‘Town’ and ‘gown’ have often infamously been seen as distinct, dissonant categories in Oxford: one as a diverse group of people far-flung across Oxfordshire, the other more insular and closed-off, caught in a bubble of library hours and college balls. But if anyone’s working to catalyse the downfall of this divide, it’s Sara Fernandez, CEO of the Oxford Hub. “At the heart of what we do is building relationships with people you wouldn’t normally meet – this is true especially for students, who are still so young,” Sara explains. “It increases empathy and widens people’s spheres of self-interest to include others, instead of just worrying about ‘me me me.’” With this egalitarian focus in mind, Sara and her team work towards empowering and helping students to volunteer with or build their own local social enterprises – all the while invigorating community support and broadening students’ horizons.
‘My heart was always in Oxford’
As an undergraduate studying PPE at Merton College, Sara wasn’t letting the time devoted to weekly essays and tutorial sagas stop her from volunteering: “I was involved in the community then, back in the day when it wasn’t particularly popular or accessible to find out about volunteering.” After graduating in 2009, Sara stayed committed to building up the community aspect of that work by joining the Hub as an employee. “We have so much at our doorstep at the university. I thought it would be amazing if more students got to know the community outside of the university bubble.”
For a while, Sara spent time expanding the Oxford Hub model on a national scale as CEO of Student Hubs. Powered by student leadership, the model allows students to identify what they want, gets them to build it, and in turn draws in even more young people. It also satiates the “hunger” at universities for a life outside of cyclical round-the-clock studying and partying. Back then, “we were travelling to do higher education, social action, and volunteer work,” Sara says, “but my heart was always in Oxford.” With that, Sara quit her role as CEO and returned to Oxford, where the Hub is “plugged into the student energy, the community energy, and the university.”
Voluntary work by students keeps the Oxford Hub’s bloodstream pumping. But while “working with students keeps us on our toes,” Sara also recognised how their energetic yet fleeting presence in Oxford limited the potential of bigger projects: she needed to diversify the work if some of Oxford’s more complex, long-term social issues could be met head on. By partnering with residents, councils, and local charities, Sara and her team were given “a more long-term perspective on how to tackle challenges,” and put another dent in the town/gown divide: students and residents were now working side-by-side.
Rather than setting in stone a prescriptive five-year strategy for the future, or “going into a dark room and spending months writing a plan,” the Hub takes an emergent approach, adapting according to changes and challenges. Along the way, the Hub can accelerate student projects like Uncomfortable Oxford or StepShop. Sara observes that “the visibility we have for the future is basically none”: it’s this flexibility that allows the Hub to leap into action when people most need it. When school kids missed out on swaths of their education due to Covid-19, a member of the Hub suggested creating a summer school, despite the limited time-frame. It seemed impossible, but “if it’s important to kids and families, we will make it happen.”
‘Team always trumps strategy and plan’
Outside of the passion for social justice in the Oxford community that motivates Sara, she speaks highly of the long-term support from mentor Jonathan Black, Director of the Oxford Careers Service and now Chair of the Oxford Hub trustee board. “He’s been exceedingly supportive both in terms of being a mentor and with the more pragmatic stuff,” Sara says, crediting him with providing the Hub’s first office space. Jonathan’s help is a testament to the fruitful potential of long-term mentoring relationships, but Sara also encourages entrepreneurs to realise the “intuition and wisdom and knowledge inside you”: it’s a matter of striking the right balance between advice and instinct. Networking opportunities from the Oxfordshire Social Enterprise Partnership (OSEP), and taking part in UnLtd’s higher education programme in 2010, have also opened doors to connecting with others and facilitating exposure to ideas. For Sara, these organised groups are only one route to forging networks: “a lot of the time they’re built around people who have similar values to you. That builds organically.”
It’s the people, as opposed to the programmes, that have pulled Sara into staying in Oxford. Dedication to a place is essential for long-term projects. “If you want to make change happen, that’s going to be slow,” Sara acknowledges. “You have to be committed to the community for a long time to find peers who you can collaborate with.” An individual who took English classes at FELLOW might eventually go on to run classes themselves to give back to the community: the work then becomes self-sustaining. This shift towards evolving into a “hyper-local organisation” is resonant with the journey of the university. “The university is a global brand, and for many years volunteering hasn’t been their focus,” Sara explains. “Now we’re much more rooted in the community – and I think the university is moving in that direction too.”
Sara attributes some of the difficulties she’s faced as an entrepreneur to being very young. While setting up Turl Street Kitchen, others cast doubt on its viability, saying “it would never work, we didn’t have enough experience with opening restaurants.” Turl Street Kitchen went on to join the Waitrose Good Food Guide and provide office and event space for many local charities and social enterprises. “That’s why it matters to have a supportive network, so when you think it’s not going to work, they can say, ‘give it one last push, see what happens.’”
Maybe there’s a half-truth in one of the ‘gown’ stereotypes – that students have a talent for whiling away the hours. “Students have the idea that ‘I have no time to volunteer, I’m too busy.’ You might want to think about how much time you put into Netflix and social media!” Sara laughs. “Make time while you’re at university – it’s a safe space to try things with loads of support available.” Sara is an agent of action in Oxford’s local community: while she claims “it’s hugely encouraging to see that we all, as humans, want to make the world around us better,” it’s encouraging for the rest of us to see someone as determined as Sara leading the way.