People Power

In 2012 patients and former patients set up the People’s Network, a group working to give voice to issues related to mental health services in Hackney. Recently I’ve been working with the group as they review the last few years, clocking all they’ve achieved. There is ambition for the next five years, work that ‘needs to be done’, which will need funding. It’s an impressive venture not least because users of mental health services in Hackney lead it. They know the reality.

“We’ve lost services. Things have gone. There wasn’t much there in the first place, that’s the truth. Now there’s not much left.”

I arrive at the group’s weekly drop in, as another member navigates the intercom and carefully ascends the stairs. We find the space and the bulky frame in front reaches his destination, collapsing into a sofa. The group assembles, distracted, chatty. I’m plied with tea and digestives as the conversation starts. I listen, typing notes as we go. The sofa stirs, its occupier now asleep. I’m buoyed by the welcome and friendliness.

“You can wake up and be confronted with an issue and that can make you feel suicidal. It’s help with money, budget with everyday life. I want help with education, and training and employment. Just advice about how to get on.”

It’s a lively unpredictable group defined and led by users of mental health services, all with experience of mental health ‘issues’. The ‘issues’ word is banded about a bit here, clumsy but necessary, papering over long stories, complex trauma and huge challenge. Despite contrasting appearances everyone in the group has or continues to face mental health issues. Amongst the banter and debate there are knowing looks. I’m hit by the profound solidarity.

“Changes have made me very anxious. No key worker anymore. I’m anxious. That’s not good anymore. I don’t have a mobile phone, so I show up here at the People’s Network. My GP is not there for me, that’s what they say. It’s help with the every day.”

Mental health need is high in Hackney compared with the rest of England. Income deprivation is high and linked to higher than average levels of mental health problems in the population. Locally there are significantly higher proportions of Black people with Serious Mental Illness, compared to White, Asian or other ethnic groups. Deprivation has a huge impact with research showing higher than average numbers of people claiming the old incapacity benefit for mental illness in Hackney. With huge need is the perfect storm of cuts to services alongside the impact of welfare reform and changes to housing benefit. In Hackney there is the rising cost of housing.

“We want to go to speak to someone who can help us and have someone to listen. That feels good. Even if you let it all pile up within you, all the anxiety and stuff, you explode. You end up stressed and you talk gibberish. You end up getting sectioned. Talking with someone one to one, and it just brings release. You’re available – we can talk. I want some time with you. We want empathy and friendship. It just helps.”

I listen to people talk freely about complex mental health need. Shortly, a well documented tension between clinical, medical responses and softer talk therapies surfaces. An uneasy balance is struck. A recognition that medication is necessary alongside ambition to break free, to find space for talking and recovery fuelled by the patient, seemingly frustrated by the professional. Nods of support and murmuring of encouragement.

“Professionals are not covering the final outcome, which is recovery – they are covering their tracks. It’s about on-going medication not recovery. They are not looking at the system. The stuff that gets us here – all we have to face and work through.”

One of the members has made everyone lunch and we finish up talking over food. Surprise at what’s been said and encouragement follow, alongside deeper reflection on the insights shared. Then we leave. Things to do back in the realities we’ve left behind. I listen. Some of the obstacles confronting group members feel impossible, instantly generating work for the People’s Network – which they aren’t funded to do. I leave inspired by the solidarity and a sense that the group is making all the difference.

“I get made homeless in April. My landlord wants me out… I got a possession order asking me to be out in March. I said, “You can’t do that!” I spoke to the landlord and he said he’d put it back till April, but that I’d have to be out because he’s selling the place. I have to be at Hackney Council. The landlord will send the bailiff round. I rang Family Mosaic they said there will have to have a referral from your psychiatrist. So I’ve got to arrange an appointment. I’m anxious, but I’m OK”.

People’s Network is supported by Social Action for Health

Seized by the Star

Nipped along to the launch of Leila Sansour’s ‘Open Bethlehem’, funded in part by Greenbelt.

Filmed over 5 years it’s a brave, powerful and deeply moving documentary. Sansour explores the story of Palestine through the microcosm of a family in exile and a daughter returning to her beloved Little Town.

A romantic Leila is attracted back home by childhood memories and Christmas card images of Bethlehem returning, just as plans for the apartheid wall become a reality.

