It is a simple act that speaks volumes about the barriers that have been broken; a young Roma boy hands a flower to the play worker he had been so challenging towards just two weeks ago.
The scene took place in August at a groundbreaking playscheme run by social enterprise the Big Life group which encouraged Roma children aged 7-11 to mix with their local Manchester counterparts.
As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the 12m-strong Roma population might be dispersed across the EU, but it is unified in the discrimination routinely faced by its people. From being moved on from traveller sites to outright repatriation, Roma families live in poverty and are reluctant to contact statuary services fear being moved on or suffer harassment.
Negative perceptions of the Roma community in Manchester along with an increase in the number of Roma people wanting to sell The Big Issue in the North led to the launch of the Big Life group summer play scheme (Big Life owns the Big Issue in the North). Open to all children living in the Longsight area of Manchester, it aimed to break down barriers between the communities and reduce the perceived or actual nuisance behaviour over the summer.
The scheme was publicised through leaflets given out during the social enterprise’s family support sessions and through local children’s centres. Word of mouth also encouraged Roma children to access the project.
The scheme, jointly funded by Manchester city council and The Big Issue in the North Trust, did not charge participants and 60 children registered across the month-long scheme with a total of 30 per session. Take up was even; 52 % Roma registrations and 48% from other communities.
Project leader Daniel Achim recalls that the scheme got off to a shaky start: “At the beginning all children seemed to be rather slow to action the requests of the play workers. The children were testing the boundaries and the workers had to repeat the same information over and over again in order to get a result.”
Yet, as Achim says, by the end of the playscheme there was a major transformation in the behaviour of the children in terms of respect and politeness to staff. “In a safe and welcoming environment where they were not discriminated against children learned to relax around each other, they learned to share play equipment, they learned to wait their turn.”
While entrenched attitudes towards those who are different can be hard to shatter, the Big Life playscheme shows how to break down barriers through play. Any mutual suspicion was soon overcome. Encouraging integration through play and from an early age is starting to reap rewards.
As Achim says, often the tensions tended to be between children from the same backgrounds: “Sometimes it is easy to see differences between communities – when really it is just kids being kids.”
The story of Lion Face puts the big into big society. Seven years ago, the 20-year-old gang member from the barrios of Aragua, Venezuela, mugged a security guard from the nearby Santa Teresa rum distillery and stole his gun. When Santa Teresa’s security boss caught him a week later, Lion Face was given a daring ultimatum by the company’s wealthy owner, Alberto Vollmer.
In a move worthy of modern folklore, Vollmer said Lion Face could work for him for three months without pay, or be handed over to the police. It was a risky proposition, but a week later, Lion Face came back – accompanied by around 20 fellow gang members who also wanted to work. Vollmer agreed and Project Alcatraz, as it’s now called, was born (the name reflects the idea that people’s worst prison is themselves and the challenge is to escape from themselves).
The project aims to reduce delinquency and unemployment and involves gang members in an intensive (and mildly eccentric) three-month work-study programme that include rugby training and community service. On completion, participants choose between a formal job – in the Café Alcatraz programme, for example, they learn how coffee is produced and packaged- or further education, perhaps via the on-site housing construction workshop.
Santa Teresa, a 200-year-old family run company, is some 4,500 miles from Westminster, but given the current debate about the private sector’s role in big society – and if big society includes encouraging something other than statutory services to tackle social problems – the tale of Lion Face is a salutary one.
Since 2003, five gangs have completed the project and been disarmed. Local crime has fallen by 40% and last year Project Alcatraz won best social inclusion project at the Beyond Sport Summit to celebrate sport-led social change in London. Professor James Austin of Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative has said of the management of Santa Teresa that “its viability and profitability are dependent not only on its ability to produce a superior product, but also to generate social value for its surrounding community”.
And that’s not all, several years ago Vollmer negotiated with squatters who wanted to take over land on his sprawling estate; the result was the creation of Camino Real, a 60-acre 100-house community built by the squatters themselves and funded with government housing agency mortgages.
