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What are you for Mr Hammond?

February 23rd, 2017

8 Months after he picked up the keys to No11 it is difficult to discern any clear pattern or purpose to Philip Hammond’s Chancellorship.

His most decisive action to date has been to cancel the annual ritual of a spring budget. The one he presents to the House in two weeks’ time will be the last. In future the budget is to be rolled into the autumn statement and delivered before Christmas. It’s a sensible reform but scarcely spectacular. On all matters economic the Chancellor has ceded visibility, if not control, not only to the PM but also to other ministers, particularly Boris Johnson, even to David Davies. March the 8th will be his moment in the sun and a chance to answer the question “what is Philip Hammond for?”

On taking office last July the new Chancellor spoke about a “new phase” for the economy. Contrary to some of the reporting at the time and some of the comment that has filled the void since then, he didn’t say that austerity was over but that it was “right to review the pace at which the government balanced the books.”  Is that review now completed? And if so will he be challenging the conclusion of the IFS Green Budget which claimed last week that “The rate of reduction (in levels of day-to-day public service spending) is set to speed up after this year, with cuts of nearly 4% due between 2016–17 and 2019–20”?

This matters because it is these kinds of numbers that have led Lord Porter the chairman of the LGA, to warn this week that services supporting very vulnerable people are “at breaking point”.  Lord Porter, the Conservative leader of South Holland in Lincolnshire, subsequently said he was “hugely disappointed” by the funding settlement for councils which was set out by the Communities Secretary in a written statement  to parliament yesterday: “As we continue to bring the deficit down” wrote Sajid Javid “local government, must continue to play its part”.

Trolleys in corridors have become a familiar picture on the front pages this winter and such has been the level of disquiet on the government’s own benches that the Chancellor will surely have something in the budget for the NHS. Anything less will risk mutiny. But doctors and hospitals are part of an ecology of care that reaches out through domiciliary services, reduces need through strong public health programmes and builds resilience and wellbeing through a diverse range of community services.  So the question is not about whether Mr Hammond responds to the crisis but about whether he sticks a bandage on the creaking fabric of an acute sector that faces irreconcilable trajectories of demand and resource or  becomes the first chancellor to really grip the necessity for prevention and for a cross government “need reduction strategy” stretching beyond the NHS, into other arms of government, particularly local government, and on to the community sector where some of the most effective (and cost effective) work is already going on. Our own work on a community development approach to the early detection of cancer for instance has increased the take up of cancer screening appointments in east London by 15%.

Clinicians at the huge and ferociously overworked London Hospital just down the road from Community Links tell me that one in five beds are taken up by patients whose condition is caused by, or seriously exacerbated by, diabetes. We know that more than half of all Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed by simple life style changes and the most basic early action. Ultimately it is only a sustained investment in this kind of preventative work that will enable our hospital, and the many others like it, to deliver the high quality acute services that they should be delivering.

The budget that the Chancellor is writing could buy enough new trolleys to placate his own side of the House for a few months more or it could set out the simple but ground breaking measures for the longer term transition to a preventative economy that I suggested in my address to the All Party Parliamentary Group last year  and that we have detailed in the various publications of the Early Action Task Force. It’s time to decide Mr Hammond. What are you for?

Fake relationships and Revolution 3.2

February 13th, 2017

The launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission a couple of weeks ago attracted more media attention than might be expected for such an event. No doubt this was largely due to the appalling circumstances of its genesis: Ms Cox was deeply concerned about the issue and was planning the commission at the time of her murder. MPs Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are now carrying forward the work that she began.

However I don’t think the tragic association accounts for all the attention: As I have written previously, at least one in five Brits are lonely often or all of the time. Loneliness is a twenty first century  plague and although almost all the press coverage over the last two weeks has focused on  older people this is, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, a misleading emphasis.  Study after study has shown that no age or social group is immune.

 

We have been thinking about the early action contribution to this conversation. Our Early Action in Later Life report stirred passions in 2014 with the assertion that “befriending schemes are to social isolation what food banks are to poverty”.

