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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Begging for Ideas

Journeys home from work are often occasions to tune back into the silent conversation with one’s inner self, or tune out into sleep and the newspaper’s reordering of our ever complex world. Then there are days when the world performs in front of you and pulls your brain back onto the stage.

Tonight’s show began on the tube from work, with an incident – ever more common these days – where someone had been asking for ‘change’ of the small kind: the 1 pound or 10p that fills a momentary need endlessly repeated.  I might be bored by the lack of innovation in such asks (I want to give to ideas), but I’m also acutely aware that a sector’s encouragement of small change – adverts that ask for pennies to support a life rather than to change it  – is understandably replicated through a social web of diminishing asks, right through to the ‘I just need 10p to buy a ticket home’. At least the latter isn’t the result of a large communications budget, but a more human reflection on the ‘disadvantaged thinking’ that blights our time.
 On this occasion, my attention was grabbed by a gentleman who was prepared to ‘give back’ in a different way: by explaining why, in a welfare state he was paying for that day at work (though that might be seen increasingly as a luxury), he wasn’t prepared to hand out any change, except to suggest that the asker show more manners and respect for others.  It was an unusual exchange. I half hoped we were about to begin a debate on proposals for welfare reform - with visions of future train carriages offering conversational hubs to interact with the evening headlines - but instead the ‘change asker’ bowed out to leave the train with what for me was a poignant apology.  We live in an age when few of our so called leaders are able to say sorry for things that have had a massive impact on many lives, and yet here was someone genuinely sorry for the annoyance he felt he had caused to a couple of homeward bound workers, however worthy or not they were of an apology.  That in itself was worth far more as a 'give' than money can buy. The human factor of care is the greatest source of optimism from which change, and human evolution, will occur. 
I’ve been promising for some time to pick up the notion of ‘real change’ over ‘small change’, so perhaps the above story helps to begin the theme.  At the outset of our writing on Open Talent, back in 2009, I gave it the strap line: ‘A big change for young people, not small change’.  The idea was to help illustrate that just a part of the investment society wastes on deficit interventions could be spent to greater effect by focusing on the real solutions required to change lives and social circumstances. Then, as Open Talent took off, some of the initial early ideas around investment and the meaning of Talent were taken over by others – a polite way of saying dropped or forgotten about. I remember the poet Paul Farley explaining this in terms of how a writer’s first sentence or verse is very often just the engine that launches the rocket, to be expelled into the ocean. Though sometimes I still think the rockets I sweated over looked rather beautiful even as they vanish into history’s shredder.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover during a visit to the wonderful organisation Gwalia in South Wales that someone else had made much better use of the ‘change, not change’ approach, using the stereotype image of a person begging for money to ask for ‘change’ of a different value .  His name is Meek, an Australian pencil artist, who, influenced from his exposure to Banksy in London, went on to produce the 2004 stencil graffito entitled "Begging for Change" in which you can see someone holding up the slogan: "KEEP YOUR COINS. I WANTCHANGE.”  There must be  a radical spirit in Wales at the moment, as I have since noted that the Cymru Homelessness Network use that image on their twitter account too.  
I’m still waiting for the day when someone goes on a tube to ask for social solutions, or holds a bucket out for social networking name cards instead of coins. ‘I just need an idea to help me get home…’ That will be me one day. And when it is, you might like to signpost me to the most advantaged thinking tube line of people to pester... 

Friday 18 May 2012

All together in the all-together

Last Saturday afternoon I was at the Tate for an exhibition on Kusama, an artist I was lucky enough to enjoy in Japan through her remarkable polka dot pumpkins on the beautiful island of Naoshima.

The Kusama iconography – dots, net holes, eyes, etc - gripped my mind with the power of art as a positive source of disruption to our ‘normal’ way of thinking, way of seeing, way of being.  Kusama’s playful deconstructions show not only how art can de-familiarise perceptions, but how art can give us the permission to accept new ways of living the world.  

Wondering round the gallery rooms, watching the audience interacting with the art, all reminded me of an idea I had to curate an exhibition challenging the disadvantaged images in the language of the media and charities.   Being a fan of puns, the concept was called Art Vantage Thinking – taking a different perspective to constructions of advantaged and ‘disadvantaged’ young people in society.  If the Kuasama rooms allow people to challenge the way they view and experience reality, why don’t we find artists and art that can do the same as part of our campaign to end disadvantaged thinking? Just imagine what the Centrepoint ad might convey silkscreened to distortion.  What young people could do with the power to cut up, graffiti and reimagine the way they are presented by others. What any artist might produce to create that show-stopping moment when people are able to stop and think again about what charity should actually mean as a positive investment in solutions.

I’ve often bored people over the last 15 years or so with my interest in the significance of prehistoric cave art – arguably the first galleries in history, with a special purpose to mark transition, stimulate memory and create community as a means of survival in the tough environment marked by the ice age.  All achieved through the power of art to challenge perception and thinking. Maybe our own ice age is one conducted in the mind – the eternal icing over of our capacity to understand humanity without resorting to the stereotypical and superficial.  We need a modern gallery experience to stimulate the mental behaviour of a more intelligent community.  Advantaged thinking art-vantage thinking that gives us the space and permission to overcome the ‘disadvantaged thinking’ ways we shape our reality.  All together in the all-together, as Kusama might have put it.

