Category Archives: Big society

Art for all: the Surrey gallery that targets a hidden need

Blue Figure, print, by Tendai from Feltham youth offender institution.

Leafy and affluent are default shorthands when describing the English county of Surrey, but the council ward of Westborough, Guildford, has the highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the county. Child poverty is high in Westborough, and around a quarter of all female prisoners in the UK are in custody in Surrey, including a number of lifers at HMP Send.

While the cash-strapped Tory-run council recently grabbed headlines with a threat to raise council tax by a huge 15% , this has done little to shed light on the social needs that exist in Surrey.

The issue of how Surrey’s general wealth hides specific pockets of deprivation is outlined in a new report into the social and community impact of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village (WGAV), in Compton, about a 10 minute drive from Westborough.

The gallery, opened in 1904 and dedicated to the work of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, aims to transform lives through art – “Art for All” (Barack Obama, among others, has cited Watts as an inspiration). The report, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, describes the overlooked needs. It underlines the organisation’s role, for example, running artist-led workshops with prisoners and young offenders – I’m sharing some of the works here – as well as community projects, schools and and youth organisations.

The Journey, water-based oil on canvas, by Dena from HMP Send.

There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.

Close Up, oil on canvas by Samantha from HMP Send, part of Watts Gallery’s community outreach work.

The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).

As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”

Brighton, mixed media on paper, by Jenny from HMP Send.

More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.

The riots a year on: “If people see me as bad, I might as well be bad.”

Joe Hayman, author, British Voices
“Even though we’re not involved in gangs,” the young man from Hackney tells me, “the way people look at you just puts you down. No matter what you do, you’ll always have that bad name of a black kid from Hackney, so some people think, ‘if people are going to see me like that anyway, I might as well be bad.’”

Last summer’s riots, which began a year ago today, hardened my resolve to write an uncompromising book, British Voices, about our country from the perspective of its people. The comment above comes from a teenager I met in east London last August, not long after the end of the unrest.

The riots felt like an expression of something we had swept under the carpet. It seemed to me that failing to address the way that people in the country were feeling – including the sense that ordinary people’s voices often went unheard – would simply leave those feelings to fester once again. I wanted to approach the widest range of people possible and no matter they said, would present their opinions faithfully.

I started my research three weeks after the end of the riots. One of the first places I visited was Hackney, the scene of some of the worst trouble, and a lot of discussion focused on stereotypes of young people and a lack of opportunities.

“There’s a lot of talent in Hackney,” one young man suggested, “but there are no opportunities to uplift yourself. We’re left stranded; we have to fend for ourselves; so, if you see people with the nice car, you say, ‘I want some of that’. Our generation, we like fancy stuff but we can’t afford it – the riots were an opportunity to get things you know you couldn’t otherwise get.”

Was it worth the risk of a criminal record? “If there are no opportunities anyway,” he replied, “you might as well risk it.”

There was also anger towards the police. “They racially discriminate,” another young man said. “They search the black kids and leave the whites. They smashed my brother’s head against a windscreen, pushed me up against a wall, all for no reason. That’s why people rioted – they enjoyed having power over the police. They were saying, ‘If we wanted to take over, we could.’”

“It was great how youths were united by the riots,” one young woman said. “Gangs you wouldn’t expect to mix going up against the police together. It was great to see such spirit.” She went on: “It was wrong to burn people’s houses and family businesses, but the big shops all had insurance so what does it matter? I don’t see how it’s different from MPs and their expenses.”

I asked her whether the expenses scandal justified violence and looting. “No,” she said, “but it sets a bad example.”

It was an argument I heard again and again; indeed a sense of disillusionment, and alienation ran throughout the entire three months I spent travelling around England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I went as far south as Lizard Point in Cornwall and as far north as the Shetland Isles, talking to over a thousand ordinary people along the way. They were disillusioned with different things and expressed their feelings in different ways, but the feeling remained.

As I travelled, the anger in the wake of the riots seemed to fade. It was replaced by a sadness, a sense that for all the social, economic and technological steps forward the country had made, a lot had been lost along the way: a sense of community, trust and responsibility to one another.

