Amid the vibrations of doom and whiff of ennui surrounding anything stamped with the politicised big society seal, a new campaign tagged in plain terms as a grassroots effort to improve a neighbourhood is a bit of an attention-grabber.
Shockingly, no one’s claiming it’s part of some shiny new renaissance in volunteering that will allow the state to retreat on the sly, but a tried and tested idea, backed by an organisation that’s been doing similar, citizen-led work for years.
Quick – Dave’s on the line – he wants his big society back!
Today’s launch of Shoreditch Citizens – part of well-established community organisers programme London Citizens – follows an audit of 200 organisations in the east London area, plus 500 meetings to identify local issues that matter and train community leaders.
The Shoreditch arm is the latest chapter for London Citizens, an alliance of 160 groups representing faith institutions universities and schools, trade unions and community groups; the founding member is The East London Communities Organisation (Telco), the UK’s largest independent community alliance launched in 1996.
Shoreditch Citizens has high hopes in aiming to join forces to impact on poverty, poor housing and gang crime – around 75% of the area’s children live below the poverty line and four in 10 adults are unemployed. The campaign, funded by the Mayor’s Fund for London and £270,000 over three years from the community investment arm of Barclays Capital, also wants an alternative to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) to encourage young people to stay in education. There is also a plan to make Shoreditch a “Living Wage” zone, where everyone who works in the area can be sure to earn a decent amount to live on. The Living Wage campaign was first launched by London Citizens in 2001, which says it has won over £40 million of Living Wages, lifting over 6,500 families out of working poverty.
By December 2012, the Shoreditch engagement programme aims to train 300 community leaders from 30 civil institutions and hopes to impact on up to 15,000 families. All this is nothing if not ambitious, but if you don’t have goals…
For every enterprise that grows through a mixed palette of investment and management support, there is the business thwarted by a seemingly impenetrable wall of investment options. Read my piece on how businesses might attract social investment on the Guardian’s social enterprise network here.
Need a reason to smile amid the cuts? How about 60? A bold new exhibition which opened last week presents the 60 bright young things making a difference by volunteering in schools across London.
The exhibition, Full of Purpose, was lauched last week and presents portrait shots, as shown above, of members of City Year London, a project that involves 18-25-year-olds mentoring and supporting primary school pupils.
Based on a successful American model of civic duty that began in 1988, you can read more about it in this post written for The Social Issue by corps member guest blogger Alex Scott. Founded in 1988, more than 12,000 corps members have helped millions of children in 20 US cities and in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The shots by documentary photographer Katie Higson are exhibited at City Year London’s offices in north London until Thursday. As well as the images, the exhibiton includes information about the young people’s work and their motivations for giving a year to serve in schools and communities.
As volunteer Alex says: “I joined City Year because I wanted to spend a year doing something more challenging…as my long term goals lie in entering a career in counselling or therapy, a mentoring role was something that excited me. City Year has proved to be both challenging and incredibly fulfilling. Often it is hard to measure the effect you are having on a day-to-day basis, but every time I am able to see progression in one of the children it makes the long hours worthwhile.”
For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.
“Each day you spend leaves you with one less, spend them wisely.” Solle Frankel, aged 100
It’s sound advice from Solle yet, as young people, we rarely take the time to stop and listen to the older generation. A survey undertaken late last year by the charity Jewish Care revealed that only a third of Londoners thought that people over the age of 70 were important to society. The charity, which provides health and social care services to hundreds of older people every week, responded in November 2010 with its bold awareness campaign Pearls of Wisdom. The campaign asks the vital question: what can we learn from our elders?
The charity asked fourteen clients to share some valuable bits of advice, drawn from their long and varied lives. The effect was a powerful, unique and at times funny collection of life lessons, ranging from warming affirmations about love – “Get a goodnight kiss, every night” Jerry Cooper, 87 – to astute observations about money – “Don’t buy the things that you can’t afford.. pay your debts”, Jean Nadler, 90.
The fact that older people can be witty, insightful and interesting should go without saying. Yet statistics show that only around half of those aged under 35 have spent quality time with anybody over the age of 70 in the last six months indicating a real reluctance to connect with a social group considered “past it”.
So what’s the thinking behind this? It’s not exactly that we don’t care, but so many of us unthinkingly buy into an established social stereotype: older people are grey, boring and a burden on society. Thankfully, several attempts have made recently to dispel this image. The BBC’s latest hit, When Teenage Meets Old Age, and the recently launched Campaign to End Loneliness, follow a similar track to Pearls. The Campaign to End Loneliness, a collaboration between four different organisations- WRVS, Age UK Oxfordshire, Independent Age and Counsel and Care- wants the ‘Big Society’ to volunteer it’s time to do more for older people. The campaign, which began last month, has highlighted the seriousness of a reality where an average of 10% of our senior citizens feel either “severely lonely” or “always lonely”. Visitors to the campaign’s website are invited to offer their time to an older person or share their tips on how to combat loneliness. It’s not clear yet what the impact has been but the campaign’s report into the UK’s “epidemic of loneliness” is a much needed call to action.
