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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Thursday 5 June 2014

People First

After two interesting evenings spent at a YMCA London celebration at City Hall, and a Lankelly Chase hosted conversation about the concept of ‘Housing First’, I feel compelled to ponder the question of why the charity sector has not been able to translate its work with young people into a more urgent issue of social justice. Looking out over the view from City Hall, what one is faced with is one of the worst poverty gaps in the western world;  but what one sees is just more housing developments along the river.  We don’t seem to be getting the message.

At the YMCE event, Chief Executive Denise Hatton identified that YMCAs were brilliant at getting on with the ‘doing’, but not always very good when it came to talking about the significance of what they did.  It would be easy to see that as just a challenge for a communications and fundraising team, or another reason to bemoan why the media and Government are more obsessed with headlines of far less significance. There is something more fundamental at stake though: that somehow the charity sector gets easily lost in the wrong narrative of what we are meant to be doing as charity.  On the same YMCA platform, we were treated to a fascinating story about a young person who had benefited from a YMCA, who chose a telling quote from Nelson Mandela to illustrate the importance of the YMCA experience: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice’.  Reminded of the City view, I wondered for a moment if it was not the purpose of charity today, in filling the gaps in our society, to fight for the ‘act of justice’ required to overcome poverty in a more sustainable way. Is that not what we should be ‘doing’?

Which is where Housing First becomes interesting, as a ‘model’ developed from the principle that access to housing should be a fundamental human right. Housing First seeks to find a way to put that human right into practice for people experiencing homelessness, so that housing becomes the initial bedrock around which other services can be connected and support issues addressed.  At the Lankelly Chase event, I was fascinated in the language used by the experts sharing their work on Housing First. They went out of their way to explain it was not of course just about the housing. It was, as I would describe it, more of a ‘people first’ approach, in which the concepts of empowerment and choice were the fundamental touchstones brought to the surface by putting a focus on housing first into the support dynamic. However, the word I kept hearing, again and again, was that Housing First was for ‘homeless people’.  Not people experiencing homelessness, with a whole set of characteristics and issues wrapped around who they are and why they are in that context; but the dehumanising stereotype, ‘homeless people’, with the usual array of problem and negative-based language attached to it. The ‘people’ at the very heart of the empowerment and choice process, by that very language of 'homeless first', were unintentionally being imprisoned within a narrative where they can never find their rights as a ‘person first’. Which is not to diminish the importance of the Housing First model, or criticise the experts sharing its important insights; it is a signification that the rights we need to talk about are not just those associated with housing, but our very concept of what it is to be a ‘person first’.

If you have heard me speak, you might know that I like to talk about the work of Thomas Spence and Thomas Paine, both associated with the concept of ‘the rights of man’. Looking at their arguments about the rights to have somewhere to live and some way to earn a living, one can see a gap in their 19th Century thinking that we can add to today: the right to be seen as a person of value. Or what you might call the right to be seen as someone who has assets, ability, talent, positives, character – whatever society will value and invest in. If that was a human right, what would it mean for the touchstones of empowerment and choice so lacking for some people in our social system? 

In 2009, The Foyer Federation began to take what I now realise was a ‘talent first’ approach: to try - in a similar way to Housing First – to change the conversation and approach on how services work with people based on looking at their potential first instead of just their problems.  Where we have reached in that process, is realising that the answer will never be found alone in workforce development, service design, commissioning, impact evaluation, another innovative programme with funding, etc. The answer is in what all those ‘doing things’ can add up to; how they can create the ‘act of justice’ to alleviate the issue that lies at the heart of why YMCAs, Housing First, and Foyers exist. That ‘issue’, I believe, is how we think about, understand, talk about, involve, and value the people who we work with and for. 

At the Foyer Federation, we call this Advantaged Thinking, and we are launching a Movement to attract those ‘doers’ who want to develop the cause.  Where will it go? Perhaps one day, we will be able to rewrite the words of Nelson Mandela, and say: Charity is an act of justice to overcome poverty in everything we do. That’s the type of charity I want to keep ‘doing’.

Shape the future in a night of Taking Advantaged Thinking Action at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE

Sunday 1 June 2014


‘Nosferatu lands on British shores’ is becoming a predictable headline to the UK’s irrational arguments on immigration. In the 1920’s, German society’s fears about eastern migrants were famously evoked on film through the vampire caricature of Nosferatu. The migrant perceived as a source of plague , someone who sucks people’s blood and brings terror to local communities, is now all too familiar. Today, primeval concerns against ‘otherness’ are played out through debates about the impact of migrants on British jobs and the welfare state.  However the political elite try to portray Ukip, the language of ‘swivel eyed loons’ carries far less potency than the image of the so-called ‘illegal immigrant’ stealing our jobs and national identity without being able to speak the Queen’s English. Ukip might look and sound a bit odd, but the Nosferatu they have conjured up into public consciousness is a far greater magnet for people’s loathing.
What we are seeing are the laws of Disadvantaged Thinking in full play: you remove someone’s humanity under a classification such as ‘immigrant’ or 'homeless'; you tag the stereotype with negative associations until they all become ‘illegal’ and 'feckless'; you narrow understanding of the issues at stake into a limited dialogue  that distorts reality; you invest time and resource disproportionately on controlling a problem that is part of a bigger issue you choose to ignore; you focus on the deficits you see rather than work on harnessing the potential assets to society; you apply a different set of values than those you would in your own personal life; and you don’t challenge yourself to question what your attitudes and behaviour add up to as a human being. Bingo. The Dis-feratu of Ukip and the Coalition Government; one blaming immigrants, the other young people.
Thus, we end up in a 'doublethink' position where, while people migrating from EU states pay more tax than they receive in benefit, and are less likely than UK nationals to claim out of work benefits, we accuse people from Eastern Europe of holding back the UK economy and swindling the system. Indeed, far from stealing our livelihoods, 17.2% of foreign nationals have set up businesses, creating 12% of current British jobs.  Similar disparities in belief and reality exist for young people tatooed by policy makers with the letters 'NEET'.  In both cases, the facts count for nothing against the images that populate our consciousness. Migrants are the new ‘disadvantaged youth’ of our cultural imagination – a bin to recycle our social challenges and failings into an enemy we can hold responsible.   Who cares that even the Governor of the Bank of England thinks capitalism needs to invest more in the social capital of others, when the creakings of the social contract can more easily be blamed on the refugees and yobs of our distorted imagination. We are a society in denial to its abuse of values.
There is something, though, positive about this: British Politics might just be beginning to wake up from its addiction to stereotypes and sound bites under the threat that it has lost the power to touch our soul more deeply than a xenophobic argument.  It is becoming hoist by its own media petard, and it knows it.  Reacting to the success of UKIP in the council elections, Overseas Development Minster Lynne Featherstone MP described to the BBC;All of us have got to the point where we are so guarded, so on-message that we seem to have started to lose our humanity and I think it’s a very human thing that’s happened.’ 
For some time, the status quo in the UK has been more about controlling society to cope with the perceived threat of negative forces, than creating a fairer, equitable world in which we can all thrive. Not used to galvanising people’s power to shape a positive future, our politicians don’t seem to know how to stop Nosferatu from stealing their shadowy soapbox.  If they, like us, can push back the stereotypes of Disadvantaged Thinking, and focus on the humanity of what we can do together, then we are all more likely to see the light of tomorrow’s dawn - where Nosferatu 'dis'-appears in a puff of smoke.

Shape the future in a night of Taking Advantaged Thinking Action at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE