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A bill of rights for the next generation: What do you think?

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

Here’s a new idea which we are starting to think about.  Would it be useful, what might it contain and how could we make it work? We would welcome your opinion.

A Bill of Rights for Future Generations.

The Early Action Task Force is working in several ways to create the conditions, the understanding and the resources for early action to thrive. Our work is very practical. It is about doing what we can in the prevailing context – political, financial, cultural and legislative.  We wouldn’t want to abandon this pragmatic and practical approach but we are also thinking about opening up a new front:

The problem we want to solve:

We have a settled government with a political narrative that is dominated by Brexit. There are glimpses of other interests such as the PMs Shared Society speech but these are infrequent and insubstantial.

The opposition has very little influence.

It seems unlikely that either of the above will change before the next general election.

In this stasis we can support front line work and help to influence individual policies but building a society where problems are routinely prevented is an ambitious long term goal which will not be reached solely with the small pragmatic steps. We need to also think much harder about how we radically influence the direction of travel. We need to find a way of moving the conversation on to the big vision.

A bill of rights for the next generation.

All political parties need to offer a future that is better than the past but need and capacity are on irreconcilable trajectories. Likewise consumption and sustainability. Food banks, student loans, generation rent, trolleys in A and E, people sleeping on the streets – in different ways these are all symbols of a society that is moving backwards, not forwards. There is a political imperative, as well as a social, economic and moral obligation, for politicians to find a way of promising a better future, not as a rhetorical aspiration, but as a set of rights with a plausible plan for delivering them.

Suppose we began to talk about a Bill of Rights for Future Generations to fundamentally change how government thinks and behaves. Suppose we imagine the Bill as the set piece of the first Queens speech from the next government in three years’ time. It would be the world’s most far sighted and ambitious programme for ensuring a better future for our children.

Some of the ideas which we have discussed regularly on this blog would have a place (Ten year planning, transition goals, an Office for Future Generations, early action testing, a Next Generation Investment fund etc) but, to justify the billing it would need to be significantly more ambitious.

Leading that conversation

Suppose we think of this goal as a way of inspiring a different conversation over the course of the next few years.  The big objective would be extraordinary. Some more limited gains on the way would be worthwhile.

How would it be framed and what would it contain?

Please post your comments below in the usual way or mail me directly at david.robinson@community-links.org

Living our values in 2017

Wednesday, 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)

Let there be hope

Monday, 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

Friday, 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.

 photo Tackling racism at its root_zpssrwfy8cx.jpg

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.

 

The Second Revolution

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

The driver of the 214 bus last night greeted us warmly, stepped off the bus to help a passenger who was partially sighted, roared with laughter when he played the recorded message that says “no standing up stairs” and then explained the joke (you had to be there, the 214 is a single decker), thanked us for travelling on his bus and, at the end of the route, wished us all a safe journey home.  As we motley strangers traipsed round from Finsbury Square to Liverpool street station we talked about what a nice man he was and said good night to one another.  The driver of the 214 had built a community in five bus stops.

Of course all this was very trivial and transitory, but I don’t suppose I am the only passenger who has wondered today how different life might be if all our routine interactions were infused with such humour and humanity.

As it happens I had been reading on the bus Gaby Hinsliff’s Guardian piece about the “Internet of Things”. Her sub-heading had tempted me in: “We are a generation struggling to look after elderly relatives. Maybe technology can ease the load?”

The internet of things is essentially the networking of everyday devices, already allowing the uber cool to start boiling the kettle before they get home and the fridge to order more milk when the bar code isn’t showing on its shelves.  The same kind of technology might be used to send out a message if an elderly relative hasn’t followed their usual routine.  Hinsliff imagines how useful this might be in a world where the “harassed care worker has 15 minutes to get you fed or bathed or dressed but not all three” and where “the state simply can’t guarantee to look after older people in any half-decent manner and nor in many cases can their children”.

Hinsliff isn’t wrong about the children, or the state or the harassed care worker but surely if we think smart white goods are the answer here then we haven’t understood the roots or the dimensions of the crisis. In recent years technology has swept into every corner of our lives. Every transaction is automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctors appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. Our organisations and our social systems are more efficient but less human. We are more atomised and automated, more comfortable with technology but more remote from one another.  We spend 10 hours or more, every day, looking at a screen.

The internet and all that it has spawned are wonderful things transforming our lives in many positive ways but they are just that – things, not a replacement for human relationships.  Our generation is allowing technological progress to become so disconnected from social progress that we are rapidly approaching the point where the damage it does will exceed the good that it serves.

We are not the first to reach this kind of disjunction. The industrial revolution is the obvious comparison. It wasn’t only about entirely new ways of working but also about entirely new ways of living. At first the essentially rural population struggled to adapt but in time our great great grandparents began to learn how to embrace and exploit the advantages of industrial progress and  how to manage and redress the disadvantages.  This, the second, social revolution, was no less seismic and significant in the evolution of our society than its industrial predecessor.

