Social Justice

Big Issue Changemakers 2021: Covid heroes

As the country locked down, these Changemakers stepped up and met the challenges of the Covid crisis head on

Tula Dyer

With Covid-19, we’re living through a crisis unlike any most have seen in our lifetimes. While politicians remind us we’re all in this together, vulnerable people have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Others were left to fall through the gaps in support.

The pandemic forced people across the nation apart in a bid to keep each other safe. Fortunately determined individuals did their bit to hold communities together.

The second instalment of the top 100 Big Issue Changemakers recognises those who used their skills and resources to do some good in the depths of lockdown.

Whether it was getting creative to raise cash for good causes at home or lobbying the Government to boost support for those whose livelihoods had been devastated, each played a part in ensuring no one was left behind. They will guide the UK through the difficult months ahead.

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19. Rob Walker

After the Covid crisis cancelled all the sports commentator’s work, he turned his talent towards compèring home videos. He helped people create their own sports events out of everyday situations from teabag tossing to bike dashes. The project became Lockdown Live.

The Big Issue: Where did the idea come from for Lockdown Live?
Rob Walker: When lockdown first happened I lost all my work. I was due to go to the Olympics, Paralympics, Invictus games. My diary was full and literally everything stopped. I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself. My wife said “Why don’t you ask people to send in their back garden sports and make a little programme?”

What surprised you most about it?
The extent to which people can use their imagination when they’re forced to. There was one family who did a teabag Olympics where they were trying to flick teabags into a cup.

Have you got any advice for people who want to do something different in 2021?
If you’ve got something about you, get off your arse and get involved. The minute you do something you’ll feel better about yourself, and also for the people you’ll be able to help.

20. ExcludedUK

The grassroots pressure group has gained more than 60,000 members since forming during the Covid-19 pandemic.

ExcludedUK fights for the three million taxpayers they say have not had meaningful support from furlough or self-employment assistance schemes. The mayors of London, Greater Manchester and Liverpool got behind the campaign too. An open letter from them urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to help the workforce that has “fallen through the gaps”.

21. TulaDyer

After her trip to climb Ben Nevis was cancelled during Covid-19 lockdown, Tula Dyer [pictured] from Eastbourne decided to complete the trip indoors. She climbed her staircase while raising money for Asthma UK along the way. It took her four hours to climb 20,723 steps. Her positive spin on the situation earned her national fame and raised nearly £900 for her charity. “I never want to climb stairs again,” she told The Big Issue. But she can’t wait to climb the real thing whenever she can.

Image: Vegas Eddie/Flickr

22. Charity Not PPV campaign

The campaign encouraged football fans to donate to foodbanks rather than fork out £14.95 on pay-per-view matches. Started by Newcastle United fans, supporters from all 20 English Premier League clubs raised hundreds of thousands in support. It struck a decisive blow for fan power too, with league bosses forced to call full-time on their PPV plans.

23. Joseph Nwosu

Nwosu’s Black Millennial Money Podcast helps Black millennials make smart decisions in earning, keeping and investing their money.

The Big Issue: What’s the story behind the podcast?
Joseph Nwosu: A couple of years ago, I found myself in £25,000 of debt, which ballooned to £36,000. I’d always thought of myself as someone who’s good with money, but then I found myself in a mess. I was sick of it and resolved to get myself out of debt as quickly as possible. I thought it was something that needed to be discussed and shared.

What made you decide to focus on Black millennials in particular?
In a world where everyone’s got a finance podcast, I thought I’d start off by talking to the Black community. I’m also a bit of a history buff, and Black people have historically been excluded from the economy. In the past 100 years or so there’s been a transition, but racism is still huge. The economic effects can still be seen. People talk about a lack of Black leadership in corporations, but they forget that the average age is about 55. Many UK Black people under 35 are the first in their families to go to university.

And you’ve also written a book, what’s it about?
It comes down to how I came to understand money, and the mistakes I made and the challenge I faced. I show how to manage finances in a way that let me clear £36,000 debt in less than three years. Granted I was living at home, but it’s no mean feat to pay off over £1,000 every month. It’s telling that story but in a practical and personable way.

24. Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

Anionwu has been a vital voice during the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the key figures to highlight the higher Covid rates among BAME people. Anionwu is an emeritus professor of nursing at the University of West London and a patron of the UK Sickle Cell Society.

She spoke out about her concerns around the high proportion of BAME nursing staff who died or became seriously ill from the virus. People of black and south Asian backgrounds were found to have a higher risk of death from Covid than white people, according to the Office for National Statistics.

