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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Telling a different story of change

This week I went to an evening at the Canadian Embassy in London to listen to Craig Kielburger talk about the work of Free the Children and their signature 'We Day' programme.

Kielburger’s life is all about inspiring stories. At the age of 12, he was moved by the death of another 12 year-old from Pakistan, who, forced into bonded labour in a carpet factory from the age of four, had become an international figurehead for the fight against child labour before being murdered. That story led Kielburger to form a group in his school who set up Save the Children, a charity aimed at mobilising young people to help other young people around the world.  Seeing the pictures of Karl and his school friends at 12, now as adults fronting the work of a highly respected international charity, is very moving. Kielburger uses that story to engage thousands of young people to raise funds and volunteer to change the world for their peers wherever there is a need. We Day is all about making the story plural, developing and celebrating a community of young people who want to use their energy as part of what Kielburger calls ‘a riot for good’. It’s stirring stuff.

As someone who enjoys speaking on stage, I couldn’t help but shift my attention from being an audience member to someone watching how the story was being told. And there was something which fascinated me. In the speech, and in the marketing material pack, there was no detail whatsoever of the actual change that people were bringing about to ‘free the children’. There were more specifics about the impact on the young people being mobilised to be part of the change – how they were more likely to volunteer, vote, and be active citizens – than there was of the project impacts bringing the promise of change itself.  Free the Children are focusing on all the right things, offering charity in the form of school buildings, water and health projects that are part of a model promising alternative income and livelihood to break the need for charity. But the story they are telling is not about that. The emphasis is on the vision of change by children, and on the impact of the behaviour on children active in the change process.  The audience gives the charity the permission to tell that story, without the requirement to have to explain and show what the actual change everyone is really achieving for the other young people ‘receiving’ the charity.

On the one hand I find this partly refreshing. I’m part of a group of charities who are not given that permission – who are required at every step to have to justify the change we are bringing about, partly because the greater audience in our society do not fully believe that the young people we work with can make the shift from surviving with deficits to thriving with assets.  I liked the way the story wasn't being required to have to justify itself.

However, the better part of me is very wary.  The story not being told here is directly (but by no means deliberately) linked to the fact that, deep down, many people don’t actually believe that certain individuals and cultures we classify as ‘disadvantaged’ can achieve sustainable livelihoods. There are people who like to raise money for charity in its role as a ‘safety net’. They can be inspired by the charity and do inspiring things to help in raising that money, but they don’t expect the people they are raising money for to give back or be part of the solution themselves.  The only child I heard about at the Free the Children event who did that was the one who had been murdered at the beginning of the story.  Perhaps he is a symbol of how young people who need the change are sometimes seen by ourselves: sources of inspiration for charity in the stories we create about them, rather than the agents of change creating their own stories to change our world.  Ironically enough, some charities are so busy trying to change the world, they neglect that it’s the disadvantaged thinking in our world view which is so much more the cause of the problems on our planet than the ‘disadvantage’ we raise money for to solve. We might not shoot our young people to get rid of them from the story, but we certainly exclude them from being part of it.

While I love what Free the Children is doing in it’s We Day programme, to give young people a charity programme to be part of, I felt that most of the young people we work with in Foyers would be excluded from it. Don’t get me wrong, We Day does work in state schools, so they are trying to engage a wider cross section of society and their school programmes clearly have reach and impact. What I’m alluding to is the fact that the lives of our young people would be seen as a charitable cause in itself.  The idea of young people from homeless backgrounds having something to give, of having solutions of their own to offer, of a Foyer being a place equal to a school to reach new activists, is not something that is widely believed.  We (our Foyer young people) are meant to be one of the sources of inspiration for others to help us.  We are meant to look dishevelled in pictures, cry on camera, be disadvantaged, and talk about how our broken lives were fixed by an organisation seeking more funding or an individual publicising his latest book. In short, we are meant to know our place in the story as the context for someone else’s action.

But the WE in We Day is also about US.  Which is why, whatever my reservations, I want a ticket for it too. Because there is one message that I have heard consistently over the last 12 years at the Foyer Federation:  that there are countless young people who do want to be part of the change, who do want to give, and who do in fact give, but who don’t always have all the assets that Kielbruger had to make that happen. They are the change too.

We have neglected an important truth here. A positive investment is about growing the impact an individual can make in their life and society. Surely, then, one of the ultimate positive outcomes is to open the talents of those who can use their experience of personal challenges to activate positive solutions for someone else in society?  Surely one of the ultimate acts of giving must be to give the skills, resources and opportunity for someone to give back and create their own story of change? A story that is actually more about changing our perceptions of what young people can achieve. A story that is actually more about changing how our disadvantaged thinking limits that potential. A story really about changing the lives we are giving to as the main narrative action rather than ourselves.

