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Bert Massie – A life without Limits.

When Sir Bert Massie – who was a member of the Civil Society Futures Panel – died in October 2017 I described him as a giant of the voluntary sector. Someone who had made an enormous contribution, always reminding us that we were about rights and resistance, just as much as we were about service and association.

Reading his recently published memoir – A Life Without Limits – reminded me yet again what an enormous lifelong contribution he made, and how very many of the rights we now enjoy had been gained in his enormously productive lifetime.

But his memoir reminded me of something else. It is how his extraordinary combination of passion, focus and attention to detail really can change the world.

Bert’s passion, that disabled people should live full active and equal lives, is evident in every page of this book. His personal determination to lead a full and active life sings out on every page. And so too does his passion to ensure that all disabled people – and indeed all people facing discrimination – should lead full lives.

But it was not just passion – there is a clarity of vision, a focus, and a certainty that changes in both policy and practice really can make a difference. A vision for a better, more equal world, based on personal experience and the experience of the people he grew up with and the very many people he worked with in his life. But a vison too that was collaborative and willing to make alliances. I’ll treasure forever his entertaining presentation to an early meeting of the Inquiry about the alliance forged between people using wheelchairs and mothers pushing prams that successfully pressurised successive ministers to demand better access on the railways.

Passion and vision are essential. What Bert also brought was a willingness to engage in the hard graft of good governance, of detailed policy making, of tireless briefing and engagement. Time and again he describes the processes of change, the need to work with others, and the common cause he created. Bert could fight battles, and could pick fights, but he could also make change happen, not posturing but arguing incisively, and creatively for the sort of change that really does remove the limits to lives.

I learned a lot from Bert and his work and will be forever grateful. But this memoir tells us all so much more about the way in which a Liverpudlian from a working class family, contracting policy as a baby, came to be such a giant in our sector, making changes that will be felt for generations to come. And reminding us all, all over again, that we should never take rights for granted. They need to be fought for time and time again.

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A Community Response to #metoo

 

Over the last decade our institutions and industries have been rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and harm. From the Church through the BBC  to Hollywood and to some of our most precious charities we have heard stories about behaviour that has no place in the 21st century. And we’ve heard about harm done, hurt experienced and the terrible work of both repairing the damage, and atoning for the grief caused.

Most of us have been challenged to think about our past behaviour – not just the abusers, but those of us who fear we may have been carelessly complicit. The averted eye, the nervousness about intervention, the embarrassment when we  knew things were not quite right. And all of us, whether accusers, survivors, perpetrators and institutions have known that there needs to be a better way. We need to find ways of being together  that enable fellowship and friendship but avoid causing such devastating sexual harm and degradation.

I believe this strongly. That’s why I’ve signed up to support #preventsexualharm. Supported by an impressive coalition of organisations including the NSCPCC, NCVO, NOTA, Crimestoppers and powered by Re-shape, this coalition challenges us to think about what we can do to prevent sexual harm in our communities, in our networks and our  organisations. .

This doesn’t feel easy or safe. But I do think it’s a really important way of taking back some control. And a chance for all of us to get the confidence to stop sexual harm – and that should mean that at the very least in ten years’ time we’re not looking back with embarrassment at things going on that we really should have been able to stop. After all, that certainly  doesn’t feel easy or safe .

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power

 

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All Our Children – A Play for our Times

This website doesn’t normally host theatre reviews, and I know that  I have none  of the skills or experience  to be a critic. But last week I went to see All Our Children by Stephen Unwin (full disclosure, he is my brother). It’s a moving play and  it’s brilliantly acted. It describes a particularly  hideous episode in the horror of the holocaust, focussing on the Nazi murder of  disabled young people. Of course the audience was rapt with attention.

But what I hadn’t expected was such a profound exposition of what seems to me to be one of the biggest – unspoken – social policy dilemma of our times. By using the horror of the past, the play forces us to think seriously about  what we really think about people who are never going to make an economic contribution. Those of us who grapple with public policy dilemmas would never dream of  using the harsh rhetoric of the Nazi administrator, but in our pursuit of  supposed fairness, and our obligation to make spending decisions transparent and apparently equitable, we regularly  witness decisions that ascribe differential value to human life. When the zealous Nazi administrator contrasts the vast expense of maintaining severely disabled children, with the good that could be done for so many other children, it was hard not to think of the agonising commissioning decisions taken daily in local authorities. And this is not only about austerity, or recent policy. The need to allocate money to support, ‘the few, not the many’,  in a reversal of the current Labour party campaign slogan, is a daily decision, and one which we need to talk about. Otherwise, those who don’t contribute economically are seen as objects of pity,  and discretionary generosity, not fellow citizens with intrinsic value as human beings.

 

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Communities – 9 ways to break them

All my working life the call has been for stronger communities. Communities that could – depending on fashion and decade – care for their neighbours, enable regeneration, manage their carbon footprints, be more resilient, engage in community governance. You name it, reports of all kinds and all types have frequently concluded that stronger communities are what we need.

Most recently I have been very struck by work in Scotland, led by Carnegie UK Trust (where I have a fellowship,) and JRF where I used to be CEO, and by Lloyds TSB  Foundation for Scotland , where I chair the Observers Group, describing the web of support that enables communities to survive, and even thrive, in troubled times. In a lovely phrase, one of the participants described this as

‘spraying water on a spider’s web, and seeing the drops’

The metaphor recognises the strength, and the invisibility, of these webs of support and engagement that make life worth living. The challenge is to find out how such webs grow. We can see that they are just as important for well-being, happiness and a good society as the far more visible webs of economic flows, digital connectivity and a transport infrastructure, but we don’t know much about how to build them.