The riots may prove to be a one-off, a few days of violence consigned to history; and even if there is trouble again, the police will be better prepared to respond. But none of the underlying issues have changed since the unrest began a year ago. Indeed, since then the economy has deteriorated and national institutions – the media, the police, the banks and politics – have all continued to take a battering. Surveyed around the Queen’s Jubilee, 75% of respondents to a Yougov poll said that community spirit had got worse in Britain, chiming with my own findings.

I came home determined to use the lessons I learnt to found a new charitable trust, The Community Trust, aiming to address this issue. My confidence comes from the most powerful lesson from my journey: that, in spite of all the changes in our society and the challenges we face, the kindness and decency of the British people lives on.

I also picked up some valuable lessons on the types of initiative that the new trust might support to harness that kindness and decency and to build a stronger society.

First, projects bringing together people from different backgrounds, building social bonds, fostering trust and breaking down barriers between communities. Second, initiatives enabling people to help each other to navigate their way in an increasingly complex, difficult world, building the skills, networks and personal attributes needed to get through and to thrive.

Small but important initiatives such as these – and the willingness of ordinary people to support them – could foster a greater sense of community and citizenship in Britain. That might not solve our problems, but might help us to face them together, rather than turning in on ourselves.

12 days of Christmas, Social Issue-style

Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…

Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.

On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:

A tiger in an art show

Batik Tiger created by a student at specialist autism college, Beechwood

Two JCBs

The Miller Road project, Banbury, where agencies are tackling youth housing and training. Pic: John Alexander

Three fab grans

Hermi, 85: “I don’t really feel like an older woman.”

Four working teens

From antisocial behaviour to force for social good; Buzz Bikes, Wales.

Five(ish) eco tips

Eco hero Phil uses a “smart plug” to monitor domestic energy use

Six(ty) volunteers

Young volunteer with City Corps, Rodney WIlliams

Seven(teen) pairs of wellies

Abandoned festival rubbish, Wales, gets recycled for the homeless, pic credit: Graham Williams

Eight(een-years-old and over) people campaigning

Participants in the Homeless Games, Liverpool

1950s hall revamping

"The kid who talked of burning down the place is now volunteering to paint it."

10 lads a leaping

11-year-olds integrating

Children's al fresco activiites at the Big Life group summer scheme

12(+) painters painting

View from the Southbank of Tower Bridge, Aaron Pilgrim, CoolTan Arts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

High society (and celbritocracy) backs big society

It was a sight that would have warmed the cockles of David Cameron’s heart. As soul singer Heather Small and ex-England footballer Sol Campbell mingled with guests at London’s Saatchi Gallery last week, they were showing just the kind of commitment to local philanthropy that the Prime Minister is hoping to encourage.

Small and Campbell were among 400 guests at an event organised by the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation to bring wealthy donors together with the charities they support. Since it was launched three years ago, the foundation has raised £500,000 for local charities in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a borough with some of the widest contrasts between rich and poor in the UK. Life expectancy is nearly 11 years lower in the most deprived parts of the borough than the richest, for example (the borough motto is “Quam Bonum in Unum Habitare”, translating roughly as “how good it is to dwell in unity”).

The widely differing circumstances of the borough’s residents were very much on display at the fundraising night, thanks to an exhibition of inspiring photos by members of the Chelsea Estates Youth Project, set up to help marginalised young people. The We are Photo Girls exhibition showcased the work of young people who learned to run their own fashion shoots through the project.

Image from the Chelsea Estates Youth Project, showcased at the Royal Borough philanthropic event

The foundation’s role, explains director Jeremy Raphaely, is to match wealthy donors with charities which are really making a difference on their doorstep. “I have lived in this borough for 40 years and it struck me as odd that charities were getting funding from the local authority, the PCT, the lottery or grant-giving trusts but had no connection with local residents,” he says. “And local residents had very little idea that they were there, let alone any connection with them. But once you introduce them, you get a very positive response.We help donors to focus on areas that interest them, whether it’s youth, education or older people, environment or the arts. We can make a very direct connection between the charities and local donors and their involvement can really make a difference to people’s lives.”