While most large UK businesses have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes that include employee volunteering schemes and donations to local schools or community projects, the ethos and scale of what’s going on at Santa Teresa is closer to the now extinct philanthropic traditions of Quaker companies (think Cadbury, Rowntree, Frys). Vollmer’s philosophy is quite simply that healthy communities lead to healthier profits. As Vollmer himself has said: “If you have growth and well being in the company but not in the community, then you are dead meat.”
Santa Teresa invests about 2% of its profits in social projects and attracts money from other sources including charitable donors. No mean feat given the years of political and social upheaval under President Hugo Chavez’s divisive regime that has pitted poor against rich.
It’s crude to suggest that Project Alcatraz can be replicated elsewhere; the schemes are as much a product of Venezula’s unique political, social and economic context as they are the result of the single-minded determination and social awareness of Santa Teresa’s owner. The best social businesses owe as much to their visionary and determined leaders as to their watertight business strategies and savvy investors, but the Lion Face story shows what is possible when business puts its money where its manpower is.
On a smaller scale, as discussions at a Tory conference fringe meeting today should reveal, there is some evidence that US-style Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) might help plug the gap left by public sector cuts. BIDS are defined areas within which businesses vote to invest collectively in local improvements (and therefore boost their trading environment). The public-private partnership between the local authority and business are funded by a levy on the business rate charged by the council.
Birmingham, for example, has three BIDs which collectively generate around £2m of private sector investment into city centre public areas each year. Birmingham’s BIDs certainly seem successful, winning national plaudits for their nighttime economy and the cleanliness of the city centre streets. Crime figures in the Broad Street BID area, for example, have been dented since the launch of the scheme, from 1,300 incidents in 2005-6 to 995 in 2008-9 and public satisfaction is high.
However, not all BIDs are proving entirely successful, as Edinburgh has found to its peril. Business organisations might be reluctant to participate thanks to the same economic malaise that is leading their statutory sector counterparts to consider retreating from service delivery.
And, given it’s taken five years to get 100 BIDs up and running around the country, how long it will take for the city centre programmes to make large-scale improvements (more to the point, will it be only a handful of BIDs that go beyond the realm of cleaning pavements, erecting floral displays and installing Christmas lights?). Also, as I remember from reporting about West End BIDS 15 years ago when the schemes were being chewed over by a clutch of the capital’s boroughs, there’s a worry about displacement. If improvements stop at the BID boundary isn’t there a danger of creating a two-tier city centre with a clean core and sweeping (literally, in many cases) the problems to the edge of the BID area?
As the public sector cuts back on delivery and all eyes dart desperately towards the twin panaceas of social enterprise and the voluntary sector to adopt its mantle, businesses and business-led partnerships should wake up to the vested interests they have in their local communities. Maybe that’s something to be championed by the new breed of City mayors recently proposed by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles?
The UK has enough Lion Faces. Now what we need are a few more Vollmers.
* A fringe event ‘What role can Business Improvement Districts play in the recovery?’ takes place at 5.45pm today at The Mailbox centre, organised by Birmingham CIty Centre Partnership. Speakers include Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Broad Street BID’s Gary Taylor.
Kicking off a regular interview slot, 18-year-old Moktar Alatas explains how he’s launching a local peer mentoring project, aspire2inspire (a2i) to encourage disaffected teens into work and training. He is driven by the experience of his brother, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a minor offence. Moktar lives in Ladbroke Grove, in the west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea which boasts some of the capital’s most affluent streets as well as pockets of deprivation. He was involved in a youth-led documentary in his area run by the Octavia Foundation, a charity set up by social landlord Octavia Housing.
My name is Moktar Alatas.
I’m a first year law student at Brunel University.
I’m trying to set up a project to inspire hope and instill confidence into disengaged young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, mainly by drawing these young people back into the world of work and education.
I started doing this a month ago, even though the idea has been around for much longer.
I want to do this because I feel that the area that I live in needs something that can realistically go about challenging the barriers that many of us deal with. As a young person myself I know how hard getting employment can be, I would say however that my brother’s experience in going to prison, has truly been the inspiration behind the project.
