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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Saturday 27 October 2012

Getting fit to give

It must be my luck in Philadelphia to keep finding someone having a bad day breaking down in tears.  It’s like I’m walking through the cracks of the system.  What happens in a go-for-gold society, when you don’t quite make it, when you don’t quite fit in?  There is an advert on TV for the Republicans at the moment, claiming that America is in danger of losing its core values to the ugly spectre of socialism. What I see is the opposite: gold casts a shadow, and within it, the ‘acceptable debt’ of privilege bed down for the night invisible and forgotton.  What a thing is human, that we seem to have no idea how to construct a society for us all to live in, to harness our potential – whether in terms of people, or in terms of organisations endlessly competing instead of collaborating.  The more I think of it, a world of diminishing resources is perhaps the only thing that can save us, to force the ego to ‘reach out’ to our fellows in the realization that we can no longer afford the gasoline in the tank to drive alone.

It’s a stereotype that everything is an extra size up in America, but it’s the same story we have in the UK about charities: there are the big not-for-profit cruise ships draining the hot dollars to fuel engines that keep going in the straight lines of the status quo, and there are the nifty but small kayaks, canoes and speedboats, innovating to reach the deeper issues and solutions that cruise ships sail over in their backwash. At lunch yesterday I was with the kayaks and speedboats, and it felt like we had formed a docking marina for the passions, frustrations and beliefs of all the small ships in the world.  This is the pulse of the revolution: people who are fighting for their values and vision without selling out, people who are seeking to create a sustainable world based on community and giving.  

 Among the kayaks was Ploome run by the wonderful Christina Stoltz, who has enough energy to sail the world and back in the blink of an eye.   It would be a complete misunderstanding to say that Ploome is just a community space for Pilates and movement workshops. Plume is what an 'advantaged thinking 'organisation looks like – or in its own words,’ Intelligent Fitness in Action: a Pilates studio and movement arts boutique celebrating body diversity and promoting social responsibility’.  Every class in Ploome gives back resource through its sister charity, Req.1, to help someone experiencing trauma to heal through the power of movement and dance. It’s a simple and brilliant concept: the community is buying something it wants in terms of a centre for fitness and fun, and at the same time the community is being educated to create a stronger community by reaching out to include those most in need . ‘Get fit and give back’.  I hope this is the future of gyms.

Little boats like Ploome show that creating the future is within our power, if we stick to our values and vision.  It’s not so much a 'big society' we should be talking about, but a more intelligent and compassionate one: a society and a not-for-profit sector that is ‘fit’ to be human, because we are a community for each other.
As Christina puts it, ‘let’s go beyond the barre’.   It’s time to get the cruise ships, corporates and community into the studio to dance!

Friday 26 October 2012

Opportunity Youth & The Champagne of Beers

Yesterday was the Foyer for Philly’s ‘Housing symposium’ held at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – known as ‘the CHOP’. In the run up to Halloween, that probably isn’t the best acronym to use.

Driving across the city to get there with the Foyer’s executive Director, Leigh Braden, I was struck by an advert for Millers larger, ‘the champagne of beers’.  If only our sector had access to that kind of marketing talent.  Maybe champagne isn’t quite the right comparison for us, but it’s that kind of advantaged thinking image we need to promote our vision for who young people are beyond the crass Centrepoint advert.

The CHOP greeted us by asking if we had come for Flu jabs. I wanted to say, ‘no, we’ve come to open talent,’ but was too lost in my mind wondering what a room might look like to offer Talent jabs.  ‘Boost your talent here.’  'Don't prevent the present, create the future'.  I guess Millers won't be employing me...

I presented my whistle stop tour of  the Open Talent ‘revolution’ to the Symposium, paying homage to Tom Paine’s ‘rights of man’ as the modern right to talent, and Martin Seligman’s work on enabling wellbeing to ‘Flourish’.  I was surprised that nobody in the room from the sector had even heard of Seligman, who after all is a Professor at the local Penn State University. It’s an illustration of how the best advantaged thinking approaches are often utilised in the wrong places. After all, Seligman’s excellent approach to a curriculum of resilience was tested out in the elite world of Geelong Grammar in Melbourne – but it’s most needed here in the streets of Philadelphia on his doorstep.  My speech also offered a platform to promote the excellent work of FSG’s ‘Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth’. Hands down, it’s the most important Open Talentesque essay I’ve read in 2012. Rebranding so-called ‘disadvantaged’ 16-24 year olds as ‘opportunity youth’ is a brilliant answer to ‘the champagne of beers’. I urge you to read it.

After the presentation, there was an insightful housing panel which included the inspiring ‘True Colours Residence’ in New York, set up through the support of Cyndi Lauper to work with LGBT youth using a funding/tenancy model that allows participants to leave when they are ready rather than when an artificial funder’s time limit dictates; and an update on the Chelsea Foyer, whose use of the ‘efforts to outcomes’ impact measurement tool could teach us a lot in the UK. It was wonderful to catch up again with Denise Hinds from Good Shepherd, the Assistant Executive Director who oversees the work of the Chelsea Foyer, who instantly ‘got’ Open Talent as ‘taking strengths-based to a whole different level.'

