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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Sunday 27 October 2013

Lou Reed - the Foyer Federation's extra man

I feel like I’ve been waiting for ‘the man’ for a life time.  From listening to the genius of the Banana album and Berlin at school, Lou Reed left me hooked for the next moment of brilliance that often never seemed to come until you had given up hope. But now he has finally died today, and, bar a few secret bootlegs and writing from the vaults, there can be few more surprises.  I’m left pondering the fragments of why Lou Reed influenced so much in my work over the years.

It was back in 2005 at the Foyer Federation that we really started to introduce  an ‘assets-based’ approach.  I went to New York to find the idea, so it was no suprise that I would come back with Lou Reed tangled up in its roots. I still have a powerpoint slide somewhere, which begins with an extract from Men of Good Fortune: ‘It takes money to make money they say / Look at the Fords – didn’t they start that way?’ The question of how wealth creates wealth, how poverty breeds poverty, and how thriving lives at the top of the tree still ‘cause empires to fall’, all suggested the language of assets offered a way in to explore our social failure to make use of the resources at our disposal to do good.   I still believe as a sector we haven't quite caught up with seeing how the language of 'value' should be redefined, how the tables of social justice can be over turned when we unpick the way we measure things.  Maybe we don't care enough to change a system that pays us each month by an entirely arbitary system of worth.

The importance of Men of Good Fortune at that time was only matched for me by Kill Your Sons, Lou’s harrowing account of receiving a crippling dose of electric shock therapy as a teenager.  The songs rejection of ‘establishment’ institutions of support such as the family and hospital as sources of power designed to destroy the mind, and its call to action not just to ‘run away’ into an alternative adulthood but to write a different story about it, offered all the inspiration required to focus on the ‘transitions’ vision of our work. For me, it meant looking beyond the models of support found in the housing, care and prison sector towards something more radical with the person at its heart.   I listened to those songs every day on my way to work not to clear my head but to fill it with determination.

I remember that I put together a 90 minute collection of Lou Reed songs on the subject of Transitions to Transformation. It was the only ‘entertainment’ I took with me to France in 2009, where I spent a week listening to the music and writing Open Talent - whose name owed much to Reed's 'Open House' exposition of Warhol's Factory.  By the end of the period, I was just playing one song: Rock N Roll, the story of someone, in the middle of a nothing life, who could turn on a radio station and listen to a way out where you could be alright. That’s basically what I wanted Open talent to achieve – to have places of access where you could go to break out of the deficits around you and be the person you really are. When I performed Open Talent at the TEDx event in Greece, it was the song in my head to  calm my nerves backstage.  It became my Comfort Zone.

Then there was Lou’s relationship with the enigmatic Rachel, and the three albums which (largely unnoticed now) document his love for a partner with an openly trans identity, during a period when that community was even less understood than they are today.  What I admired was the courage in his art and persona of the late 70s. Looking across his songs, you see a writer with the guts and guile to give a voice for people outside the mainstream.  Listen to the Street Hassle album,and  you hear the measure for how an artist should behave: from a sense of morality, conscience, their principles baptised, with a refusal to let things slip away, a willingness to take on the system, and most of all an authenticity in language and emotion for the lives one seeks to represent.  Think of that in terms of charity, and you can see why I’m constantly aggrieved by some of the organisations and individuals in our sector: those who talk the loudest with the most empty of expressions who are rewarded constantly for their failure.

Ironically, for someone who perhaps many would say couldn’t sing, it was the voice Lou gave to people which was his critical power as an artist. That is why language is always, must always, be the issue in our work that never dies.  'The man' might not be here anymore, but his voice will keep giving for a long time to come.  And so must ours.

Contemplating the final moments in the life of Andy Warhol, Lou memorably conlcuded, 'I wish I hadn't thrown away my time / On so much human and so much less divine'.  The passing of an artist is a reminder to our instincts for creation.  Looking around our society on the day of Lou Reed's death, I see so much to do, there is barely a second spare not to keep working for change.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Scarlet Pimpernels

This week has seen a couple of fascinating news stories.

We can read details of a leaked Government report on social mobility suggesting that, for the first time since the early 20th century, children from above-average incomes will face a worse standard of living than their parents. The political ‘controversy’ will shift attention away from the poorest 10%, onto another group – middle-class children. And in doing so, we will miss the point. The social mobility record is a stuck groove.  Someone is always struggling, because at no point in the last century have we addressed the need to look at the transition into adulthood as a process that requires greater structure and invention.