We meant no disrespect to befriending schemes or to Food Banks, both are an essential response to a crisis, but neither, on their own, offer a long term solution. Alongside the remedial work we need a deeper, longer term approach to redressing the causes of loneliness.  Just as we must ask “why are so many people hungry?” and tackle those issues, so too must we ask “why are so many people lonely?” and confront the causes

This takes us into the wider issue of social isolation which we need to address not only to beat loneliness but also to boost educational performance, enhance economic opportunity and social mobility, reduce health inequalities, improve social cohesion and indeed do almost everything that really matters.

And, far from making progress on social isolation, we are not even moving in the right direction. Instead we are, as Alvin Toffler wrote, “experiencing the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.  Our every transaction is now automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctor’s appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those that we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. And we have devalued our understanding of the concept of “relationships” to the point where I travel to Birmingham and Virgin Trains assure me that they “value our relationship”.

Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.

Across the sweep of history this sequence is not unfamiliar. First the agrarian, then the industrial revolutions disrupted social patterns and called for new ways of behaving individually and collectively. Social change followed but it took a while. Now we are again in the catch up phase. Part 3.2 as it were, of the technological revolution that has so transformed our lives in recent years.

We have to tackle the scourge of social isolation by fixing the cause. To do that we must begin with a two part question:

First, what is a real relationship?  I think it is one that nourishes with depth and meaning.  It is between people, possibly facilitated by a machine or an organisation but not with a machine or an organisation. And it is about more than kindness or reciprocity, empathy or solidarity although it is all these things. It may be closest to what in Africa is known as Ubuntu – “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life” Desmond Tutu.

And then, what is a real 21st century relationship? We can’t rewind the clock even if we wanted to. Our generation’s big challenge is to fathom out how we use and benefit from the recent advances in ways which don’t devalue our essential humanity but which value, sustain and enrich it.

Voluntary organisations like ours don’t have all the pressing mandatory duties of a statutory authority. We have the freedom, and with the freedom a responsibility, to try to understand not just how we manage or ameliorate a problem but how we build a better society. I’m not sure what Revolution 3.2 should look like but I do think  we should try to free the space to think about it not least because, as Dr Toffler also said, You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Living our values in 2017

February 8th, 2017

Life begins at 40, or at least our next adventure does.

Michael and Arvinda, our chair and Chief Executive announce today that Community Links is joining with the family of Catch22. This will give us the opportunity to develop our innovative work within the enhanced security of a bigger group and to work on a bigger canvas but without compromise to purpose or principle. We will continue as a separate organisation within the group, driven by our own values, retaining our brand identity and charity number and responsibility for our own work programme, staff and finances.

Catch22 make us look young! Its antecedents reach back to 1788. The modern organisation now runs a wide range of social welfare projects with local authorities and other commissioners across the UK. It is big, good and well-respected.

On stepping down as CEO of Save the Children Fund last year Justyn Forsyth said “If charities are not prepared to change, we will, in turn, be less able to change the world.” We at Community Links agree. “To generate change” is the first line in our statement of purpose and this continuous commitment to learning and evolution must apply as much to ourselves as it does to the world around us.

So our new partnership is an important change and a bold step but it is also a natural one for Community Links. Collaboration has always been at the heart of our model – collaborating in our own community and collaborating with business and with government, even when both have been unfashionable in the third sector.

We are doing it now because radical change and committed collaboration is needed more than ever: I noted in my Christmas blog that we entered 2016 with business leaders predicting economic recovery but with austerity and reckless disregard still demolishing the public realm. Local authorities were confronting impossible choices and anticipating imminent crises for social care and other essential services. Abject poverty was more accepted (witness the development of Food Banks), more intractable and also more visible than at any time in my working life. The 16% increase in the number of rough sleepers in 2016 announced last week is the latest evidence but surely no surprise to anyone who walks at night through any UK town or city centre.

The PM began 2017 with encouraging words about a “shared society” but these as yet shapeless aspirations are scant consolation to set alongside the brutal choices now facing managers in our council services, hospitals and government departments.

