Interview with Lizzie Cho

Ian Florance
29th September 2017



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Interview with Lizzie Cho

Editor Ian Florance talks to Lizzie Cho, the first recipient of the John Stopford Scholarship and Director of NOVA New Opportunities.

I meet Lizzie in a coffee bar on the Portobello Road on a sunny morning. The shops are opening and crowds of tourists sort through the offerings of the half-set-up street market. But everywhere there are appeal notices indicating how close we are to the Grenfell Tower. Its immolation has dominated the media over the past few weeks and Lizzie admits ‘I’ve cried every night about the people I knew who lived there – particularly the children.’ Lizzie is director of Nova; New Opportunities, a charity whose offices are close by.

Lizzie, what does Nova; New Opportunities do?

It’s provides education, advice and guidance to disadvantaged adults in North Kensington:  people who missed out on education; women work-returners; the long-term unemployed and minority ethnic, migrant and refugee groups. In essence, we’re less concerned with ‘Why?’, more with the issue of ‘How’: not, what were the causes of the situation but how can someone achieve his or her full potential. We offer education and volunteering opportunities, emphasising basic skills in Maths, English and ICT as well as a range of cultural and creative activities.

But there’s something much more fundamental going on. We value our clients as human beings, relating to them in a friendly and non-judgemental way. We truly listen to them and thus create a safe space  in which they can understand and realise their future potential. It’s a fundamentally holistic, person-centred organisation.

That’s a pretty good description of how good coaching works! I can see why you’re interested in the area.

A few of our team at Nova are in the London Live Community Choir and I see us as working in the same way as that choir. It’s greater than the sum of its parts…and it’s uplifting.

Tell me a bit about your background?

I was born in Ilford. My Dad was a Jamaican athlete: a weightlifter who lectured in engineering. He is very driven  and competitive. I’m not, though I tend to really like singular sports – tennis, running, swimming – rather than team sports, where you depend on each other. My Mum’s white, from Harrow, originally an art teacher and, you could say, something of a left wing hippie. There had been trouble when they married: Mum’s family never really accepted Dad. Anyway my parents split up and my Mum moved to Penarth with us. Gradually all her family moved from Harrow to Penarth…though my Grandad was born and raised in North Kensington – Grenfell Road, so I have a deep connection with this area.

It was the 1970s – the National Front were prominent and active. I had no dad at home and there was no black community in Penarth so I frequently felt isolated, hated and fearful. My sister was ill and as the oldest child I partly took on the role of carer. This all helped to form some of my ideas and attitudes: I understand that social belonging is a fundamental human need and I find I am driven to make everyone welcome.

How did you get on at school?

I was a bright child at primary school and teachers advised my mum to start pushing me for Oxbridge. But my mum did not agree with pressurizing me. We moved to Chepstow and that was also isolated and isolating.

Then everything changed. The second Summer of Love brought raves, ecstacy and the idea that black culture – and perhaps even more so, being mixed race – was pretty cool. My younger sister and I were the only mixed race children at our school. My school career went downhill.  I had a series of strategic boyfriends...

What a great phrase…

I mean cool boyfriends whose reputation would protect you. But then I fell in love , was hurt, had a breakdown, left school, moved to London and did my A-levels in a year at City and East London College where I could work and there were no distactions.

I went to a kibbutz after my A levels, came back to do a course at Camberwell in art restoration, but the course had changed so I returned to Israel  to stay  on a moshav, a cooperative agricultural community.

Did you have a particular interest in Israel?

It reflected my political interests and my interest in communal/collective living. I suppose I was also influenced by the Jewish sense of being persecuted, something my upbringing had given me. After that,  I went to France where my sister was an au pair and lived in Greece every Summer season while studying  English and History of Art at Goldsmiths. I needed some sort of qualification so took a TEFL course, loved it and that defined my next 15 years of travelling. I’d come back to the UK to study (including a PGCE and an MA in TESOL) and lived inbetweentimes in Turkey, New Zealand, Korea, Italy.

This period taught me that everything is interconnected. I did many diverse things – including get married – and they all impinged on each other. I immersed myself in local cultures, studying the languages of every country I lived in and can still speak conversational Korean, Italian and Spanish.

Then I came back here in 2005, wanting to work with refugees and disadvantaged communities, but with no real plans.

How  did you start working in the charity sector…and coaching?

I always wanted to work with disadvantaged people and thought I might become a human rights lawyer. I can’t bear to see something or someone suffering – when I was a kid I used to bring my Mum dead animals and ask her to make them better!!!! I had always been given difficult students to work with as a teacher and always wanted to make a difference. Anyway I took a number of jobs but my present career started as the Maths and English teacher/ coordinator at Nova and I finally took over as Director.

I’d had no leadership training and we’d had five difficult years in the organisation before I became director. In fact it nearly went bust. So I was coached through the transition into leadership. I’d seen that coaching worked – particularly with people who are not adherent, like me. I knew that telling people what to do was throwing words at the wall. All my work has been about helping people to realise their own dreams and goals. Coaching is firmly based on that model.

You’ve been at the organisation for ten years. What else takes up your time?

I’m involved as a trustee and adviser with a number of other charities. But I’m also building bridges with the corporate sector and that is one of the keys to how I might use coaching in the future. In 2013 one of my trustees went on a POW WOW event with Leader’s Quest.

Leader’s Quest is ‘a social enterprise, with a charitable foundation, our mission is to work with leaders from business, government and civil society to catalyse change across three levels: individuals, companies and systems…to contribute towards a more sustainable, inclusive world.’

 

It offers a unique approach to ‘experiential learning for senior leaders…(it)  takes people outside their usual environments to meet with leaders, change-makers and local communities. We engage with innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and grassroots leaders – from all generations.‘ See https://leadersquest.org/ for more information.

 

In turn I won bursaries from Leader’s Quest to events in Israel/Palestine and India. I have to admit I wondered what I was doing there with, in effect, members of the global elite. But it was a fascinating experience: the other delegates were really open and I was able to represent the purpose-driven sector and talk about aims beyond simple profit. The key driver of everything I do is fairness and that’s what underlies Leader’s Quest and all its activities. that connection has resulted in some work with larger businesses and has suggested a new initiative.

How did you come across Meyler Campbell?

I met a graduate from the programme who really impressed me. Then I saw Anne Scoular speak and was completely won over. The course will really complement the MSc I’m doing in  psychology and neuroscience. I’ve always used coaching: the course is an opportunity to develop my skills, then to use them to create social impact.

Is this linked to a new initiative?

I’d like to be able to cross fertilise different sectors. So I can imagine facilitating coaching of business leaders by coaches from the purpose-drive  sector and vice versa. I think that would have a huge and beneficial effect.

We’ve talked so much that our coffees have gone cold and Lizzie gets her French toast ‘to go’. Lizzie heads back to the office and I walk back through the tourists, the market entrepreneurs and the richly diverse inhabitants of Portobello Road, thinking how good the match is between Lizzie’s and Mayler Campbell’s values.

The Meyler Campbell John Stopford scholarship offers one free place on the Mastered Programme to a representative of the charity sector. It honours the memory of John Stopford a member of the Meyler Campbell community who died in 2011.

 

For more information on Nova New Opportunities see www.novanew.org.uk

Watch a video about Lizzie's story here.


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