20 Years of Challenging Hate #6: I want to be a ……Helpline Operator by Samara Michael

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If you have a job you love, it is said you never have to do a day’s work in your life. Although a cliché, working for Stop Hate UK in my role I would say that is true. As a Helpline Operator, I generally opt to work the ‘graveyard shift’ – working through the night, but the silence of the dawn provides an ideal opportunity to reflect on the issue of hate deeply.

Ask yourself – what must drive a caller to ring Stop Hate UK at 3am when most people are comfortably asleep in their beds. Fear? Anxiety? Worry? Stress? Yes, all of those and many more. Callers who ring the helpline for support and advice may be feeling completely overwhelmed, at breaking point, concerned for their futures and panicking about what the next day will bring. Sometimes I’ll take a call from a person who hasn’t been able to find the strength to tell another soul about their experiences as a victim of hate crime. A person may email us and state that they feel they have exhausted all options and that Stop Hate UK is their last and only option. Many victims are experiencing a confusing mix of emotions; anger, guilt, doubt, helplessness – all of these are understandable and it is normal and valid to feel this way. These types of callers, and all those in between, are reaching out. I’m proud to be able to say that Stop Hate UK can provide a service to these people 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Often we receive feedback that Stop Hate UK is the only service they feel able to seek genuine support from; knowing that we won’t judge or seek to minimize matters, and are completely independent of any other statutory organizations.

You may or may not be surprised to know that my colleagues, who work on the helpline, come from very diverse backgrounds spanning across the equalities strands.   Unfortunately, some may have been victims of hate themselves in its varying forms. There can be real barriers to reporting hate crime with a high level of under reporting across most of the hate strands – so to some callers it may make a difference to know that the person who responds to their request for support or advice understands fully.   I’m a convert to Islam; with a child on the Autistic Spectrum. I’ve personally been a victim of hate related verbal abuse; have had cigarette butts routinely thrown at me and have had racist graffiti scratched into my front door.   I’ve received plenty of comments about my choice of faith and my outward appearance. Clothing in itself cannot be oppressive – but I find being subject to hate and abuse for my choice of clothing highly oppressive, upsetting and disturbing.

My story is not uncommon, and the ways in which people are victimized due to hate-related issues are very diverse; name-calling, vandalism, physical assaults, exclusion, harassment and many more.   Much of what we hear from callers is shocking and harrowing, but Stop Hate UK has given me, as an operator, a full and expanding tool-kit of options to suggest and techniques to use to help people who find themselves victims of hate. This enables me to feel confident and well-equipped to support and advise people who contact us across all of the government-recognized hate strands; Disability, Gender Identity, Race, Ethnicity or Nationality, Religion, Faith or Belief and Sexual Orientation. Stop Hate UK would probably wish to expand the categories further, as hate can take a multitude of other forms too; often in ways that manifest from the very subtle up to large institutional level.   Because the thing is; hate matters – and Stop Hate UK’s helpline operators genuinely believe this and are committed to challenging hate and discrimination in full. As well as the strands just mentioned we are able to support people who have experienced any kind of hate incident; for example, instances where people believe they have been targeted because of their age or an alternative sub-culture.

A typical shift on the helpline might involve a mixture of contact from callers via the telephone or responding to emails, SMS messages or web-chats.   Not generally at the same time but on occasion things can get rather frantic. We’ve tried to remove as many barriers to contact as we can, to encourage access to help and support in as many different ways as possible, to suit peoples own communication preferences.   In quieter moments, I tend to check out Stop Hate UK’s Facebook and Twitter pages as this helps me to stay aware of any national or local news related to hate and stay informed of any contentious issues in the media.   I’ll also review the crimes and incidents that have been reported to Stop Hate UK over the previous few days. This helps me obtain a general overview, plus keep up to date with regular callers who I might expect to speak to at some point during my shift. These are ‘good practice’ elements of my work and ultimately mean we can provide more informed and accurate advice, but nothing beats Stop Hate UK’s regular exciting training days (the training is good – the food even better!).

Key skills for the job involve being able to calmly communicate with people who may be distressed or vulnerable.   It is necessary to extract and record information about incidents and crimes and whilst doing so, act in a professional manner at all times. Great listening skills are needed too, alongside a non-judgmental approach. A lot of what we do involves typing up information onto internal systems to be passed on to the Police or other agencies if the individual requests this (reports can be anonymized too)-so keyboard skills are also a pre-requisite. If you think you have these skills and would like to help, look out for volunteering opportunities on our website.

It is important to outline we do have our limits – and we try to be clear on them as the last thing we would want is to inadvertently give the incorrect advice whilst on shift. I am not a police officer or a solicitor, so I’ll always try and signpost callers with more specific questions to the correct organization where appropriate. We try to adopt a supportive approach, building up quick rapport with callers to help them feel comfortable to discuss the issues they might be facing. I’ve been a helpline operator for four years and would struggle to think of another role which gives such a huge sense of job satisfaction. Stop Hate UK is an organization that I feel really honoured to be part of. Working on the helpline allows us to see, first- hand, the gravity and scale of hate in the UK which is saddening, but the altruistic part of me is happy to know I’m ‘doing my bit’ and trying to make a positive difference.  It’s not always easy for people to admit they have been a victim of any sort or seek help, so I always try and reassure people making contact with Stop Hate UK that they have done the right thing – ‘Whatever they call you, call us.’