We at Community Links have changed our delivery models, increased our independent fundraising and reorganised our teams repeatedly since 2010. We are proud of the good things we have achieved in this difficult period but under no illusions. On a budget shorn of Legal Aid, New Deal and almost all local authority funding we do significantly less.

I wrote here last year about my profound sadness and anger at the loss of experienced people and valuable projects but surrendering to sentiment is a craven indulgence. Wiser by far to regroup and renew the charge. Community Links is still a big organisation. We could just reorganise again for the new financial year, thousands of charities across the UK do great work with far less, but we don’t think battling on in isolation optimises our assets. In this extraordinarily challenging environment we can do better together. That’s what will be getting me out of bed in the morning now, determined to advance again in the new alliance.

Important things won’t change. We decided when we began that a sense of local ownership was crucial to a model that was all about helping people help themselves. At the same time we believed that the learning from our local experience could be of value to other practitioners and should also be shared with policy makers and politicians. Community Links developed a special mix of the local and the national that has characterised our work ever since. This won’t change.

Going forward with an organisation that has a far bigger footprint and greater financial stability will enable Community Links to sustain those crucial local services, to connect with new networks and to continue to innovate and contribute to the wider business of making the world a better place. It is a smart, pragmatic alliance but it is also much more than that: The new arrangement will enable the future stewards of our organisation, to continue to live the values that have made us what we are. This matters partly because we believe that moral certainty is always important and particularly because we think it will be even more important in the years ahead:

When Community Links started the public, the private and the voluntary were clearly separate sectors. Now charities are anxious to be seen to be “business like”, businesses to stress how much they care and statutory services to do both. New forms like CICs and B.Corps, mutuals and social enterprises further muddy the waters. Indeed two of Community Links own most successful ventures in recent years are now an independent free school (Education Links) and a charitable foundation building social businesses (Shift).

In this crowded arena there will be no enduring logic in ministers pledging support exclusively to the voluntary sector or independent funders supporting only registered charities. Don’t look in the Mem and Arts for the distinguishing signifiers in the future, find them in the beliefs and behaviours.

As we enter this big birthday year at Community Links we believe that the values that have served us well since 1977 can be most effectively sustained and fulfilled through partnership with Catch22.  This is, for us, the forward thinking, 2017 way:

“To generate change. To tackle causes not symptoms, find solutions not palliatives. To recognise that we all need to give as well as to receive and to appreciate that those who experience a problem understand it best. To act local but think global, teach but never stop learning. To distinguish between the diversity that enriches our society and the inequalities that diminish it. To grow – but all to build a network not an empire. To be driven by dreams, judged on delivery. To never do things for people but to guide and support, to train and enable, to simply inspire.” (The Community Links statement of purpose)

Community Links to deliver Money Advice Service – What Works Fund project

January 31st, 2017

Community Links will be embedding financial capability into three existing programmes, supporting young people and unemployed BAME women.

 

Projects across the UK, including Community Links will receive new funding from the Money Advice Service, helping tens of thousands of people manage their money better.

Today, the Money Advice Service announced funding for 26 projects, with more to follow in the coming months. The projects, which cover every region of the UK, are being funded from the Money Advice Service’s new £7m What Works Fund. Funded projects will reach thousands of people – from younger people in school, to students and from working age adults to those in retirement.

Community Links will provide financial capability in a holistic and integrated model

Our aim is to embed financial capability support into three of our core projects:

  1. Talent Match London: works with young people facing the biggest barriers to securing work, training or further education opportunities and supports them into positive destinations. It is an innovative youth-led model that provides a mixture of personalised 1-2-1 support, peer support and group work to help young people achieve fulfilling careers. Young people can be supported for up to two years and the programme is highly flexible and driven by young people themselves.
  2. Future Links: is a 10 week employability programme supporting NEET young people into work, training or further education. Activities include CV preparation, apprenticeship/job search and interview techniques.
  3. Building Better Opportunities: A new programme to support unemployed BAME women into work through a mixture of group sessions and 1-2-1 support over a period of 6-8 weeks. The programme is designed to be flexible and adaptable to individuals, as such we would expect some to engage with the programme for much longer.

