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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Thursday 22 March 2012

The little things in life

Today I was at Swindon Foyer to run an Inspire session with some foyers in the south west region.

I have fond memories of Swindon for a number of reasons. It was the first Foyer I visited on my own when I joined the Federation over 10 years ago. I attended a regional meeting, which kicked off with an hour onslaught against the Federation’s then early proposals to work with the LSC. I remember walking out to lunch slightly dazed by the language, only to be quickly reassured by the genuine warmth and friendliness of everyone over sandwiches. ‘We needed to let off some steam,’ someone remarked. It was a valuable lesson.
Swindon was also one of the first pilots of our Working Assets programme to really embed the approach into their practice, producing some excellent work that has sustained in the Foyer’s ethos. It was lovely to hear one of their staff compare Open Talent with Working Assets – after all, the asset-based approach was an early seed in our own onslaught against ‘disadvantaged thinking’. We’ve learnt to turn up the volume more and  dance with greater freedom.
The highlight of the Inspire day was when two members of staff, completing an exercise in the sunshine, were joined unexpectedly by a group of young people. They quickly pitched in and were soon bouncing off their ideas to develop the Foyer’s talents, the staff cleverly facilitating the exchange around the young people taking responsibility for the actions and not just the suggestions. 

This is what makes good Foyers great: the ability to work informally with young people, engaging them in the moment, with a structure in the ongoing development/ support plan to reflect on the learning. It reminded me of being a teenager in the summer holidays, getting involved with my mum in the kitchen or garden, discussing random observations that all built up my understanding of myself and the world. The little things we take for granted in our family lives, the experiences we learn from, often get forgotten about in other institutions.   Such daily opportunities and experiences to ‘do’ things are vital for Foyers to keep on engaging and enabling young people.
It’s a strange world, when we have to fight for the right to work with young people in such ways, counter to the endless systems and structures that work against what, in our hearts, we know best. This is the truth of advantaged thinking: it's all common sense, we've just lost our way to see more clearly and fight for what we believe in.

Friday 16 March 2012

A stake in ourselves

Tonight, I read about Cameron’s latest attempts to explain last year’s riots: ‘a mass outbreak of lawlessness … rather than there being any profound social unrest’. 

Just as so-called 'Broken Britain' must be a mass outbreak of brokenness, not requiring any real social justice.  
I can imagine Cameron coming off the phone during his holiday last year to tell his wife that, while they would have to suffer the inconvenience of heading back to London early, there was nothing to panic about; ‘just a mass outbreak of lawlessness, dear, but no profound social unrest’.

The Tory doth protest too much.  The Government has a big stake in making sure the riots are seen through the lens of traditional lawlessness, where the focus of responsibility must always be on the perpetrator and not the society which might have helped shaped behaviour and circumstances. It’s easier for us to be exonerated, so we can continue to blame the stereotypes that define our limited social discourse.   Just as it is easier for us to be believe in good and evil, so we don’t have to deal  with the complexities of what makes us human.

In recent months, the stake in society catchphrase has been used by the Foyer Federation to talk about the importance of giving young people ‘something to lose’ as part of their deal to invest in a positive transition into adulthood.  I believe all this, it's a useful conversation, but today I started thinking about something else: the stakes we as a society have in things which are not so noble to keep hold of. The stake we have in a prison system that locks up people with higher rates of mental health challenges and lower rates of literacy; the stake we have in an employability system which does not reward according to the social value of what we do; the stake some charities have in actually changing nothing.

Think about the concept of disadvantaged thinking. There are teams of skilled marketing staff and fundraisers who are paid to keep on disadvantaged thinking, because they have a stake in a system which rewards them with the donations they need to pay their salary and keep the engine rooms in the charity cruise ship going. Such organisations often have too much at stake to wish to reform. They will use whatever set of tools are available to prove the impact of what they do, so we can all keep on helping people to cope with disadvantage and blame those who can't cope.  The status quo - it's not just a rock band of questionable talent, but a challenge to us all.

Sometimes a stake in too much society, in too much of the system, is a stake in the ground. We get locked into mortgages, jobs, beliefs, thoughts, which prevent us from evolving and questioning the injustices that define our world.

