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Director blog September 2021: Kindness; Vulnerability; Solidarity

We are revisiting our strategic plan over the next few months.  The last one we had was geared very much around the priorities of our 2017 reaching communities Lottery bid before we even had resident trustees or staff.  The fundamentals of the plan I worked to was essentially set out in advance – kind of like painting by numbers.   There was room for interpretation and innovation, but I was aware of, and appreciated, the framework set out ahead of time.  The objectives were fourfold with work focused on cohesion, health, skills and environment and by 2020, to have in place a community development trust (CDT).  When it came to values our 2017-2020 plan will show we came up with these: 

  • Energizing and empowering  

  • Entrepreneurial and can-do 

  • Relational approach  

  • Transparency and accountability  

  • Inclusive  

My older self looks back and thinks, okay not the worst but plenty of bingo buzzwords that mean what exactly? Paulo Freire, a Brazilian community educator wrote that to speak a true word is to transform the world.  Speaking a true word meaning something genuinely and unreservedly coming from the heart of oneself and one’s experience of the world – not sure the above list does that.  Looking back they feel mediated by professional jargon; my bad. 

At a recent discussion with trustees and staff led by Locality – ahead of board games people brought with them as a DIY social and refreshments sourced from a local resident business (happy to recommend), I jotted down the kind of words I wanted to be central as values for our new plan: kindness, vulnerability; solidarity.  They ended up on a stick-it note somewhere and may or may not make the cut as and when the plan gets signed off but I’m already feeling good about them.   

I’m sure we’ve all spent time over lockdown thinking about what is important to our lives; lots of people have suddenly left their jobs, moved away, simplified things.  Maybe that is part of what is on my mind – the appreciation we feel when someone asks how we are, when mutual aid networks reach out door to door, street by street.  The currency of kindness.  It is not forced or regimented; it flows out from communities.   

I think the pandemic has also shown us how vulnerable we all are – how quickly everything can change, how little control we have.  I’ve been thinking that maybe our vulnerability is actually our superpower.  I’ll have to explain this one.  Normally I bang on about structures – and that power resides with public and private sector bodies; with politics and money.  Normally I resist platitudes that claim it’s all about relationships as a partial truth at best.  At worst a con.  But it struck me, all the people I admire and respect are people who have struggled, suffered and in doing so grown and remained open and accessible.  Some kinds of power, where people fear you, are probably not worth having, so just maybe vulnerability is where our creativity and potential combine to empower us – individually and collectively.  You’ll have to tell me if that makes any kind of sense. 

Soon after I started working in Thames Ward the council’s director of participation told me the view from on high was that I was ‘old fashioned’ in my approach to community work. Pot, kettle, black. I didn’t really understand why but I imagine having an independent thought process can be alarming if you are not used to it.  Solidarity is an old school word; it is not trendy, it smacks of another age, but I reached for it anyway, as my third value.  Strip it down and it means being there for people, having their back.  I’ve always worked in the voluntary sector and I rarely see much solidarity but when I do I want to hold it close.  A youth worker friend of mine, who died earlier this year, always told me the way to get the sector to fight amongst itself was to leave a five pound note on the table.  Divide and rule is a powerful thing. My thought: we are divided and ruled until such time as we choose not to be, and then everyone wins.       

My final word I jotted down was enterprise, I didn’t highlight it here because it has a distance to it at odds to the rest of the blog.  My experience of Thames Ward is not of voluntarism – that doing stuff for free and let organisations with money drop a few crumbs, is not going to work out.  Kindness, vulnerability and solidarity are things to be and do – they are enterprising and creative; they don’t work if they are fenced in.  The pandemic has shown that control can be illusory but the re-set that is taking place can be liberating, depending on how we go about planning for it.  

Matthew Scott

TWCP Director

Director blog August 2021: Getting things done

Most of us will know what it feels like to make a list of things we need to do, diligently work through it, maybe get sidetracked by stuff, come back to other stuff that is urgent and cannot be put off any longer.  Get to the end of the day, or week and then do it all over again – another list. 

Maybe most of us will also know what it feels like to have too much to do – and that some tasks won’t get done, fall through the gaps in our busy lives.  Which generates stress, no matter how hard we work.   

One of the ways I decompress is by reading – whatever takes my interest, novels, current affairs, books on ideas and theory – and I found myself reading about stress free productivity – hence the blog.  The premise being that the more we are able to relax, the more things get done. Having a lot of things on your mind limits how much gets done – we feel overwhelmed.  It is exhausting thinking about all the things that need to get done, and this is simply trying to recall what it is we need to do, not even the act of doing it.   

A lot of this is obvious but we often miss what is obvious – like where we find ourselves placing our attention.  I was a bit shocked to realise how much time I spend thinking about doing things and trying to remember all the things I should be doing rather than actually doing them. Quite a lot of my life caught up on that hamster wheel.  Whereas what I enjoy is being absorbed by what I am doing, being in the moment, not distracted by trying to chase after lists.   

The wider reflection for me, is about how we do community work.  Again I spend a lot of my life going to meetings, having conversations with people which come down to – so what are we going to do?  Dancing around who does what and will it get done and do we even get to the point of spelling out that there is an action and someone is going to do it. I break things down into issues, solutions and actions.  In community work we spend a lot of time talking about issues but we often miss the solutions and fail to take actions.  Sometimes that is fine because we need the space to simply speak it out, build relational power and trust – people before programme.  Not rush to transact business and instrumentalise people.  So chat about issues is fine.   

