Podcast: Nathan Dennis

19 February 2021

In our second Centre for Mental Health podcast episode, Sarah Hughes chats to Nathan Dennis, Founder Trustee of First Class Foundation, a Birmingham-based charity working to tackle youth violence and build mental health resilience. We’ve been working with the First Class team on several projects since 2015.

With his usual wisdom and honesty, Nathan discusses racial inequality and mental health, his own journey to founding First Class Foundation, the apprehension in some racialised communities about the Covid vaccine, the role faith plays in his life, and how the Dennis family manage their own wellbeing.

Listen to the episode on Spotify.

The full transcript is available below.

Music by scottholmesmusic.com




Alethea Joshi (AJ): Hello and welcome to Centre for Mental Health’s podcast. We’re dedicated to eradicating mental health inequalities by changing policy and practice. So, you may have notice that we’ve been a little quiet on the podcast lately. We’ve been incredibly busy over 2020, supporting those at the frontline of this pandemic, which as we know is also a mental health crisis. You can take a look at all our work on Covid and especially our work around equality and mental health at www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk.

But we are delighted to be back up and starting with this great conversation between our Chief Executive Sarah Hughes and Nathan Dennis from First Class Foundation. It’s a brilliant, encouraging and at times sobering conversation about racial inequality and mental health, Nathan’s own journey to becoming the founder of a charity doing amazing work in Birmingham, fear in racialised communities about the Covid vaccine, and also how Nathan and his family are managing their own wellbeing.

Sarah Hughes (SH): Welcome Nathan to the Centre for Mental Health podcast. It’s lovely to have you as one of our guests.

Nathan Dennis (ND): Awesome.

SH: You are one of our favourite people. As you know, I mean in my job, I think the best thing is that I get to meet extraordinary people and you are definitely one of those and I hope today that we can just think with you about the big things that are important, but also let the world know the extraordinary work that you do as part of your day job, in First Class Legacy. So it would be good to sort of touch base on that as well.

ND: You know, I need to give credit where credit’s due. I love the Centre, the Centre for Mental Health has really changed our organisation’s life and through the independent evaluation that we went through, we were able to really get a strong sense of our purpose. And you know everyone bands around the theory of change and all that. So yeah, it’s been a mutual respecting journey. And just to say as well, so in 2020, obviously one of the craziest years known to man, we went through a transition. So we actually separated our organisation, so we’re now officially as a charity, First Class Foundation. So we are charitable foundation CIO, and then we have our limited company which goes under the name of Legacy Consultants, which really specialises in helping companies think about how they engage with diverse communities. We were saying BAME communities, but we’re trying to move away from that term because it is not specific enough, so we’re saying we’re experts at helping organisations effectively engage Black stakeholders from African and Caribbean communities.

SH: I love this and it very much chimes with the work that we’re trying to do in the organisation around anti-racism and language and all of that is so important. Nathan, you and I met a few years ago and I’ll never forget the first time I saw you speak in the House of Lords and it was so overwhelming for me. I was so captivated by your spirit and by your intentionality around the work that we were doing together in that relationship, we had created around the evidence base. Can we just hear a little bit about you just as a person and about your journey over the last few years? I think that there is something really important about where you come from and where you are now. And I think we also want to talk about how Covid has impacted you because you and I have had lots of conversations about that, and I think you’ve managed to really identify some specific issues for families and communities that I’d like us to mention. But tell us about you.

ND: So yeah, I’m Nathan Dennis; my proudest achievements in life is being a husband to Sabrina Dennis, my wife, who’s CEO of our charity First Class Foundation and a father of four daughters. Our oldest is 16, youngest 7, and those are my proudest achievements. As I was saying previously we now have a charity arm which is First Class Foundation which is a CIO where I’m a trustee and we also have our training consultancy, Legacy Consultants, that really helps companies think differently around how they engage with African and Caribbean black communities. I think it’s important that we be specific because I think that many companies are hiding behind the ‘BAME’ data. And actually when you start to distil the information, you’re seeing that actually people still don’t have Black staff in their workforce; they may have an Asian person, they may have someone from China, for instance, and it all gets counted for as ‘BAME’.