At worse, we sometimes pluck a few individuals from the so called ‘underclass’ to offer them a stake in our better world, so they can become more like us – so they can have the same stake in turning a blind eye. And we even turn this into entertainment, through reality TV shows and singing competitions.

I say all this, because I wonder if there is a different type of stake we need to focus on. 
Someone reminded me today that many successful entrepreneurs do not have much of a stake in things when they innovate, which enables them to think and do differently. I’m not suggesting, in the case of the young people the Foyer Federation work with, that having limited wealth, opportunity, and social networks is a good thing. No. But we may be underestimating the assets young people do have through their experiences, and the potential they and we have to use those experiences to create social good. 
It’s not just all about a stake in society.  We also need to create a stake in ourselves. We need to find and use the advantages we possess. I think those advantages might be far more reaching in impact – far more profound an unrest in a positive way - than society has learnt to value, or allowed us to realise.

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Dissophrenics

I attended a ‘Funding the Future’ conference this week at Westminster Hall.  It’s not often I get the chance to sit in one place for a whole day and listen to over 10 speakers talking about funding in the current climate.  As the day progressed, it started to dawn on me just how deep disadvantaged thinking goes.   Speaker after speaker offered optimistic, positive, strengths-based, innovative ‘we must do things different’ visions of the world, whilst often completely undermining those aspirations by starting from an entirely deficit-based stereotype of the issues. 

It reminds me of the wonderful line from Consolidated’s excellent ‘Business of Punishment’ album– ‘They must remain sick, so we can continue to treat them.’ 
Britain must be broken, the disadvantaged must be in vulnerable, criminal and at risk stereotypes, money must be impossible to find, so we can continue to avoid doing those things differently that we really need to – such as reforming the prison system, changing the contracting environment, replacing the support models that don’t work, reforming Job Centre Minus, overturning the waste in lives now that will turn into the toxic debts of tomorrow, etc etc.

With one or two notable exceptions, what was being witnessed on stage was the birth of the ‘diss-ophrenics’ – a schizophrenia in Government, in organisations and individuals, by which we talk about making a difference and investing in solutions, at the same time as keeping the status quo of disadvantaged thinking and problems in place.  It’s a bit like the new liberal man of the 90’s – laughing at the same sexist jokes, but under the veneer of  a so-called sophisticated postmodern irony.

‘Let’s do things differently, but let’s not think differently about what we want to do things differently about and for.’

‘Let’s face up to the fact that our economy is in deficit, by focusing on the deficit approaches that our economy can increasingly ill afford.’

‘Let’s create more sophisticated outcomes metrics and investment systems to evidence our own delusions and limitations that suggest any of this really works.’

Come the election, we'll be told that choco ration is going up. 

The point is this: unless we stop beginning every thought with ‘deficit, problem and disadvantage’, then every solution we come up with in response is inevitably constrained by our field of perspective on and within the problem and the disadvantage.  We need to stand outside of our own minds, see the world around us through fresh eyes, with humanity, opportunity, and care, and ask: what future do we want to fund?

You’ll be happy to know that there is a cure for diss-ophrenia.  Treatment is on offer for officials, fundraisers, funders, and others, who need urgent help to advantage their thinking.  Call the Foyer Federation now - ask to invest in the future.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Getting the message right

This is what the Chartered Institute of Housing press release (below) made of my speech from Thursday. I try to take after the Andy Warhol approach to these things – measure the size of the article rather than get too hung up on the words. Though I thought it was ok.

Walking back to the station afterwards, I was thinking how we ought to talk more with the brands in the streets, where advantaged thinking is used to sell less significant things far more effectively than we manage to promote the importance of investing in young people. This came back to haunt me at the weekend, passing through a shopping mall in East London.  A poster caught the corner of my eye because I could see it had a famous youth charity's logo in it.  Something about young people, at risk, the future, etc. The images didn’t make me stop walking.  I felt disappointed, let down. If it was selling fruit and veg, I wouldn’t have made a note to shop there. 
Where is the Saatchi and Saatchi for young people?  They famously said 'Labour isn’t working' back in 79. Well, now it’s Charity that isn't working. Maybe we should employ some of the 1 in 5 we are  meant to be representing so we can get the message right….

