Day 15: Scottish Refugee Council

April 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Scottish Refugee Council works to help refugees integrate into Scottish society, providing advice on the legal system, teaching English as a foreign language, and giving refugees and asylum seekers a voice in government.

The government is cutting it’s funding by 68%.

Day 15: Patrick Harvie, MSP

April 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Patrick Harvie is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow. We met him in the run up to the Scottish elections – just after being interviewed by BBC Newsnight – to ask him why he wants to see a Robin Hood Tax.

Day 14: Glasgow University Students

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The University of Glasgow, like many universities across the UK, is cutting funding for courses at the same time as increasing fees. We met with current and former students at the Free Heatherington Occupation, a disused building that students have turned into an educational space for all. The students have received lots of support in the media and from students and lecturers across Scotland who also oppose the cuts in higher education.

Can We Have Our Practical Wisdom Back Please?

April 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Great talk from Barry Schwartz. A passionate call for “practical wisdom” as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. Schwartz argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.

Day 11: Bill Nighy Visits London Food Bank

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Day 9: Sure Start Centre In Corby, Northamptonshire

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sure Start centres have been widely acknowledged as one of the most successful pieces of public policy in the last twenty years. The Pen Green Sure Start centre in Corby is one of the country’s best, and has been at the centre of the community for nearly 30 years. Starting out as a family daycare centre, it has grown to be one of the leading research and training facilities with outstanding services for children and families.

The centre offers everything from a crèche for working parents, postnatal depression support, baby massage and family health and well-being. It also does intensive outreach work to reach parts of the community who are easily marginalised like immigrant families. For many people at whom these specific public services are targetted, the council is seen with deep hostility and suspicion. Previous bad experiences in care, at school, or with the police mean that in many cases – those with the greatest need for services like Sure Start end up being the ones excluded. It was amazing to hear the extent to which staff at the centre went beyond their job description to build relationships with people like this – having to accept that this process takes time.

Part of the community – not dictating to it

Working together and participation lie at the heart of the work Pen Green does. Every member of staff, for instance, has to go through a selection process that includes an interview with local parents. Now, a ‘parent’s parliament’ is being set up, which will give parents a voice in the budgeting process meaning that the users of the service will be directing how money is spent.

We met with Margy Walley, the Director of the centre, who explained that when she joined the staff in the late 80′s, parents had protested against the centre – not wanting it to become a hotspot for ‘problem cases’. “It was the best thing that could have happened”, she explains. “It taught me humility. Whenever I, or anyone else, has a smart idea and doesn’t talk it through with the people it would impact – that smart idea fails.” Now she is helping to set up similar centres across Brazil, Australia and further afield.

The future

Over the next three years, this centre is scheduled to lose 56% of it’s funding – essentially gutting it of it’s services. The local MP, a Conservative, has said that the cuts will come in ‘over my dead body’.

In the office, there are banners from the March For the Alternative day of action, a hand-made wall hanging reads ‘Deeds Not Words’, and there is a bake-sale to raise money for the centre when we visit. This community is fighting hard. In a local council meeting – current parents, and former children who’d been at the centre (now 16-25 year old young men and women) gave testimony against the cuts. There have been local protests and plenty of news coverage.

“I know I’m biased, but the kids that come through this centre turn into healthy, balanced, good citizens. A nursery education is a moral education. You learn about right and wrong. You learn respect, fairness and equality. It’s much more than just play-time, it’s the grounding of a political education.”

Are local campaigns having an impact?

It’s a mixed bag. Some are forcing councils/MPs to pass on pressure to central government, others are not squeezing decision makers further than an uncomfortable Friday afternoon surgery.

Often, the communities most able to organise and resist (as any wind-farm developer will tell you) are those with access to money, media and the power to mobilise. In Oxfordshire, largely middle-class people have run a very successful campaign to save local libraries. In Kentish Town, parents have developed a business plan and found a third-sector funder for childcare services. Writing a business plan for a council needs a lot of skills – and not everyone has those.

What does this mean?

As with so many projects – this one is raising as many questions for me as it is giving answers.

1. If we accept that the cuts and welfare reforms are making existing problems worse, what is the best way for us as change-makers to challenge that?

2. Where next for people who came to the March for the Alternative? How can we mobilise across the country with strategic political impact?

3. How do we use this moment to start to rebuild community and address the long-term issues of inequality, class privilege and environmental degradation?

I’d really appreciate any thoughts, ideas or pearls of wisdom you have to share!

Day 10 – Union Street Media Arts

April 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Old Trafford in southwest Manchester used to be a thriving part of the city, with the nearby canal, jam and Vimto factories providing mass employment in the early twentieth century. Now among the 10% most deprived areas in England, suffering problems of unemployment, poor housing and low educational achievement, it also has levels of youth crime well above the national average.

One local project, Union Street Media Arts, is helping teenagers build their skills and keeping them off the streets. Their vision is to increase young people’s ability to speak for themselves and be represented by using the power of media and art. Set up by a young couple, Natasha Boojihawon and Roop Sagar, with a passion for their community – they’ve set themselves up as a social enterprise, using the money from the their professional film production company to pay for the youth work. This means they won’t be directly impacted by government spending cuts, although the young people they work with are seeing cuts in Education Maintenance Allowance and a massive hike in student fees.