When you ask me the question there, about ‘tell us about your story’, Is such a loaded question because I have for many years purposely edited my story, my journey and edited it because I feel that unfortunately society does judge sometimes. It can hold you prisoner to being a service user or ex offender or whatever you want to say. But I grew up in Birmingham, West Midlands, around a council estate, mainly in a single parent home experience. When I was a teenager I made poor choices that led me to spend a very short time in juvenile prison when I was a teenager. I had a moment where my daughter, my first daughter, was born, and I had to make a decision. I was seeing the kind of statistics for Black men in my community and I kind of made up my mind. I didn’t want to be a stereotype, I didn’t want to be someone that is just a statistic. My daughter was born. I decided that Sabrina was the one for me. We got married and what happened was when my daughter was born I came to faith. So I started to attend a local church and that really had a massive impact on my life in terms of coming to faith, becoming a born-again Christian and I just started to have this real desire and passion burning inside of me to go in to the very community have come from, and make a difference. Now I can kind of articulate what that difference is. So when we talk about it from my charity objectives, there’s 3 key objectives that we want to do: we want to reduce youth violence; we want to improve mental health resilience with young people; and we want to connect young people and their families to their purpose through exposing them to more opportunities. So I’m very succinct now, I know what, I’ve been through loads of journeys.

I started off my journey as basically a school speaker, I used to just speak in schools and share my story, my transition, my change, my transformation. But then I kind of like shyed away from it all, moved away from it for a bit, because I felt like when I was getting a lot of press interest there wanted to always just talk about the past and I’m like, I’m doing lots of things in the present and I’ve got big visions for the future, and I just felt like I was being pigeonholed. So I stopped sharing that part of me and just really focused on infrastructure and building our organisation, and making the work speak for itself.

SH: And that is extraordinary and some of the work that I certainly have had the privilege of observing and being involved in, [and] the many conversations you and I’ve had, I think there’s something about the work that you do which is incredibly authentic, and there’s something that you were just talking about there in terms of your faith and how that, in terms of your building communities and relationships has been incredibly important. Can you say a bit more about that, just in terms of, how that helps today, in terms of dealing with all the issues we’ve got to deal with?

ND: Yeah, it is the cornerstone of who I am to be honest. The project we’ve been doing together that’s being evaluated by the independent evaluation for over 18 month period, and I mean now with the Shifting the Dial partnership are going through an evaluation process. And the truth of the matter is, is that at the core of me is my faith, is a real kind of like routine discipline about how I get up. I get up very early. I spend a lot of time in prayer; people use the words meditation, I do that, I do a lot of breathing. I try when I can, [when] I’m not being lazy to exercise, but I journal incredibly a lot. I read a lot of Christian material and I feel that like it just keeps me centred. It keeps me energized, and then I’m able to pour into the community. And a lot of stuff that I’m doing, I just believe it’s like purpose, like this is what I was born to do.

I believe, you know, you refer to the moment we met at the House of Commons. What people don’t understand is that behind the scenes of that was, I personally, through my practice, I went into a period of fasting and preparation. ‘Cos I felt like I was having the opportunity to speak before very senior people in society around the mental health arena, and I wanted to make sure that what I said was impacting not just the psychology of people, but I wanted to connect with people’s hearts. Because I knew that I needed change. I was in a real negative cycle within the organisation where we were just getting a day rate here, getting a session there, or ‘can you come and do this, can you come and do that?’, but it just wasn’t sustainable. And I remember specifically in my speech I was talking about we need a chance to be able to really test our theory and our model, especially around building mental health resilience with African and Caribbean young men. And it just so happened that within that meeting, it’s almost like my prayers got answered, because someone from the lottery passed me his card, he’s a director, and he says ‘look, what is it that you need Nathan?’. I said ‘I just need someone to give us a chance’. Like just give us a chance. We need minimum of three years’ worth of resources to be able to go through a journey. And he invited me down to London for a meeting and because of their incredible relationship I had and formed with then Lorraine Khan, who was the Director of Children and Young People at the Centre for Mental Health, I phoned her and I said, ‘Lorraine, I got this amazing opportunity. Could you come to this meeting with me please?’ And then I called a gentleman by the name of Beresford Dawkins from NHS Mental Health Foundation and I said ‘could you just come to the meeting? I know what I’m going to say to them, just stand with me so we just look like a team, a partnership’. And long story short, we’ve got the resource and we’re here on this journey. And it’s been an incredible journey because a lot of the stuff I do, I took for granted in terms of my facilitation ability, the way our projects feel, and how service users receive our projects. And it was through the evaluation process and having people like Lorraine Khan doing participation observation and doing interviews with our delegates, and sitting in forums and in training, and articulating it in an academic way what we was doing. It was only then I realised what we had was quite powerful and unique.

