Posts Tagged ‘equality’

August is over, my tomato plants look tired after a long and successful summer harvest, the kids are heading back to school, the Libyan democrats have taken control of Tripoli (that’s Libyan, not Liberal, just in case you thought you’d missed something), and the evenings have begun to get depressingly shorter. I’ve even started using my lights on my cycle home.

There are lots of things to consider in the wake of the summer‘s civil unrest and a desperate need to constructively respond to the challenges they pose and not to just simply walk on by.  How we might remedy the inequality that now exists in Britain (and shows no sign of slowing – on this we’re up there with the US as the most unequal Western countries) and create opportunities and brighter futures for our young and disaffected communities, needs to be addressed. Based on requests from our membership and a fired up staff team, this is something we’ll be trying to tackle at our youth focused policy debate at the fantastic social enterprise PJ’s Community Services in Croydon on September 28th.  We’ll be capturing the thoughts of young people and social enterprise leaders, and presenting their thoughts and ideas back to politicians in the coming weeks and months.

I think there’s a risk that systemic unfairness could become accepted in Britain, and deemed impossible to change. The young have been demonised for a while now, but it seems that we’ve also started demonising the undeserving poor.  Not always helped of course by the spinning activities of our politicians (I’m not talking about an exercise class here). Today, the reoffending rioters are being called a feral underclass by our justice secretary, as if that’s really going to help, and not that long ago Polly Toynbee raised the issue. A government press release detailed the top ten excuses given by ‘benefit cheats’.  The real story is that fraud costs £1.6billion, just 0.7% of the benefits bill.  The story was covered on BBC television news that bank holiday weekend in late May – and the stats weren’t quoted – so imagine the millions of people who were exposed to the scaremongering. It only served to play on people’s fears, pitting the mainstream against the UK’s poor, stirring up unnecessary feelings of anger and hatred, and dividing society.

All the political parties promoted principles of fairness in their election campaigns, so what’s actually been done to try and achieve a fairer, kinder society? How far have we got?

Job insecurity, flat lining wages, unaffordable housing, poor pension prospects, increasing crime rates – all suggesting not that far, and there’s not much in the way of policy that suggests it’s going to get any better. We need a revolution and that revolution needs to start here, within the social enterprise movement. We need to be bolder, more evangelical, we need to shout from the roof tops, phone into radio debates and be heard.

Good on those who defended young people in the media recently. I heard a charity youth worker call into LBC radio, and my lovely Mum wrote into the Daily Mail getting a mention for social enterprise!  Thank goodness for the voices of people like this who suggest ways in which we can remedy the country’s problems without wanting to dish out blame.  Social enterprises have many solutions and ideas and now is no time to be reticent; we need to keep the debate alive and relevant.

Social enterprise helps create a fair and prosperous economy. Germany has a much more plural basis for its economy; ownership is more equally shared and is richer, more resilient as a consequence.  Social enterprises don’t just create wealth for their owners, but create and share wealth for others too.

If we in the UK simply continue in our sole pursuit of growth without considering how we also tackle inequality we’ll all be worse off.  Research shows that in more unequal societies it’s not just the poor who are miserable, it’s the rich too.  We know that there’s no correlation between GDP and happiness.

While on the subject of mental wellbeing, happiness was not an emotion that my friend (a lifelong Arsenal supporter) was feeling after his team’s shocker of a defeat to Manchester United. Almost weeping into his pint (not really, but I’m sure some fans did) he told me that he’d not bought a season ticket this year because the price had gone up yet they’d sold two of their best players.  “It’s all about the shareholders”, he said.

I suggested that more clubs follow the lead of AFC Wimbledon because football had lost its way, was crapping all over the fans, and that money was ruling and ruining the game.  “It’s a nice idea, but it’ll never happen,” came his reply.