Natasha talks us through some of the issues young people face locally – drugs, alcohol, violence – and describes how they use theatre and film to explore those issues. The young people put together entire storyboards, film their script and edit a film all in one three-hour session, and then share the result on YouTube. There aren’t many other youth services in the area, and none have the kind of focus on building useful skills like film-editing and operating a camera.

We meet two young teenagers who have been part of the project – and it’s clear that Unions Street is like a home from home. They produce video blogs after visiting a local museum, and show us a recently painted mural project which explores the good and evils in society. Union Street is exactly the kind of place that will help these kids stay on track and give them a voice.

Both Roop and Natasha have a big passion for the work they do. “We’d like to have kids here one day, and we’d hope that other people would do the same for us” says Natasha.

Day 8 – Oxford Save Our Libraries Campaign (Video)

April 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Oxford Save Our Libraries campaign has put fear into the MPs of Oxford. Public meetings of over 300 people in each of the local communities around the city are putting real pressure on politicians to stop these precious services from being cut.

The cross-party local campaign has had the backing of famous local authors like Philip Pullman, and thousands of signatures from residents who want to keep the libraries open. Young families and the elderly are particularly reliant on the services provided by librarians. The council were planning to close twenty libraries – now planners are being forced back to the drawing board.

We met Stephanie Kitchen and Irene Statton from the local campaign, who explained how they’ve been building the campaign.

Day 6 – Single Parent Action Network (Video)

April 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

This has been one of my favourite projects that we’ve visited. The women who run this network are a total inspiration.

Day 5 – Festival Church Food Bank

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s now a week into our Robin Hood Road Tour, and we’ve been all over – from London, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Oxford, Birmingham and Corby in the Midlands. Today’s update comes in two halves – the first is an ask for help in sharing the videos we’ve recorded, the second is a story from a food bank in the valleys of mid-Wales.

Videos to share on your Facebook/Twitter

This campaign is reliant on the stories we collect being heard all over the country. Will you help spread the word and post these online or pass them on through email?

Food Bank, Ebbw Vale in Wales

On Friday we drove an hour north of Cardiff, into the valleys of Wales. In an area that has lost it’s first major industry – coal mining – and then the second main employer – the steel works, Ebbw Vale is now one of the poorest parts of the country. Record levels of unemployment, single-parent families, teenage pregnancies – the list begins to sound familiar. These are the kind of people that Iain Duncan Smith last year famously told to ‘get on a bus to Cardiff‘ to find a job.

Right at the top of one of the hills, in front of an out-of-town shopping centre, is the Food Bank in Festival Church. Run by a family who lead the church and a team of volunteers, the food bank distributes emergency food to individuals and families in crisis. The tins of baked beans and boxes of tea inside the church line the shelves as if it was a normal shop. Maintaining dignity and a sense of security is an important part of this work.

Why do people end up needing this kind of help?

We hear about the different situations that lead to people needing emergency food. One man had lost his council home after a fire, and had been living in a small flat. One day, he discovered he would be unable to access any money as a result of a delay in his benefits. These things happen often enough for local benefits staff to have food vouchers in hand to give to those awaiting their payment. With the vouchers, he walked 10 miles from his home to the food bank. As well as a food packet, he received money for a bus ticket home and a lift to the bus stop.

Another man had arrived in a BMW – making staff sceptical of his need for a food package. On enquiry, it emerged that in one week – the man’s wife had left him and his two young children, taken the couple’s savings, and he had been made redundant. Now unable to pay the mortgage, and with an empty bank-account, he was in the process of selling the car and was reliant on the donated food.

“People here are one pay cheque away from poverty” explains Adrian Curtis – a man whose enthusiasm for life and strength of faith bristle in every word he says. “I’d say around 45% of our clients have fallen through the social support net somehow. Often people who come to us just don’t know where else to turn.”

Working with others

When this food bank opened two years ago – there were 25 others around the UK. This year, there will be over 100. One reason why they’re growing so quickly is because they work together with other service providers. DrugAid, homeless shelters, health services, Age Concern, the benefits office – all of these have vouchers that they can give to people in need. This is exactly the ‘joined-up-thinking’ that we might hear being advocated on the news by politicians. Again, we come to the fact that good relationships make things work.

Core funding for the work comes from larger organisations like Oxfam and the Trussell Trust, and the church has just started a social enterprise community radio station which will also raise funds for the Food Bank. They have a passionate, if small, listenership including the local carpet man, who gets his requests played as he’s due to fix the upstairs carpets the day after we come to visit.

But most positively, the food bank is largely reliant on donations from the local community – churches, schools, and individuals. (They have even had a supermarket home delivery van drop off an order somebody made online for them.) Clients, those who come to the food bank with vouchers, know this – and it clearly matters. One explains,

“They have helped me out in every way I could have hoped for. It gives you hope. It’s not just the food and the money, it’s the fact that someone cares.”

Lessons

  • Although we may think of communities as economically poor, there is much potential for peer-support and solidarity. Not only in terms of material goods, but in terms of strength of spirit and resilience.
  • Identifying the needs of the people you serve, and then working with other providers to create a joined-up service is what works best.
  • The church, in this case, provided a hub for all the work Food Bank does. It helped to build community. What other (secular as well as religious) institutions could play this role?

Thank you for reading and for sharing these stories.

A client in Festival Church Food Bank

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