We know that levels of financial capability remain stubbornly low – four out of ten adults are not in control of their finances and around 16.8 million working age people have less than £100 in savings.

However, very little evidence currently exists on the best way to address this issue. That is why the What Works Fund aims to build evidence and to establish the interventions which best help people to manage their money. Ultimately, the aim is to scale up the most effective projects in order to improve the levels of financial capability of millions of people across the UK.

Arvinda Gohil, Chief Executive of Community Links, said:

 “Helping individuals to improve their overall circumstances, as well as breaking cycles of debt, is what Community Links responds to daily. We are delighted to be able to work with the Money Advice Service in advancing the knowledge and understanding of what works well in improving people’s financial capability.”

“This funding will allow us to further integrate our early action model of preventing problems from arising by embedding financial capability support into our existing services for young people and unemployed BAME women. We hope that results from this work will help to re-design more targeted and efficient money management interventions across the UK.”

Caroline Rookes, Chief Executive for the Money Advice Service said: “There is an urgent need to help people gain the skills and confidence they need to make good decisions about their money day to day. The insights from these projects will be vital, helping organisations to channel their efforts in the right places and to fund and deliver interventions that we know make a real difference. A collective approach is needed to really tackle the issues that underpin low financial capability in the UK.”

David Haigh, Director of Financial Capability at the Money Advice Service comments: “We know that millions of people across the country are one unexpected bill away from seeing their finances spiral out of control – and for those who are already vulnerable, that risk is exacerbated. We want to build evidence on how we can get these people to engage with their financial situation and avoid them ending up in problem debt or with other financial difficulties.”

More information

  • Read the full press release about the MAS What Works Fund and other projects they are funding across the UK

Contact:
Michelle Clark, Communications Officer
Tel: 0207 473 9658
Email: Michelle.Clark@Community-Links.org

Nurturing relationships: The test of a shared society

January 16th, 2017

How many contacts do you have stored on your phone? The head of an adolescent mental health unit once told me that his patients typically had 6 to 10 contacts listed and most of those people were likely to be professional helpers like himself. Social isolation could be both a cause and a consequence of his young patient’s ill health. It was certainly a common characteristic.

I was thinking about this when I read about the Age Concern research published last week revealing that “Half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week”.

And whilst we are on the subject of alarming numbers an Action for Children survey of 2,000 parents in 2015 found that almost a quarter said they ‘always or often’ felt lonely.

Social isolation is not a problem for the young or for the old. It is a galloping crisis for us all

Last week we wondered on this blog whether a “shared society” is empty rhetoric or the PM’s genuine intention. If the phrase has any serious substance our collective ability to reconnect with one another, or at least to reverse the trends, must surely be the test.

The consequences may vary – loneliness, ill health, long term unemployment etc. – but the roots are the same. School performance, economic opportunities, physical and mental health, and ultimately life expectancy are all substantially influenced by the strength and depth of our social connections. Very few of us glide effortlessly through life without ever experiencing any difficulty. Our capacity for coping and bouncing back depends in part on our readiness, our acquired skills and strengths, and in part on the support around us, the networks and relationships which sustain and recharge us.

We often make the case for early action but nowhere is it more self-evidently essential. As the Early Action Task Force has noted befriending schemes are important but not sufficient. They are to loneliness what food banks are to poverty – an essential response to a crisis but not a long term solution. The early action response to isolation would involve a commitment to sustained community building throughout the life course – essentially what much of Community Links work on the ground has been all about for almost 40 years.

As we explored on this blog a few weeks ago technology has, in recent years, swept into every corner of our lives often, in the process, sweeping out friendships and relationships. We think people change lives, not transactions. Valuing and developing this element of deep value in our services here, and working to embed it more broadly across the public domain is another long standing priority for Community Links and now more urgent than ever.