CiH press release – 8/3/12

Colin Falconer, director of innovation at the Foyer Federation, today told housing professionals they need to change the way they portray young people in society.

 Speaking at our South East Conference, Colin told delegates housing providers have a crucial role to play in developing the advantages young people need to make a successful transition into adulthood.

 He said: “Resources in the sector are sometimes too focused on supporting needs, deficits and problems, rather than investing in young people's goals, assets and potential.

“The sector is sometimes more comfortable at identifying and protecting against risks than it is in spotting and nurturing ability.”

He cited the case of young people who did not get involved in last August’s riots because they felt they had a stake in the community in which they lived.

Adding: “It is particularly important we invest in young people and their talents now because high youth unemployment and wider economic challenges mean that we cannot afford to maintain the status quo.

“Our approach has to change from the 'disadvantaged thinking' of the past to adopt the 'advantaged thinking' that enables other sectors and individuals to thrive.

 “Such a breakthrough would ensure that all the places, people and opportunities that can be offered through housing associations are harnessed on developing young people's talents through more enterprising environments.”


Thursday 8 March 2012

International Women's Day

Over the last 20 years, I’ve always been able to celebrate International Women’s day on my birthday. It has a deep significance for me.  It lies at the heart of my ‘advantaged thinking’ beliefs. On International Women’s day, I’ve been able to stand with others challenging the institutions and belief systems that divide and discriminate along binary oppositions.  In other words, most birthdays, I’ve spent my time with some remarkable people; enlightened spirits who accepted you as whoever you wanted to be -  as long as you were authentic, prepared to challenge the world around you, and understood the basic principles of equality.  I learnt that the boundaries of human identity were much more fluid and liberating than the sexual biology we are fobbed off at school with. I learnt that the worst thing you could ever say was, ‘I just want the world to accept me as normal,’ in a world where normal is often the status quo's best form of control.

This year is the first I’ve ever been technically excluded from an International Women’s day event.  I could say it didn’t matter – I had planned to be at a conference anyway, so I could talk about ‘advantaged thinking’ in the context of Sheila McKechnie – but the people I’ve grown up with, the ones who always sought to celebrate the day with me, who still fight against the segregation of toilets and the ignorance against trans-identity, would I know feel bitterly let down if I didn’t say something.

So I’m using today to celebrate the courage of the woman who helped establish the foyer concept in the UK back in the 1990’s as a means to provide social justice for young people; and to remember those around the world, of whatever denomination of male/female identity, who are told that they are not welcome.

Inclusion, after all, is one of the key values of the organisation I work for.

I am lucky enough that I can be invited to an event, the CIH South Eastern conference in Brighton, and stand on a stage to mark, in a very small way, what is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s day. However far the role of women in society has travelled, you only have to look at the institutions of power in this country, representation in the media, and the situation of too many women around the world, to realise how far we have to go.  How much more we need to do.  But it starts with the simple things: whether you see people as individuals, or whether you discriminate them by a biological marker.

I hope Sheila McKechnie would have enjoyed my presentation today about the need to challenge the status quo, the need to use our advantages in the housing sector to transform the system.  1 in 5 young people unemployed is a shameful statistic of our age, a sign that we have we learnt little as a society since the 1 in 10 if the 1980s.  I’m sure she would have talked about that too, with even more passion than I could muster.

I suppose I’m thankful to be reminded what some people must feel like every day: not wanted because of who someone thinks you are.  When someone discriminates against you, the advantaged thinker focuses not on the person, but the cause and the challenge to change.  International woman’s day is something to celebrate, as well as a call to arms.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Dreaming the Future

When you think of the future, few lists would stretch long enough to include the Commodore hotel at Weston SuperMare.   But that’s where I headed on Thursday afternoon, ready to inspire the staff of 'Futures at Knightstone' with Open Talent.

It was an inauspicious start. I had arrived at the Commodore hotel for a pre meet with senior staff, only to be greeted by a keyboard player singing a dubious version of Elvis’s ‘Always on my mind’. It was hard to tell if he was on the mind of his ageing audience, half asleep in the corner.  A few looked up over their coffee cups to wonder if I was the next act. According to the posters, that privilege belonged to Ann Widdecombe later in March.  Whilst I have once or twice been mistaken for John Lennon – despite his well-publicised death – I was clearly no Ann Widdecombe.

