more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

You are currently browsing the equality category.

The Law of Organisational Affluence or ‘Why hotels are more than a waste of money’

‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in…

Let’s call this ‘The Law of Organisational Affluence,’ and before you write this blanket statement off, let me add the disclaimer that, like all ‘laws,’ it will probably have almost as many exceptions as it does validations.

But indulge me…

Necessity breeds reciprocity

In countless community groups, artist networks and activist collectives, there is so little money going around, that people must find other ways of getting things done, often with the help of others.

Travelling to an event? Can you get a ride with someone?

Staying overnight? Can you crash on someone’s couch?

Need to promote something? Can you see who will add it to their newsletter, website, or put your flyers in their lobby?

Comparatively, in most wealthier organisations, the ease, convenience and predictability of a cash transaction comes to change the nature of these kinds of questions quite a lot.

Travelling to an event? Get a taxi.

Staying overnight? Book a hotel room.

Need to promote something? Pay for ad space.

In each of these later scenarios, the trade-off for ease, convenience, and predictability, is not just a question of the additional money spent – something more is lost when we start to assume that such expenses are a) ‘needed’ and b) the best way to address these needs.

Cash transactions close the door to a more reciprocal kind of give-and-take, and this reciprocity has long been one of the underpinning tenets of the kind of work our organisations do. Without a community and a culture of this kind of reciprocity, it is far easier to lose track of the bigger picture that our work is a part of.

Of course there will be times when any organisation will really need these things, but there is a significant difference between organisational cultures when such expenses are the exception, and when they are the rule.

Slummin’ with students

Working with a small student organisation last year, I travelled a fair bit. This usually meant staying on couches of those hosting me. I also slept on gym floors, in tents, at a couple of youth hostels and multiple scout camp dormitories with this particular organisation. Whatever the students got, that’s what those of us who were paid to be there got as well.

It was basic. Not a luxurious way to work, but hotels were one of many things that were simply not in the budget.

And while this was largely a question of necessity, it had some very positive side-effects. The lines between staff and students in the network were far blurrier than the paid/unpaid divide in most organisations. This made for immeasurably stronger relationships than most of those I’ve experienced in institutions where such delineations are more clearly defined. And stronger relationships usually meant a much higher standard of work getting done (relative to my experiences with wealthier organisations), because people really felt a shared sense of commitment to each other and the actions they were involved in. They also just felt more comfortable together, having had considerably more ‘in-between time’ to get to know each other. And the lack-of-hotels was definitely a part of this.

If I had retreated to lonely hotel rooms after each workshop (as I have with other organisations), it would have been more than just my bed (or sleeping bag) that changed. I would have missed countless hours of important conversations with students – whether about the campaign they were spearheading on campus, or something entirely unrelated going on in their lives. Both helped us work better together, though would have been unlikely to fit into the formally scheduled activities. Avoiding hotels opened the possibilities of the kinds of relationships that rarely emerge when shared time is entirely pre-determined by scheduled activities.

Even if there had been a budget to pay for hotels, doing so would have undermined the work. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that this particular organisation didn’t write these kinds of costs into most of their funding bids.

In times of scarcity, these kinds of interactions are made plentiful by necessity, but when there is more money in the picture, such experiences are often lost.

Necessity breeds reciprocity; reciprocity nurtures stronger relationships; stronger relationships build community; community improves the odds of better work getting done.

‘But!… But!… But!…’

I can hear the arguments – ‘I shouldn’t have to sleep on someone’s couch/ troll through my networks to find a ride/ beg and borrow for the things I need to do my work!’

To which I say, ‘why not?’ Are these really such major sacrifices to make for an important cause? And are they in fact sacrifices, or simply trade-offs? A minimal loss of privacy, for a greater sense of connection with the people who are a part of your work and your cause?

The sense of entitlement that can often sneak into organisational cultures does not just cost money – it costs relationships, and may well affect the quality of work that is or isn’t being done.

But we’ll never know about the potential we are missing if we don’t give it a try.

