Q&A: Giving a voice to vulnerable women and girls

This week we talk to Jo Westh, founder in March 2020 of 4 Voices, a charity to help vulnerable girls and women. Jo’s idea was to help people who were experiencing social or digital isolation due to domestic violence or homelessness – situations that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

ISB: What was the inspiration behind you founding 4 Voices?

JW: From 2015 I worked with my son and his mate at Orange Sky, washing clothes for people experiencing homelessness – these young men created a movement that is changing people’s lives and changing others’ perspectives, one wash at a time.

I loved being part of it. But I had unfinished business. I had worked in male dominated environments most of my career. I’d been treated like a decoration in workplaces and boardrooms. I’d been discriminated against, sexually harassed, bullied, overlooked for promotion and paid lower salaries because of my gender. Through it all, I’d kept my mouth shut. Fear of losing my job or my mind, or both, kept me silent. Creating 4 Voices was about me finding my own voice, and helping other women find theirs.

ISB: And please tell us briefly how the 4 Voices concept works in practice.

JW: The idea is to help people experiencing social or digital isolation due to domestic violence or homelessness. What we do is drive a cool-looking purple van, outfitted with a coffee machine, Wi-Fi, laptops, printers, TV and phones and set up outside Centrelink offices, crisis accommodation centres, homeless shelters and aged care facilities to give people much needed connection.

In many instances the connection we provide is just a coffee and a chat about family and relationships, or sharing music or a story or a memory. But other times we help using technology. Help to find a job for someone unemployed. Help to find shelter for someone who is homeless. Help to fill out forms, claim allowances, download apps, learn how to use technology. We meet face-to-face on the streets, we telephone, email or text – we reach out.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in launching the enterprise, and how did you overcome it?

JW: Funding a charity that commenced right after the 2020 catastrophic bushfires, and just before the world entered the COVID-19 pandemic was, and remains, very challenging. Securing donors, sponsors and media attention when the eyes of the world are on other issues has been tough. But the 10,000 connections made in the 18 months since we started suggests that this simple idea works, connection transforms lives. Word is getting out!

ISB: How did the pandemic exacerbate the issues facing the vulnerable girls and women your services are aimed at helping?

JW: Who could have predicted that the pandemic would exacerbate social isolation and digital exclusion? Women experiencing domestic violence, trapped in their homes with their abusers. Older women disconnected in lockdowns with no digital skills. Traumatised women seeking refuge, legal assistance, welfare payments, without support. Hundreds of lonely women seeking someone to talk to, someone who would not judge. Most of us have struggled with enforced isolation. Large numbers of people overwhelmed by the sudden push towards digital devices in order to avoid direct contact with others.

ISB: What is your vision for the development of the enterprise in the next couple of years?

JW: There is no vaccine for this pandemic – the one I call the pandemic of disconnection. 4 Voices aims to create a network of volunteers providing connection from a fleet of purple vans across the country. We aim to provide an antidote to the pandemic of disconnection through purple vans that ooze welcome and acceptance so that no connection is avoided, no issue is too trivial, no referrals are needed, no woman is turned away.

ISB: And, finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your journey with Orange Sky and 4 Voices that you’d share with others looking to start their own social enterprise?

JW: Don’t let self-doubt consume you. Let the passion you have for whatever ills you are trying to rectify drive you. Don’t die wondering.