We can also read with amazement that Michael Gove’s closest advisor has written a thesis in which he suggests that ‘genetics’ was a more likely determent of people’s outcomes than their education.  That old chestnut .  Some people, because of their poverty make up, just won’t have the talent to be shaped.  Of course, if you were responsible for our social failure to identify and develop talent among millions of young people, you would look to their genetics as a suitable excuse.   Is this the consequence of a payment-by-results culture, the creation of justifications and misrepresentations by which we effortlessly avoid our own guilt? The sad thing is, if you add up all the investment of education and power and opportunity given to those at the top, and look at their output in terms of social improvements, you have to ask the question: what is our human flaw, that we end up governed by individuals and systems that are so ill fitted to our potential?  Maybe they are onto something. What is the genetics behind the failure of leadership?  A question that hasn’t been asked loudly enough since the First World War.

Has anyone noticed, that the common factor in each social challenge and economic crisis, is us?

Our political policy is like the search for the Scarlet Pimpernel: we intervene here, we intervene there, but we never find the truth that people aren’t solved or fixed in just one place from one social theory. It’s common sense that is lacking. If you want to ensure a positive transition for adulthood, then you have to look ahead to the horizon that embraces us all, and work with each person on how their experience can reach that point, from a common, universal understanding of what the ingredients are that achieve success .  That way, you are much more likely to keep rebuilding and adjusting the road through transition in a way that reflects our shared humanity.  We act as if we are only prepared to see ahead for certain groups of people; only have the time to learn from and support a minority.

Even worse, we think we actually know what we are doing.  If you consider our policies on the transition to adulthood in terms of a house, all we seem to be doing is adding on a conservatory here, a loft extension there, a few new carpets and repainted walls, refurbishing the fabric according to whatever the latest theory says; but we should be looking into the foundations of the house, thinking about a different type of dwelling, looking perhaps to replace the bundling maintenance team and absent landlord.

So, we can look forward to another round of debates about the purpose of teaching, the investments required for social mobility, the future of the youth of today. Will anyone be asking, who and where are we in the world we keep creating?

Perhaps the truth is that our leaders are in fact Scarlet Pimpernels in reverse:  dim-witted fools hiding under a disguise of authority. 

Saturday 12 October 2013

Reflections on charity from social housing

It was the first night I slept in a social housing estate.  I remember the suspicion of empty grey concrete in the early morning night , CCTV glassed in my face, a tumble weed of litter by the blue metal entrance door.  An excited woman pushed me past security into a creaking lift that seemed to sigh with our weight. 'It's punk', she said, her fist punching the air as my eyes betrayed  a reaction to the faint smell of urine and sweat, lives hotch-potched together. My love affair had begun.

From the balcony window you could follow the butterfly drug runs of kids on bicycles in the autumn evening glow.  The same faces that hold open the door for you with a polite hello. I quickly became just another person in the block.  Among the shapes flitting past security, you'd wonder, is she the one I heard screaming last night? Are they the couple who have sex one  week, then try to kill each other the next? The flats inside are emotional prisons, inhabitants left alone to solve hand-outs of pain, people hooded under stereotypes like the man in the iron mask.  A mirror back to a system that is dependent on its underclass, not the other way around.  We must remain sick, so they can continue to treat us as fools.

'Do you see the old man walking around the block  each night?' my host asked me.  I looked at the hunched figure, bent into the wind with a stick for survival, led by his panting dog. 'He's lived here since the place was built. I dreamed I will be like that one day, old and alone, still here. We all do.' 

 I couldn't understand why anyone stayed. Surely everyone could see the trap, a better world to free themselves to? One of my host's friends tried to explain: 'only someone who has never lived in this world would ever think you could possibly give up the only possession that gave you somewhere to live after years of just surviving to get by.'  There was a different type of education here.  A free school of disenfranchised experience. 

Slowly, I felt my aspirations diminished. The cramped conditions, the vomit in the lift shaft, they erode your goals; yet at the same time, the community that is born from being outside the mainstream makes you feel that this is a better, more real, authentic world.  I gave up all my goods that couldn't fit into a bag. I detached myself from the materialism of my society; I became a spy in the City after a night of concrete meditation. Most of all, I began to suspect that the world of charities and entrepreneurs  had never and would never go anywhere near this place.  The people living here were numbers to be used to sell brands; showcase lives, demos of issues, beta-tests for other people to build their careers on.  Or at least that's how it felt at times.

On the train from work, I noticed someone had graffitied the latest Centrepoint poster. They had scratched out the 'Centre' and replaced it with 'No'.  The only experience anyone had here of Centrepoint, Prince's Trust, Action for Children, were just posters asking for money.   'Charity's a bad gang,' a local kid told me, hanging out with his friends. 'They like it when we riot; they love it when we hurt; they feed on our lives, ain't it? They enjoy us being this. But they don't share profit'  Then his mobile lit up with a text and they were gone.