What can you avoid paying for, next time the choice arises?

What can you stop budgeting for, the next time you’re writing a proposal?

What might you do instead?

4 comments

When we ignore difference, bad things happen… Some thoughts on the London riots

If we want to prevent such hardships as the current UK riots from happening again, we’ll need to understand and appreciate how the different life experiences of people who have done things we would never condone, may have shaped their recent decisions…

The Pembury Estate, Hackney

The Pembury Estate, Hackney

It’s hard to comprehend how greatly our respective lived experiences can lead us to differ so drastically from one another; how they can create underpinning beliefs in us that seem as insane to someone else, as they are fundamental to who we are.

At the start of the latest recession, I was in a car with a fairly conservative uncle and inadvertently made reference to greed in the financial sector nearly causing the collapse of the global economy. He exploded and told me that greed made the world go ‘round, and that all of the work I do (campaigning, charity, etc) could only exist (i.e. – be funded) through the results of that greed.

I was a bit shocked by the logic of this response. Greed so clearly seemed like what was wrong with the global economy, and yet my uncle seemed to fully believe it to be a virtue! I didn’t know where to start, so we stayed mostly quiet for the rest of the car ride…

He and I have lived very different lives, in a number of ways. Without addressing the details, there’s a point at which this difference must be accepted; not as a way of justifying his views (I still think they’re fundamentally wrong), but as a way of trying to explain them and engage with them.

Fast forward to East London, 2011

The view from the flat, Tuesday morning

A view from the flat, Tuesday morning

Sitting in my adopted home of London, in the 4th floor Hackney flat I share with my wife, I can still see smoke billowing up on the horizon to the north east of us. It’s less than it was yesterday, but the city is still burning, after 3+ days of rioting.

A combination of fear and not knowing what I could possibly be doing to help, have mostly kept me at home (baring an initial foray to Hackney’s own ground zero on Monday evening and the #RiotCleanUp activities there the next morning).

As I’ve been sitting here, reading and Tweeting, I’ve been shocked – as I know many others I’m in touch with have – as to the hatred that has emerged from the woodworks in the face of this mass unrest.

People who I’ve generally considered progressive and open-minded, have resorted to calls for ‘shoot on sight’ orders against looters, rounding up of immigrants and sterilisation of benefit claimants.

I’ve found this deeply disheartening. More so even than the actions on the streets, as the pre-planned hostility in what they are suggesting. seems to go above and beyond any cruelty the rioters have managed to achieve.

Someone Tweeted “Nothing like a good riot to find out which of your mates are racist, and/or just a bit thick.” That’s a simple truth, but there’s more here…

Why?

Rather than dwell on this, I’ve been trying my best to think about what has brought these responses out in people. Clearly, many of us feel scared, worried, threatened. But one of the recurrent themes I’m coming across is, how hard, from a perspective of someone not in the middle of the violence, it can be to ‘make sense’ of smashing and burning one’s own neighbourhood, or looting new shoes or TVs in response to a police murder.

Hannah Nicklin has written beautifully on this subject, so I won’t dwell on specific possible motivations, but am interested in how reluctant so many of us are to acknowledge that the people burning cars in recent days, while sharing a city with us, have probably lived incomparably different lives to our own.

‘Comfort’ and ‘Struggle’

Here are a few assumptions of difference that my time on the streets of Hackney this week, and some of my youth work background more broadly, have highlighted for me. I’ve (very) crudely classified two broad mindsets as ‘comfort’ (generally experiencing that you can get what you want, if you work hard enough) and ‘struggle’ (experiencing that hard work will most often lead to disappointment and rejection), to represent where I think the crux of difference lies. It’s basically a measure of ‘how much faith you have in the systems around you to work for you, not against you’.

There are all kinds of racial, class, gender and other differences that get caught up in this binary (really, we are all a some combination of both columns), but there is lived experience which, while by no means absolute, often separates those whose bandana-covered faces we’ve seen so much of on the news, from much of the rest of the country.