25/26. Roger Raiye and Claire Hall, Rog’s Razors

We were all in desperate need of a haircut after the first Covid-19 lockdown. In Gateshead, barber Roger Raiye swooped in to help those who could not afford to get a trim. Roger and his partner Claire, who own Rog’s Razors, gave around 1,000 free haircuts in 2020 to people who are homeless and others who have been struggling financially during the pandemic. The couple even worked until midnight on the eve of the second lockdown in November to give 62 people free haircuts in the space of one day.

27. UK Says No More

During the first lockdown, there were reports of a concerning rise in domestic abuse across the UK. It is thought that almost 50 suspected killings may have occurred during those three months, according to data from Counting Dead Women. There were also sharp rises in the number of calls and contacts with the National Domestic Abuse helpline.

UK Says No More, a national campaign by crisis support charity Hestia to raise awareness to end domestic abuse and sexual violence, launched the Safe Spaces scheme in partnership with the General Pharmaceutical Council. People experiencing domestic abuse can access support in the consultation rooms of participating pharmacies across the UK.

28. Jess Collins

Letters sent by Jess warmed the hearts of strangers around the world. The copywriter from Cornwall handwrote 100 cards and sent them to people in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain and the US. She started the thoughtful gesture with an Instagram post asking who would be interested in receiving a card, which led to her being flooded with requests. Many people were so moved by the cards that they were brought to tears and the mum of two received 15 letters back.

29. Arabica Cafe, Birmingham

The Arabica Cafe has been a lifeline to many during the pandemic. The Birmingham cafe delivered free hot meals to vulnerable people and those who were homeless during lockdown. The cafe is back to operating as normal and provides free food to those in need between 9am and 2pm from Monday to Friday.

The amazing service they provide is vital to the city, which is one of the UK’s homelessness hotspots. The project feeds hundreds of people every week and has also delivered parcels to frontline workers at local hospitals and ambulance services.

30. Wendy Baverstock

As the volunteer manager at the Henbury and Brentry community centre, her local community centre in Bristol, Wendy organised the delivery of around five tonnes of food, supporting the most vulnerable people in her area, and those left jobless by the pandemic. She worked until late at night to ensure that the food run reached everyone who needed it, and to keep the donations stocked for the following day.

Asiyah and Jawad Javed
Asiyah and Jawad Javed. Photo: Getty Images

31/32. Asiyah and Jawad Javed

Two shopkeepers in Stenhousemuir, Falkirk, handed out thousands of free ‘coronavirus kits’. The Day-Today shop owners spent £35,000 on kits containing handwash, hand sanitiser, cleaning wipes and a mask, which they gave to the elderly and immunocompromised.

The couple, who have been handing out around 100 parcels a week, have also provided food and winter clothing packages to those who need them most. The Javeds’ work has been so impressive that local emergency services even visited the shop to give them a round of applause.

33. Matt Williams

Rugby fan and fundraiser Matt Williams is already a hero to those in his hometown of Avonmouth. Despite having a full-time job, he wanted to do all he could to help people when the first lockdown hit. This led to him organising a campaign to deliver shopping for isolated residents, with more than 50 deliveries per day.

He then turned his attention to struggling community hubs such as the local rugby club, restaurants, and foodbanks, raising more than £10,000 through local raffles. What started as a small idea to give back has provided equipment for schools, food for those in need, and even the delivery of 400 Easter eggs for children across his town.

34. Amanda Riley

Amanda Riley earned national acclaim this year for her in-depth mask-making guides, which gave people from across the UK the tools to make their own PPE. Using her background in fashion, she crafted high-quality, industry-standard masks using ethical supplies. She’s personally sewn hundreds of masks, sending them to vulnerable people and under-supplied NHS staff.

Now she’s working on Fashion Rebellion, an upscaling campaign spreading awareness of the problematic practices within fast fashion, and the long-term impact it has on workers’ rights and the environment.

35. Chris Sands, Totally Locally

Award-winning branding and marketing expert Chris Sands developed Totally Locally, a marketing strategy for local shops and businesses. It offers a free-to-download plan, including ideas like a sale weekend, which led to some businesses enjoying their busiest ever trading time despite the pandemic.

With regional lockdowns in place, the plan has breathed life into trading communities in cities and commuter towns, offering a lifeline for small enterprises. Chris says: “There’s a real determination to shop local, and people are seeing how important it is.”

Empire fighting chance
Aedan, an Empire Fighting Chance Champion of the Month

36. Martin Bisp, Empire Fighting Chance

Empire Fighting Chance is a non-contact boxing charity that supports young people with behavioural and emotional problems like anxiety and low self-esteem. Since lockdown, it has extended its reach even further, with more than 600 people using its services at any time.