In my recent New York trip, I met a brilliant young graduate from the Foyer in Chelsea who wanted to set up an alumni so she and others could give back the inspiration they had achieved in their lives  to help people in Foyers around the world.  Just like the young boy from Pakistan, she is the real change that needs to be freed to make change happen. Her reality, like those of many young people, is excluded from the story we tell about charity.  The day will come when it will be her, and people from Foyers and other services like her, who will bring about a revolution in the way that charitable giving works. They will turn the ‘disadvantaged’ beneficiaries from charity stories into the writers of a more advantaged thinking narrative -  one that will change  how we are inspired.  Why her, why them? As Kielburger so eloquently replied at the age of 12, ‘Why not?’.

Friday 12 April 2013

From handouts to handups - the Popuptalent revolutioin

Each morning at 7am a crowd gather in a neat, moving line beneath my Affinia Manhattan hotel window. It stretches to a hundred or more. As if from no where, people appear at the back of the line as fast as the front swarms away from view clutching the precious honey of small white bags dished out from a bin. What is so important at 7am that they stand in the rain to wait for? A new album release, the latest gizmo promo, another chocolate bar no one really needs? I watch them reach out for their plastic bags like marathon runners at a drinks station. As fast as they receive them, they disappear into the race of morning commuters that walks past the line. No one seems to speak. After years of watching people wait for freebies on their walk to work in London, it would be easy to think that this is just New York's equivalent. But it isn't. The people in the line are here to be fed. They are beneficiaries of the work of the church of Saint Francis Assisi, which since the great depression of the 1930s has offered a daily Breadline service that feeds around 400 people a day. It might be popular to talk about crowdsource solutions and popup phemonomena, but there is one crowdsourcing popup that goes on each morning in New York and other cities around the world: the wait for a hand out. Looking down at the faces below, I don't see the homeless stereotypes preached at us by the posters of disadvantaged thinkers. I just see a line of individuals, old and young, men and women, as diverse as the ticket line in the metro station. To this fate we may come. I'd like to think that the people who get their bag, can go to a block round the corner, a place where they can eat its contents while receiving the painstaking guidance and investment they require so one day they won't need to be in the line anymore. We are so used to the line for a handout, that people in New York just walk around it. But what about the line for a hand up? What talents would be in its bag? Who would be dishing it out? Where might it happen? The crowdsourcing popup of the food line needs a 21st century equivalent - and just like in the 1930s, it won't be from the state. It will depend on the innovation and vision of charities who want to lead direct action. That's why the launch of Popuptalent.org in the UK is so important. It is the beginning of where charity needs to go next, from offering the safety net of food in the stomach, to providing the springboard of skills, resources and opportunities in the mind for people to move on to a thriving life. I hope it will be appearing beneath a hotel window soon.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Chelsea Foyer Anniversary speech

A rough transcript of my keynote address at the Good Shepherd's Foyer 10th Anniversary event in New York, hosted by BNY Mellon, Thursday April 11th (I don't use scripts for my speeches, so it's not word-for-word accurate but represents the main content)

When I arrived at the airport yesterday, customs couldn't understand why I was coming all this way just to speak at an event celebrating the 10th Anniversary of a project working with young people. But that's how much we value the work that you and your partners have done in developing the Chelsea Foyer. I am very happy to be here to share in your celebration.

I am going to introduce two hashtags as part of today's discussion on #housing4youth. They are #advantagedthinking and #opentalent. They form part of a revolutionary approach we at the Foyer Federation would like to share with you.

Let's start with a 'tale of two cities' to make a connection between New York and somewhere in the UK - called Liverpool. New York and Liverpool have over history shared many journeys across the atlantic. But there are two amazing facts that link them together now. The first is Central Park. Central park is one of the most famous and beautiful parks in the world. Its design though was based on a park in a place called Birkenhead in Merseyside on the edge of liverpool. Just like you have taken a good idea from Birkenhead and made it even better through Central Park, so the Chelsea foyer has taken the foyer approach and made it your own here in New York. There's more. Birkenhead is not just the origin for Central Park, it has its own foyer, run by the excellent Forum Housing Association, which is also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. So there is a special link between you, the significance of which I will return to later.