Comfort

Struggle

“The police are here to protect us and should be supported.” “The police humiliate, oppress and hurt us and shouldn’t be trusted.”
“When you have a problem, there is always an appropriate person (or people) through which it can and should be raised and addressed.” “When you have an issue, you will probably never get listened to and your opinion means nothing to people who make decisions anyway.”
“If you want something, work hard, and you will get it.” “If you want something, you’ll have to find a backdoor way of getting it, or live without it.”
“Everyone has a fair chance at work and education in Britain, if they try hard enough.” “Almost everyone around me is unemployed, without education and on benefits, working low-wage jobs they hate, or doing something illegal to get by.”

The knee-jerk response to this oversimplified distinction would be to say ‘those in the right-hand column are simply wrong’, but would this change countless British peoples’ life experiences and corresponding beliefs? Like with so many things, perception is reality, and in practice, feeling powerless is exactly the same as being powerless. If your lived experience leads you to believe one thing, but someone else tells you it’s wrong because they haven’t experienced it, are you going to belief that your experience has indeed been wrong? Or that this other person is wrong about you?

‘I need this to succeed.’

I think of a friend, who had emerged from a struggling youth in a Northwest London gang and gone on to set-up a small local youth charity, telling me, “I need this to succeed; there’s no one I grew up with who’s been able to do anything like this, and so all the youths today see is a generation above them who are out on the road. They need to see this possibility can be real for them.”

Think about this for a minute. I’m going to guess that this is not the same experience most of the people reading this blog had growing up; the experience that ‘no one from my neighbourhood gets a job or sets up their own business. No one.’ What about: ‘everyone in my group of friends gets stop-and-searched and humiliated by the police. All the time.’?

Or as a youth involved in recent Hackney rioting put it:

“There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more… There’s nothing for us.”

Would this change your understandings of the world at all?

#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning

#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning

Like I said, Hannah Nicklin gets into the depths of this much better than I, but I think what’s critical here is to realise and understand how different life is for a lot of people, even if it’s hard to acknowledge that their struggles are happening in our own backyards, with some degree of our ongoing complicity.

When we acknowledge others’ experiences as real – however different from our own – we give ourselves space to address shared concerns together (like safety on the streets, whether from police or gangs). If we can’t acknowledge the realities that might have made some of the recent actions feel acceptable to some, we’re almost certainly doomed to reinforce those realities, and invariably too, the actions they’ve spawned. Alternatively, people and government can start to think seriously about differences in this city and country, if we want to get to a better place, following all of our recent experiences of hurt and fear…

3 comments

Helping protest ‘to be more like people’?

This blog is a partial departure from the norm here. It’s a response to a period of change in the UK that I saw play-out once before in Canada and feel needs to be fundamentally challenged, having seen its devastating social consequences there. More immediately, this is a follow-on from Lisa Ansell’s blog on the Big Society, and the importance of grounding our resistance in the immediate needs of those hit hardest by the social injustices of the current government’s cuts. It’s an attempt to make our resistance to injustice ‘more like people’.

Black Panther Emory Douglas' 'Paperboy'

Black Panther Emory Douglas’ ‘Paperboy’

The Black Panther Party doesn’t get mentioned much by most people I work with. Maybe it’s because I’m based in the UK? Maybe because the staff at larger voluntary organisations are disproportionately white? Maybe it’s because there’s been a long-term effort to distance ourselves, as a sector, from radical politics?

I don’t doubt that the answer is some combination of these things and more I haven’t mentioned.  Without delving into the motivations too deeply, I think the Panthers provide an example that requires revisiting in light of the ‘Big Society’, the cuts, and most importantly, the notion of community organising that has been held-up by David Cameron and Company since before last years’ election.

This blog is partly a response to Lisa Ansell’s excellent post on ‘using the Big Society to fight the cuts’ – a pragmatic look at opposing the current government’s agenda, and the impacts it will have on peoples’ lives. I think the Panthers’ offer some key learning in this area, while they are often unknown or dismissed by the voluntary sector for their Maoist leanings or their advocacy of armed self-defence.