This is not a silly plea for the techies to slow down. It is a hurry up call for the second revolution. Every pound that is spent on the universities, the industries, the speculative punts that are driving the technology should be matched by another. These funds should be dedicated to reimagining the world in the light of our enhanced capacities and to directing the revolutionary forces in ways which don’t undermine our essential humanity but which value, sustain and develop it.

If we don’t, and if it is to be only the kettle that notices when I am dying at home on my own, I think I might prefer to be left to get on with it.

What do Community Links and the punk movement have in common?

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Community Links is turning 40 in 2017. That means we’re a few months younger than the punk movement, whose 40th anniversary is currently being celebrated. 

While Community Links may admittedly have little in common with the Sex Pistols, the beliefs animating this charity’s founders and the rather more legendary Sid Vicious were rooted in the same decade of forgotten industrial peripheries and broken ideals that followed the 1960s, with their passionate rejection of postwar injustice, their popular struggles, the widespread student demonstrations and all the local-yet-global mass protests. The ultimate goal of this – then small – group of activists from east London might have been justice for all rather than a rebellious call for anarchy in the UK, but the irreverence and DIY ethos animating some of the first actions organised by Community Links had perhaps something to share with the ripped-up T-shirts and gravity-defying mohawks that still define the punk era.

“With £360 we bought an aging Routemaster, unscrewed the seats, sold them, bought art supplies, knocked in some benches and a couple of moveable tables,” remembers David Robinson of those early years. The bus could soon be seen parked on council estates around Newham, as a diverse group of community workers, activists and volunteers entertained children, listened to people and gave advice. When, in the early 1980s, the tower blocks campaign was set up in collaboration with local residents who were tired of being isolated in low-quality, high-rise forms of social housing that tended to sway in the wind, the loudspeaker became Community Links’ most prized possession; leaflets and other campaigning material were hand-drawn, glued together and published as zines; and protest strategies also included gathering a group of people, having them dress up as cardboard blocks and shout loudly, at the demolition of two high-rise estates, “2 down, 107 to go!”

Radical beliefs and radical action required radical means. If the system wasn’t working, the only way to escape alienation was to go back to the roots, back to the people, back to the community. To do something radical yourself. To do-it-yourself.

A lot has changed since then. Forty years are a long time for a human life, let alone in the existence of an organisation. The Greater London Council, Europe, Thatcherism, Gordon Brown and the coalition meant doors were opened then shut abruptly; that funding abounded then was hard to come by. Community Links has indeed grown then shrunk again, but that initial DIY sensitivity still pervades it – though it’s expressed in different styles, ways and forms. The work on how third sector organisations should live their values, published in the mid 2000s, is one such example: “It was produced as a report,” says Richard McKeever, who oversaw much of Community Links’ editorial output through the years, “but it has a toolkit at the back. It’s go-and-do-it-yourself stuff.” Not too different from some of those early National Tower Blocks Directories, which included constructive stories of empowerment and how-to guides on a wide range of topics, from getting rid of cockroaches to regenerating green spaces on high-rise estates.

And it’s precisely these local stories, these ground-up perspectives, these simple human insights into complex social issues that have characterised the work of Community Links since 1977, while the political context has continued to change around. Gone are the days when the charity resembled more a spontaneous movement than a mainstream organisation, and the same is true for punk – which last summer was curated into exhibitions at the British Fashion Council and the British Library. But structural definitions aside, the imagination of those who’ve participated in both likely remains the same. It remains radical; it remains open to rejecting and reinterpreting the system as a whole if needed; it remains focused on the acquired awareness that alternative – and sometimes more effective – solutions can be found in the pragmatic knowledge of local communities. That’s why Community Links has never ceased to gather stories, amplify the voices of the disempowered, propose constructive narratives, bring local people in touch with Downing Street, and Downing Street in touch with Newham. And that’s also why we’ve been working, for the past five months, on a book that will hopefully act as a collection of thoughts, recollections and learning narrated through the voices of some of the people who have interacted with Community Links for the past four decades. To inspire, despite the adverse context stifling most changemakers today, a different policy framework. A systemic, go-and-do-it-yourself type of framework.

The book will be released next year, in time for our 40th anniversary celebrations. Keep checking this blog for updates!

‘A country that works for everyone’ requires investment in our social infrastructure

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

The government’s new mantra, ‘a country that works for everyone’, was the central theme of the Chancellor’s speech at the Conservative party conference yesterday. However, whilst his analysis of why we voted for Brexit – “large parts of our country feel left behind” – and the uncertainty it evokes was convincing, his answers to these problems were less so.

