On 4 March 2015, the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at Middlesex University turns 25. Since it was founded in 1990, the SPRC has conducted ground-breaking research on topics such as drugs and migration for the benefit of vulnerable communities in the UK and abroad. In this three-part series, we meet the Middlesex University alumni who have not only been inspired throughout their careers by the work of the SPRC but have themselves played a key role in the Centre's journey.
Dr Gemma McKenna
In the second of our three features, we look at SPRC graduate Dr Gemma McKenna and how her time with the centre, combined with her passion for working with young people, landed her a role at Fixers and has influenced her appointment as Labour candidate in the upcoming General Election.
"The level of teaching at the SPRC was incredible. I was so inspired by the thoroughness and tenacity of the researchers, who also had an amazing background of working on the front line." - Dr Gemma McKenna
As Public Affairs, Policy and Research Officer at Fixers, a charity that enables young people to effect change, Gemma is responsible for engaging with young people on a range of issues. From helping launch campaigns to arranging meetings with the local MP, Gemma gives those she works with the power and tools to make successes out of their campaigns for change.
From a research perspective, Gemma is also currently leading a project at Fixers which aims to aid understanding in what makes young people happy or unhappy. The research project will address mental health issues across the UK through a series of regional workshops and a Question Time-style debate, and will encourage young people to talk about their experiences with mental health.
Research with the SPRC
Having realised how passionate she was about working with young people, Gemma made a decision early on in her career to take action.
"Working with a lot of children in poverty, I began to realise that there were people on the front line who were doing great work but who weren't able to influence policy. So I decided that's what I had to do to help vulnerable people and hard to reach groups".
Gemma came to the SPRC to undertake her PhD in tackling labour market exclusion of homeless people. Though the research itself was of huge importance, the skills and disciplines that she learnt throughout her PhD have become crucial to Gemma's attitude to social policy today.
"I spent my first year under Mary Tilki and then Louise Ryan, working on the philosophical background of research, how to conduct it ethically, and ensure that you always place participants voices at the heart of your research."
The next year of Gemma's PhD was spent engaging with homelessness social enterprises throughout England - businesses working with vulnerable people who are or have been homeless.
Throughout her PhD Gemma worked in partnership with homeless charity Crisis. They were also a fundamental aspect of her work, providing partial funding as well as expertise on homelessness and housing.
As a real-world piece of research, it was important that the outcome of the study itself was to make a difference, and Gemma recognises the support of those at the SPRC, in particular Dr Mel Evans and Professor Eleonore Koffman, in making that possible.
"The level of teaching at the SPRC was incredible. I was so inspired by the thoroughness and tenacity of the researchers, who also had an amazing background of working on the front line."
Labour candidate for the Meon Valley
Always striving to affect change, Gemma is also the Labour candidate for Meon Valley in the upcoming General Election, and a major issue that she hopes to address, should she win a seat in Parliament, is the cost of living.
"With wages stagnating and a serious lack of affordable housing, people on minimum wage are likely to be waiting until they're in their 30s before they can afford to move away from their parents."
By increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, and cracking down on exploitative zero-hour contracts, Gemma hopes to stop people being forced out of their social networks and the communities that they have grown up in.
Gemma admits that it is her passion for helping others that is the main driving force behind everything she does, and that, in terms of having the opportunity to help other people make their voices heard, becoming an MP would be a dream come true.
"Training at Middlesex, and my career since then, has made me even more determined and passionate to ensure that people's voices are heard. So being in any position where I can do that would be amazing."
The SPRC anniversary is taking place on 4 March 2015. For more information on this event click here.