Without delving into these debates either, the Black Panthers succeeded (for a time, at least) in combining active campaigning and critical DIY service provision, as Lisa (rightly) suggests we need to, if we want to build a truly broad-based movement that includes and is led by those most impacted by the current ‘austerity measures’.

A challenge for the ‘left’ and the ‘centre’

This is a challenge to both the activist ‘left’ and the voluntary sector ‘centre’, acknowledging the need to step in and create alternatives to the state when it fails to provide for basic human needs, AND for the fundamental importance of actively challenging (by, as Malcolm X stated, ‘any means necessary’) those shortcomings. On a philosophical level, these ideas can seem in contradiction, but in the lives of people who are seeing critical lifelines disappear, both approaches are essential.

This was something Huey P. Newton and the Panthers understood. Like other movements that have emerged organically from the communities they supported, the Panthers knew that in order to get their political platform taken seriously in poor, black neighbourhoods, they needed to demonstrate how it related to peoples’ immediate needs, as well as their bigger picture aspirations and values.

They started ‘Breakfast for schools’ programmes in schools, they defended people against police brutality, they assisted the elderly to get to the shops and to medical appointments, providing those appointments themselves when people had no insurance to cover them… but through all of these efforts, the Panthers maintained that what they were doing was a stop-gap to pave the path for a more just world in which their services wouldn’t be required because they would be guaranteed rights for all. The government could never pretend that what the Panthers were providing was a justification for their own lack of provision; quite the opposite! They tried to ignore, discredit and otherwise undermine it, realising that the challenge presented by the group was far more fundamental to their power than the challenges of much of the mainstream organised left.

Black Panthers as a model voluntary organisation?

The Black Panthers were a model voluntary organisation, in the sense that they provided leadership, opportunities and infrastructure for people to support their local community’s core needs. But in doing so, they never pretended their makeshift provision could be the whole solution, within a country that systemically marginalised minority communities from coast-to-coast.

This combination of services and activism created a deep credibility throughout the United States.

The Panthers were not intellectuals presenting ideas for bigger picture change without obvious benefit to those hit hardest by inequality. Simultaneously, they weren’t offering piecemeal or plaster solutions to vast social ills, as so many charities had in those same communities. Instead, the Panthers offered people the opportunity to become active players in their own liberation – whether through the creation of immediate services, or the organised resistance to their state-imposed oppression.

Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’

The Panthers’ approach was closely mirrored by the community organising of Saul Alinsky in Chicago (albeit, without the guns and non-racially specific), which Barack Obama was trained in the methods of, and is (in name, at least) behind parts of the Big Society agenda. The government seemed to have missed the analysis that I (and many others) have pulled from this period of history…

What this means for charities and activists?

So while the protests of tens-of-thousands of students facing the loss of their education prospects provide an inspiring example and clear demonstration of public opinion, it is not the entire solution.

Alternatively, most of the health or literacy services cobbled together by voluntary organisations on increasingly ragged shoestring budgets are important, but also incomplete in weaving an inclusive, believable and holistic narrative of positive social change for those at the wrong end of the current cuts.

‘More Like People’

I usually talk about the ‘More Like People’ idea in relation to institutional voluntary organisations. In this case I feel it also applies to the ad hoc activist groups that can be equally alienating to people impacted directly by losses more fundamental than say, libraries and forests (not to discredit the public movements around each of these important issues, but only to put them into perspective).

How can we – those of us concerned with equality in the face of a drastically clawed-back state – create the conditions for greater social justice? I think we can blur the lines – stop retreading the Blairite notion that services and campaigns should be inherently separate from one another. Stop trying to hold a philosophical high ground by refusing to step in where the state is clearly failing.