SH: And I think that definitely speaks volumes to the power of making sure that work is evaluated and that there is an evidence base for what you do. But you know, what you’re doing is something about breaking down barriers in communities. And we can’t speak to you, Nathan, without really thinking about Covid and about the impact Covid has had on communities, specifically from African Caribbean communities, because I think it’s fair to say that in many instances they’ve had the worst deal. And I guess the pain of that, all of us are trying to deal with at the moment, but you have been doing quite specific things over the last year to help your community directly, and so can you tell us a bit about what you think are the main issues, how people have been affected, and what you’ve been doing to help?

ND: There’s so much we’ve been doing. So going back to the project that we’re part of together, that project was like a monthly provision, but we had to make that weekly. So we started to put everything online using Zoom platform to create a space for young people for an hour just to check in emotionally. It was like group time. Just simply checking in: ‘how are you, how you doing?’. And then we would invite different guest speakers who I found quite motivational and inspirational. Just giving them practical tips of how to mentally survive the first lockdown.

In addition to that, we’ve started a new initiative through the charity called First Class Families Initiative, which is basically, in the most simplest way, a hamper service. And it really came from a drive. So after the first lockdown, I was going for a drive in some of the most poorest parts of Birmingham and I literally, my heart was just starting to weep, ’cause it was the first time that I had seen people after the first lockdown. And I could just see the poverty. I could see the depression on the people and I just felt so compelled that we had to not only be doing the programmes that we’re doing, but the people needed food. But I didn’t want it to be a food bank because I feel that there’s an unfortunate stigma attached to food banks, and it’s like ‘you have to be down and out to engage with it’. So what we do is that we create these massive baskets, just like a gift, we put resources in there for children, and people nominate through our website, families. And when the hamper gets delivered to people’s homes who have been nominated, we say “congratulations, you’re a first class family, you’ve been nominated” and it’s more of like an upliftment: you’re special, you’re amazing. And I really wanted to move away from that, no offence to everyone who’s doing food banks, I think they’re phenomenal and they’re needed, but I wanted everyone that interacted with that to feel empowered and to really feel loved. So we put, like, we hand write cards as well in there, just to tell them that ‘just want you to know that someone is thinking about you. You are loved and you are cared for’. And my wife Sabrina, she writes all the cards that we put in hampers. So that’s one thing.

And then around the agenda of trying to reduce youth violence, every Monday we have these ‘power hours’ where we have many young women, young men who have lived experience of being involved in youth violence come on the platform, and speak and share with young people their story, why they got out, people who have been in prison and done long time stretches, 10 years plus, who shared the harsh, harrowing reality of life in prison. Not glamorized at all. And really try and encourage young people and parents that come on the platform to talk about, look, this is not the life you want to live in. And unfortunately, even as we prepare for this, Birmingham again was devastated with another tragedy; a young boy fatally killed outside his house, stabbed then shot. And through my ministerial hat, I’ve facilitated a number of prayer visuals, so lighting tealight candles and laying flowers at the scene. I facilitate minute’s silences on the street. And then I offer words of prayer and comfort for those who are there. Through that incident I’ve done that twice, ’cause I’ve done one at the specific scene, and then there was a young people’s gathering. They wanted to do a balloon release for the young man who fatally was killed.

So yes, there’s a lot we’re doing, but one of the things that Covid’s really highlighted is just health inequalities; something that we knew that was coming up through the work that I did being a part of the equality commission that you set up. And it’s really bad in terms of health inequalities. When you think about some of the communities that we serve, they’re living in high rise flats with no garden, living in maisonettes, no garden. And they don’t have green leafy parks. When you look at the percentages of trees that they have, they don’t have good trees, so in terms of oxygen and just basic things that we take for granted. And because of the economic impact as well, you find that people are eating rubbish, like tinned food, full of salt and preservatives and stuff, not like healthy fresh food. So it’s just, it is really real.