2013 is a great year to be celebrating your 10th anniversary. Far from being worn out or outdated, the Foyer 'approach' continues to innovate exciting breakthroughs. This month has seen the launch of a new initiative called Popup Talent, redesigning the jobcentre and work programme into a youth-led 'popup' model where young people can access inspiration, develop skills, and showcase their talents to employers to take work as well as create their own enterprises. Because when we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about creating opportunities for employment. Next month sees the launch by our partner the Mayday Trust of the world's first Learning Ability foyer - a project applying the foyer approach to work with young people experiencing learning disabilities. Because when we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about using what works to help those young adults who are most poorly served by current provision. Three weeks from now sees the opening of another foyer in Melbourne, Australia - what will be the first Foyer ever set up applying some of the new #advantagedthinking and #opentalent principles I will introduce today. Because when we talk about #housing4youth, we need to be talking about doing things differently.

2013 is an important year for Foyers. More than ever, the transition of young people into adulthood remains complex and challenging. The stakes are high, the signs ahead confusing. Today in America there are 6.7 million young people aged 16-24 struggling to make the transition, in need of services such as the Chelsea foyer. In three years time, our failure to enable more young people to develop a positive route into adulthood will become all the more symbolic. 2016 is the year that those young people born in the first year of the 21st century will begin, at the age of 16, to need the services we provide. In 2016, we will see that the 21st century has not brought about a breakthrough in how we equip our young people to become positive adults. Why is that?

I'd like to suggest that our society has created an entrenched dichotomy between advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, cities like New York and Liverpool are capable of creating abundant sources of wealth, developing incredible achievements in the arts, science, business and technology. But on the other hand, they establish services called 'disadvantage education centres', and continue to fail large numbers of young people. Why can't we learn to apply the approaches that develop advantages, to address the challenges where we create disadvantage?

We can see the same dichotomy if we look again at 2016 when the next Olympics will be held. At the London Olympics, the country that topped the medal winning table was America; the the highest winning country from the EU was great Britain. You would expect that countries who know how to develop talented athletes also know how to develop the talents of all their young people. But you would be wrong. America, the country that won most gold medals, is also the country with one of the highest numbers of young people in the criminal justice system in the world. Great Britain, the country that was fourth in the medal table, is the bottom of the table in Europe for the wellbeing of its children.

The reason for the dichotomy is because we are applying two different approaches. America and Great Britain's success at the Olympics was due to 3 key ingredients: access to high quality coaching; access to flexible, personalised investments and resources; and access to a community with high aspirations for success. The young people in America's criminal justice system, and at the bottom of the league for wellbeing in great Britain, don't have access to either of those things. One approach is about how people can develop the assets and advantages they need to thrive; the other approach is about how people can survive and cope with their deficits and disadvantages. We call the latter 'disadvantaged thinking'.

Disadvantaged thinking is what happens when you see people only interms of their needs and problems, when you create services that seek to solve a perceived deficit rather than than address the individual. Disadvantaged thinking applies disadvantaged fixes to help disadvantaged people cope. It doesn't work. It isn't in the business of looking for solutions that create sustainable advantages. That's why we need to stop talking about our young people in negative stereotypes which promote them as disadvantaged. I have never seen a homeless person in my life; I have only seen people experiencing homelessness. There is an important difference between the two; between the stereotype and the person beneath it. Because when we talk about #housing4youth we need to talk not in terms of disadvantaged safety nets, but about advantage building trampolines and ladders that enable people to thrive.

In the UK we have been experimenting with offering young people such advantaged thinking programmes. Giving them access to the three ingredients of coaching, flexible investments, and communities with high aspirations. Working with employers, such as Virgin Trains, Toyota and Ford, to provide contexts where young people can build their confidence and thrive. The programmes are not only successful, they are also more cost effective in applying smaller, more targeted investment to develop assets.

The argument boils down to a choice: we can either continue to present young people as disadvanged youth to fund their deficits; or we can see young people as 'opportunity youth' and look to invest in the assets they need to develop to become thriving members of our society. And let's be clear, we can't afford to choose the first option anymore. Not just morally, but economically. In America, the 6.7 million young people struggling to make a positive transition will cost almost $14,000 dollars a year between the ages of 16-24. If the same number remain as disadvantaged youth, they will cost the American tax payer a staggering 4.75 trillion dollars over the course of their lifetime. We need to make a breakthrough.

That's why, in the UK, we have introduced a concept called Open Talent - to help make the shift from disadvantaged to advantaged thinking. Open Talent has a simple but powerful idea: that every young person has a talent, and that it's our job to work with young people to help them harness that talent for personal and social good . It offers five domains of inquiry, which effectively question how #housing4youth can be developed.