The Big Issue: What can non-contact sports do for a young person who is struggling?
Martin Bisp: That ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ idea does make you much more receptive to therapy. If they feel unhappy or angry, they’re constantly told they should be fixing their anger. We’re there to say that feeling angry is perfectly normal, and in fact in some of your circumstances, we’d feel angry. Once you start normalising those feelings, you can see the weight lifted from their shoulders.

What are the operational challenges that you’ve faced since lockdown?
We rely on fundraising and all that stopped. We had to hope we could get by on our reserves, and thankfully people did donate. Lots of other services had stopped so suddenly if there was a young person who wasn’t getting help anywhere, we might be their only lifeline.

Were you surprised that so many people were willing to take part as things moved online?
To have feedback from people that at times we’re the only thing that they look forward to, or that we saved your son’s life over lockdown, those things are pretty humbling.

What do you want the public to know about the people you help?
I’ve never met a 13-year-old who wants to become a drug dealer. Circumstances such as complex home lives dictate it. I’d like a more compassionate view across organisations like policing and schooling. If you’ve got a recruitment policy, don’t narrow your field to only include those who’ve always been included.

37. Floris ten Nijenhuis, Furloughed Foodies

After entrepreneur Floris ten Nijenhuis had a trip to South America cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, he decided to bring people together to help the NHS. Furloughed Foodies in London has grown into a group of more than 600 others who have been furloughed or made redundant by the crisis, with volunteers cooking or collecting meals and delivering them to foodbanks and busy NHS workers to ensure they get good-quality food on their breaks.

38. Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups

Throughout 2020, thousands of Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups were created, acting as a platform for people to help others in their area in need. Support ranges from doing food shopping for people who are self-isolating to donating clothing and household items. A list of local support groups has been compiled by Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK.

Rose Marley
Rose Marley. Image: M20 Photography

39. Rose Marley

Co-operatives UK is the network for Britain’s thousands of co-ops and joining as chief executive this month, Rose is going to play a key role in helping the economy build back better.

The Big Issue: Why are co-operatives important in building back from the Covid-19 recession?
Rose Marley: Co-operatives are so important to rebuild the economy in a different way, a fairer way, at a time when we’re all more open to change than ever before. One of my key tasks is to expose one of Britain’s best kept secrets – the co-operative movement. This is a formidable movement and we need to make sure everyone knows about it.

How can Co-operatives UK play a part in tackling the crises seen across the UK?
When pubs, venues and cafes are closing, huge department stores wavering, the co-operative movement is a proven business model for people to take these assets into their own community’s hands and make things better, fairer and more profitable for everyone.

Did you learn anything in 2020 that you’ll take forward into 2021?
I saw huge divides in our society. I saw the ‘haves’ retreating to their holiday homes and the ‘have nots’ at best working all the hours, not being able to support their kids, and at worst losing incomes, careers and lives. In 2020 I learned that we must use this moment in time to move away from the sticking plasters we apply at points of crisis and address the fundamental needs of creating a fair and equitable society for the long term. It’s a well-trodden analogy, but we really do need to give people a fishing rod as opposed to a fish when they’re hungry.

40. Mirka Jankowska

Unable to sit still while her Kirkcaldy bridal shop was closed in Covid-19 lockdown, Mirka Jankowska rallied with other designers and machinists to form For the Love of Scrubs Scotland. The group rose to 400 contributors who crafted more than 10,000 sets of scrubs for the NHS. Aside from the “conveyor belt of work”, one of the biggest shocks for Jankowska came from the extent to which scrubs were required, and how the community was able to step up and fill the gap quicker than the government.

41. Local businesses who gave out meals at half-term

When free school meals were not provided for kids at half-term, more than 1,200 organisations across the UK rallied together to support their communities. The government rejected proposals to extend the free school meals programme through the holiday after England footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned for the change. Food Foundation, which is part of Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force, found that 14 per cent of adults living with children experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in between March and September.

olive mabel andrew cotter

42/43/44. Andrew Cotter, Olive and Mabel

Two Labradors became an internet sensation after their antics were vlogged by owner Andrew Cotter. As a sports commentator and broadcaster, Cotter turned his talents to narrating the tales of Olive and Mabel in a pseudo-sports style. Millions of views morphed into a book deal, and now the pair’s charming faces are cemented into public memory as a bit of much-needed light relief in a locked-down nation.

You can read Changemakers numbers 1-18, the people leading the fight against poverty, here.

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