And then as you would be aware through mainstream media, there’s a lot of conversations around, “Why is the Black community or ‘BAME’ communities so reluctant to take the vaccine?” That is rooted in history. One of the things that when George Floyd was tragically murdered in America, it highlighted this whole conversation that we need to have about race, equality, inclusion, anti-racism, all this kind of stuff. And one of the things I think the health professional industry in the UK have never really been honest about is the horrible history in terms of even in health medical journals, how Black people are referred to. There’s things where, like, it says all Black people have a higher pain tolerance. You know, if you go really deep and you look at research stuff, it talks about how Black people weren’t even considered human. And this was this literature, that is, people who are very supposedly educated, of research and qualified and have doctorates. There’s a particular brand, I won’t say the brand but one of the main brands doing the vaccine rollout, there is history and a big paper trail of how many times that specific company has gone to Africa and done testing on Black people in Africa to test out new products. And, you know, underpaid village Chiefs to get people to go through the tests, you know, like to real live testing of their products. But no one wants to acknowledge it and then people are kind of like demonised now in the media if someone says ‘I’m not sure about this vaccine, what’s this all about?’ And people also forget at the start of this pandemic there was two, I believe, French doctors that says publicly on TV, “Yeah, we should do the testing of vaccines in Africa”. People don’t forget these things. People don’t see there’s been a history of distrust between the Black community and the system. So why do people think that all of a sudden, because the government has said it, that the trust levels are the same? It’s not the same.

SH: Nathan, you know, I could literally listen to you all day because you are so incredibly captivating. And I think what you’re speaking to is the profound nature of systemic racism and the intergenerational impact of that. And, you know, that was something that we discovered in our first evaluation with you, but I think that point about health resistance because of the incredibly punitive and, you know, exploitative relationship with health up until now, is absolutely why there is mistrust, and it feels dangerous. And I think, you know, for many communities at the moment, they are isolated, excluded, being blamed, they’re in the firing line for so much.

And I think that one of the things that I’m really struck by in terms of the way you speak about your community, the way you develop your interventions, is that you talk about words like love and dignity, and these are words that we really struggle to use in health and care. You know, these are things that we are told, you know in our training, you know, don’t use that language, you’ve got to have boundaries. Remember, you’re the professional, and that person is that person. And I always struggled with that, it’s never ever how I felt, and over the years have really resisted that and spoke many years ago about the reason I do this work is because of my love for my fellow man, woman, that I have a deep sense of duty for the health of the people that I love and the people I live alongside. And you deeply share that. And I was really struck about the things that you said about, you know, the hamper service. You know, it’s really important that that’s about dignity and respect. It’s not about putting somebody in a position of other or less than.

ND: Yeah, it’s important to make people feel special. There’s a saying that I love and I try and live by: people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care. And this is where the system has been broken for me is there’s many people who are much more qualified than me, academic than me and know much more than me and can articulate their points much better than me. But you have to understand that at the root of community and humanity is that people don’t really care how much knowledge you have and statistics you want to give them. They really care about how much you care about them and can they feel it? Is it real? Is it genuine? And that’s one of the things I try and live by. It’s like it’s about caring first, it’s heart work first.

And even with like, there’s something I do when I when I have the opportunity to engage back with young people. There’s a talk I designed, and it’s called “why I chase purpose and not profit”. And I really encourage young people about finding their purpose, finding what it is you believe you are on this earth to do. ‘Cause I believe that everyone in just the same way how our fingerprints are unique, and our DNA is unique, I believe there’s something unique about each and every one of us, and we should make it our priority to find out what that God given purpose is. And I find that once you’re in your purpose, you don’t even feel like you’re working because it’s just what you’re doing. It’s like it’s just part of what you need to do. And this is like, and just to put in another perspective, this is why we’ve created like now, Legacy Consultants training and consultancy and one of the things that we say is that the first thing that we do is build relationships. That’s the number one value. Create spaces to have conversations because we feel that many people are not having conversations. People have their strategic plan or their EDI planning, all these reams of paper. But if you’re not having real, authentic, genuine conversations, how are we gonna bring about real and authentic and genuine change? And I’m talking about systemic change. We can’t no longer just do things like business as usual. Like I’m working with too many companies, Sarah, that when I look at their board, when I look at their senior leadership team, it’s just really white and like how can that exist when the population is so diverse now? We can’t keep on paying lip service. Radical change has to happen and when I say the word radical, I’m saying it needs to just be revolutionary. It needs to be something different. We can’t be doing the same old, same old.