The afternoon finished off with a presentation at Project H.O.M.E who have the wonderful strapline, ‘None of Us are Home until All of Us are Home’.  We discussed the work of Foyers to hopefully begin a future conversation exploring how the Foyer for Philly can move beyond running winter shelters to offer a proper housing model that can work with the LGBT community on a more sustainable basis.  Later, I would learn from Leigh how the first shelter programme had enabled young people to survive in the gap between leaving the shelter at 7am and the opening of a city day service at 12 by providing gym membership to use the 5 hour interval to get clean and fit.  And they turned out to be one of the gym’s most popular clients, because they respected and wanted the resource on offer.  

In the evening, I took a trip to Leigh’s house in a Philly suberb called Narberth.  I grew up in a place in south wales called Narberth, and here I was, thousands of miles away, in a place with the same name, sharing my story of how a shy kid with ‘remedial’ issues somehow passed his 11 plus in the welsh school system to end up in Narberth, Philadelphia, trying to help young people be valued as something far greater than the champagne of beers can ever be…  We journey forward in life, only to find ourselves constantly amazed to be back home.

Thursday 25 October 2012

City of Brotherly Love

I have arrived in Philadelphia, where I’m taking some time out to help the ‘Foyer of Philadelphia’ charity to raise awareness and support for its work to help young people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

The last time I was in Philadelphia I was here to speak to a Professor from Penn State University who gave me some very sage advice on the need to capture a different story about young people making the transition into adulthood.  It’s taken over 5 years to pick up the thread of that conversation again, but some stories take a time to be told. Like my own.

At immigration, I get the distinct impression that the story of who I am is becoming less believable as my hair continues to grow against the grain. ‘You do what? Who are these people you talk to?’  At least they didn’t ask me to show my ears –the last request at passport control coming back to the UK from France.  If you have hair like mine, you get asked the dumbest things.  It’s slightly ironic that I clearly don’t look authentic enough to be believed, because I’m not speaking in or looking like the normative stereotypes. Turning on the TV for the American election, that’s all I hear: two men trading in stereotypes in order to be believed the most (though does anyone really..?). With round the clock coverage on American TV, it’s shocking that in all the saturation of information there is precious little detail about the real debate. American politics has turned into live car-crash TV, only it’s not much of a thrill to watch. It’s just scary.

Despite the modern swanky-look hotel, my mind thinks I’ve walked into the film Barton Fink. The corridors seem threatening in their swish silence; the city drones outside my window like the prelude to an explosion; staff smile as they fix my crazed alarm clock that won’t stop ringing to wake me up. They have ‘star service’ here which means I can apparently ask for anything.  How about an answer for the 6.7 million young people in America who are struggling to make their way in life? But that’s not on the list of ‘forgotten toiletries or other special needs’. Stars don’t think about that.

Outside, a quick walk around the block brings me back to earth. In just 10 minutes, I lose count of the number of people I see crying, slumped on the pavement, hiding in a doorway, babbling to no one, staring menacingly. Yet this, according to Conde Nest Traveller magazine, is the friendliest and most honest city in America .  The task facing humanity, to be human, is simply overwhelming.  At least we are good at building skyscrapers.

Today I’m talking about how Thomas Paine and Martin Seligman – both connected with this great city - can inspire us to take a different approach to open the talents of our young people. I’m not fit to be in the same paragraph as either of them, but I think they would both recognise the story: we need a revolution in how we value and invest in life, if we are to make the most of the life we have inside and in front of us.  Particularly the lives of those young people from a community that has so much to give, both in Philadelphia and around the world.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Being Real

Last week proved a hard test for the words ‘aspiration’ and ‘inspiration’, and what it means to be ‘authentic’.

Let’s start with the latter.  A charity recently told me that, just because they had committed to do something, it didn’t actually mean they would do it. This is an organisation whose central working methodology is based on the importance of people making authentic commitments in their life.  Though the method, I now realise, was not meant to be applied to the organisation itself.  It is true that life requires a pragmatic approach, but pragmatism only works if it is grounded on something – if it comes from somewhere.   Similarly, the vision and purpose of charities ‘should’ be grounded in a set of values that are more real and authentic to what they do than the whims of opportunity find people working in.   But that is a rare thing.

 It is almost as though the very landscape charities work through – the uncertainty of survival, the dream of the pot of gold if only people could find out about their work, the need to be competitive with one’s own partners – ends up turning charities into a person who  is rather egocentric with an unstable set of behaviour patterns.  A celebrity, perhaps?  Indeed, the celebrity of charity - if that is what we can call it - is all around us, jangling buckets and clipboards on the streets, promoting disadvantage in adverts, being the self-serving expert in media interviews, and keeping whatever brand in our minds through the latest happening.  It’s as though the UK has been turned into a Big Brother show for charities to outdo each other, all in the desperate game of increased ratings and approval linked to a worthwhile cause that undermines itself.  They all think they have the right answer; they often think they have a better answer to someone else; they sometimes think they don’t know what the real answer is because they are too busy trying to deliver what they thought was the answer but is only part of the solution and sometimes  the problem.  What rarely happens is that anyone stands back from the absurdity of organisations competing against each other, with no effective systems to work together, and with little understanding of the big picture, to say: what is it that we are meant to be doing, how should we go about doing it, and is the fact that we are too busy and too lost in our own brands and commitments a sign of how far charity is lost from the social purpose to make this a better world in the future - not just for the pragmatists of now? 

