‘If Heineken made guardian angels…’

We talk to UNISON Eastern activist of the year Elisa Vasquez-Walters

Elisa signing the anti-racism charter

Winning activist of the year came as “a complete shock” to Eastern Region Probation branch secretary Elisa Vasquez-Walters.

Despite having her hands full representing members, negotiating with her employer and taking on national responsibilities as vice-chair of UNISON’s probation sector committee, she still managed to steer her branch to being the fastest-growing one in the region last year.

And though she was honoured to get the recognition, she’s very keen to point out the award is not hers alone: “It can only happen if you’re part of a team,” she tells UNISON Eastern.

“It’s very sweet to be nominated, but everyone in the branch does their bit — you’re part of a collective and they all deserve it.”

The branch growth is down to that collective working hard.

“Being a regional branch is a challenge — you can’t be everywhere but we make sure we’re visible. We’re at every induction, we have a good stock of fun merch — we try to do nice stuff as well, signing the Anti-Racism Charter, wellbeing initiatives. We don’t just turn up when someone’s in trouble.”

Elisa speaking at the signing of the Anti-Racism Charter

Elisa says some of the problems in the probation service also helps with recruitment: “It’s a complicated space and people are looking for guidance.”

It’s a space that she’s committed to improving — “I really believe that the work the probation service does and the role we play is important to society. Because I believe in it I want to shout about it.”

While Elisa tries to play down her personal role, the activists and members she work alongside tell a different story.

A group holds up signs for the Operation Protect campaign

Elisa helps launch Operation Protect at the Ministry of Justice

As her nominator said: “I believe the main reason is Elisa’s ability to connect with members and from her work as a workplace representative … she always has a smile on her face and travels the breadth of the Eastern region to support members.

“There is no one I would want other than her to represent me in the workplace.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by one of the the members Elisa represented, who had been suspended from work and began feeling hopeless.

“I was called back by Elisa. In that moment everything changed … if Heineken made guardian angels with endless patience, Elisa was it.”

The case against the member was eventually dropped.

She’s also been praised for her role as a negotiator, putting her successes there down to being “polite and persistent.”

She says: “If you’re polite it’s very difficult for people to say no to you. But I do genuinely want the best for the organisation because we need to do the best for the vulnerable people we look after.”

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