Whether or not the government’s model of community organising recognises the factors critical to its pioneers’ successes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, its lessons are not ones we can afford to ignore in 2011…

6 comments

Experiential diversity: A new way of understanding equality in the voluntary sector

‘Diversity’ and ‘equality’ are popular buzzwords in the voluntary sector, but how often do we think about what they really mean? Maybe if we were to have an open discussion about difference – in all its more and less obvious forms – we would be in a better place to answer the questions they raise?

_______________________________________________________________________

di•ver•si•ty

[dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-]
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness.
2. variety; multiformity.
3. a point of difference.

Photo by Christopher Edwards, Creative Commons

There are innumerable pieces of legislations around the world that exist to balance historical and present-day discrimination. These have, I believe, been created with the best of intent – honest attempts to right wrongs that have existed for generations and still hide in the crevices of our institutions and the subconscious of our minds.

But many of my colleagues – often those who would check more boxes than I do on an equalities monitoring form – feel that the current approach may intend to encourage diversity, but in fact creates a smokescreen for a more subtle and insidious form of discrimination.

As one colleague – a black man from a housing estate in Southeast London, working in a national charity put it – ‘I went to university to learn to be white’.

Or as another colleague who recently finished a report on race equality in the private sector found, many of the non-white senior managers interviewed admittedly described themselves as culturally ‘white.’

Diversity?

So while there has been a semi-successful trend towards more visibly integrated workplaces, there is still an issue with homogeneity; people who check boxes, but who have either:

a) Lived very similar lives to those who represent the professional status quo (which is still broadly white, middle class, university educated), or
b) Have adopted or adapted to the culture of the professional status-quo, to be ‘allowed’ into that world.

In either case, the result is the same: many workplaces are less diverse than their monitoring forms might suggest. They still hire exclusively ‘professionals’, and what we understand as ‘professional’ is far too closely linked with what we generally see to be white, male and middle-to-upper-middle class. Thus many of our voluntary and non-profit organisations are missing out on the vast potential energy, creativity, perspective and insight that people who have taken a different path than we have, could offer our work and the people we support. They may even have a lot more in common with the people we support than we do, the value of which should not be overlooked. If our organisations want to tap into the diverse potential that exists outside of our ‘professional’ cultures, we can’t just hire people who don’t look, but still very much act as we do.

That said, I don’t want to minimise the importance of the shift that has occurred – that an Asian woman or a young gay man are more able to get into the professional workforce than they were a few decades ago, is of course a terrific victory on many fronts.

However, if that Asian woman or that gay man must either be born into economic privilege, or learn to give-up significant elements of their own culture to be accepted, then, in my opinion, this represents a pretty significant short-coming of the current approach.

The Marxist argument

Point a) above essentially follows a traditional Marxist class argument and while valuable, has been rehashed many times before by others more qualified than I. I would only add that our institutions (on the whole) selectively include people from non-dominant communities, who still fit most of the economic (and, often correspondingly, cultural) criteria typically associated with the dominant community. Which raises questions about the kind of diversity that is (or isn’t) being fostered in many professional workplaces. We can handle the differences of skin colour, sexual orientation, and religion better than we used to, but when it comes to interacting with people who DO THINGS differently from us, we come up with a range of excuses for why they ‘aren’t right for the job’.

Or is it more complex…?

Point b), however, raises a less-unpicked argument; that the ‘DNA’ of the current professional paradigm (across the sectors), is still very much the DNA of a privileged, white, straight, male reality, and that those from outside this reality who rise through its ranks must adopt (to varying degrees) that dominant culture in order to do so.

Basically, our idea of ‘professionalism’ is not something we can honestly describe as culture-neutral.

The opposition

When I’ve posed this hypothesis to others, the negative responses tend to fall into one of two categories:

1) The DNA of the professional world is simply the most effective and appropriate for getting things done, and is not an issue of values or methods associated with any particular group.

2) While the professional ‘DNA’ may be reflective of a dominant community, there are too many non-dominant communities to shift it, so it makes most sense to maintain the current way of working.