The most useful work experience placements or internships are invariably shared across “warm networks” and as many as 8 out of 10 new jobs go to people known to the employer. The old cliché about it not being “what you know but who you know” is still a fair comment on the state of social mobility and, more broadly, on the distribution of opportunity in communities like ours. Building networks, and nurturing the confidence to negotiate them, is the focus of Community Links programmes like Future Links which won a Charity Times Award last October. It isn’t rocket science but it is important and it does work.

Incidental Connections showed that there is no single right way to build communities and to nurture effective and meaningful relationships but doing it better in 2017 may well be the single highest priority for organisations like ours, Jobcentres, GPs, police officers, schools, and indeed any agency in the public domain. Whether Theresa May is, or is not, seriously committed to building a shared society, we should be.

We can’t address ‘the burning injustice of mental illness’ without proper social investment

January 10th, 2017

Yesterday Theresa May made some welcome announcements about the government’s future direction on preventing mental illness and promoting positive mental health.

She rightly identified that not only is mental health a social justice issue, but that the best way to improve it is by making it “an everyday concern for all of us, and in every one of our institutions”. Taking an early action approach is therefore imperative to preventing mental illness, and in doing so “transforming the way we deal with mental health problems at every stage of a person’s life”. In doing so she recognises, rhetorically at least, that the current crisis in mental health is as much a social crisis as a medical or funding crisis.

Thriving Minds: Acting early on mental health

Just before Christmas the Early Action Task Force published its latest report looking at how we can act earlier on mental health. Central to the argument of Thriving Minds is that as mental health underpins so many aspects of our lives, we need a far ranging response that goes beyond simply reforming mental health services.

A useful way of thinking about this was best put by report co-author Rosie Hayes, when she asked is mental illness the ‘Great Stink’ of our time? She highlighted that since the 19th century the government has recognised the benefit of investing in physical infrastructure such as the sewer system to improve public physical health, arguing that today we face a comparable situation in mental health. Therefore, similarly to the areas identified by the Prime Minister, we argue in Thriving Minds that schools, the workplace, communities, money, and the criminal justice system are important areas for early action beyond – and in collaboration with – mental health services.

We would also add private renting to the Prime Minister’s list, as renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners. This is largely down to insecurity in the private rented sector, itself a consequence of unaffordability, short-term tenures, and poor living conditions. If we don’t tackle these issues – and the issues identified in the other 5 areas mentioned above – then it is unlikely we will be able to prevent mental illness, let alone promote positive mental health. Legislative approaches like those found in Scotland with the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 and more local initiatives like co-regulation of private landlords are promising starts, but more must be done.

Was it all just rhetoric?

As other commentators have pointed out, we should be sceptical of these pledges – however welcome they are on the surface – when previous governments have at best consistently failed on mental health provision and, at worst, actively damaged it with cuts. David Robinson wrote on our blog yesterday that announcements like this – and Blair’s “Giving Age” – are sometimes pure rhetoric entirely lacking in policy substance. The mere fact that mental health was given such prominence in the Prime Minister’s first proper speech on social policy makes us optimistic, but equally we are wary about aspirational announcements with no new money to back them up. Only time will tell how serious this government really is about addressing our current mental health crisis and, ultimately, long-term investment in key social infrastructure such as schools, the workplace, and communities is the most likely thing to yield a triple dividend: enabling people to lead thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.

The meaning of the shared society

January 9th, 2017

Tony Blair delivered his first Conference speech as PM on October 1st 1997. He mentioned, amongst much else, the advent of the “giving age”.

Early on the morning of the 2nd I received an urgent request from the policy team at No 10 – would I attend a meeting about the “giving age” at 6.30 that night? Excellent, I thought, an early opportunity to understand what the new epoch means for us, the sector and our plans for the New Jerusalem.

I think there were 6 of us at the meeting. It might have been 5. We were asked, by way of introduction to say what we thought the “giving age” might mean. I assumed the challenge was a kind of icebreaker. It turned out to be the purpose of the meeting. Apparently the phrase had been inserted in the speech hours before it was delivered and after the PM had asked for more rhetorical flourishes. Everybody at No 10 was surprised when the press picked up on it. Now the Policy team were being asked to invent the meaning. Quickly.