Another image from the Chelsea Estates Youth Project

The foundation’s approach is one that chimes with the government’s push to encourage the UK’s highest earners to give more. The potential is certainly there. The independent Philanthropy Review Board, set up by Cameron last year, says those earning more than £200,000 a year give on average £2 to charity for every £1,000 they earn – compared with £90 for every £1,000 among similar high earners in the US. A culture shift encouraging people to give more – and making it easier for them to do so – could bring in an extra £2 billion for charities by 2015, the review suggested. And it’s the local approach such as that in Kensington and Chelsea that may well have the most success.

As a report by Coutts bank this week points out, almost four in five philanthropists support local charities. Marcelle Speller, one of the stars of TV’s Secret Millionaires, sums up the appeal from the donor’s perspective, writing in the report: “Local philanthropy gives me a sense of community, of belonging, and it recharges me. You can see that you are giving effectively, and have the most joyous, enriching experiences.”

So will a reinvigorated philanthropic community be able take the strain as public funding is cut? Certainly Jeremy Raphaely believes that it’s the tough economic environment that’s helping to encourage some donors to reach for their chequebook, rather than necessarily a real sense of heeding David Cameron’s Big Soceity rallying call. “I don’t know how much people are moved by a slogan like the Big Society – people are even sceptical,” he says. “But they realise charities in general are having a rough time. Funding is being cut back but the causes are as big and as critical as they ever were.”

The Big Society may now be a discredited brand, notable by its absence from the debate at this week’s Conservative conference. But for people like Raphaely, who says “we like to think we had the idea before David Cameron did”, the driving impulse behind it remains. “We do all have a community responsibility. It’s not just the homeless or the disabled – it’s our homeless and our disabled. We are trying to nurture that personal feeling of involvement and commitment.”

Is Paddington the “big society” in action?

Big society in action is how civil society minister Nick Hurd described the award-winning Paddington Development Trust (PDT) which he chose for his first ministerial visit in May 2010. “Residents have real sense of ownership and power,” he enthused on Twitter about the west London regeneration organisation that supports residents to volunteer a total of 5,000 hours through 350 different volunteering opportunities.

But shortly after Hurd’s praise, the organisation was among the first victims of public spending cuts when £350,000 was axed as the government scrapped its neighbourhood programmes. The trust’s chief executive, Neil Johnston, has spent the last year figuring out how to continue its groundbreaking work. Read the rest of my piece for the Guardian’s Society pages here.

Why beans are more efficient than potatoes, and other eco-wonders

Some of us count the calories when it comes to food, but how many of us count the kilowatts too? Watch the quirky video above – there’s animation and a jolly opening piano melody too – and check out how Brighton-based Rob Smith, a resident of housing association Affinity Sutton, has developed a carbon calculator for the home.

For seven years, Smith has used an online programme to work out the carbon footprint of everything he uses in the home, so that he can find ways to keep reducing it. Beans on toast, he says, comes in at an energy efficient 95w to prepare, while oven-baked fish and chips come in at 200w. Watch Rob work out why the Champions League takes up less energy than the Europa, and how he’s developing his own, open-source programme, which anyone can use to help them make informed decisions about their carbon lifestyle.

Smith’s story will grace the big screen tomorrow evening at a special screening at the Shortwave Cinema, Bermondsey Square, London. He is among five finalists in a national competition run by Affinity Sutton to encourage residents to share their experiences of how they make a positive contribution to the environment.

The five finalists worked with a specialist social enterprise company to create the films which are being put to the public vote on Twitter and via the Affinity Sutton website. The winner will receive an all expenses paid trip to The Eden Project.

Smith adds: “Over the last few years I have been measuring my energy use and then trying to reduce it. But I found that the calculators online were mostly based on estimates. I wanted to develop one to measure absolutely everything you buy, eat and use. I think a lot of people will find it interesting because it provides a more accurate way of measuring your carbon footprint.”

Other green residents include Jeannie and Eddie, from East Grinstead. After approching their housing officer to see if they could plant some bulbs in some disused space, they launched the Salad Project. Over the last year the residents have planted potatoes, runner beans, French beans, and some herbs. An old dustbin was turned into a water butt by a resident, and there is now a composter for food waste.