And as you know, from a charity lens I’m growing this increasing passion, Sarah, to share my journey of like what it’s really like to be a Black-led charity in the UK and coming from a grassroots perspective, because I’m telling you, Sarah, if we did not meet the Centre for Mental Health, I don’t think we will be still here. And that is just the truth of it because it is draining ’cause you’re constantly having to prove yourself through a kind of Eurocentric lens. You get evaluated through a Eurocentric lens. You’re constantly asked to compete against charities who have in their reserves millions, and it’s like we’re always going to look like a risk because I don’t have reserves at the moment, like in no millions, we’re trying to now develop that practice and that policy. But it’s really hard and you know when you’re always trying to prove yourself to a senior leadership team or a decision-making panel who are middle class, white, it’s like sometimes you get misunderstood, and that’s why going back to the first thing that I talked about Sarah, I’ve unfortunately had to be intentional about editing bits of my journey because it becomes another barrier. Like oh, ex-offender is it? When he was a juvenile? And unfortunately, people hold on to those things. People don’t understand that actually you can change, transform, be a leader, be a founding trustee of a charity and a senior consultant of your own consultancy and make money and you know I’m trying to say, if all your success people want to try and hold you to these, you know, things of the past and it’s like, yeah, I’ve had to navigate that.

But I’m in a place where more and more, especially when George Floyd died, I’m just saying you know what, I’m just gonna be more authentically me, like, you know, loud and proud, this is who I am. You either love me or hate me but it’s up to you. I’m just gonna still be here.

SH: Well, as you know, we are team Dennis at the Centre, and we love your wife and we love your children and we love everything about the way in which you conduct your life and it feels really values-led, purposeful and I find, you know, every conversation with you incredibly inspiring and I always come away thinking, I contemplate things that we’ve spoken about.

And I wonder, Nathan, just before we close, can you just tell us a little bit about how you and your family maintain that sense of purpose? ‘Cause you and I had a conversation about this recently about how you work with your children to help them maintain purpose in light of social media, peer pressure, you know, the pandemic, home-schooling. Could you give any tips or thoughts to parents like me out there that are dealing with all of those things too?

ND: I come from a Jamaican heritage. And there’s a saying in the Jamaican culture: “dance a yaad before yuh dance abraad”. So, what that saying is trying to say, so I’ll try say it in English: dance a yard before you dance abroad. So it means, like, practice what you’re preaching, like, make sure that whatever you’re going out there to tell to other people, you first do it at home. The yard means home. And that is something that like I’ve been so passionately intentional.

So, one of the things that we implemented years ago, probably over 10 years ago now, was a thing called family conferences. So, every year I would meet with my family and have a conference once a year and as a father of the house, I would present the finances. Back in the day when we first done it, I would present all the debt that we had. I would give a vision for where I wanna see us go as a family and then we’ll do like arts and craft things to make it really inclusive for the children and, like, get to do things like vision boards and talk about how would you like your future to be.

Every week we do a thing called family service where we have circle time, no phones, no devices and it’s checking in and it’s just a simple question: how are you and how’s your week been? And the children check in. We’ve done like thanksgiving services where we just write as many things and draw as many things that we’re thankful for. Three weeks ago, we done an exercise called a gratitude jar, got loads of coloured paper, all the kids wrote on the paper all the things that they’re grateful for. And we said this is our family gratitude jar, when anyone’s feeling a bit low or down, we go in the jar and pull it out and remember some of the things that we’re grateful for.

And then the final thing I’ll probably say, there’s loads of other stuff I could say, is [I’m] really passionate about trying to teach our children charity. So, we’ve said to them that they all have their own charity that they’re going to give to and why. And it’s just trying to always put that and instill in them that you know what it’s always about helping other people. So yeah, that’s what we do all the time.

And kitchen table talks. Always make sure, where possible, we don’t book meetings at dinner time, so we sit at the table and we have a quick check in. Now just a quick tip if someone was listening, one of the questions I use sometimes is “two wins and a challenge”: give me two wins for today and a challenge that you’ve had today. It’s just a conversation starter.

SH: Nathan, you are an extraordinary friend to the Centre. We really admire everything that you do in your day job and the way that you live your life. It’s an inspiration to us all. So, thank you for joining us on our podcast. And, um, yeah, we’ll be friends for a long time to come. We’re doing work together and I’m sure there’s more and more around the corner. So, thank you so much, Nathan. ND: Thank you for having me. Awesome.

AJ: Thanks for joining us on today’s podcast. We hope you enjoyed it and if you’d like to know more about us or to donate to our work, just go to www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk.

Tag: Podcast

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