I disagree – and I’d be in the wrong job if I didn’t think that the Premier League could feature more employee-owned clubs, or that business could be kinder. Too many people seem to be of the belief that ethics in business are an aside, a luxury to the brutal way that most business must unfortunately be done.

My diary is jam packed between now and Christmas.  My days are going to be long (can you hear the violins?). But seriously, I’m not complaining, not at all.  At Social Enterprise UK HQ we’re seeing an upsurge in interest – potential start-ups looking for advice, social enterprises realising that they’re part of a movement (it still amazes me how many organisations there are out there that don’t realise they’re actually a social enterprise), but perhaps most interestingly, big corporates are knocking on our door wanting to know how they can get into the world of social enterprise.

I think my next blog is going to talk about why social enterprise needs to work more closely with the corporate world.  We’re not going to change the face of UK business unless we work with those already in it, are we?


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I didn’t want to write about the riots. It seemed somehow too opportunistic but there are things that have been whirring around my mind, disturbing my sleep and creating a growing sense of frustration.  I feel compelled  to start any contribution regarding the riots with the prerequisite condemnation of violence and  and assertion that there can be no excuses. My failure to do so on my Facebook updates led to some pretty angry comments. I naively thought that it went without saying that there are no excuses for such destructive actions – that now said,  we sooner rather than later need to move the debate on. We have to go beyond righteous indignation and the language of feral youth, rubber bullets and army interventions if we are going to change rather than simply contain these destructive types of behaviours. There are causes that are deeply engrained within the society we have created.  We have created in our towns and cities  communities of young people that are hopeless – lacking in hope. A generation that believe that they can only command dignity, self value and the  respect of their peers by what they are able to wear and consume, a generation that has aspiration but no belief in their abilities to achieve the celebrity  lifestyles that are so aggressively marketed to them, represented across our media in magazines, sports pages, advertising, news, film and tv. The traditional mechanisms of achievement – working hard, relevant education and contributing to our communities are no longer perceived to offer the opportunities to succeed in life.  Many that exist within these communities  have a belief that greed is good and taking what you want by whatever means is acceptable, is perhaps the only way to get what we’re told we need. A view that is too frequently endorsed and echoed across society and by adult role models everywhere – everyone’s on the take and so why don’t we just take it. Expenses scandals and the banking crisis have only served to expand and mainstream these notions. Popular television programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den perpetuate the principle that it’s money that matters above all else. Our power to buy and consume defines us and is the only relevant measure of success.

Our political leaders have been complicit in this messaging. Money and the ability to buy what we want whenever we want is all we apparently want. Peter Mandelson was entirely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, the current administration and indeed the shadow cabinet seem to demonstrate that money is a critical factor in achieving a good education, good prospects, power and success. You’ve probably got more chance of winning the lottery than of ‘making it’ if you’re from a poor background, have useless parents and attend a sink school.  And the evidence is flooding in that cuts are hitting certain people with disproportionate ferocity; the young, the poor and the black communities are not faring well, although they are by no means the only ones that have very nearly lost it all.

When at Sunlight I worked with lots of young people some of whom who would frequently be labelled as ‘chavs’ – a miserable term for young poor people. One young guy, just 17,  had absent parents, no qualifications, a drug, drink and thieving habit and no permanent home. He was heavily criminalised – peddling stolen stuff, drugs and was happy to risk everything by robbing and dealing because in his view he had nothing left to lose and no real opportunity to get what he thought he wanted from life. This lad is now an FA-qualified footie coach and runs 4 weekly football teams. He’s now a responsible father of 2 children and an influential role model, a community leader and a friend to scores of young people in a very challenged, highly deprived community. He plays the role of parent to many. Well he does now, but won’t be able to in just four weeks’ time. The contracts he had through the extended schools programme, his employment through his local development trust, bits of additional funding he sourced through a patchwork of small grants that paid for kits, match fees and transport are all evaporating bit by bit, leading to the closure of the project and the end of his job. The temptation to return to less productive ways of living will not suck my friend back into his old ways but I can’t be so sure that the same is true for those who rely on him.

