Marianna Solodcaia is an Integration Project Officer for Walsall Council and worked on the Walsall for All project. She moved to Walsall from Moldova six years ago and threw herself in her local community, volunteering and taking English classes. She also founded the Vera Group, a support group for women with Eastern European backgrounds.
For International Women’s Day, she talks about the role that female community leaders can play in help people in #BreakingTheBias against women.
Why did you start the Vera group?
First, a bit about my background, as that is part of the story.
I moved to the UK six years ago from Moldova with my family. The first two years were quite a difficult period for me because even though I had a basic understanding of English, it’s a different thing to hear different accents and being surrounded by native speakers.
I went through quite a difficult time of trying to integrate and be part of the community. I slowly started to be active, enrolling myself in numerous training courses and getting an ESOL qualification.
I also got involved in numerous volunteering opportunities and supporting different charities. All to help with my integration and language skills. And I became an apprentice, and the I won apprentice of the year – an award Walsall Council runs.
After working for Walsall Council, I started to think about how I felt really empowered when I received advice and support in a safe space. And I started to think that there are definitely women out there who would benefit for such support as well.
So myself and another three ladies sat together and started to discuss this concept of having a female empowerment group that can offer specific support to women with similar experiences, as all four of us were from different countries.
We got together and came up with a vision for Vera Group. Our slogan is:
“A world in which all females are empowered to reach their full potential and shape their own destiny, without fear of negative judgement and social prejudice.”
We wanted to create a safe space to help achieve this.
Who are part of the Vera group?
The members of the Vera Group are women from Eastern European countries, although it is open for any women. Walsall has a large Eastern European community, so we have a diversity of group members, including those from Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Moldova, Russia and Belarus.
Is Walsall a diverse place?
Yes, very! When I first moved here, I was just amazed at the diversity and the cultures that exist all in the same place!
When I was volunteering, there were lots of cultural events and celebrations. I found it so exciting to meet new people and learn about their culture or background.
This really helps me now as Integration Officer at Walsall Council It helps me to share my positive experiences with those who might be feeling a bit isolated when you first move to another country.
Can you see the difference the Vera Group is making to women?
There are different barriers that women from different backgrounds face, so by having this space, so you see the difference in their wellbeing and confidence as they open up – just by meeting other people and making those social connections, and not feeling isolated.
And women feel empowered to make changes in their lives too. It’s about creating that space for women to say, “I want to make this change in my life.” For example, I’ve had ladies who’ve had the same job for ten years who’ve said, “This office job is not for me. I want to challenge myself and apply for a different one.” That is empowering.
I’ve also noticed women becoming an inspiration for others. If I make a change to myself, other women see you and realise that they can do it too. So the impact is huge.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BreakingTheBias. What is the importance of having women with lived experience of migration – such as yourself – as community leaders?
I think for me, it is important to have women who are visible and active in the community. Because then other women see how you break those barriers. They see how you change or overcome your situation if you are not happy.
As I said, I’ve gotten many comments by women who were where I was when I first came here saying things like, “If you could do it, I could do it too.”
So women who feel like they didn’t have the language skills or the confidence to complete qualifications or apply for jobs can see someone like them break those barriers. Having this example really helps to change their view.
Sticking with the theme of #BreakingTheBias, what are some of the challenges you have faced as a female community leader?
I think we all have numerous unconscious biases, including about ourselves. And I think it’s okay to talk about this and to be open about it. From my own experience, and with the group as well, we talk about juggling and managing numerous roles. The pressure we feel to be a good partner, a good mother, a good worker, for example.
And we also face stereotyping. This is also something that we talk to the group about, as women with specific experiences. But that is where the importance of that safe space comes in. By talking openly about these problems, you slowly start questioning and challenging them.
Finally, how has the conflict in Ukraine impacted your group?
Yes, we have some Russian-speaking members and people who have Ukrainian family members, so we have had conversations about this, and we try to offer knowledge and support where we can.
We also have a lot of Russian-speaking members who are from other countries, such as myself. Especially in a diverse community like Walsall, it raises the importance of educating the wider community about the languages and cultures of Eastern Europe, so that people know that there are Russian-speaking communities in a lot of other countries. We’re also encouraging our Vera Group members to participate in the collection campaign organised by Nash Dom, an Eastern European and Russian-speaking community support organisation in Walsall, to support Ukrainian families who are going through such challenging times.