In the first of a new series, Vicky Wong finds out how faith can help in politics, starting with a Green councillor
Sometimes people don’t understand how important local councillors are, often saying things like “They just sit in a room and argue and get paid a lot of money. I could do that!”
But local councillors are the ones who ensure the budgets are met so that there are people who keep our streets clean, empty our bins, look after our parks, make sure that our street lights are working and keep our local libraries going.
Green councillor Melanie Eastwood wants to change perceptions and remind people that we must value the fact that we have a vote.
Melanie admits that it’s hard to be positive about politics when so much of the national media paints politicians in a negative light.
Her solution to it all is to stay positive, take a step back and listen to God.
For Melanie politics and religion do occasionally sit hand in hand, though sometimes you may have to put that aside and focus on the issue she adds. But for the Park Ward councillor, it was her faith that helped her through tough times to get her to where she is now.
Until 2009 Melanie was working in the financial services industry and soon became a victim of the recession.
“I found myself at a bit of a crossroads and I didn’t know where I wanted to go,” she says. “I started to get involved in the local community and started saying yes to things.
“It was a really scary time as I left school at 16 and I was coming up to 30. I was working [in financial services] for seven years and to add to that I was also on maternity leave.”
The now redundant single mum was struggling to pay the bills. But instead of getting stuck in a rut, Melanie chose to serve the community, including helping Berkshire Women’s Aid as part of an outreach programme arranged by Network Vineyard Church.
She also raised funds for the Dingley Family & Specialist Early Years centre in Kenavon Drive, who supported her and her daughter Eve, who suffers from physical difficulties. Melanie is still actively involved with the centre and regularly helps them with their fundraising events.
But a blessing in disguise soon came in the form of knock on the door. Standing there was Rob White, leader of the Reading Green Party, who was canvassing for votes in a local election.
“Rob was a candidate at the time and he then went on to become the Green Party Councillor [for Park Ward],” she said. “He was very lively gentleman and he would turn up on the door once in a while.
“I remember him being genuinely being interested in local issues and people so I started to follow his progress and realised his work was being recognised at that time.”
Melanie soon started helping Rob with his campaign trail. After doing some odd jobs for him, she soon found herself deciding to stand for election as a local councillor in the same ward.
The Green Party traditionally doesn’t fare well in national elections compared to other parties, but they are normally quite successful in local elections – in this year’s vote, the Green Party netted more votes across Reading than the Liberal Democrats.
“We’re more active at door knocking, more so than any other party,” says Melanie. “People think all we stand for is environmental issues.
I feel what I can bring to the table is based on my own experiences.”
Inspired by Rob’s success, Melanie soon took on the daunting challenge of standing as a ward councillor in the May 2011 elections.
“I was faced with this task of going from zero profile to having to try and get myself elected in one year,” she explains.
“Rob had worked for the area for a number of years.
“It was a difficult year but we managed to do it during that year.
“I felt if God put me in that opportunity and if he wanted it or me then it would work out and I was really looking forward to knowing if God wanted it for me or not.”
After months of campaigning, door knocking and speaking to local people it all came down to the night the votes in the ballot box were counted.
“The actual experience was extremely exciting, all that work and uncertainty in the year and it started to become very obvious that I was making the headway [needed] and I was on an absolute high,” she says.
“I was thankful that God lead me to this journey. I’ve been fairly successful, but I’ve never been a high achiever in anything and the vote count was an incredible experience.”
But did Melanie pray ahead of the election? “Absolutely!” she says.
“I prayed that if it wasn’t going to be my way that I would under-stand that and if God wanted that for me then that’s OK.
“Politics is a difficult game; during the campaign I was always under attack over how other parties were making their campaigns and you have this moment of wanting to retaliate. At these times you just stop and listen to God; God doesn’t need me to do that or be the same as those who do.”
Melanie, who said she uses her faith as a source of guidance, only recently became a Christian. She started attending Vineyard Church around 2006-07 and it helped her see off tough times.
“It’s full of lovely people, there’s a great atmosphere and it’s always reaching out to people and they have got so much energy and time for others there,” she said. “I will always be thankful to those who were there for me and the support they gave to me.”
Melanie also attends the Earley Christian Fellowship with her mother and sister. Melanie admits that she knows more people in the Earley Christian Fellowship, which comes in handy as the church sits in her local ward.
After a rocky few years Melanie’s word of advice to any-one for surviving tough times is this: “Say yes to things, you don’t know who you might bump into and where you will go.”
For more on the Reading Green Party, log on to reading.greenparty.org.uk