‘It’s the best’

The first argument I simply can’t believe; there is too strong a correlation in a) western countries and b) in other parts of the world following periods of imperialism or top-down globalisation, to assume that the structure and modes of working are not associated with a particular dominant group. The ‘Efficiency Drive’ which justifies a vast array of negative practices across the sectors, does not appear to have emerged from, or grown naturally in many other cultures (beyond a traditionally European-descended ‘elite’), without economic or political coercion. The argument that it is simply ‘the best’ verges on discriminatory against the cultures that don’t automatically adopt its methods.

‘There are too many alternatives’

The second argument I usually counter with a less binary option: we need to actively encourage (as some workplaces do) a range of people from non-dominant groups to take more active roles in shaping workplace cultures, in their own images (rather than allowing the workplace cultures to force a shape on them, by default). A workplace culture does not have to be one homogenous entity, but can actually itself adopt elements of the range of influences it allows itself to open up to.

While different understandings of ‘professionalism’, working relationships, hospitality, non-verbal communication and countless other assumed subtleties may not immediately mesh with one another, I feel this is a challenge we are capable of starting to address in the 21st Century. We need to have the discussions about the assumptions our organisations subconsciously impose, within and beyond their walls. We need to acknowledge alternatives, learn from other communities, countries, our own personal lives even, and see how we could involve, say, potluck lunches, events with families of staff, changes to how we hold meetings, design office plans and how decisions get made…

Outreach

There’s also the question of the external image our organisations present. While our traditional definitions of workplace diversity may help foster some sense that our organisations are really ‘for everyone’, this is unlikely to last if those we’ve hired who check boxes on a form are still worlds removed from the experiences of the young people, ex-offenders, refugees or others we may try to support. This is not to say that everyone who works for an organisation should be from its client group, but that this can create a sense of shared experience which tends to make people more comfortable engaging with otherwise seemingly-foreign institutions.

Think of the number of times you’ve walked by an African barber shop, a gay bar, a mosque, a Polish convenience store, and never even thought of going in because the people hanging around were so far separated from your own experience of the world. Maybe this is something you’ve never even noticed, because the idea of walking into such a place is so radical it doesn’t even cross your mind at such moments?

When you’re part of a dominant culture it can be easy to forget that we create these same sentiments amongst others; that when a bunch of us who look, talk and act in similar ways work together, our work may well take on associations of difference to those who do not feel a part of that world. Then add to this difference the power dynamics still so often associated with a dominant group and you’ve got a pretty off-putting combination. If we want to be inclusive to those outside of our organisations, as well as those inside, we need to think about what we mean by diversity and equality. Any real attempts to address inequality must address the less visible issues of difference that continue to drive unspoken wedges between us.

Mixing it up…

How can we bring pieces of Ghana, Vauxhall, Pakistan, Peckham, Poland and Dagenham into our workplaces, without subsuming them in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment (which I feel most of us not of that ilk must conform to ourselves, even if it’s a more subtle shift)? I know that making a list from the aforementioned place names and putting them on a form with check boxes beside them is not the way to do it. It is not simply about including more people in the established protocols of the day, it is also about ensuring people can be included without having to take on the traits of those they have never shared true equality with. It’s about the system changing for the people, not simply the other way around. If the systems aren’t changing, what kind of diversity are we trying to foster? Is this a manifestation of true equality, or does it just allow us to see enough difference to stop asking the uncomfortable questions about power that we might not want to admit still need asking?

3 comments

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

Fatal error: Uncaught Error: Call to undefined function mysql_query() in /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-content/plugins/quickstats/quickstats.php:345 Stack trace: #0 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-hook.php(288): JQ_updateStats('') #1 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-hook.php(312): WP_Hook->apply_filters(NULL, Array) #2 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/plugin.php(478): WP_Hook->do_action(Array) #3 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/load.php(947): do_action('shutdown') #4 [internal function]: shutdown_action_hook() #5 {main} thrown in /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-content/plugins/quickstats/quickstats.php on line 345