at how I can help. So, with the Women on Top project, I had contact with sex workers in the area I lived in and knew they hadn't woken up one day and decided to take that path; there was a backstory of how they got into it and I want people to see that. The drama programme was designed to help them get to know each other and express themselves – I didn't expect it to have the success it has, but some of them have left sex work and gone to university as a result, which has transformed and saved people's lives. Many of the people we invited to performances were those who may have judged sex workers in the past and we've managed to change their minds completely."

And Reena's concern for others does not just extend to the UK – in 2009 she travelled to war-torn Sri Lanka to deliver arts to orphans and members of the Tamil community that were affected by the civil war and natural disaster. Back home, she has supported war-affected young people through Release UK, a drama project attended by around 20 young people. They have performed in theatre and on radio, helping them to grow in confidence, and have written a book about their experiences.

Reena is currently planning a series of drama taster sessions to be delivered this February in a women's prison with the support of Prison Link in Birmingham. She is also collaborating with the Hope Centre in the city to put together a programme where members of different communities can take part in activities which help them to get to know each other, and is working on a project that collects data on Muslim women's experience of wearing a Hijab which will be used to create a performance piece.

Looking ahead, she said she would like to launch other similar projects with marginalised groups where she sees a need, including people who are coping with the sorts of learning difficulties she has successfully overcome. Reena said she would also like to see her existing projects continue to build on their success, with previous beneficiaries of the schemes able to take up roles inspiring others.

Reena added: "I'd also like to do more work with dyslexic people, and any other groups who are marginalised or cast aside from society for whatever reason. I would like to expand the Women on Top project and would like the women to lead it themselves to they can use their experiences to inspire others. Being involved in schemes such as this have a positive effect on me as well – I get so much out of it.

 "I was pleasantly surprised to find out I was an Alumni of the Year – it's an honour to receive recognition 10 years on and I should give time to reflect on my achievements as I rarely do that, being on the go. University experience has inspired me to do so much – I never thought for a minute that I'd even get to university, let alone do all the things I've gone on to do, so I haven't rested since!"