First, Open Talent PLACES. Places where young people can go to be inspired, to feel safe as part of an empowering community, and to begin a conversation on how they can achieve their dreams. Where are those places in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about places that can grow young people's talents.
Second, Open Talent PEOPLE. People - professionals, mentors, peers - who can coach, enable, and connect young people, not just support them. Where are those people in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about how the people within them will develop young people's talents.
Third, Open Talent OPPORTUNITIES. Opportunities where young people can identify what they are good at, nurture their potential, and promote their ability to employers. Where are those opportunities in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about the opportunities available through them for young people to build their talents.
Fourth, Open Talent DEAL. A deal where young people can access the investment required for them to take the risk to break out of coping behaviour and commit to build a more sustainable livelihood. Even the hotel I'm staying at understands the idea of offering a deal - I have a booklet on my bedside called 'here's the deal'. Where is the deal for young people in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about the deal that can be offered to make a positive investment in young people's talents.
And fifth, Open Talent campaign. A campaign to challenge the stereotypes and myths that young people can only be supported to cope with their disadvantages through deficit-based approaches. A campaign to show that young people can and must develop the talents to thrive in life. Where is that positive campaign for young people in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about the campaign for that housing to provide a springboard for young people's futures and not just a safety net for their problems.

These five elements constitute a revolution. A Talents revolution. When I was flying over from London, I noticed that my in-flight entertainment was full of films about revolutions: the French Revolution (Les Miserables); the Iranian Revolution (Argot); the political and social revolution that led to the abolishment of the slave trade in America (Lincoln). The proliferation of films about revolutions in Hollywood perhaps tells us something about the uncertain nature of the times we are living in. Part of our revolution is about establishing a more positive paradigm. One where the DNA of how we think about and work with young people is based on a positive belief in their talents. It's about challenging the aspirations we hold for each young person; challenging the aspirations our services instill in young people; and challenging the aspirations of policy and decision makers in society for the type of outcomes they expect and invest in for young people.

I will leave you with three signposts to help you approach this revolution. Beginning with Thomas Paine, an important influence behind the American revolution. Paine was part of a group of thinkers who believed that everyone was entitled to the advantages they were born with - namely the fruits of one's labour and the land that we are born on. If Paine was alive today, he would add another advantage; that the rights of human include being seen as a person who has talent. Talent is not the preserve of celebrity or priviledge. Everybody has a talent. Once we understand that, we can better argue for the need to invest in young people as opportunity youth, so that they and we can harness their talent in society. How to make that investment can be understood by turning to the work of one of the world's leading thinkers, the American Martin Seligman. Seligman's brilliant 'Flourish' clearly outlines the difference between interventions that focus on helping to people to cope, and those that build the resilience and wellbeing for people to thrive. Seligman's work offers an evidence and practice base to invest in the talents to thrive. His approaches are widely used in the world of business, in education and other sectors. Why aren't we using them? My final signpost, New York, can help. The city might have changed alot over the last decades, but it retains two constant characteristics; it's sense of dynamic energy and it's pioneering innovation. We must draw on that energy and innovation, and inspire ourselves to create #housing4youth that looks beyond the status quo to the principles and approaches of people such as Paine and Seligman.

In celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Foyer in Birkenhead, like you, is not just looking back at its past, it's also looking to its future. The Foyer will be one of the first services this year to achieve our new accreditation for organisations who are applying Advantaged Thinking, Open Talent solutions. I'd like to think that, in the same spirit you developed central park and the Foyer here in New York, you'll also want to take Open Talent and make it your own, so you can join us in turning the end of youth homelessness into the beginning of youth talent.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Fair Wealth: Popup Talent's new ways to work

Channel Four’s Secret Millions ‘Popup Talent Shop’ episode offers some welcome respite from political debate on benefit payments. After a week that has seen the stakes raised following the Daily Mail’s provocative association of the Philpott tragedy with the Government’s claims against so-called ‘benefit scroungers’, Secret Millions has thankfully uncovered a more positive human story against the grain of stereotypes.

Parties on both sides will continue to argue about controlling benefits through ever more crude and complex systems of conditionality, particularly for those unemployed young people aged 16-25 from challenging homeless backgrounds who end up living in Foyers. But the answers to the issues in theri lives are unlikely to come from Westminster. Beveridge aside, Government attempts to bring about solutions have actually created more social problems over the past decades than they have ever fixed.  Universal Credit and ‘welfare reform’ are just another shaking of the precarious policy jelly. To steal a quote from Bill Ford, the CEO of General Electric, a growth equity company investing in enterprise in emerging global markets, ‘I hope the role of Government remains benign neglect’.  (See Chrystia’s Freeland’s ‘How to get rich from the eastward tilt’, International Herald Tribune, April 5, 2013). Benign neglect for Ford has meant that ‘poorer’ countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Nigeria are now producing the latest Steve Jobs as entrepreneurs begin to thrive in the gaps left to tackle unmet social challenges.   These are the same gaps where charities once flourished as a source for innovation in the UK. But in more recent times, the role of charity has often been diminished through closer ties to state funding and the deficit-based thinking that has characterised much of its commissioning of services and subsequent cuts.  With current high rates of youth unemployment, there has never been a more urgent time to find ‘new ways to work’. Thankfully, Secret Millions suggests charities can still lead social change - using the power of young people’s talents, a little help from some friends, and a healthy dash of pioneering spirit.

