Self-help housing can help solve employment as well as housing problems – so here’s a belated nudge to a piece by Kate Murray, regular Social Issue blogger, which explores the below-the-radar world of community housing projects in Society Guardian.
Of the many thorny issues the voluntary sector is grappling with, bidding for public service contracts is among the biggest. The sector was therefore taken aback in December, when the government allowed less than a month for its modernising commissioning consultation. Read my article for The Guardian’s voluntary sector network here.
Liz Astor, mother to 18-year-old Olivia, who has autism, realised how desperate her daughter was to socialize on nights out with her peers when, in response to being offered a packet of dates to snack on, the teenager blurted out (entirely seriously and with great indignation): “I want to go on a date! I don’t want to eat one!”
Many similarly amusing moments tinged with a serious edge have been enjoyed in my family thanks to my youngest sister’s grappling with the vagaries of the English language and her inability to take words anything other than literally.
There was the time she stormed home from school, complaining that she had been told to “puck off!” in the playground. My mother was caught between the pedant’s reaction of correcting my sister for mishearing the word (“Actually darling, it’s not ‘puck off’ it’s…”) and an anger-fuelled desire to advise her to tell her potty-mouthed peers to puck right off back (coining a new breed of Shakespearean insult in the process perhaps?). Instead, we checked there was no bullying involved and told my sister to maintain a dignified silence.
The silent treatment shut those stupid playground puckers right up, I can tell you.
I digress. Thanks to her daughter’s literal take on the date conversation, Liz Astor realized how much Olivia wanted to enjoy the sort of nights out her mainstream peers take for granted.
Spotting a gap in provision for young autistic adults in her local area on the Surrey-Kent borders, she launched a not-for-profit group, Disco Dreams, late last year. The specialist nights in a community hall in Oxted, Surrey, are aimed at 18-30-year-olds with autism or moderate learning difficulties. “Why shouldn’t young people with autism have the same opportunities as others their age?” asks Liz.
Autism charities offer vital support for the autistic and their families, and there’s some great work being done by inclusive arts charities, but even without taking into account the fact their future is under threat in the funding cuts, opportunities for young adults with autism to socialise is patchy around the country.
The Disco Dreams nights are tailored specifically for those with autism; the DJ is aware of when noise levels overwhelm the young people, a chill-out zone provides a quiet space and entry is £10 but free to carers.
Aside from the social benefits, the positive impact of music, exercise and dance in relation to a host of health-related conditions is well-documented. For example, there was a great BBC documentary last year, Autism, Disco and Me, which showed how disco dancing transformed a young autistic boy’s life
Back on the Kent-Surrey borders, the next Disco Dreams night is scheduled for tomorrow night, Friday 21, if there is enough interest (email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information). The whole project is funded entirely by Liz, Lady Astor of Hever. Plugging a gap in provision in this way is very big society, but not every community is lucky enough to have such philanthropic verve in its midst. Let’s hope the venture is successful and inspires similar events elsewhere, so Olivia gets to eat her date and have one too.
I’m supporting the two-day online campaign, One Month Before Heartbreak, that took place this weekend against planned reforms to Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the disability benefit that allows tens of thousands of disabled people to get out and about from residential homes. The DLA consultation period ends on February 14th, Valentine’s Day.
In the words of blogger Brianb: “Many of us, concerned at the way the coalition government is bullying, victimising, stereotyping, abandoning and, stigmatising those of us who live with disability, have decided to publish blogs almost simultaneously to draw attention to these injustices being perpetrated”.
Given the warm glow the government wants to create with its big society approach, the cut seems even more unfair, and shortsighted, and as The Guardian’s David Brindle has highlighted, the cut is not only “the meanest and nastiest cut of all in the carnage that is sweeping through our public services” but is based on flawed reasoning.
Although individual campaigning organisations within the disability sector might have a history of being vocal, as a whole, individuals with disabilities and their carers aren’t much known for taking off their gloves and sticking their heads above the parapet. Until now. A huge, vibrant and persuasive online community of writers and campaigners is fighting injustice through blogging and on twitter.
As blogger Ned Ludd Carer points out, the cuts are “about locking up disabled people in their own homes and taking away the desperately needed care…This doesn’t have to happen. We need to stop these cuts before they do any more damage. We carers need to get our heads out of the sand and start shouting. We need to stop being the silent, heroic martyrs the press and TV love to wheel out for a nice heartwarming end to the programme. We need to be Carers With Attitude.” The gloves are off.
Anyone in two minds about supporting the campaign – and there are already 2,500 names on the online petition to recall the consultation – should read blogger Bendy Girl who argues that the cuts should be everybody’s business, not just an issue for the disabled and their carers.
As the One Month Before Heartbreak campaign stresses, 100 years ago “disabled people were institutionalised and kept out of the public eye so that the public would need not feel embarrassed to look upon a disabled person.” The removal of DLA will trap the disabled in their care homes. And that’s something best consigned to the history books.
Alex Scott, a 20-year-old psychology undergraduate at Surrey University, is spending a year with youth volunteering programme City Year London. The project, launched in September, involves 18-25-year-olds spending time in London primary schools, mentoring and supporting those younger than themselves. It is based on a successful American model of civic duty that began in 1988.