My aim is to transform the lives of many of the young people in my area who feel that there isn’t any hope for them. I believe that if I can give these young people financial independence, then many of the social ills that are poverty driven, such as drugs, crime, will be eliminated. The idea is to conduct ‘social surgeries’. Young a2i members go out into the community, targeting ‘hard to reach’ areas, and talking to their fellow young people with the aim of bringing them into our offices with the incentive of getting a employment/training. Next, a series of steps, including one-to-one meeting to identify and overcome any barriers that that young person may have. Finally, we work with that young person to find suitable placement.
So far in just a month we’ve managed to get over 50 people on our books, conducted numerous CV workshops, helped three people into paid internships, and helped another young homeless person into housing.
I hope to raise funding for it through the work that we do. By this I mean that rather than a charity, I want a2i to function like an actual employment agency. This, I believe will better fit into the premise of big society.
The hardest thing so far has been trying to provide the service with an imaginary budget.
The most rewarding thing will be to prevent people from going to prison, and instead into employment and training.
I’d love to hear from you if you could help me with any ideas that you have on how to go about organising, fund raising and delivering the service.
The school term has barely begun, but some things are for certain; new shoes are already scuffed, fresh friendships are being formed and, on average, up to eight children in every classroom are living in poverty.
George, for example, was persistently late for his primary school in the north east of England and was also collected late – usually by different people. After a fire at his council flat, he and his lone parent mother had been allocated a new home but could not afford to furnish it so had moved in with relatives. George had trouble concentrating in class and suffered from nightmares.
Things changed after support from an independent, school-based welfare worker who wrote to George’s mother about the school’s concerns. The worker, from charity School Home Support (SHS), applied for money from the organisation’s support welfare fund for a double bed, so that they could at least sleep in the new flat. George and his mother moved in, a bit of stability entered their lives and the worker is still supporting them to furnish their new home.
School-Home Support is one source of support. It offers school-based emotional and practical support through practitioners who help children and families in more than 240 primaries in 22 local authority areas across England. SHS staff are a non-timetabled resource, talking to parents at the school gates and visiting families at home with the aim of creating a link with school.
Scratch beneath the surface of an average classroom, according to SHS figures, and around seven children will have witnessed domestic violence, six will have been exposed to substance misuse and one child will be a carer for a family member. The idea is to nip problems in the bud before they appear and offer support beyond the classroom. SHS practitioners deal with issues such as parents who feel isolated because English is not their first language or families coping with substance misuse or mental health problems.
Last year the 26-year-old charity reached over 19,000 children and young people like George. It costs £5m to run a year, with funding from local authorities that have contracts with SHS, voluntary donations, support from venture philanthropy fund the Private Equity Foundation.
A recent evaluation of the social and economic impact of its work found that for every pound spent on SHS, £21.14 is saved across society in terms of reducing the cost of dealing with unemployment, crime, exclusion and the increased income as a result of higher educational attainment. A June 2007 report by consultancy New Philanthropy Capital compared the cost of SHS interventions with the cost of school exclusions and found that if all those in danger of exclusion had access to its services, then society would save £90m a year.
In the current climate, this sort of work is more relevant than ever; the knock-on impact of job losses can have profound effects on educational attainment. SHS staff point out that an event like the 1,700 jobs lost thanks to the closure of the Corus steel works on Teeside, for example, could effect families, relationships, dynamics and ultimately children’s behaviour and ability to perform, concentrate or attend school.
SHS has links to the whole family, it is well-placed to work with local authorities and other public sector agencies, supporting the coordination of services. Interestingly, it also puts paid to the myth that some people are ‘hard to reach’. In fact, it’s often the support services that are hard to find, because parents think they’re unapproachable or simply don’t know about them, and if they do, the onus is on the individual to make contact.
Let’s leave the last word to Angela, a mother-of-five from Hackney: “SHS were the only ones who never judged me as a parent. Carla, our SHS practitioner in school, never said ‘you’re no good.’ I’m not perfect but I do my best for my kids and I love them.”