Unsurprisingly the “giving age” is not generally remembered as Blair’s finest hour . Indeed it is not generally remembered. Full stop.

David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an altogether more considered proposition crafted in opposition and floated in the media long before the election. It also hasn’t been forgotten largely because the PM invested so much personal effort and political capital in sustaining the rhetoric throughout his first term. Despite his perseverance, however, the practical legacy is minimal. Community Organisers and Big Society Capital (BSC) are usually cited as the principal achievements but as the Social Wholesale Bank began life under Gordon Brown before being rebranded as the BSC even this sparse litany is an exaggeration.

Big Society always suffered from being the politically acceptable half of an idea that actually had two parts. In practise it was as much about a smaller state as it was about a bigger society. As I tried to point out in my open letters to David Cameron (which you can read here and here) the simultaneous erosion of so much of the public realm was desperately at odds with the promotion of ideas about community empowerment and social support.

That’s why I am, on first acquaintance, a little more optimistic, although instinctively cautious, about Theresa May’s “shared society” unveiled on Monday. The phraseology at least seems to acknowledge the importance of the state alongside the citizen and civil society. If the linguistic shift is intentional I think it is an important one but I know it is a big if.

As I write on the evening after the PM’s speech, I am fervently hoping that there isn’t a little huddle of worthy souls summoned urgently to stare intently at a blank flip chart in the bowels of Downing Street and to try to fathom out what the devil might be meant by the shared society.

Patrick Jenkin: remembered by David Robinson

December 22nd, 2016

Almost 40 years ago I went to see Lord Jenkin at his constituency surgery. I was endeavouring, unsuccessfully, to get a government grant to help set up what ultimately became Community Links. I realised that a dreamy adolescent with a bit of an idea would never get a meeting with a senior politician in the approved manner so I pretended to be a constituent and just rocked up at the surgery. Patrick Jenkin, as he then was, not only saw me and talked to me at some length but we eventually did get our grant.

Patrick must have realised very early on in our relationship that I didn’t live in Woodford but perhaps he also saw some higher purpose in the shallow deceit. He was consistently kind to me and quietly supportive throughout his life even after it would also have become clear that my personal politics were different from his own.

The death of Lord Patrick Jenkin today reminds me of the true and important line from the maiden speech of Jo Cox, a political rival who we also lost in this fraught and often fractious year “We are far more united, and have far more in common with each other, than the things that divide us”.

Let there be hope

December 19th, 2016

“So this is Christmas, what have we done?”

We entered 2016 with business leaders predicting economic recovery but with austerity still pounding through the public realm, with local authorities particularly in our most hard pressed areas confronting impossible choices and anticipating imminent crises for social care and other essential services, with further deep cuts in the voluntary sector, closures and redundancies almost inevitable and with more evident and abject poverty than at any time in my working life.

Then it got worse. 7 million people in the UK are now officially poor despite being part of a working family. Even the Governor of the Bank of England talks about the “growing sense of isolation and detachment” and “the first lost decade since the 1860s”. He may be overstating the good news. According to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, we are living through the worst period for real earnings growth since the Napoleonic Wars. Here in the Olympic borough of Newham, 34% of the borough’s residents now earn less than the living wage – an increase of 10% since 2010 despite exceptional investment and development. Remember when we thought that Food Banks were for another country and another time?

The numbers are grim but the shift in attitudes is worse. Late last night I bought paracetamol at the little shop down the road. “39 years in the UK and I’ve never had a cold” said the owner. I hoped she wouldn’t catch mine. “No chance” she said “even the germs in London don’t like us now.”

Thirty nine years, the living embodiment of contributing citizens and a hard working family and “even the germs don’t like us now”. The creeping acceptance that it is okay to discriminate and openly despise may not yet be a crisis but the “bend to justice” in Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe has swerved wildly and worryingly in the UK and across the world.