I’m sure everyone is weary of hearing how they can make a difference. We may tire of saying that you’ve changed the world by holding the door open for the person behind you or by bundling loose change into the upturned hat of a homeless person. True, being generally polite and selfless to one another is an honourable feat, but I’m writing about an organisation that requires a little, no, a lot more, commitment.
I’m a team leader for an organisation called City Year, which has emigrated from the USA after establishing itself in 20 other locations before reaching London, England, and it aims to have the same success that it has achieved across the Atlantic.
This year, City Year London has called together a diverse team of over 60 young people to volunteer a year of service with the agenda of making a real difference to the communities it reaches.
Primary schools in Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets were signed up to receive a group of 18–25 year old full-time volunteers in their school to act as role models and mentors in the key stage two (seven to 11 year olds) classes. As Team Leader for the Towerbrook team based in Sebright Primary School in Hackney, I lead a group of nine volunteers who are there from when the first child arrives in the morning, to when the last child leaves when school ends. The team take part in after school clubs, breakfast clubs, spend time in the playground and lunch hall every day and are a constant presence in the classrooms; often targeting children that teachers identify as needing extra support that may have not always been able to receive.
But as amazing as this may sound, the volunteers that City Year accepts through a strict interviewing process aren’t superheroes, no matter how they may look in their uniform red jackets and Timberland boots. Full time volunteering isn’t easy; and City Year asks a lot of its ‘corps members’. Expenses are offered for up to £100 per week and there is the opportunity to receive a Citizens Service Award of up to £1000 upon graduating the year of service, but that £100 can only get you so far and the early starts and late finishes definitely adds a few premature wrinkles. So why do it?
I heard about City Year through an advertisement on a placement website, having searched for year long placements in London with the aim of taking a year out of my University studies to work in a professional setting. I was offered the role of Team Leader, and although I approached it with trepidation, I have been able to see the developments that my team have made first hand. Sebright Primary School has welcomed us with patient and trusting arms, allowing us to take real responsibility over our effect in the school.
First thing in the morning, the volunteers run exercise routines known as physical training with the children in an attempt to combat lateness. During the school day, each volunteer has been assigned the task of daily supported reading for Key Stage One children, and a select few have the responsibility of improving the phonic skills of students who require that extra bit of guidance so that they don’t get left behind. The volunteers have taken on the task of an after school club as well, a sort of ‘citizenship’ session where the children who attend are taught skills and acquire knowledge that will help them both in and outside the school setting.
What has impressed me the most, however, is how well integrated the volunteers now are with the children at the school. It doesn’t seem to matter how early they have to wake up or how late they get to leave, each volunteer will always have a swarm of children around them at playtimes, and will never be too tired to join them in a game or listen to their stories for the week. I will only be in my position as team leader for a year, then I will return to university, but I have high expectations for all that City Year hopes to achieve based on how my team have performed thus far.
My time so far with City Year has made me a more confident and self assured person, but more importantly, it has taken a chip from my cynicism and shown me that through spirit, discipline, purpose and pride, anyone can hope to make a difference to the world around them.
Above, ‘Uncovered’, a short animated film inspired by women’s attitudes to community, participation and politics.
The best ideas are, usually, the most simple ones. That’s one reason I’m a fan of a new project called Politics Uncovered, a community-based attempt to demystify politics for women.
Working on the premise that a) women are still woefully underrepresented in politics and b) very few people know even the basics of democracy and government, social enterprise arts organisation The Original Ranch has produced an event that is something of a beginners guide to politics.
The Original Ranch recorded women’s views about community, participation and politics during several discussion groups last year. It used the material to create a short animated film (above) which, along with a basic lesson in the workings of government, constitutes the event Politics Uncovered. The lesson explains the key structures at national and local levels, describes the main players and their roles, and gives participants an opportunity to ask questions.
The first Politics Uncovered event at the end of November involved around 30 women from London, all political novices who wanted to find out more about government issues.
According to Olivia Bellas, founder of The Original Ranch, what makes the project unique is that it is a free and accessible ‘lesson’ in politics, presented in a non-politicised environment (the launch event was at the Women’s Library in east London and offered a crèche facility) and it offers interactive and creative approaches to learning.
Put simply, if you want a beginners guide to politics, delivered in an informative but interesting way, look no further.
“Politics can be quite difficult to grasp; there are many different players, institutions, mechanisms, and formalities,” says Bellas, “and so it is hardly surprising that many people may not fully understand it”.
Although there is as yet no formal evaluation, Bellas says that anecdotal evidence from participants reveals
an increased knowledge of and interest in politics and a feeling of empowerment.
The quirky template used in Politics Uncovered could be used to raise awareness of all sorts of social issues in communities, in a visually appealing way that participants find neither too intimidating nor too condescending. I’m interested to see how the project evolves in 2011.
See the Guardian’s new social enterprise network for my piece on social enterprise as a magic wand: The challenge facing social enterprise, warned Peter Holbrook, chief executive of umbrella group the Social Enterprise Coalition, before the election, “is to be vigilant to ensure that the discourse on social enterprise is not distorted by the next government’s ambitions and policies around it.”
From my piece on the Guardian’s new voluntary sector network: With the voluntary sector facing a potential funding drop of £4.5bn in the next year, the contribution that trustees make to an organisation’s performance has never been more important.
My piece in Guardian Public: Litter-strewn public spaces, pavements speckled with chewing gum and rowdy street drinkers. For any town centre manager, these city centre hallmarks are familiar problems.