Then there is aspiration. The Conservatives have come out of the closet at last, as the party of ‘the aspiration nation’. It’s like an episode of Stars in their Eyes, where suddenly Cameron transforms himself into whoever was the last Prime Mistaker to promise the same thing (see ‘the politics of aspiration for all’ Blair, 2005; or ‘the party of aspiration’ Brown, 2010). It is of course the choco-ration nation he is referring to. The choco-ration principle is found in George Orwell’s 1984, and refers to the media manipulation that can make a nation of people celebrate that choco rations are going up when they are actually going down.  So it is with aspiration. The ‘aspiration nation’ removes investment from young people struggling to access further education, and kicks them off the ladder (the withdrawal of EMA), but celebrates all this as part of a fairer approach at a time of economic stress whilst companies such as Facebook  maximise earnings (175m) by not paying proper taxes (238k).   The dots don’t join up, but then the ‘aspiration nation’ is like a dot-to-dot puzzle that keeps you occupied in the hope it might turn into a shape until the next election wipes the page clean of promises. That’s not a nation many would wish to aspire to.

Finally, we have inspiration.  This week, we have been told that an English football player who used racially abusive language is still an ‘ inspiration’, and that an American cyclist who led the most manipulative drug taking regime probably of any sport in history and continues to deny his guilt is still ‘inspirational’ because of his charity work and worthy of his Nike sponsorship.  There are some interesting lessons to be had here about how we value things. The first story was actually a back page headline based on an interview with a fellow player – regardless of the personal opinion, how on earth was this deemed an appropriate headline? Are we meant to sleep better knowing that someone who racially abused another person – and was meant to be a role model as England captain – is also a guy of inspiration to his teammates?  Apparently so. That’s all it takes to decontaminate a brand in the world of football, where money is the only value in town.  The second story is even more absurd, given the scale of deceit. How on earth can someone who has cheated success with such disdain have any claim as an authentic icon for beating cancer?  Nike claims its brand is about ‘inspiration and innovation for every athlete in the world’. Is the innovation they promote about cheating?  Is the ‘inspiration’ they promote about how to win at any cost?

Like a distorting nightmare, Armstrong is the mirror image of the charity that does not live the way it tries to work; the mirror image of the Government that does not do what they say; the mirror image of a world that does not know how to be authentic; the mirror image of the consequence that always catches up with us in the end. The icon of Orwell's 'doublethink'. 

Nike’s strapline is ‘Just do it’.  But our survival as human beings is about doing it properly, doing it truthfully, thinking more than just 'I'.  Isn’t it time we looked in the mirror and did ourselves some justice? Or, to quote another strapline, ‘Can’t Beat the Real Thing’... 

Monday 1 October 2012

Advantaged Thinking TV

The world of online video means it is easy to contribute to other people’s conferences without necessarily being there in person. Sure, nothing beats human contact, but a recorded or live message is better than not being part of the conversation.  There is a wealth of opportunity to create video messages that help stimulate debate and learning between services across the UK as much as the rest of the world. We need to start thinking through more than one channel of communication and see beyond the written word.  You only have to look at what people can produce on youtube to realise that the only thing stopping us is intent. Step away from the keyboard now.

Which begs the question, why am I writing this as another word blog? I’m actually just waiting to talk to someone on skype, but excuses of time aside, I have been experimenting with a few request for video pieces that will mean more content in future. Let me illustrate…

The first ATTV example is a 20 minute overview  in response to a set of questions about advantaged thinking from an organisation called HYPA in southern Australia.

The second ATTV example is a 2 minute contribution to a Q&A session at the Foyer Foundation conference in Melbourne, Australia this week, to help stimulate some Open Talent thinking.

Neither of which are particularly wonderful as static talking heads, though both have been useful to spread the word. And that is the Advantaged Thinking opportunity. Most of the people reading this have a computer or phone with video capability. Why don’t we take advantage of our natural creative powers by using simple everyday videos to capture different perspectives of what advantaged thinking and opening young people’s talent means to us?  Can we create a dialogue that includes every Foyer and Open Talent partner across the UK offering their insights into the campaign? Can we hear what our Talent Champions have got to say?

In the meantime, looking ahead on ATTV, I hope to post some video updates from a trip to Aberdeen with the Foyer Federation’s TalentS framework, and I’ll be taking some leave at the end of the month to spread some very special Open Talent magic for the LGBT community at the Foyer for Philadelphia in the USA.   Of the 3,000 and more young people experiencing homelessness in Philly, around 1,300 are part of an LGBT community for whom there are no organisations with the specialist understanding to work with their talents. In the gaps of life, if we believe to try, roses will bloom.