Founder and CEO, SWIM Enterprises - Support When It Matters, Hackney, London
Peter Merrifield’s remarkable Founder Journey -
“I don’t shy away from the fact SWIM has been born out of my personal story.”
Support When It Matters - SWIM Enterprises - is based in Hackney, London, founded by Peter Merrifield in 2019.
Joe Wooden interviewed Peter in July 2022 to hear his founder story.
“It can be a lonely place. As you grow the organisation more and more, you get increasingly separated from the ground. You’re juggling all these hats and you can’t always delegate responsibilities where you want to, as some things can be no employee’s responsibility. This can mean that you often carry a lot more than you’d expect."
At the height of the Pandemic and despite a personal background of drug dependency, homelessness and trouble with the Criminal Justice System, Peter Merrifield set up Support When It Matters (SWIM).
Only three years into its existence, the organisation now has sixteen employees and is filling a critical need to engage black communities in mental health support and reduce criminal reoffending. Speaking to Peter, I picked his brain on how he has been able to achieve all this, and his thoughts about the greatest joys and challenges of being a social founder.
Peter and I began our conversation reflecting on his experiences of living in Hackney, where SWIM is based, and how he had seen the Borough change. Approaching his 60th birthday, Peter has spent “59 and a third years” of his life in Hackney, having moved out of the Borough, up the road to Islington, for the first time only this year. He spoke of holding a “doubled-edged view” of the Borough’s gentrification:
“On the one hand, certain areas, which were particularly rundown, have improved. Shops that were closed for multiple years are now open. Investment has come into the Borough and that can’t be a bad thing. The negative side is that there is increasing health and educational inequality. So that’s what I’ve witnessed in terms of the changes in my Borough, and why there is a need for organisations like SWIM, so that people negatively affected by this change have a service which is really focused on them. I wanted to create a service that filled that gap and met that need.
I have seen the impact of poverty on people that I knew and went to school with and the impact of mental health and substance misuse within communities of people who look like me. I also have my own professional experience of running services to know that people of colour have not been engaging in certain services. It’s the service provider’s fault because their services haven’t reflected or attracted the community.”
Peter, too, has had his own troubles with many of the issues SWIM works to combat. Substance misuse in his early years, and drug dependency and homelessness later on, resulted in Peter experiencing a number of stays in police custody. Yet, sixteen years sober, Peter makes no attempt to hide his past:
“I don’t mind talking about it. It is a critical part of who I am. I don’t shy away from the fact SWIM has been born out of my personal story, of my painful, tortured experience, of experiences that we are now trying to find solutions to. This is absolutely not a job. It’s intrinsically tied to the success of my own journey and wanting to see that replicated.”
Setting Up and Running SWIM
Before setting up SWIM, Peter was the Head of IT for a Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG):
“It was quite a senior role. I was overseeing and managing projects and so forth, and while it was good, it wasn’t where my real passion was. My passion was to design and deliver a service. I had to make the decision to leave the security of that well-paid role and take a risk.”
In 2019, Peter registered SWIM as a Community Interest Company (CIC). In January 2020, he left his job, and soon after that, the Pandemic broke:
“You might expect this to have been a terrible time to start setting up an organisation. But actually we started to listen to the black community about the disproportionate impact COVID was having on them. Around June of 2020, I took some money that I saved from my previous job and used it to fund outreach, paying people who still work for SWIM today. We reached about 370 individuals. We produced a report of rich evidence and the Guardian even found out about it and came down to do an interview. Suddenly there was this real interest in what we were doing.
I leveraged that and we were able to present our findings to commissioners. We were commissioned by Westminster and Hackney Councils to do further community engagement work.
And as we started to generate income, we were able to pivot that income to focus on what my primary purpose for setting SWIM up was, which was to deal with the issues around mental health and substance misuse.
So we used COVID as a bit of a Trojan horse to generate business and exposure, and to prove that we could successfully run an organisation and engage with the community."
Asked what the biggest challenge is in running SWIM now, Peter said,
“Definitely recruitment. We need a lot of skills now that we didn’t have when we were small. We’ve got to be careful not to financially ruin the organisation because it’s not being run efficiently or effectively.
Ensuring you have people with your values running through the organisation is even more complex to embed. It can be difficult because quite often people won’t have the same level of enthusiasm or necessarily the same ideas as you. You know, particularly because of COVID and the new way of working, with the hybrid model, there is a whole lot of choice for employees. It’s difficult to make yourself stand out.”
Another difficulty for Peter in being a founder is the sense of isolation and overwhelmingness he can find himself in:
“It can be a lonely place. As you grow the organisation more and more, you get increasingly separated from the ground. You’re juggling all these hats and you can’t always delegate responsibilities where you want to, as some things can be no employee’s responsibility. This can mean that you often carry a lot more than you’d expect.
I think the Social Founder Network is really beneficial because you’ve got a network of people who’ve experienced the same things. They can offer solutions, but also a listening ear. This can be really useful for offloading things.”
SWIM offers a number of services:
Support to Reduce Re-offending. SWIM helps older black men who have been involved in the Criminal Justice System through one-on-one and group therapy sessions. By acknowledging triggers to reoffending and exploring experiences surrounding areas like family, faith, culture and ethnicity, clients are in a stronger position to stabilise their housing, health and family situations.
Once clients have stabilised, SWIM arranges volunteering, skills development and education to reinforce self-esteem, pro-social and core life choices. For those who are ready, SWIM then sources paid work opportunities through local businesses and the New Futures Network.
Mental Health and Well-being Support. Although Afro-Caribbean Heritage (ACH) communities account for only 40 per cent of Hackney’s population, they make up ninety per cent of the Borough’s mental health wards. Recognising this, and mental health service providers’ over-reliance on medicine, SWIM is working with said providers to model culturally sensitive pathways that improve access to talking therapies.
Additionally, SWIM is offering programmes of psychosocial interventions to new clients that are helping to reduce the mistrust and stigma associated with mental health services in their communities.
Public Health & Community Engagement. SWIM staff members go onto the streets to engage with ACH communities:
SWIM encourages people to take action to reduce risks prevalent in ACH communities (e.g., diabetes and high cholesterol and glaucoma).
It provides culturally sensitive advice and support, including help with GP registration and signposting to primary care services.
SWIM collates its insights into community-specific intelligence, which local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and primary care providers use to tailor their services to the needs of specific communities.
For Peter, the service he is proudest of is the men’s therapy group running on Mondays:
“The reason I’m proud of that is because the men who come here, the black men who come here, have historically never engaged with these types of services. Our partner services, such as the police, probation, drug and alcohol services have been unable to engage these people and yet they all turn up here committed and regularly. These sessions have been so successful that we were recently chosen by a government agency for a film to be made about us. The film will go out on the government website.”
Peter went on to speak more widely about SWIM:
Giving a talk at the Social Founder Network’s Hackney Launch last month, it was clear Peter still has moments where he has to pinch himself to process his achievements. When he looks round at the sixteen employees at SWIM’s weekly staff meetings, he thinks “Sh*t, I’ve created this”. Peter's success, however, is no coincidence, and is a testament to the way he has been able to combine his resilience and skills with a deep desire to help people who have gone through similar struggles to himself.
During his talk at the event, Peter spoke longingly of one day handing over his leadership responsibilities and walking off into the sunset, with SWIM in a healthy and secure position to move forward. Whilst I am sure that day will someday come, there is no doubt SWIM will continue to go from strength to strength with Peter at the helm.
If you wish to support SWIM’s work, please donate here.
This feature was written in July 2022 by Joe Wooden, Communications and Research Officer at the Social Founder Network.
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