In contrast to many other commentators, I was left with a feeling of déjà vu after watching his speech. True, he seems less keen on blindly pursuing austerity than his predecessor and perhaps more amenable to increasing investment, but the apparent focus of this potential investment drive remains similar to George Osborne’s; Hammond signalled that it would largely comprise of “targeted public investment in high value [physical] infrastructure”. However, as we argued following the previous Chancellor’s Spending Review last year, it would be a wasted opportunity to invest in physical infrastructure alone.

A missed opportunity

If this government truly wants to deliver “an economy that works for everyone… not just for today, but for future generations too” then we must also increase investment in our country’s social infrastructure. This can be anything from enabling children to be ready for school, to ensuring that people who leave prison are provided with jobs, friends and houses to prevent them from re-offending. Alongside important physical and economic infrastructures this is what will yield the greatest amount of prosperity, as argued by many contributors to our A Question of Growth blog series earlier this year (a summary of which you can read here. In the language of the Early Action Task Force: investing wisely and early in social wellbeing yields a triple dividend: thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.

To date previous governments have consistently failed to deliver on this front, but with the delayed time-frame for implementing austerity we now have the perfect opportunity to ensure that this government does not follow the same path.

Investing in society

It is clear that the Chancellor has already decided he wants to invest more, so now the fundamental question is in what? In his speech he rightly celebrated the potential for a long term vision enabled by the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission, the remit of which is to “prioritise and plan… test value for money… [and] ensure that every penny spent on infrastructure is properly targeted to deliver maximum benefit”. It is just a shame that this is narrowly focused on physical infrastructure alone.

It would be a bold yet sensible to widen its remit or set up a whole new commission on early action investment: identifying those areas where investment in our nation’s social infrastructure could yield the greatest returns and then ensuring that money is available to enable individuals and communities to reach their potential. This is the only way that the new government can deliver a “strong, prosperous economy” that “works for everyone”, addressing those all-important ‘burning injustices’ identified by the Prime Minister in her inaugural speech.

Partnership success that builds brighter futures for young people

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

Last night Community Links and our corporate partners Bank of New York Mellon won the Corporate Community Local Involvement Charity Times Award for our Future Links employability programme.

Since 2009 this fantastic project has enabled hundreds of young people furthest from the labour market to develop the necessary skills to progress into work or further education, with 85% of our graduates moving into a positive destination.

Our CEO, Arvinda Gohil, who attended the awards, said:

“I am delighted at this result, many congratulations and well done to everyone who was involved and continues to be involved in this great partnership. My particular thanks and congratulations to the young people who have participated in this programme and made it such a success over the last 8 years.”        

Key to the programme’s success is the longstanding partnership and support of our corporate sponsor BNY Mellon. Long-term partnerships with companies are invaluable to organisations like Community Links, enabling us to plan ahead, build our sustainability and innovate. This national recognition of the strong local partnership we’ve developed provides an opportunity to reflect on what’s key to a successful relationship between a charity and a company.

Future Links supports young people aged between 16-19 years old who live in Newham and who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). The training is focused on building the confidence, resilience, networks and skills of our young people and supporting them through the job application process. Alongside being the sole funder of Future Links, BNY Mellon plays an important role in the programme delivery. Participants visit their offices twice during each 10 week course – receiving support from employees with their CVs and interview skills and attending a graduation celebration at the end.

Future Links success would not be possible without the support of BNY Mellon and our skilled and committed programme staff, who dedicate so much time, energy and enthusiasm to the young people they work with. At the end of the day, Future Links’ success is a reflection on the hundreds of young people who have worked so hard over the years, and who have built brighter futures for themselves, their families and their communities.

Champions of the Shengha

Monday, September 26th, 2016

You could be looking at  the game Champions of the Shengha and the book “Change the world for a fiver” for quite some time before you noticed any connection. That is exactly how we would want it to be.

Both are bright, attractive and original products highly competitive and desirable in their own markets but there is more: both are explicitly designed to drive positive behaviour change, to influence social and cultural norms and to help prevent complex, expensive problems.

The first was a little book that reached number 3 in the Sunday Times best seller list and sold over one million copies in 2004. It was effectively 50 public service announcements presented in a style that was modern, engaging, irreverent, challenging and fun. It was produced by the then new Community Links project called We Are What We Do and was probably the first consumer product explicitly designed to “nudge” – to change behaviour but not through threat or exhortation. Steve Hilton was one of the volunteers who helped with the creative work. He was so inspired by the idea that when he rocked up at No 10 as David Cameron’s principal adviser six years later he established, in Downing Street, the government’s own Behavioural Change Unit

The equally successful and ground breaking “I’m not a plastic bag” designer tote bag followed – a collaboration with market leader Anya Hindmarch. Gradually our learning and thinking advanced and the products and the process became more subtle and sophisticated.  The project became an independent social enterprise applying a, by now, well tested  and rigorous research, design and venture building process to issues like mental illness, poor diets, social isolation and energy inefficiency. We Are What We Do changed its name to Shift, I am still the chair and Champions of the Shengha is our latest offering.

