Newsmaker: Hanging out with the boys - Angela Sarkis, Nationalsecretary, YMCA

Indira Das-Gupta

- Wants the focus to be on her achievements, not her race or gender.

Thanks to a 1970s disco hit by Village People, many of us still think of the YMCA as somewhere where you can simply "get yourself clean, have a good meal and do whatever you feel". But Angela Sarkis, the new national secretary of the organisation, is determined that should change.

"People think of us as a male-dominated group, but we have worked with both men and women for a long time," she says. "We are top-heavy with men to an extent, but a lot of the chief executives of our independent regional YMCAs are women."

Sarkis is not only the first woman to lead the central YMCA, but also the first non-white national leader in its 162-year history.

It's certainly not an achievement to be sniffed at - but Sarkis doesn't want to be defined by either her gender or her colour. "I understand why people focus on my race - it's because they don't know me," she says.

"But I hope that, with time, people will focus more on my actual achievements instead."

The YMCA isn't the only charity that's been slow to appoint a leader from the BME community. A Third Sector feature earlier this year revealed that only one of the chief executives of the top 50 charities is not white (Third Sector, 22 March).

"There's a real job to be done on the issue of race," says Sarkis. "There should be people from the BME community at all levels. We should be at the cutting edge on this, but we have allowed ourselves to fall behind other sectors. We are normally good at recognising the need to work with different communities. A large number of vulnerable people are from BME backgrounds and it helps to have experience of the issues you are dealing with."

Earlier this month the Government published its latest blueprint for tackling social exclusion. But Sarkis, who was one of the founding members of the Social Exclusion Task Force when it was set up nine years ago, seems unconvinced about its merit.

"There has been a significant change in the past nine years, but there are still groups of people who suffer from unacceptable levels of social exclusion despite huge investment," she says, in her typically straight-talking manner. "The Social Exclusion Action Plan is all very well in theory, but we have to make sure the Government is true to its word."

One aspect of the action plan that Sarkis takes issue with is the way it champions early intervention. "It does make sense to focus on the vulnerable from an early stage," she says. "But the Government is also talking about predicting negative outcomes, and this can be a self-fulfilling label."

Given that the YMCA is essentially a Christian organisation, it is unsurprising that Sarkis believes religion has an important role to play in tackling the problems that lead to social exclusion. "Society focuses on people's physical needs, but there's no recognition of how important faith can be in making decisions," she says.

"There's more to tackling these problems than providing work, food and accommodation. Young people need more than that, and they are not getting it. They do not understand what drives their own negative behaviour. That why I want to see us taking a more holistic approach."

Sarkis is like a breath of fresh air for the YMCA, and not just in the obvious ways. She recognises the gap between what the YMCA actually does and how it is perceived by the public, and she is keen to raise its profile.

"I think the YMCA does brilliant work and delivers on the ground," she says. "But there needs to be more consistency with individual YMCAs sharing good practice. I also want us to do more strategic and policy work - I want us to contribute to youth policy."

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