On the way out from the Tate, I listened to a snippet from a Damien Hurst documentary, explaining the power and significance of art as a ‘positive’ means to engage with topics, such as death, that we sometimes find difficult to face up to.  Whatever I think about Hurst’s art, his perspective is right: art is a positive life force.  It’s important, I believe, that we recognise art’s advantage, and begin to harness the power of art in our communications just as much as we endlessly bang on about social media. 

Who is up for the Art-vantage thinking challenge? To create and curate a space that stimulates positive, solution-based thinking about where and how we position the image of young people and charity in our world?  To turn the focus of art as a positive life force on smashing through the negative barriers that limit our world?  As always, I’m open for talent.  Let me know if you are...

Monday 7 May 2012

Open the gates

You may have noticed, I have been on a temporary leave from advantaged thinking over the last month.  I thought about putting a sign up, to say it was closed until further notice. I remember seeing my first sign like that when I was about 6, standing outside a park with my mum, confused by the council sign that had fenced off the green space where I wanted to feed the birds.  In the wonder of childhood innocence, I asked ‘Do you think they will open it when they see that we have noticed that it is closed?’  Nothing my mum could say in answer made any sense. I had noticed, surely that was enough. Why couldn’t they be open?

Not that activity on this blog is the only sign of winning or losing the fight – and I make no apologies to say it is a fight  – to overcome the disadvantaged thinking cell lodged in our social brain.  The domino of advantaged thinking has long since spiralled out into the world to pattern change.  I expect one day someone will explain to me what it all means.

A couple of weeks ago saw the Foyer Federation’s Dickensian policy event, exploring how to turn current ‘Hard Times’ into ‘Great Expectations’ with and for young people. It was a great day, with brilliant presentations from the young people and staff at Bridge Foyer in Chester and Crewe. My small contribution was a few minutes outlining the dangers of being ‘addicted’ to deficits in our current way of work. I began this by a rather fortuitous connection between Dickens and Hamlet, one of the key subtexts within the Great Expectations novel. Like Hamlet, we face a fundamental choice of being – ‘to be or not to be’. We can either face up to our role to confront and reform the status quo, or accept our place to perpetuate its injustices. For an organisation like the Foyer Federation, this is a ‘no choice’ choice. We were established to ‘be’ – it is our role as a charity to fight for a better deal for young people by challenging the status quo.  We don’t take prisoners. But like Hamlet, we’ve learnt that to ‘be’ takes time.  To confront the world we wish to transform requires a fleet-of-foot mind.  Transformation will not come about by simply ‘revealing’ disadvantaged thinking like at the end of a Scooby Do cartoon, or logically proving the case for its advantaged thinking antithesis in a court room drama.  So what is the solution?

Just before the end of March, I had a fascinating conversation with someone who told me a story about a housing association. They had worked with him to choose between their existing model of supporting people, entirely deficit based and limited in its impact, and a new more exciting advantaged-thinking approach that would achieve thriving outcomes. After long deliberation, understanding all the facts, they chose to stick with the current system.  They chose ‘not to be’.

It was if, we pondered, the organisation had behaved like an addict. We know we shouldn’t, but ‘we can’t stop the deficit’.  (And if anyone is reading this looking for an idea to jazz up a Village People hit, that was it.)

Addicted to disadvantage.

It felt like a revelation. We are so used to thinking and working in disadvantages, nothing is going to just open us up to change things on the strength of a convincing argument.  It’s actually experiential-based policy that brings about lasting personal and social change.

Working with Open talent over the last 3, I’ve come across 4 main types of ‘addicted’ behaviours.

1)      ‘We’re already doing it’ – Those who are in such self-denial that they are unable to ‘come clean’ and face up to the prevailing deficit-based assessment, support, outcome and HR models that require reshaping. Typically, they will claim to already be ‘opening talent’, and will just ask for the funds to continue what they already do.

2)      ‘You’re thinking what we’re thinking’ – Those who have turned self-denial into a sophisticated form of disadvantaged double-speak, who will use all the positive rhetoric of aspiration but will preface that with a belief that ‘Britain is Broken’ and young people are best described under the usual disadvantaging stereotypes. Typically, their ‘new’ solution will actually just replicate existing models that don’t work. This lack of authenticity is often seen in politicians, policy makers, and some of the more forward thinking charities who have adopted the language of positive ‘being’ but have not confronted the responsibility ‘to be’ a true advantaged thinker.

3)      ‘Give it to me, just let me do it’ – Those who want a quick fix solution and believe that change is just a project that you do and deliver rather than a set of behaviours and beliefs that you live. Open talent and advantaged thinking are not 1 page bullet points you put into a policy and move on with.  You have to become the change you believe in.

4)      ‘Disadvantaged thinking works for me’ – Those often living in communication and fundraising departments, and organisations who have lost their soul, for whom disadvantaged thinking is a way of creating co-dependent relationships. They perpetuate disadvantage through the images and language of impoverished stereotypes that solicit funds and public support to keep the whole sham going on and on.  It’s a virtuous circle without any virtue in it.   They cheapen charity to the shake of a tin.

Over the year ahead, The Foyer Federation is working with those who want to break out from such addictions through a process of experiential learning together, to create a community of practice to shape and lead a more advantaged thinking world. Where ever you are in the spectrum of to be or not to be, I urge you to join us in the movement for justice and change.

Everyday, we can live this choice: to leave something behind, to let go of a disadvantaged approach, and to grow something ahead, to build an advantaged jigsaw piece in our larger world.

Young people often remind me of the park I saw when I was 6. Places full of talent, with the gates artificially closed. Well, we are taking notice to open them.