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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?’.

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