However, we do know quite a lot about how they can be destroyed. And the more I consider the vital significance of this human interactive web, rather than the one we access via our computers, the more I am struck by the things we have, almost systematically, done to extinguish them. Here’s my list of the things that make communities weaker rather than stronger
1. Make people so busy that they haven’t got time to take part. We know from study after study that people are working harder and longer, and that in particular poorer people are doing several jobs just to make ends meet. Shift work has always been a threat to community engagement – precarious, unreliable and irregular work is a formidable adversary. Make sure that financial survival requires that people are always either working or actively looking for work.
2. Keep them moving. Six months’ tenancies, rents that increase when the wages go up, short term tenancies with periodic review. All ways to make sure people have a minimal stake in where they live, and, perhaps even more fundamentally, believe that their neighbours have little stake too.
3. Take away the places people meet. Civicus have documented the decline in the amount of civic space. As we attend church less often, have an apparently limitless choice of places to eat and drink, and our community centres get more dilapidated and the public realm is either neglected or private, safe places for community engagement are vanishing. .
4. Make the rules scary. Work commissioned by JRF a few years ago made it very clear that the fear of regulation, and litigation, and uncertainty about both, was a real inhibitor to actively engaged communities. Why would you clear a path in your local park when you are told that that might make you liable for someone falling over?
5. Use architecture to divide How many new housing schemes provide genuine, informal places to meet and coincide? I have visited far too many estates that could have been designed to keep people from chatting casually, that privilege privacy over inter action, that make chance encounter extremely unlikely.
6. Dismiss engagement. Talk about those who try to organise as busy-bodies, phone leaders, trouble makers, angry and difficult people, persistent complainers or the ‘great and the good’. Make it unfashionable to want to get involved.
7. Punish those who do – unleash the power of social media and be hyper critical of anyone who expresses an opinion, or tries to do things differently. The modern face of public shaming  on Twitter and Facebook  seem to work well.
8. Introduce new policy without thinking of community impact. Plan the bus route so it doesn’t connect parts of the community. Charge for the collection of old mattresses and furniture so that the poorest parts of the estate look like rubbish tips. Design a lettings policy to make sure that people don’t live near people who are too like them. But also make sure that the people facing the biggest hcallenges are all together.
9. Demand the impossible. When you know that a community group is running a successful toddler group, ask them to take on the management of a dilapidated piece of public space and suggest that at the same time they could take on running a library. Lament their failure, and lack of ambition.

Talking about community self-organising, engagement, self-efficacy or just action can readily be dismissed as ‘motherhood and apple pie’. (Though in my experience, motherhood is fierce, incredibly hard and essential so I’ve never quite understood th point of that jibe). It is easy to see it as a spray-on bit of language and to continue to round off our reports with a call for a bit more of it. But agency in the community is essential if we are going to begin to  address the huge challenges we face as a society. We will never provide the mutual support that is needed, raise resilient and confident young people, and stand up to the tyranny of both state and market, without active, engaged communities .

It’s about time we put a stop to the practices that tear the web of engagement and weaken rather than strengthen the bonds of community. Unless we never really meant all those many recommendations.

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Kindness and public policy. Really?

There are words that are rarely used in public policy, or if they are used they come with an accompanying grimace. Kindness. Loneliness. Love. Relationships. And there are other words that trip off the tongue with so much more ease. Outcomes. Frameworks. GVA. Infrastructure development. Workforce Planning. I am  starting a Fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust to use just these tricky, dangerous words, and in doing so I’m building on hugely important work already done by Jospeh Rowntree Foundation, Carnegie UK Trust, and so very many others.

Because the one thing we know both from deep academic  research, and from our own experience, is that it is kindness, love, relationships that make life worth living. We know that the outcomes for people in hospital are so much better if they are physically touched – and not just for the insertion of needles and tubes. We know that communities and neighbourhoods are only really revived and reinvigorated because of the active engagement, and frequently the furious anger, of people who live there. We know that  the biggest challenge facing people who need social care can often be the profound sense of loss and grief they feel. We know that for young people, their first experience of deep personal relationships  with people who are unrelated to them, have a  profound and non- negotiable impact on the rest of their lives.

And yet we continue to build housing developments that minimise the possibility of human inter-action, and kindness. We invest more in mapping the economic flows and investment returns than we do in noticing who talks to people in the local shop, and what role  the local taxi driver is already playing in reducing demand on the social care budget. We sign up – for very good reason – to regulatory frameworks that minimise risk by reducing the opportunity for human inter-action. We adopt – for very good reason – professional codes and protocols  that minimise discretion and so can  inhibit human relationships . We rely on front line staff who are frequently treated abysmally to provide just the sort of kindness and generosity that we too often fail to model. With grateful thanks to @CatherineB201 who drew this to my attention we also know, if we didn’t already, that the ways in which people relate to each other have a direct effect on those precious, vital outcomes.

We know that all social change comes from the relationship between people,  and yet we are nervous about talking about it. This isn’t because people are nasty. It isn’t because we don’t know this stuff.  It is not because planners, regulators, auditors and professionals are malevolent. It’s because talking about kindness, and talking about human behaviour is scary, and  requires us to think more deeply about motivation, and  behaviour, about friendship and love, and the things that make life worth living. To do so requires courage and focus, but a more humanised state is necessary if we are going to meet any of the huge challenges facing us. Dorothy Elmhirst, the founder of Dartington Hall Trust  where I am privileged to be a trustee, wanted us to try to live a ‘many-sided life’. The challenge for those of us engaged in public policy is to recognise that in our modern world the many-sided life involves us in recognising the human – and that can be messy and uncomfortable and challenging.  But we need to put aside the grimace. Stop treating this as extra, and recognise that how we treat each other is at the core of all public policy. Always and everywhere.