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.

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