‘Hard to reach’. ‘Disadvantaged’. ‘Lacking aspiration’. ‘Poverty of ambition’.
Bored. Bored of the stereotypes. The judgements and the deficit model. The lazy assumptions about communities by postcodes.
My boys playing in the garden of one of those postcodes. The house I grew up in, in the estate where my mum still lives.
This was days after my dad died.
Over the weeks before and after it was this community that rallied round my family. The community that provided lifts, made hard phone calls, wept with us, brought food, checked in, mended lights and watched out. Those we knew well – those we knew less well.
And yet these people would undoubtably attract at least one of those labels. Their children would be the target of the Teach First imported saviours. They would be judged and found wanting by a system that too often uses shorthand to disguise the complex.
I’ve spent a lot of time back on that estate I grew up in over recent weeks. These are the estates I have spent much of my life working in and for.
Last week’s excellent Young Foundation report Flipping the Coin: Two sides of Community Wealth in England resonated with me. Those communities with least access to public capital are not necessarily those with least community capital. Are people on the estates with the least creating more social value than those with the most?
Look. Lest you think this is some rose tinted view of working class estates it isn’t. To pretend outcomes aren’t worse in these postcodes would be crass.
The difference needs to be in how we choose to see these things. For too long they’ve been presented by both the liberal left and conservative middle as a deficit – in the individuals, in the community, in values and in aspirations. And that has dictated the approach. In education the concept of ‘rescuing the deserving poor’ through grammars and ‘selective’ academies & free schools. In charity work about reaching the hard to reach on the organisation's terms.
And I have been part of that. It has come from right intent and hasn’t all failed. There is much to value and learn from past work.
But perhaps it is time to pause and rethink our assumptions, our language and our approaches.
Towards a different perspective
Poverty of ambition? Depends what you consider to be ambition - ambition for what? Happy family life. Enough money to live on. Pride in work. These seem like good ambitions to me. And these neighbours hold these ambitions close to them.
Does that mean that other ambitions are wrong? Well the view of all that I spoke to was interesting. For some yes - there is a truth that being better informed on the options that, say, university opens up would be useful. Just as many middle class families could do with being better informed on vocational education, employment or setting up their own businesses.
Many families had children who were at university or further education.
But lots of families were well exceptionally informed about university routes and rejected them. £50,000 worth of debt. Breaking up families and communities. Not likely to lead a decent income. Not real work. Instilling poor values (this was a repeated theme – if the behaviours of those in power was a reflection of university values then many of this community actively reject those values. And yes, they did notice that there was a totally different judgement over kids on ket and politicians fighting over how cool they were to have inhaled.)
Is accepting a different pathway just the bigotry of low expectations? After all I am regularly asked what helped me ‘escape the estate’ (which by the way is as crass a question as the notion that a single teacher can be shipped in to 'save the children').
Well firstly– I guess it depends on whose low expectations? Of course, if a school or other public setting narrows options for any group simply based on their characteristics then yes – this is bigotry. And this is rife in our public services.
But reasons are different to excuses. These families succeed despite their lack of access to public capital. They have a resilience that is shaped by their experience and they are solving their own issues. It is not unreasonable to expect that with more resource and support they would – if they chose to - achieve the same ‘expectations’.
And frankly, it may also be that those who achieve ‘good jobs’, high pay and have high status might potentially benefit from thinking how their privilege helped them. Are they there because their higher expectations drove them to work harder? Mmmm. Suggest that to someone working 4 part-time jobs in a 70 hour week to provide for their family. Are there they because they are cleverer than the people on this estate? I suspect the distribution of 'cleverness' is broadly the same at Eton as it is on the estate.
Is it important that people are not limited in their expectations? Of course. But it is equally wrong to suggest that the same outcomes are as easy to achieve for those who start life with advantages and those who do not.
The meritocracy isn’t a real thing. Perhaps it is time to dispel myth that the rich and powerful are there because they are cleverer and harder working than the rest of society!
Not hard to reach people: hard to access organisations
These families aren’t hard to reach. They lean over the fence and say hello to each other. They speak to each other in the street. They come around when someone is in trouble. They are easy to reach. When we in charity sector say hard to reach what we really mean is that they don’t come to us. They don’t engage on our terms. They don’t reach us.
They are not powerless – they are creating their own solutions.
The local café with the book exchange. The food bank shop. The community pub. The wildlife garden.
- Community run. Community led. Community solutions -
So what can we learn?
Well that is the first point. We need to learn. We need to listen. And frankly maybe we need to give up our power.
What might that mean:
- Invest in self-reflection – what are the filters that we see the world through? How do they affect what we see?
- Consider what we have learnt from overseas aid – little less ‘white saviour for the deserving savage’ and a lot more supporting local leadership.
- Pay community leaders to input into our learning – stop expecting them to turn up at our focus groups and skill us for free.
- Invite community members onto our trustee groups and governing bodies. At the top table. Not as powerless ‘users’.
- Recognise that public capital – monies and resources held by state and by charities – is inequitably distributed. Make it easier for these communities to access the capital that the need.
- Less outreach more infill – fund workers in communities to link into your organisation; rather than outreach workers in your organisation that are not connected to the community. This is both more likely to work but also redistributes assets and employment.
- Join the community led lobbies for their local public services. (The irony that the estate in this case study lost their GP surgery for university student flats is not lost. Nor the fact that what were family homes are now student accommodation contributing to break up of the community.)
- Use a process of appreciative inquiry – what works in the community? Move from a deficit model.
- Consider carefully the language that we use – with some suggestions below.
For charities we need to consider how we value ‘lived experience’ - better described by Sarah Stachowiak, in her article Unlearning: Being an Expert - as ‘personal expertise’ (as compared to ‘technical expertise’ or interpersonal expertise’.) This is not about representation from communities that we serve (though this is important) it’s about how we value the expertise that comes through living in that community.
For funders we need to consider how we frame applications. Too often we start with a deficit model - tell us your woes, your problems and make the case that your circumstances are bad enough for you to receive ‘our fix’. Instead can we use a model of partnership? What are you strengths? What are you already doing? How can help?
And perhaps most of all we, who are trying to do the right thing, who so clearly have chosen careers to improve outcomes for everyone, need to have humility to recognise that the things that we value are not the only things of value.
Rethinking our language
Perhaps something like this
|That community is ‘hard to reach’||Our organisation is ‘hard to access’|
|Poverty of ambitions||Different ambitions|
|Bigotry of low expectations||Reality of limited resources|
|Awarding grants and giving donations||Redistributing public resources|
|Disadvantaged communities||Resilient communities (overcoming their lack of capital ……)|
|Lacking aspiration||Aspiring to survive and thrive despite ……|
|Grants and state funding||Public capital|