Today I visited one our members in Harlesden NW London. What Jennifer and her crew at Bang achieve is astonishing, hundreds of young people engaged in projects that meet their individual needs and talents. Jennifer is constantly having to use her creativity to crawl through the hoops and processes that her customers and funders create. It gets in the way of meeting the needs of young people. She and her team are expected to transform lives within the contracted 30 hours of contact which they get. Not 30 hours a week, not 30 hours a month but just 30 hours. That 30 hours of funding is expected to take a frequently cynical, beaten, unmotivated young person lacking in basic skills and develop them into a work-ready, reliable, purposeful person. Jennifer describes many of the young people with whom she works as people born without any known reason for their lives.

It’s easy to feel sad and pessimistic. But Jennifer asked me to do something. She asked that I search for funding that will enable young people from within our most disadvantaged communities to set up their own social enterprises. “If we all work this way in the future then we’ll be alright, if we continue to work like the banks and normal businesses then we won’t,” she says. “The good thing about setting up a social enterprise is that you can’t lose. Even if your business goes under then you still haven’t lost. You’ll have business skills, social skills, connections and you’ll understand you have a purpose and a reason for your life – I set one up  because I knew I couldn’t lose.”

The government needs to be radical – they need to link social and economic policy, we need to move away from business as usual because business as usual has failed our most challenged communities for decades and has more recently shattered our economy for good.  A more balanced and plural economy with social enterprise at its heart will not only radically improve the way public services are delivered but could create the opportunities and most importantly, hope. Opportunity, mobility and hope offer the only real solutions to what the recent violence has highlighted – social dysfunction on a grand scale.


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So here I am in sunny San Francisco for the  Social Enterprise World Forum. It would be easy to whittle on about the undulating streets ( they are indeed steeper than they ever appear in the films or photos)  or I could paint a literary picture of the Atlantic fog obscuring Alcatraz and the Golden gate bridge. All of these things are very striking and on my first afternoon in the city these are the things that I took in.

But over those first four or five hours in this sunny city there was another impression I was forming, something that little by little, like a creeping migraine, was subtly affecting me.

Barbara is 59, though looks well into her 70’s – she wears a sock puppet on her left hand and holds a Starbucks paper cup in her right.

At 2pm, 5pm and 10pm there she was, right outside my hotel offering to raise a smile for whatever donation was offered.

Of course you can find striking inequality in virtually every developed city in the world but Barbara was not alone. There were many, many more people than I had been used to seeing, perhaps 25 or more within 100m of my hotel entrance; many disabled, mostly black, and all I concluded considerably younger than their years suggested.

It made me recall 10 years ago when things weren’t so different in London. There is still much work to be done, but social enterprises and charities working alongside Government and other initiatives are turning that situation around.

I am in no way suggesting that San Francisco or the USA has a unique problem. On the flight over I began a book called “Unequal Britain” by Pat Thane which documents the rise in inequality over the last 60 years in the UK.  The book  damns our own society and is a further call to action for those committed to social justice. However, here in San Francisco, there seems to be a broadly held opinion from those I’ve met that this level of homelessness and street begging is inevitable, unstoppable collateral damage from a free society.

It made me realise that we in the social enterprise movement have our work cut out for us to show people that there is no reason to be accepting of such daily injustices. There are solutions out there to so many things that too many of us view as unfortunate, maybe, but just the way things are.

Too often social enterprise is seen as an interesting adjunct  to the mainstream way of doing business, something on the periphery, a cheap and effective way of fixing market failures. But perhaps the biggest market failure of under-regulated capitalism is the rampaging and increasing inequalities found across the developed and developing world.  At the world forum we’ll be looking at how we move social enterprise from the margins to the mainstream not just nationally but globally too.

The Forum starts  today so I’ll be sure to report back after day one.

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