Power-saving Phil, from Manchester

Then there’s Phil, from Manchester, who uses a “smart plug” to monitor how much energy appliances are using and Tony, Steph and Brian, from Middlesbrough, who launched a recycling facility on their estate. Christine, Ian and Tom, from Stoke, meanwhile, turned a derelict piece of land into a community garden with wildlife area and community classroom facility.

The new recycling station on a Middlesbrough estate

You can still vote for the green superhero here.

The big society bypass

Above, Ian Harvey, from heroin and rough sleeping to charity volunteer, gardening enthusiast and Chelsea Flower Show winner.

The big society concept might be a touch nebulous – as its creator Philip Blond effectively admitted this week – but one transparent element is the fact that volunteers are its backbone.

The drive is a potentially all-inclusive one as the big society dream is of a volunteering renaissance that unites the young (nothing else paid on offer), the more mature (nothing else to do in well-heeled retirement) and the professional (nothing as good as a bit of CSR in the city to justify that fat salary and boost the CV).

But any official messages about big society bypass a huge swath of society; the homeless.

The vulnerable are excluded from the big society agenda and a potential volunteering resource remains untapped, as new research published this week by homelessness charity St Mungo’s argues. The organisation suggests that volunteering can help the homeless move from social exclusion to being active in their community.

Its figures show that only 14% of around 200 St Mungo’s clients and staff surveyed (84 of the 200 were clients) think homeless people are included in society. The report from St Mungo’s, Enough Room: is society big enough for homeless people?, has been released to coincide with the charity’s action week to raise awareness about the social exclusion of the homeless. According to the latest figures, 3,975 people were seen rough sleeping in 2010/11 on the streets of London – a rise of eight per cent from the previous year.

The charity says there’s a real wish among those it supports to give something back. Of the homeless clients surveyed, 70% wanted to volunteer to “give something back to their local community” or to “help other people.”

Investing time in supporting vulnerable people to volunteer can bring long-term benefits – stability, greater self-esteem and social integration and the chance to develop new skills.

I recently came across the Crown Centre in the deprived area of Stonehouse, Plymouth, for example. The centre supports vulnerable people through projects such as the Plymouth Foodbank, ensuring those in crisis do not go hungry. Every week, the centre relies on its 47 regular volunteers to run coffee and lunch clubs supporting 120 service users. Half the volunteers have health or dependency issues and are “supported volunteers”, needing more guidance and supervision than their peers donating time for free.

Back in London, St Mungo’s client turned volunteer Ian Harvey (scroll up to the video above), is the kind of volunteer we could have more of. Ian, a former rough sleeper and ex-heroin addict, has been supported by St Mungo’s to work with the charity’s community gardening scheme, Putting Down Roots. Ian has tuned his life around with specialist support and from involvement in the volunteering scheme; not so long ago he was self-harming and sleeping on the streets, now he’s the proud owner of a silver award from the Chelsea Flower Show and is looking forward to winning gold next time.

Roger is another St Mungo volunteer, a former drug-user who slept rough, he volunteers for the charity’s employment team and encourages clients to improve their basic computer literacy skills. He explains: “I realised that the key to me moving on with my life was training and qualifying. It also became very clear that I would get nowhere without knowing my way around a computer …Since November last year, I have been volunteering for St Mungos’ employment team and have been helping more clients get online with weekly drop in sessions and support with basic computing courses.”

Lorette, a volunteer peer advisor with St Mungo’s resettlement service, explains the strength of the ex-homeless supporting those who still need support: “I think the client feels they can relate to you more if you have been through what they have. You can swap stories and experiences, which I think enables them to open up to you more…Volunteering is great for your self esteem and confidence, especially if you have been out of work for a long time, there’s new skills to learn, great people to meet and a great feeling of self worth that you really are helping people and doing something really worthwhile.”

Yet so far the big society drive has largely failed to include or capture the attention of the vulnerable. As the St Mungo’s research demonstrates, the neediest in society neither feel part of the campaign nor understand what it stands for (although frankly they’re not alone in that latter complaint). A big society, but one that’s currently too small for the vulnerable.