We have been developing “Champions” through our purpose built BfB Labs. Here we have been pioneering emotionally responsive gaming as a way to increase resilience to mental health problems amongst young people. After 3 years of R&D, we are launching our first product today. Champions of the Shengha, trains and rewards players for controlling their emotional state. This is tracked through a unique wireless wearable device which we call the BfB Sensor. Our recent independent clinical trial on the game not only showed that participants loved playing it, but that it could effectively train emotional regulation skills and that the young people quickly started to apply these skills in their everyday lives.

We think the game is groundbreaking and the potential is huge. Online gaming is an enormous market. Many of the existing games are compelling, even addictive. Clear and uncontested evidence shows that regular playing of these games affects our behaviour and damages our mental health particularly in the vulnerable adolescent years. Champions of the Shenga doesn’t just mitigate these dangers it turns them upside down – it is also compelling and fun and commercially competitive but it builds rather than reduces the players emotional resilience and it improves rather than damages their mental health.

We are launching Champions through crowdfunding on Indiegogo  today. It may all seem a long way from Community Links and a funny little book but its roots are here and its purpose is our purpose. Please take a look at  Indiegogo, join us if you possibly can and be sure to spread the word.

Going beyond the food banks

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

“To search for solutions to hunger means to act within the principle that the status of a citizen surpasses that of a mere consumer.” City of Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

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At Tuesday’s report launch from the Trussell Tust, the Q&A focused on what can be done to prevent the rise in foodbanks. Currently, according to the findings of the report, our welfare system not only fails to prevent problems before they arise, it also struggles to deal with crisis. At Community Links we see this every day, with clients often needing food parcels due to benefit delays or some other crisis. The use of foodbanks continues to rise despite a reduction in sanctions, and it appears that foodbanks are increasingly being incorporated into the welfare system, as we previously feared.

Quite rightly, the discussion covered the need for the DWP to improve the benefits system as well as the expansion of foodbanks remits to include wider support and advice on debts, budgeting, and developing coping strategies. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that calls for central government to improve our welfare system are somewhat undermined by other crisis-causing policies. So what would an early action framework for food look like?

The city that ended hunger

The Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, known as the ‘city that ended hunger’, declared food a ‘right of citizenship’ in 1993. A city agency involving local people was established to devise solutions to end food poverty, including directly linking up farmers and consumers, establishing low-cost, high-quality ‘people’s restaurants’, and enabling extensive community and school gardens as well as nutrition classes.

In only ten years, Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate—widely used as evidence of hunger—by more than half, and today the initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. In the same ten years, Belo Horizonte was the only locality in Brazil which saw a rise in the consumption of fresh fruit and veg and local small scale producers increased their revenue despite farmers in the rest of the country seeing incomes drop by almost 50%. The cost of these efforts? Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget. That’s about a penny a day per Belo resident.

Reasons to be hopeful?

A differing economic and agricultural context means that the Belo Horizonte model may be difficult to directly replicate in the UK. Yet it demonstrates that significant action can be taken to reduce food poverty despite an unfavourable national context.

In the UK, the burgeoning ‘food sovereignty’ movement is equipping communities with the means of producing their own food, thereby reducing barriers to fresh fruit and veg in spite of spiralling food prices, and simultaneously delivering multiple social, emotional and health benefits. For example, the Women’s Environmental Network is running a number of projects in Tower Hamlets which are empowering local women to work together to access affordable fresh food, whilst improving their physical and mental wellbeing and combating social exclusion.

Of course, such projects are generally small-scale and the structural conditions in which they operate, such as deprivation and job insecurity, also need to be addressed to achieve lasting change. Sustain’s campaign, ‘Beyond the Foodbank’, calls on central government to improve the benefits system, but also advocates for local living wages and city-level partnerships to address the root causes of food poverty in their locality.

This kind of systems change is already ongoing at Brighton & Hove City Council, who have relatively recently adopted a Food Poverty Strategy and Action Plan, co-produced with the local population and delivered by a wide range of local agencies. The plan has a distinct flavour of early action, recognising that the city needs to address food poverty now to save major costs later on arising from poor mental and physical health, poor educational attainment, obesity and malnutrition. Promisingly, a number of other councils have since replicated the model.

From passive recipients to active citizens

Evidently, whilst central government continues to deny any link between issues with benefits and the rise in food banks, there are still actions we can undertake to reduce food poverty; building people’s resilience and enabling them to lead thriving lives. Services shouldn’t reduce people to passive recipients but enable them to have active control over their own lives so they’re prepared to deal with setbacks and seize opportunities as they arise. And emergency food aid should remain just that.