“Another year over, a new one just begun”

I understand why friends tell me that they turn off the TV news. Lately I’ve started to do that too and it scares me more than anything. We have work to do and, difficult though it may seem to be, we must embrace the New Year as another chance, a chance to rediscover hope. Here’s how:

1) You have your special power, use it:

Building a more connected, humane and supportive society isn’t just about money or organisations or governments or global movements. In fact it mainly isn’t. People change lives, one to one, and we can all do that today, person to person, from where we are with what we’ve got. Social isolation and the consequential fear, distrust and misery is a modern epidemic but one that we can personally attack. It is our special power. Do the human things that only you can do.

2) Organise in new ways:

Charities are important but not necessarily the same organisational structures in the same configurations as we have today. Community Links, the organisation with which I have been associated all my working life, has, like many in our sector, shrunk significantly in recent years. As I noted last summer on this blog “we would like to think that when we stop doing things it is either because the job has been completed or because someone else has found a better way of doing it. I realise with a heavy heart that neither apply in this situation”.

After nigh on forty years I feel this personally and painfully but times change and an unforgiving future holds no special refuge for unchanging institutions Far better to rethink, regroup, organise ourselves in new ways and renew the charge than surrender to sentiment.

Rigid tribal structures in our politics must be similarly interrogated. The most widely read progressive blog, Labour List, surveyed the wreckage of Labour’s share of the vote in the Richmond by election and concluded “it was a tough night for Labour but we have no choice other than to fight on for the causes in which we believe”. Really, not a moment of doubt and self-reflection? On a night when Labour hung on to less than 4% of the vote and when the decision of the Green Party, to withdraw its own candidate, was arguably critical to the narrow defeat of a sitting MP who had deliberately driven division with a singularly poisonous mayoral campaign, just six months earlier? This isn’t just about Labour. Across the party spectrum it is time for all of us who care about social progress to organise ourselves in new ways, work together better and worry most about getting the job done, least about who gets the credit.

3) Double down on speaking up:

The global banking crisis wasn’t the wake-up call I thought it might have been. Maybe Brexit will be. The vote wasn’t just a hammering for the political class or even for the business establishment but also for everybody else who never saw it coming. If the impending disentanglement is not informed by a better understanding of the needs of the most disadvantaged it won’t end well for any of us. It is time to speak louder and help other voices to be heard.

With important exceptions, civil society has been losing its voice in recent years. Time was when councils would be ceaselessly implored to not set a rate that couldn’t sustain essential services, when a Wednesday night TV play about one homeless family could spark national and transformational outrage and when charities were expected to disturb as well as to comfort. Now Food Banks are the response to hunger at home, not a Poor People’s March on Parliament, and as some of our most disadvantaged communities begin to feel the loss of European funding or the withdrawal of rights enshrined in EU law I wonder if there won’t be at least some charities in 2017 regretting their fearful silence in the referendum.

Never was there a greater need to educate and influence, to persuade and cajole, to make the case for fairness and justice and, yes, to take on the consequences. Speaking out whenever we have the opportunity in 2017 is not an alternative to practical pragmatic action, both are necessary, but, to again quote Dr King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

4) Tell the story:

Austerity, Brexit and the American election were triumphs for the most effective story tellers if not the best stories. “Stories” wrote Ben Okri “are our secret reservoir of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and we change the individuals and the nations”.

Two kinds of tales nourish optimism – some of the here and now, some of the future. We need to reclaim the dominant line on both, to talk more in the New Year about what we can become with decent wages, decent homes, humane services, kindness for strangers, support for one another, the embrace of opportunities and we need to root this big forward looking story in the hundreds of thousands of little ones about all that we do well now but seldom celebrate.

5) Reclaim Hope in 2017:

I think we are a better society than we have often appeared to be in 2016 and I think a lot of other people think that too. It’s time to do the human things that only we can do. Change the ways we organise and work together. Speak out. Tell the stories. Most of all, because despair ne’er buttered any parsnips, own the promise of the future in 2017, reclaim hope and never let it go.

