An interview with Dinah Cox
“Once you open your eyes, you can’t close them again.”
Dinah Cox and I are discussing the paths that have led us to this particular point in our lives. I’m not of course, referring to the sipping of tea and chatting at a quiet bar for the purposes of this article, but to Dinah’s recent appointment as Chair of Trustees for Devon Community Foundation, and my more recent introduction to the voluntary sector, to the lives being led by the people it supports and the inequalities that they face.
Inequality is the main force behind everything that Dinah has achieved so far, and one, it transpired, that her eyes were opened to at a very early age.
“I remember being 5 years old at school and there was a kid in our class who had hearing aids – the big old-fashioned ones – and I would play with him. One day he came to tea and I remember his mum saying to my mum ‘Oh she’s so nice, she will play with him – lots of other kids won’t’ and I didn’t understand why. Alright, he communicated in the way that some deaf people do, but that was my first inkling that society wasn’t fair or nice or kind, I think.”
A life lesson that was further cemented by growing up as a black child during the era of Enoch Powell. She tells me of one particular incident of racial abuse from a grown man, aimed at herself, her mother and younger brother, during a walk to school in London. A vile jeer of ‘n*****s go home.’
“I think that combination of caring about other people and not quite getting why you wouldn’t, and a certain amount of anger that anybody should dare say that one group of people wasn’t equal to another group of people, sat in my head for the rest of my life and has made me somebody who really, really passionately cares about fairness and equality.”
Dinah’s path to her current professional status (which by the way, includes an OBE for services to Community Relations in London) is a fascinating one.
Dinah talks candidly about growing up in a poor household, living in shared occupancy and council housing and being ostracised from extended family because of her parent’s mixed-race relationship. A turbulent path then followed to adulthood, she struggled with her mental health but then turned it around to enter further, then higher education.
“I did a degree in social science at a Polytechnic called South Bank Poly. That was brilliant, it allowed me to find out about psychology, sociology, economics, politics and I realised that was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to change the world for those most vulnerable.”
After that is when her passion first turned to practical action. Dinah spent six years working directly with the homeless in London, from a unique perspective, that in her words ‘stopped you judging people in the same sort of way’. The difference she and her peers made with this work did, without doubt, make a difference in other individual’s lives. “There were one or two, especially of the younger homeless people that came through, that you could put in touch with the right services and you could help them get a local authority or housing association place or get into college.” But the numbers of these types of successes were low and slow.
So, in her continued pursuit for change Dinah changed tack by moving into public policy, believing that if she could “change public policy not just work with individuals, then maybe our society would be fair for all homeless people”. And she did see transformation. “I got a change in what they call the London Plan, which is the development strategy for the whole of London, for them to include the fact that, if you re-develop an area you need community space within that. You shouldn’t build an area and not have a doctor’s surgery for example, or, in those days you could still have… libraries! Yeah, ‘you build a new estate, you need a Community Centre on it, as well as the houses’, so that was something I could physically see, written in this document that London Government was working to.”
A successful and fruitful career followed, working with various charities, foundations and grant-makers, gaining experience and expertise that we at Devon Community Foundation will be delighted to make good use of.
“What I can bring” says Dinah “is an in-depth knowledge of how charities work, how they run and how to get the best out of them. I’ve done enough work around philanthropy and stewardship and fundraising to hopefully be of use to the team. And I’ve certainly done my fair share of grant making to be of use. Because I’ve been a CEO and run organisations, charities, including profit makers, hopefully I’ll be able to support Martha in her role and be somebody to bounce ideas off, who’s had that professional experience.”
And we’re glad that the feeling of working together is a mutual one too.
“Partly what attracted me to DCF was, when you were advertising the Chair position you also stated that you were looking for Community people on the board as well. That means, the people helping make decisions are people who have had some experience of the issues that need funding.
It’s an amazing organisation that’s doing brilliant work that’s changing how things work through the asset-based community development, and that’s another good thing. It’s important to me that communities are telling us what they want and what they need and we’re reacting to that, rather than us going and in telling them ‘what you need is….”.
Partly how Dinah knows about us is due to her chats with her village pal and walking buddy who by coincidence, also used to work for DCF within one of our community teams. We get to talking about how connections like these are part of the charm of Devon compared with the anonymity of London where which she’s spent the majority of her life.
Dinah moved to Devon five years ago. “I hit 50 and thought I don’t want to have lived in the same place all my life and I found myself wanting to walk.” She admits she was drawn here purely by its beauty but has been surprised at the reception she’s received too. “People are amazing. People are really friendly. You get to know people from a far broader range of backgrounds than you do in your little clique. In a small village if you only talk to the people who share the same politics or music choices that you do, you’re going to find there are very few people to talk to! So, you end up talking to people and realising that they’re humans too!”
When we’ve wrapped up our interview, Dinah and I take a walk towards our respective ways home. We walk past a vagrant looking man who is stooped over and staggering somewhat to make it up the hill. As we pass him Dinah turns back to check he’s okay and apologies to me for doing so. “Sorry” she says “see – I can’t help it! I have to do it! You alright mate?!” she shouts. Her roots, her legacy, is clearly and joyfully on display.
We’re delighted to have Dinah on board, ever pushing for equality, fairness and what’s right for our communities, that all in our line of work, want to see.
Welcome to the DCF family Dinah!
Written by Jo Moulton
DCF Content Creator