I hid for a while in my sunny bedroom, watching a chocolate mint melt on top of the bathroom towels where it had been carefully left to wilt in the heat.  Thankfully, it wasn’t long until I was rescued.  After agreeing details for the conference with the senior staff over a coke in the bar, I slipped out to charge up my advantaged thinking batteries with some friends for the night, creeping back when everyone else was dreaming of grapefruit segments for breakfast.

The staff conference brought over 40 people from services across Bristol, Weston, Yeovil, and beyond my shaky geographical grasp of the south west.  People smiled and looked enthusiastic, with just the odd grimace making me wonder if I should have asked for the Elvis keyboard as well as the projector.  But they, like I, were here for a common purpose; with the same care and commitment to make a change for young people. Open Talent is an easy sale for anyone with a heart and a head, and we had a whole day to read the small print on the deal.

Six hours later, after the exercises, discussions and presentations, there was a palpable sense of potential in the room. The staff had created pitches for wonderful project ideas, accentuated the positive in their services, and outlined plans for activities to celebrate, develop and invest in over the next few months. The discussions had challenged and provoked lots of advantaged thinking, and true to form I had been sussed out as the occasional disadvantaged thinker myself.  We were all looking forward to June, to present back in public the Open Talent story of what Futures at Knightstone is all about.

There had been one decisive moment.  Someone had questioned whether, even in an exercise, staff should think of doing things in their own lives to inspire the young people they were professionally responsible for. The post it notes crowded around the wall suggested otherwise, with ideas for swimming with sharks, running marathons, being more confident, and asking young people to set challenges.  The day the adults cease to lead lead by example is the day we lose our authenticity. And being authentic is what commitment for young people - what Open Talent - is all about.  The room, I’m glad to say, was full of authentic people, prepared to dare themselves.

I was driven back to the station by a lovely staff member from a service in Weston, who chatted excitedly about setting up a shop enterprise with young people. ‘It’s about getting on and doing it, not just waiting for it to happen,’ she said. If I had come with a baton, it had been passed on.

I fell asleep on the train home, woken only by the ticket collector as the train drifted towards Bristol. ‘Day dreaming?’  he inquired.  'No', I smiled, 'just thinking of the future'.

Turning Small Change into Big Change

Last week, I had the chance to meet up with the PenniesFoundation – an organisation which has created an ‘electronic charity box’ for people to donate pennies in private when they make transactions by credit card in retailers linked in to the Pennies platform.

Pennies might be small change for some, but they have a powerful resonance in how we think about things. Just look at the language: ‘waiting for the penny to drop’, or ‘a penny for your thoughts’.  The penny seems to be closely linked to making decisions about something.   Yet, in the world of charity, there is often more emotion than thought attached to how and for what we donate.

The days of people stuffing small change into charity boxes is on the decrease. And in some ways (but not all) that is a good thing: most charities have used the appeals process to perpetuate the ‘disadvantaged thinking’ by which we are traded images of despair in order to secure our donation to the problem.

We are never going to deal with the big issues challenging our world until we can find a different language that engages us in understanding how real future solutions can be invested in.

This requires a change in approach, which is where the Pennies Foundation might help lead the way.

For starters, the Foundation is upgrading the penny box into something more modern in thinking: how we use credit to purchase items for ourselves, and how we can be given the choice to offer some of that credit for the benefit of causes we care about. According to the Foundation, a few pennies a month could add up to millions of pounds for charity. It would take just 8 pence a week (just over £4 a year) from half of the UK’s card-holders to raise £89 million a year. That’s some potential investment.

Of course, just making the transaction electronic doesn’t mean the ‘cruise ship’ charities won’t be lining up their cargo of disadvantaged thinking to trade our credit for.  Small change might still mean small thinking. But the Pennies Foundation is promising to target 25% of revenues on causes directly chosen by its Trustees. In other words, regardless of however retailers promote where our pennies go, at least 25% can be used to grow a new form of giving. A penny for our future thoughts.

 I’m not a Trustee, but I hope and believe that Pennies will show how much smarter it is to invest credit in things more positive, future focused and asset-building, than today’s status quo of deficit stories. That’s what I’d call turning small change into something big.