No point.  I couldn't have said it any better.  I only wish I had. The reality gap between all the meetings and plans and thoughts and strategies of today's youth charities, and the lives of those they have no real experience of, grows ever deeper.  Tucked up in swanky offices and comfy homes, exchanging issues over supper clubs and expensive conferences, what hope can there be that anyone will find a different way of thinking?  It's like the social housing estate. The council management, which has spent no money on maintaining a building, ends up with a budget to be spent on pruning the roses, while people struggle to cope with the squalid conditions inside their crumbling homes. 

As I watched my neighbours shuffle away, I was left thinking, has charity lost its moral purpose? Where is the fire in its belly? Where is the risk taking, the leadership, the call to arms?  The passion, the urgency?   Has charity lost its community with the issues it is meant to solve? Has it become too focused on courting the shillings that distorts whatever vision it may have once had to do and give? Like Faustus, we slowly become souls sold to the devil of contracts and donors, using systems of evidence that are ever more distanced from the lives they represent. We work within organisational structures that repeat the exact same values and behaviours  that  are responsible for the social issues we pride ourselves on seeking to solve. We are just different gangs, with more expensive graffiti.

I discuss this with a local called Dimitri as he kicks back in the sofa, smoking a roll-up while trying to cuddle a purring tabby cat with one eye. He talks excitedly about his childhood, how he got taken out of school, put into low paid work to support his parents (a story often repeated round here), and now, years later, he is in a dead-end back on the estate.  One of our 'NEETs' as he pointedly jokes with me.  'I once phoned the charity for help, but unless you fit what they are looking for, well, you know, they can't do a thing.  Maybe I don't belong to that tribe. We're a different class here. We're  a different code.'

'What code is that?' I ask.

He shrugged his shoulders, sucking in an ash of thoughts and memories. 'Whatever you are not.'

I was shown the door with a friendly slap on the back, but not before Dimitri offered me a final word of wisdom: 'There is more charity and community in dealing drugs than half the shit that goes on in your world. Start ups, digital media, million pound projects - it's turning you into selfish Neanderthals.'

Listening to Dimitri reminded me of the lyrics from one of my favourite Lou Reed songs, pointing the finger to the corrupt morals of an 'uptown' establishment . I just hope it isn't us; that we are not too late to save and show charity's responsibility; that we aren't the social pioneers for humanity's ice age...

 'We sat around the other night, me and the guys
Trying to find the right word
That would best fit and describe
You people like that
That no principle has touched, no principle's baptized
How about that?
Who'd eat shit and say it tasted good
If there was some money in it for them
You're just dirt
That's all you're worth cheap, cheap dirt
You know they call it
Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, uptown dirt'

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Filth and Fury

The introduction to The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple’s excellent film about the Sex Pistols, takes us back to the world of the 1970s where some young people began to realise that the narrative of opportunity presented to them by society was a sham. They had been had.  The vision of Great Britain was not based on their dreams or talents; it was dependent on their place at the bottom of the pile. 

Fast forward to Cameron’s land of opportunity, where we are told that those same young people should now be stripped of benefits and welfare so they can focus on choosing the education and employment that they are often excluded from – not by personal choice, but by a whole set of complex circumstances that go far beyond the soundbite intelligence of modern politics.   Like a 17th century quack, Cameron offers an elixir that will give us all access to a promised land of opportunity, but the magic ingredient is just more of the same shit: more hours at the Job Centre; more time on the Work Programme; more internship and apprenticeships that are not affordable; more of the failing provision and institutions of support from a Government that simply does not know how to develop people’s talents. It’s not nudging people need, it’s the time and social capital to develop their nous to navigate through the various policy traps such as the bedroom tax that continue to mess up lives.

At least Cameron has spotted that welfare is generally not being used to help people get through the door of opportunity.  In that he is right – the welfare state must be reformed to become a more enabling trampoline rather than just a creaking safety net. The diagnosis is roughly correct; the choice of medicine is the problem. What Cameron can’t see is that the economy of the future is crying out for a different form of welfare.  A flourishing society has to offer a positive investment in people’s abilities (that is fair) to develop the assets required (that creates wealth) to access and exist within a land of opportunity. Fair wealth, used intelligently, with high quality coaching, real experiences, and aspirational expectations, is the only future we should be settling for.  Who is going to provide it?

After three party conferences, we know we are not going to get it through the current paradigm of politics.  Just like in the 70s, young people have been betrayed. Let down.‘Had’ by an alliance of ‘disadvantaged thinking’ that stretches from the polished doors of Downing Street to the glass fronts of national charities bidding for their dirty-work contracts. There is little difference between Cameron’s cry to vote Conservative for a land of opportunity, and another charity poster asking for 40p to give disadvantage a room for the night. Both evidence the real NEETS in the establishment machine - the Nothing people at the top, with no Empathy, no Enterprise, no Thought; Nothing but their own existence at heart. Nudge them back where they belong: in the dustbin of history.