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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Sunday 28 September 2014

Back to the knitting

The ‘stick to your knitting’ down fall of another hectoring politician has an important message. Far more than what Marx described as history repeating itself as tragedy and then comedy, what we face is the ‘blind spot’ of a humanity unable to recognise itself in the drama.

My thesis is this: the issues that ‘civil society’ are engaged with are all ‘canaries in the mine’ that point back to a source of poison gas within ourselves.  If we could deal with the gas in the mine, the canary wouldn’t keep suffering. And young people are our biggest canary, most reflective of the chaos by which humans fail to love, communicate with and bring out the best in each other – whether in families, organisations, or communities.

If I look back on my working life, at least a third of it has been spent trying to solve inter-relationships that have got in the way of offering effective services to people.  And if I look across the charity sector, I see organisations that are hosts to so many human dramas, within a tragi-comedy where charities are competing against or trying to work with other organisations with the same character flaws. All in the name of a charitable mission that is lost under the Game of Thrones battle for sustainable funding and ‘recognition’.

The HR, change management, partnership, governance, funding, and workforce development approaches we use to shape our civil society are all unfit for the position we are in. None of them come from a position of how to love and work with each other in a shared community of purpose.  They are rational systems, but the human emotions we are dealing with defy their logic. What we face are the paisley pyjama bottoms of fallibility.

When Newmark said stick to the knitting; when Major famously talked about back to basics; both unintentionally touched on a deeper truth: that the knitting and basics are the messy human flaws and vulnerabilities we like to blame others for – problem families, feral youth, etc – but are best personified in the everyday actions of ourselves. I wouldn’t like to imagine what pyjamas the cabinet and its shadow wear each night, let alone who paid for them. The point is that it’s irrational for us to believe that we are led by saints whose only intent is to serve. Just as it is irrational for those in power to criminalise others for being in positions of poverty.

In my experience, charities deal with the faulty ‘knitting’ of family systems, politicians, social class and gender structures, and personal conflicts between ourselves, that have ‘stuck’ various people with intolerable challenges.  We must to get back to that fact.  The laws, values and habits that define the knitting patterns of our society and ego all need urgent renewal.  If pyjama politicians, sting-obsessed journalists and funding-obsessed charity leaders are not up to that task, then it’s time for someone else to take a lead. Who wants to shape a different tribe?  I so dearly do...

Sunday 21 September 2014

A trip to Kangan Foyer, a home for Advantaged Thinking

 At the immigration museum, in Melbourne, they talk about the symbolic power of the suitcase - something a traveller takes with them (if lucky enough to have one) in hope or fear of the journey ahead. Since my bag had got lost in transit, it seemed rather appropriate to ponder its significance. Rather like a home, the suitcase is a material comfort zone, and to be without it has its own sense of displacement. But what was more important to me – the clothes in the bag, or the memories, feelings and ideas in myself? We pack stuff in the suitcase, when the important thing is what we unpack from ourselves through our connection with others.

I have been lucky on my third trip to Melbourne to be in the company of the wonderful people from The Brotherhood of St Laurence and Hanover.  Friday, I got my first chance to visit the Kangan Foyer in Broadmeadows, about 30 minutes outside the city centre, which last time I was out here was just a concept and a set of drawings the organisations were working on together with me. It was truly magical to see its bold, vibrant colours rise up in the landscape, and then open the front door to the sign ‘welcome home’ hanging in reception. 

The Foyer is the only service that has been fully shaped through Advantaged Thinking and Open Talent concepts from the very outset, so what you see in the building design, the staffing, the programme, and the community of young people, is an expression of the philosophies in practice.

And what a sight it is: space, light, colour, welcoming faces, bundles of activity, places to do things, and all the vibrant chaos that makes a community alive and real.  With a huge kitchen area as the hub of the service, a beautiful patio with views of the hills, and a mixed group of young people from different backgrounds, you immediately feel part of a positive family setting. Only the young people here are all called students – and the point becomes very clear that this is about a collegiate environment to learn and develop in, with access to all the facilities of the local college that shares the same land area.

I was able to join in a session with the students talking about what they thought the values of the Foyer are.  I’ve always judged a Foyer from how the people living and working inside interact with you as a person, and I was gripped by the quality of the exchange in the session just as much as in the informal conversations over a barbecue. The values recognised ranged from being bold, aspirational and imaginative, to strength, consistency and honesty, to teamwork, approachability and respect, to diversity and kindness, openness and intuition. It was an amazing choice of words from an amazing group of people. Who wouldn’t want to live among them?


One of the messages I am here to share on my trip is the importance of using our values to invest real value in young people.  Adult institutions often think they are the guardian of values, but the reality is that we lose sight of what our values mean, until we become their antithesis in what we do and how we behave to each other.  Look at some of our mean spirited social policies, and the competition between organisations in the charity sector, and you see exactly what happens when we lose our grip on what defines us as humans. Maybe it’s the young people, the students of the Kangan Foyer, who can best remind us of what we have lost in the baggage of growing up.  If values mean anything, they are defined in how we create communities where we all feel at home.


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