The Foyer Federation is a case in point. It has long argued that the right investment in ‘something’ for a young person can lead to ‘something else’ that reaps huge personal and social gains.  In 2009, the Federation began to articulate this as an ‘Open Talent’ strategy, introducing a range of inspirational initiatives aimed at involving young people in finding, nurturing and promoting their talents – the majority of which have been funded by forward thinking organisations such as Virgin Unite, the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Monument Trust and Esmee Fairbairn. The focus on assets, not deficits, is where the Federation is breaking important ground.  Open Talent suggests that ‘support’ should not be about how to help someone cope with deficits; its sole purpose should be how to enable someone to build the assets required to thrive in life, to find and use their talents.  This is the approach of the entrepreneur: looking for, developing and investing in the advantages that will create sustainable solutions.  Not surprisingly, the Federation’s partners for Popup Talent include a social enterprise (GoodPeople), a youth leadership charity (Changemakers), and local community services like Braintree Foyer who are prepared to take a lead in doing things differently.  Together with the freedom of two years Lottery funding, this is a rich mix for transforming lives.

In the Popup Talent episode, we see young people freed to express their enterprising nature to find and make work;  to be part of their own solution.    Secret Millions shows us that it is not ‘hand outs’ that young people need to do this, but ‘hand ups’ – opportunities, guidance and encouragement to build and exploit the personal assets that we take for granted in our lives.  The Big Lottery funding awarded in Secret Millions will enable the Federation to do just that, by filling a gap in the benefit debate in which young people still fail to receive the emotional and social capital to invest in their future. 

Arguments about the size of the hand out needed for someone to live on are of course vitally important; but without any focus on the hand up that will build someone’s asset base, the arguments are lost in an endless ‘something-for-nothing’ debate of their own making. The real missing ‘something’ is not the commitment of young people, but whether or not they have the opportunity to develop and promote their assets to offer something back.  That ‘something’ must come from ‘somewhere’ if we are to help young people move on in their lives for the benefit of society, and it is sadly not coming from the majority of Government funded job centres and work programmes where the neglect in developing young people’s talents is not so much benign as wastefully ignorant.  If payment by results for job centres and work programmes was properly linked to nurturing talent, then the current system would be seen for what it is: hopelessly out of touch, no longer fit for purpose, in need of real innovation.

Secret Millions reminds us of The Big Lottery’s crucial role as an intelligent funder: to free up charities and the young people they work with to ‘thrive in the gaps’; to reveal and empower the hidden millions of people and ideas that are missed beneath the headlines and policy statements. Why not believe that young people from challenging backgrounds actually have talent and potential? Why not provide a job centre model and a work programme approach that tries to build those talents? Why not involve young people in devising and developing the content of how these centres and programmes might work?  Why not enable employers to develop more upstream relationships with the young people who could become part of their future talent pool?  Why not save taxpayers’ money by investing more intelligently in positive, flexible, personalised approaches, that are proven to work. Such questions won’t be found in the current arguments about benefits, but they badly need to be asked.

Popup Talent introduces a very different perspective to traditional concepts of welfare. I call it ‘fair wealth’, and it involves us all in how we think about and work with young people in a  more ‘advantaged thinking’ way than the current obsession with ‘disadvantage and need’.  It offers a simple three dimensional solution:  treat young people not as problems in the system but as potential assets for society; invest in what young people actually require to build their own thriving life, including the space to take risks, fail and be enterprising; and collaborate with young people to harness their experiences as part of a community of relationships able to create its own solutions, including future employment options.

‘Fair wealth’ is about being more measured, rational and just in how we invest in the development of our shared future capital - young people.  Ensuring each young person grows up as an asset to society is an aspiration and a responsibility none of us can afford to hide from too.  It is our ‘something’, our part of the deal. As Secret Millions shows, it’s also a much more exciting and engaging story to be involved in than arguments about welfare that have long since lost the plot.

If you want to be part of the Popup Talent revolution, you can find out more at www.foyer.net and www.popuptalent.org