Tackling racism at its root

November 25th, 2016

The murder of Jo Cox, which led to her killer being given a life sentence on Wednesday, was a shocking reminder of where racist thinking can lead. Yet, despite a concerning rise in far-right activity and hate crime against ethnic minorities, there appears to be little focus on preventing racism from taking root.

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However, one small organisation in Swansea is acting earlier to tackle hate crime and promote better opportunities for young people. Through working with disadvantaged ethnic minority young people, the Ethnic Support Youth Team (EYST) noticed that the young people they worked with were experiencing increasing levels of racism and hate crime. They realised that nearly all the emphasis in this area was on encouraging victims to report hate crime, but little was being done to prevent it from happening. Furthermore, a rise in far-right activity in Swansea highlighted that it was a particular type of young white person being recruited into these organisations: extremely disadvantaged, often excluded from mainstream education, and sometimes within the youth offending system.

In response to this, EYST developed the Think Project, a targeted intervention for 16-25 year olds which mirrored the work they were doing in preventing radicalisation in young Muslims. The project stands out as one of the few programmes in the UK that solely focuses on targeting young white people who are most vulnerable to far-right extremism. Delivered through pupil referral units, youth offending teams, and schools, it is a three day educational programme that combines education about Islam, migrants, and asylum seekers with positive, first-hand experience of diversity. It is delivered by ethnically diverse youth workers and connects the young people with those they have previously feared or misunderstood, hearing their stories and challenging myths.

The importance of learning the facts and gaining these experiences couldn’t be starker. Of the nearly 500 young people that Think Project has worked with in the last four years, over half thought that immigrants make up 50% of the population of Wales before completing the programme, and a quarter believed it was around 75%. The reality is closer to 6%. This distorted perception of reality plays into the hands of far-right groups who claim the country is overrun with immigrants taking our jobs, homes, and benefits. Yet Think Project demonstrates that given the opportunity to learn the facts and gain positive first-hand experience of diversity, these opinions can be challenged. The project’s external evaluation showed that whilst most young people on the programme initially held strong and largely negative views about immigration, asylum and diversity, these views change significantly for the 95% of participants by the end of the programme.

The power of Think project is most clearly demonstrated through the stories of those involved:

‘Kayleigh’ took part in one of the group sessions delivered in Merthyr Tydfil, and by her own admission at the start of the programme, ‘just didn’t like people with different skin colours, didn’t like it when they talked their language, just couldn’t stand them’. After the 3 day programme she said ‘I feel completely different now, we’re all human, we’re all here for different reasons’. After the programme, the Think project workers supported her to take up volunteering opportunities with an international volunteering exchange charity. She thoroughly enjoyed a one week residential volunteering opportunity in Cardiff, meeting people she would never have met in her home town. She is now considering undertaking volunteering abroad with the same charity, something she says she would never have done without the Think Project. She volunteered to speak about the impact of the project at the end of project conference, and has applied to become a community organiser with Hope not Hate.

 

Key to the success of Think Project has been recognising that whilst these young people are potential perpetrators of hate crime, they are also victims of the failures of our education system and society more generally. By providing a safe space where they can air their real and perceived grievances and by treating them with respect, the Think Project enables their views to be debated and challenged without pushing them deeper into prejudice. During the programme, emphasis is placed on improving the participants’ confidence, understanding, and communication skills and once it is completed participants are encouraged to pursue volunteering opportunities. In doing so, Think project is further increasing their resilience to far-right groups as well as increasing their opportunities to thrive.

Think Project sets an example on how to act early to effectively tackle racism and create better outcomes for some of our most vulnerable young people. But it is only a small organisation, and its perception as an ‘add-on’ service means that the issue of funding is a constant challenge. Whilst there are also much wider challenges around poverty and inequality which must also be addressed, it is crucial that schools and educational institutions begin to act earlier on racism, and equip our young people with the tools they need to become positive and active contributors to society. In the words of Jo’s sister, Kim Cox, “Whilst we can’t change what’s happened, we can try and choose how we respond… with love, strength and positivity”.

 

You can read more about Think Project on their project website here.

You can see more examples of early action in our case study gallery.