Learning from successful community engagement: Bradford Childhood Obesity Trailblazer

The Trailblazer seeks to build the capacity of the Islamic Religious Settings to undertake action against childhood obesity through skills development, and creating an understanding of the wider system and support to access funding.

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Effective community engagement is an important feature of all five Childhood Obesity Trailblazers. It is particularly important in Bradford where the focus is on working in Islamic Religious settings. There is rich learning from the experience in Bradford that will be of interest to people working on childhood obesity and similar challenges in other areas.

Bradford Council, Born in Bradford and the Bradford Council for Mosques are working together to harness the potential of Islamic Religious Settings (IRS) to tackle childhood obesity amongst Bradford’s Islamic communities, predominantly South Asian (mainly Pakistanis and some Bangladeshis; overall 40 per cent of Bradford’s childhood population). The Trailblazer seeks to build the capacity of the IRS to undertake action against childhood obesity through skills development, and creating an understanding of the wider system and support to access funding. Priority is being given to the development of a toolkit of obesity-prevention resources which can be used in religious settings. Madrassas and their communities have been involved in developing the toolkit alongside public health experts. The toolkit has three core elements focusing on physical activity, healthy diet and organisational changes within Islamic religious settings for obesity prevention. Using Islamic religious settings to prevent obesity for South Asian children in the UK

Abida Rafiq, Community Engagement Manager with Born In Bradford, is responsible for leading this element of the Trailblazer Programme. Appointed in April 2020, as the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown became apparent, Abida stresses resilience as the key attribute required over the last 12 months.

She has identified five ‘I’s as the main features of her approach to community engagement. Talking to her it is clear that three other attributes are equally important: passion, being methodical and flexibility.

Five ‘I’s for effective engagement

  • Initiate – a dialogue with community which creates a trusting relationship
  • Inform – community/individuals of the possibly opportunities ahead so they become the change makers
  • Include – all relevant key stakeholders at every level of engagement and their narrative
  • Inspire – community/individual to develop a long-term collective ownership
  • Invest – in community orgs/individuals as game changers to sustain the legacy of the programme.

A devout Muslim, Abida is passionate about the communities she is working with, about the potential of behaviour change and about the importance of healthy eating. She has worked in various community roles across West Yorkshire for over 20 years and outside work she is heavily involved in inter-faith and community initiatives.

For Abida building and retaining relationships is a key to effective engagement. She spent the first few months in this role understanding the objectives of the project, deploying her personal networks and building new relationships. It was important to do this in a methodical and concerted way.

Abida stresses the need to really understand the community and local community organisations that she is working with. In her case the resources available to the Islamic Religious Settings reflect the resources available in the communities they serve. They will have priorities and concerns other than childhood obesity. She is happy to signpost a group to, for example, mental health support in order to gain their support and confidence and willingness to devote some of their precious time to tackling childhood obesity.

On the day Abida was interviewed for this blog she was preparing for an evening meeting with a place-based group to explore how they could take advantage of the lockdown relaxations to encourage physical activity. The previous day, a bank holiday, she had led a zoom workshop with a group of women from Bradford and beyond on how to encourage healthy eating during Ramadan. This flexibility is essential in a community engagement role, but balancing it with the expectations of a ‘9 to 5’ job can be difficult. Abida’s advice is to remember to take time out and avoid burn out!