Add to this the success of the website We Are What We Do, an example of original, digital action. We Are What We Do, a not-for-profit company founded by community worker David Robinson, were horrified to discover that two-thirds of Britons now believe that young and older people live in separate worlds. In response, the organisation asked younger people to pledge to make the world a brighter place by undertaking a number of small activities with their seniors. From learning older people’s tried and tested recipes to teaching your granny how to text, the website aims to highlight the myriad ways you can bond across the generations. As a result, nearly 10,000 people have signed up online and the community continues to grow.
At a time when Britain’s population is ageing rapidly and the media seems intent on playing up inter-generational conflict (the supposed battle between the beleagured baby boomers and the spoilt students, as the newspapers like to put it, these new campaigns offer a fresh perspective. It’s also a message that young people are receptive to. As Eitan Amias, a 17-year-old volunteer at one of Jewish Care’s Reubens House residential home in Finchley explains, intergenerational interaction benefits everyone involved: “when visiting the home I feel that I’m not just helping the residents but also myself, as I tend to take that positive energy with me to last the rest of the week”
But for many young people volunteering to spend time with the older generation can offer more than just a glowing feeling of pride. It’s also a valuable way to learn new skills, an increasingly important concern as youth unemployment reaches crisis point.
Indeed, volunteering can be crucial in securing that elusive first job after graduation, as Jamie Field, Jewish Care’s youth and community development officer, discovered. Jamie started working for Jewish Care as a volunteer, aged 15, but the experience he gained through charity work helped him land his current, paid role at the organisation after university.
However, Jamie believes “it’s important to make volunteering cool. It has to be relevant… you could write a newsletter, make a movie or use your skills to help someone use a computer’; young people need to be challenged and inspired and charities can’t be complacent, even in the midst of a recession when young people have more time on their hands to help. Jamie emphasises that young volunteers can use their charity experience not just to get jobs, but also to assist them with their Duke of Edinburgh Awards or to provide additional material for their UCAS forms. So, perhaps it really is time to take Solle’s advice and start spending our time a little more wisely.
Peter White must be the only chartered accountant in the country with a corporate slogan that could belong to a social exclusion charity – “Nobody left behind” – a clutch of charity partnerships under his belt and a network of neighbourhood activists whose grassroots knowledge helps him do his job. Read my Society Guardian interview here with Peter White, the head of the BBC’s digital switchover scheme who is trying to ensure nobody is left with a blank TV screen.
The community-owned and run village shop in the Archers gave rural social enterprises a welcome figurehead but projects in real life provide much more than groceries. Read Saba Salman’s piece on the Guardian social enterprise network site.
There is something of a gaping reality chasm between the vision of the big society and its fruition, not to mention growing accusations that the concept is a smokescreen for cuts. The chasm between vision and fruition might be narrowed by better and stronger mechanisms for civic service – or simply more hours in the day, as big society tsar Nat Wei recently demonstrated.
However, one scheme that has slowly and steadily supported and facilitated volunteers to promote an activity – in this case, adult learning – is the Community Learning Champions project. The drive, a joint partnership between NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education), WEA, lifelong learning organsiation unionlearn and education consultants Martin Yarnit Associates, involves people who become active in their community by promoting the value of learning to others.
Launched in August 2009 , the three-year £3m Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) funded scheme ends in March (but of course!) but its ripple effect has been felt at a community level by hundreds of people. More than 1,000 champions should be registered by the end of next month and, if NIACE estimates are right and each champion encourages an average 30 people into learning, 30,000 individuals should be helped into learning as a result.
Champions promote learning among their friends, neighbours, relatives, or workmates; they are trusted as they speak from experience and act as role models to encourage others to take up new skills.
Homeless charity St Mungo’s – which of course has huge concerns about funding cuts – used the Community Learning Champions scheme last year to recruit up to 30 homeless volunteers to become learning champions.
The volunteers, recruited through the charity’s client representative group Outside In which managed the project, encouraged others get involved in learning, anything from gym classes to art workshops.
In the film here, St Mungo’s service user Richard talks about his love of soaking up new knowledge and the difference you can make thanks to a non-classroom learning environment. As he says: “All the time I was homeless, on drugs, this is the sort of thing I always had in my head that when I eventually sorted my life out, it’s the sort of thing I wanted to be doing.”