Karen Creavin is the Chief Executive at TAWS – The Active Wellbeing Society – a community benefit society and cooperative, based in Birmingham, working to tackle inequality and promote community wellbeing. Here she talks to NOW’s Director, Roger Higman, about some of the amazing projects she’s led and how a focus on wellbeing can be help create a fairer, more equal society.
Karen Creavin is an inspiration. A fomer Head of Sport at Birmingam City Council, she has a background in community development and social ethics. In 2017, she engineered the transformation of the City’s wellbeing service into an independent community benefit society with a staff of more than fifty passionate people. At the same time, using money from Sport England and others, she’s pioneered new ways of encouraging physical activity to tackle poverty-related inactivity and obesity that had led to a nine year difference in life expectancy between the poorest and the richest districts in the city.
It’s hard to do justice to the full range of TAWS’ activities. There are so many. They have given over 7000 free bikes to people on low incomes, including those from minority groups that haven’t traditionally cycled. They coordinated 300 organisations through Birmihgham’s Food Justice Network to ensure that people were fed during the pandemic and the cost of living crisis that is still ongoing. They set up Share Shacks to lend out sports and other equipment so that lack of income isn’t a barrier to participation. They’ve pioneered quick procedures to allow communities to close streets for community events. They run virtual wellbeing sessions, gardening projects and even free Tai Chi in local parks. The film below gives a flavour while you can get some of their amazing data here.
I asked Karen how she first got into wellbeing. She says she’s always been interested in the wider determinants of health and recalls, at some point, realising that her work had more to do with wellbeing than sport. She cites the Five Ways to Wellbeing as an inspiration. “If you want a mantra by which you live your life, that’s not a bad one”.
Her passion is using wellbeing to argue for a fairer society. “You can’t argue with wellbeing, can you?” she says “No one would want people’s wellbeing to be low”. She takes inspiration from Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of The Spirit Level, which showed that, even if rich people have higher wellbeing than poorer people, beyond a certain level of inequality, everyone suffers. She’s careful to stress that TAWS’ work should not be seen as a sticking plaster. Much as it’s important to act when people are suffering, so it is even more important to press for system change that ends the injustices that cause the suffering in the first place.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember that an organisation like TAWS exists”, she says. It was a battle to take staff out of the City Council and create a visionary organisation that is inspired by the idea of active wellbeing. She stlll gets moved whenever she sees someone on a free bike – knowing that without it, they probably wouldn’t be cycling. She wants to give everyone the opportunity to lead a better life and is generous in sharing her learnings, includng through Sharing Days when.vistiors can see what TAWS is up to. Her generosity has paid dividends. Free bike schemes are up and running in Essex and Southall, in West London.
Now she’s most excited by TAWS’ leadership programmes. “These help to shape the behaviour of tomorrow” she says. “If I can do anything that helps to develop the leaders of the future, to give them strategies – as we can’t keep going on as we’ve gone on in the past”.
And she’s happy to credit NOW for our work in linking wellbeing pioneers and changemakers throughout the UK. “It’s really important to have a flock; to have ways of finding people that are trying to achieve the same thing; to know that you’ve got friends and are not on your own”.
You can see a range of films about TAWS’ activities here. Sit back and be inspired!