Dorothy Francis

Address by the Public Orator, Mr Nigel Siesage, to be given on 20 July 2018

To quote Charles Darwin, “It is the long history of humankind … that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Dorothy Francis’s purpose in life has been to help people to collaborate with others to achieve the goals of their communities.

To many of us, “the co-op” may make us think of a local supermarket, or possibly a funeral directors. But the co-operative movement is very much more than that, and Dorothy, as chief executive of CASE, the Co-operative and Social Enterprise Development Agency in Leicestershire, has made an outstanding contribution to the movement - a movement so diverse it extends from retail to community energy, from farming to football, from social care to no-landlord student housing. There are over 7,000 independent co-operatives in the UK, providing employment for 235,000 people, with a combined turnover of £36 billion. The defining characteristic of them all, whether they are called co-operatives or social enterprises, is that they are owned and run by their members.

Dorothy recognises two particularly important influences in her life. The first is her mother, whom she describes as “a brave woman” who made the 5,000 mile journey from the Caribbean to follow her husband to England, leaving behind her children (who later joined her) and friends and family, in search of a better life; and who believed that the key to a better life was education. The thought of her mother has been a constant inspiration to Dorothy when things have been tough.

Thanks to her mother’s support and encouragement, Dorothy had a successful school career. With a decent set of O levels, the possibility of training as a nurse beckoned. This was the 1970s. What could be a more suitable career for a young black woman? Here the second important influence – and a lot of chance – came into play. Though only 16, Dorothy had left home with very little idea of what she would do or where she would live. She went for advice to the Coventry Race Relations Council, and it was the adviser on the desk that day, a Mr Stennett, who took her under his wing, helped her find somewhere to stay, and, with immense persistence, overcame her assumption that “working class black girls don’t do A levels”.

Dorothy’s path from then on was certainly not smooth, but this was a turning point, and 3 A levels, a degree in English, two teaching qualifications and membership of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (achieved through part time study as a single parent) have followed.

Chance also played a part in Dorothy’s discovery of the co-operative movement. Plans to train as a social worker had received a setback, when some friends asked her to join a co-operative they were setting up to sell books by African, African-Caribbean and Asian authors.  Having nothing better to do, she said yes, and was introduced to this way of working that encompassed democratic control, shared ownership and participation and a fair return on labour.

This brought Dorothy into contact with the Coventry Co-operative Development Agency. She was impressed, and a few years later she applied for a job with the Leicester equivalent – the organisation which she now runs.

Many of the hundreds of social businesses whose establishment Dorothy has personally assisted have now been operating successfully for over 30 years and have themselves gone on to win awards. Dorothy’s passion for her work, and the pleasure she takes in the success of the people she advises, shine out.  As Mr Stennet did with her years ago, she will not let people assume that they are not capable of achieving. She is clearly devoted to her own family, and she brings the same commitment to her extended family of co-ops. This is reciprocated.  “It’s been a huge difference, to have someone who can give you impartial advice and to know they’ve been there”; “There was always someone there I could talk to” are typical of the many testimonials her work has received.

Dorothy does not do things by halves. Her favourite book is Pau, by the Leicester-based writer, Kerry Young. But Dorothy doesn’t just recommend it. She buys copies for friends and family as gifts, so that they can share her pleasure. She would like to be remembered as someone who liked to party, laughed a lot, tried her best and helped others – and that surely is a description which she has fully earned.

Her recognition extends far beyond the Leicestershire area. Having worked part-time for her original professional qualification, she is now a Companion of Chartered Management Institute - the highest level, awarded by invitation only.  In 2016 she received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, Lifetime Achievement Award – something which is given to only one person a year; and in the 2017 New Year’s honours list she was appointed MBE for services to enterprise and the community.

It is high time the University matched these many awards with one of its own highest honours.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Dorothy Elaine Francis, that you may confer upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

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