Terrors on two wheels become social cyclists: the teens transforming their community

From antisocial behaviour to force for social good; Buzz Bikes, Wales.
It’s as much a symbol of antisocial behaviour as hoodies drinking alcopops at bus stops; on the corner of most streets in the middle of most neighbourhoods in the UK, you’ll usually find a gang of beanie-hatted teens, posturing on their bikes before racing up the pavement and causing the locals no end of distress.

But in the small community of Blaina, in Blaenau, Gwent, a deprived area where alcohol and drug addiction is common and where young people have little else to do but get into trouble, a group of teenagers on bikes have proved the exception to this stereotype. They boys have turned their cycling from an activity that caused local havoc into a force for social good.

The seven young people had faced problems at school, some had had run-ins with the police and all of them hung around the town centre on their bikes. The boys, recognising their problems stemmed partly from boredom and a lack of local facilities, heard about the Prince’s Trust and applied for money from the organisation’s community cash awards scheme. With match funding from the Welsh Assembly Government, Buzz Bikes was born in October 2008.

The outdoor cycling club offers a diversion with bicycle maintenance training, health and safety training and organised cycle rides. The group has designed its own logo, now emblazoned on hoodies and T-shirts, and the youngsters runs a small shop in town hiring and repairing bicycles; if the local police knock on their doors now, it is to hire a Buzz Bike (the boys have loaned bikes to local officers).

Around 50 young people now belong to Buzz Bikes while the core founding members have learned skills including negotiating, budgeting and working in a team. None of the original members has been in trouble since starting the scheme.

The founding members now want to give something back to the charity that’s supported them so in October this year, they plan to do the Prince’s Trust Adventure Challenge to the Himalayas. All team members have to raise £3,700 each for The Prince’s Trust in order to take part in the challenge – hiking, biking and white-water rafting 286 kilometres in seven days. The money raised will go back to The Prince’s Trust to help more young people.

The Buzz Bikes team

I heard about the project earlier this year when it won the Prince’s Trust Community Impact Award, sponsored by Balfour Beatty, to recognise the positive contribution of young people to the community. I was reminded about it while watching a recent BBC story about the Bike Works project in America to teach children who might otherwise be on the streets how to build and maintain bikes. The project has been a runaway success but, with public services scarce, it is a victim of that success – increasingly finding itself providing emergency care by offering children food, or a place to sleep, rather than concentrating on its central aim.

As Bike Works’ director, Kitty Heite told the BBC: “So many kids are falling through the gaps, and it’s the responsibility of society to help them..We aren’t social services, and we could do so much more with Bike Works, with the fun thing, if we weren’t having to do that. Making the voluntary sector responsible for the glue in people’s lives is a little scary.”

Heite’s words stress an emerging theme in the current cuts climate; that an over-reliance on community-based enterprises might backfire and distract organisations from their founding princples. I’m not suggesting that the Buzz Bikes teenagers are expected to (or could) provide a social safety net if local public services decline, but I do hope that their core aims – what the American Bike Works director calls “the fun thing”, the diversion caused by an interesting activity – will long continue.

* To support Buzz Bikes/the Prince’s Trust, visit the group’s Just Giving page.

“The kid who talked of burning down the place is now volunteering to paint it…”

Hutton Hall Community Centre - Community Asset Transfer
Hutton Hall community centre, photos by Podnosh

A year ago it would have been pointless painting a mural on the wall of Hutton Hall; it would have been covered in grafitti within a day. But after the building was transferred to community group Comm:pact by Birmingham city council in April, youngsters treat it – and its new exterior artwork – with pride. Read about how to make community asset transfer work in my Guardian piece today.

Is Cameron’s ‘big society’ reserved for the rich?

A school-based performance of The Homophobia Project, by Peer Productions, a Surrey youth arts group supported by local philanthropy

Local philanthropy and volunteers have driven the ‘big society’ in Surrey for years. So is David Cameron’s flagship project only viable for affluent communities? England’s well-heeled home counties are the natural habitat of Cameron’s “big society”. The combination of a time- and cash-rich population and minuscule pockets of deprivation is more conducive to citizens becoming involved and running services than in more deprived areas. Click here to read the piece in Society Guardian today.