The featured voice section of the Black Thrive website will highlight a different community member's perspective on issues related to mental health in Lambeth. This month's post features the voice of Cordwell Thomas. Cordwell was kind enough to be interviewed by Cheriel Neo, one of Black Thrive's planning team members, on 2 May. A big thank you to both Cheriel and Cordwell for kicking off our first ever Featured Voice!

Cordwell is a Lambeth resident. He works for the London Fire Brigade, is the Director of the Lambeth Forest Network, an enterprise network for local residents, and is a Community Activist for Black Thrive. He was a member of the Black Health and Wellbeing Commission in 2014, and is now part of the Black Thrive Steering Committee.

Cordwell, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself.

My career within mental health began in 1997, representing mental health service users at tribunals, CPAs [Care Programme Approach meetings], ward rounds and ensuring that my clients—my mental health service user clients—receive the best service possible. So I’d go and represent my clients to ensure they received tangible outcomes—being a voice for my clients.

And how long have you lived in Lambeth for?

Oh, all my life.

I see. Has it changed a lot since you’ve been there, I mean, since you were growing up?

Oh yes. I was born in 1966, and I’ve seen the changes within Lambeth—from going to school, leaving school, people demanding their rights and taking action for equality. So I’ve worked with some good people who are no longer with us, and part of my role within Lambeth is to carry on their legacy.

So I know you were involved in the Black Health and Wellbeing Commission—how did you hear about it, and how did you get involved?

I got involved in mental health purely inadvertently. That was while going to a volunteer action centre and asking to do some voluntary work, and from there, the person said, ‘If you look in those files on that shelf, you’ll see the [list of] volunteer organisations.’ And I had no idea which one to work for, or work with, so I just pulled a file off the shelf, opened to a page and pointed down, and it took me to an organisation in Lewisham, and that was the beginning of my career working within mental health. I got involved with Black Thrive via the 40 Recommendations, ‘From Surviving to Thriving’, and from that experience I was invited as an independent advisory group member to SLaM, where I advised SLaM in the development of their services when engaging with Afro-Caribbean people in mental health systems, and then from there I did some work with Healthwatch. That’s how what is now known as Black Thrive came about, via the work done by the BHWC.

Wow. So you’ve really been involved with all of it from the start, haven’t you?

Yes, from the concept, not knowing how far it would go, and here we are today. And it’s gone further than the concept within the recommendations.

Yeah, and we’ve got five more years to go, so here’s to seeing more progress hopefully!

Yes, five more exciting years to go!

So tell me, how has your experience of Black Thrive been so far? And please don’t be afraid to be honest—feel free to tell me about both the good and the bad.

Well, my experience has been good so far—we’ve got five more years to go. I must say, in my work with the third sector, when I first started within mental health, I observed that the statutory services did not always take third sector/community workers seriously. Over the years, there has been some growth, and it has been identified that the statutory and third sectors do need to work collaboratively and we cannot make the necessary meaningful changes in silo. I did have little nigglings about whether the public sector would openly accept community and third sector as equals, and I was gladly corrected that third sector and community activists have been equally accepted within this project, and it feels very comfortable, as we move forward together.

That’s great. That’s really good to hear. There have definitely been differences in points of view, and language, but I guess the fact that we can all come together and discuss it, and that this is clearly really important to everyone is a great starting point.

From my experience, we’re coming from a common place which is to develop better mental health services i.e. appropriate services, better prevention methods and better access for African-Caribbean Lambeth residents. I’m not wholly aware of what the flavour is, in other parts of the UK—whether community, third sector and statutory services are working together or what their present challenges are, but historically, we know that research shows us that these groups coming together to create a defined outcome in the best interests of the client group is challenging. But I envisage the Black Thrive multi-agency, multi-community approach to be a great example of how collectively we can work together to improve our common goal.

Great. It’s so good to hear that. And just thinking about the next few months, as we try to establish the working groups a bit more, and try to start taking action, are there any challenges that you foresee, and how do you think we can overcome them?

Over the next few months it is imperative that Black Thrive's ethos, expectations and its unique approach to change is disseminated amongst everyone who wishes to be involved in this journey. As you mentioned earlier, this is a 5 year voluntary commitment for all involved. We've already established who will be working within the different Working Groups and that list is growing. I understand that people's commitment may waver during this journey, due to unforeseen circumstances. With that in mind, I perceive a challenge of the project will be endurance and the resilience of Black Thrive's volunteers to work on this important project alongside their current and future personal/professional commitments. 

Yes, definitely. It’s about learning how everyone works and making sure that our expectations are in line with each other.

Yes. And also the trust—before we can start working together, we need to start developing our trust and enabling the community, third sector and public sector to feel empowered when delivering change. We have a good chair, and under the remit of Healthwatch, there’s a good balance towards empowering individuals who have not worked under this kind of collaborative approach before.

And final question—if you had to pick the one most important thing that you think we should be doing as Black Thrive, what would you say it is?


It’s a big question for 8am in the morning, I know!

I just opened my eyes to a new day—that is a big question! The one thing I think Black Thrive should be doing is developing better relationships between service users and providers. As I said, my thoughts are: trust. With trust we can move forward on this agenda within the black community, using historical issues as a starting point within this project towards designing meaningful prevention, appropriate services and access. As mentioned, I believe trust is a big issue. With trust on both sides we can be a moving force for change.