But and there is a but, I think one of the major reasons why community work falls short is we don’t then go on to frame the solution and action in specific measurable terms.  Sometimes I think this is a deliberate strategy – power holders get people to talk about issues but that is all it is.  Stuff doesn’t get done if it hasn’t been clearly agreed what the action is and who is going to do it. I think that is what transparency and accountability means.   

I was in a meeting the other week with a lot of public sector workers who lamented the absence of smaller community groups in the delivery of local services and thought was given about how these small groups might ‘get on board’.  I seem to have heard the same conversation for years, a subtext of almost every meeting I go to.  My thought is – if you want to get more community groups ‘on board’ you just do it.  If you really want to do it, you will find a way.  It really isn’t hard.  This is about political and institutional will.  The fact that it still gets talked about means the will is lacking.  The solution for example is to identify what resource exists and ring fence and re-direct some of it. Trouble is, no one is framing the solution and the action – hence smaller community groups are disenfranchised.  This is by design.  I’m not saying there is a malign intent – I just think there are a lot of people copping out. Sometimes people blame the ‘system but we are the ones who create the system by who we are and what we do.   So for me it is not about the ‘system’ or bureaucracy, it is just about the will and desire to do it differently and better.   

Sometimes it occurs to me that maybe the same people in the ‘system’ have a lot on and feel overwhelmed.  They can’t relax but bounce from meeting to meeting – too many things to do, important people to placate.  No wonder stuff doesn’t get done.  Or when it gets done it happens at the margins because no one felt the need to form a committee or bring external consultants in.  Sometimes it feels like a conspiracy to agree things are being done when they are not.  There’s a fear factor.  Maybe that sounds a bit critical.   

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, wrote about how oppression operates through a culture of silence.  Power holders encourage magical and naive thinking when addressing social problems – magical in the sense of things being an act of fate or chance, naïve in the sense that those in power always and only act on the best interests of those without power and in fact want to give power away rather than hold on to it.  Freire suggests only critical thinking gets things done – that’s why maybe I’m coming across as critical.  Critical as in asking questions, trying to move from issue to solution to action.  Sometimes getting lost in a list of things to do.


Matthew Scott

TWCP Director


Allen, D (2015) Getting Things Done. London: Piatkus 

Friere, P (1995) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin 

Director blog July 2021: Wellbeing – The personal is political

Wellbeing has rightly risen up the agenda of things people are talking about – not just because of the pandemic but also because people expect more from employers, the workplace and the day-to-day social spaces we inhabit.  That’s a good thing.
What I wonder is whether we have a strong enough shared understanding about what wellbeing is?  Inevitably wellbeing means different things to different people but is there a robust enough overall vision?  A big tent that people can unite behind and get with the programme.  My sense is that we don’t have this – I don’t think wellbeing has broken through because if it had, we’d be living in a very different world.
Wellbeing is a warm comforting word, like ‘community’; it gets sprayed around as a non-specifically positive thing.  Fuzzy and vague.  But as we know goals and objectives that are not ‘smart’ (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed) or even ‘smarter’ (evaluated and reviewed) – well those loose goals have a habit of not getting done.
To be fair there are plenty of toolkits and how-to guides around:
So just like safe-guarding, equal opportunities, health and safety and similar must-have policies it is easy enough to get something written down, and more to the point, understood, used and reviewed.  In other words, it can be managerial, technocratic and in its better moments a framework for accountability.
What I feel is lacking from the wellbeing conversation society is having with itself these days is a deeper location of wellbeing as political thing.  Funny how that gets airbrushed out of the picture; how we don’t get around to talking about structures of power, control and oppression – move along, nothing to see here.
I’m all up for doing more exercise, going on long walks together, learning a new skill.  My point is that the answer to social problems is through both individual self-care AND wider institutional and political actions.  And all I get from the professionalised choreography about wellbeing is the former not the latter.  
At its worst wellbeing is just a mix of naive and magical thinking – if you are on the sharp end of poverty that is as much about politics and economics as opposed to learning how to breathe properly.  The solutions to the stresses that bear down on us can be framed in terms of things you can do as an individual and things that the state can do to or for you, for example via legislation. A tussle between the agency of the individual to sort their lives out versus the structure of the state (NHS / Council etc) to sort it via tax and as public servants.  
If you are in power, with all that money and patronage what message would you want to put out there?  I’d say it would be about putting all the responsibility on the shoulders of individuals and then try and make out like it was deeply meaningful and empowering.  An example of how ideas need to be questioned or else they end up carelessly repeated as assumed ‘common sense’: an ideological con trick.  
To be clear, I just think we need a mix of emphasis on what individuals can do, and what wider society needs to get done.  A balance, not one thing or the other.  
What I reckon we could do is use the opportunity that is presented by wellbeing to put a whole lot of things on the agenda.  To think critically, to open up conversations and propose new solutions and actions.  I think this is best of both worlds – the individual bit and the collective action joined as one.
The slogan that ‘the personal is political’ is associated with second wave feminism but I feel it is universal and multi-purpose.  We can use what we experience to prompt reflective conversations that critically examine how we are living and how we might want to live differently.  That in turn is a programme for political action.  If we get the opportunity to jump on the wellbeing bandwagon and chat freely why not give it some welly?  Be a shame not to.

Matthew Scott

TWCP Director

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