The 8 metre high wall is brutal – trampling through neighbourhoods, carving up communities, blocking out light.

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87% of Bethlehem’s land is taken by Israeli occupation enforced restrictions. 25% of Bethlehem’s agricultural land is now only accessible via a permit, which Palestinian farmers must have, to get to through the military checkpoints.

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The wall isolates Palestinians from shops, parks and land. One in five people in Bethlehem are now unemployed in what was once a flourishing tourist destination. 62% of Bethlehem’s population are dependent on tourism. Realising the appalling impact on people and business, Sansour starts a campaign to Open Bethlehem. The film follows Leila as she builds a global coalition of agencies, NGO’s, and people; an ever present camera capturing meetings, conversation, rhetoric, promises and finally the heartbreak of a wall that for now isn’t moving.

‘Open Bethlehem’ captures the violent unrelenting machinery of occupation. Around Bethlehem there are 19 illegal Israeli settlements taking Palestinian land from local families and choking Palestinian neighbourhoods. “This is no place dreamers…”

This is an important film for anyone concerned with the Palestine, Israel, and the Middle east. If you’re interested in social movements the film is a compelling case study, summarising the impossible story of Israeli occupation, and a campaign for freedom of occupation, liberation from enclosure, and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.

Finally the camera captures the hard work, commitment and fragility of a campaign, which even to Leila’s own family from outside Palestine, seems doomed to fail, blocked by the wall and occupation.

Sansour acknowledges there is very little hope for the future unless the wall comes down. However, the campaign continues, passports are printed and Bethlehem remains open. The film ends defiantly, with hope. “There’s no turning back when your heart is seized by the star of Bethlehem.”

Book the film at your local Ritzy for Christmas – take a gang along and then plan a long pub after for deep conversation. There are insights here for UK NGO’s charities, churches, activists, organisers and people of faith – a Palestinian theology of foolishness and faith, and a compelling commitment to change the world.

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Celebrating Social Justice!

Owen Jones popped into Greenbelt this year, did a talk, appeared on GTV and clearly took a bit of time out to soak up the vibe. He said this about the festival:

Greenbelt is an inspiring and fascinating celebration of social justice, breaking down barriers between those of faith and no faith. It’s not only good fun – it lifts the hearts of all of us who believe in a better world.”

Greenbelt as a space that brings diverse people together – faith and no faith – to inspire, challenge, provoke. In a context of diversity, it’s great to meet people who live and breathe and work for a better world.

Festival – as a source of solidarity! That makes for a great festival.

 

 

Eating as a subversive activity | 2.

We host a weekly meal open to anyone. Attendance is ‘random’, which is tricky.

How many will appear? How many are we cooking for? How much should we prepare for? You don’t know. And that’s the point. There is no way around it. The meal deal is an act of faith, that people will show up and somehow, there will be enough food for everyone. Some weeks we’ll host 15 or 16… other weeks it will be more.

It isn’t simply the numbers – its also combinations of people that are outside control.

A mix of people emerge to welcome, talk to, catch up with. But how? And what about the dynamics? You’ll be aware of the dangers in a random blend of people. To help sometimes we’ve identified regulars – a core group of 2 or 3 people – who host, keeping an eye out for those on the edge of conversation, inadvertently excluded, the collective body language of the group leaving them out. Some times the whole group functions as host – this is best.

Some of the people we invite became friends. Some of the people invited – or who show up – have quirky behaviour. Others have difficult, challenging behaviour. This is critical. Eating as a subversive activity is not a meal with mates. The meal is partly about eating with strangers or strange people.

You may need to think through your own boundaries – whats acceptable and not. And safeguarding if you think its needed. There are complexities and paradoxes about hosting community work in a domestic space – your own home. You need to work these through.

We’ll invite all sorts – including the peculiar, perplexed, stressed or homeless. Occasionally the person you think, you really cannot invite. If they make it, if they show up, if they share food, if they are drawn into conversation the meal becomes subversive. You, me or others may be changed in some way by it.

In the vulnerability, insecurity and unease of an open table there is grace, development, growth – and fun.

We could talk about BP.

BP would shuffle in with plastic bags, eat for a week, then turn and talk at whoever he happened to be sat next to, spraying people with words for hours, without interruption or escape. People felt trapped, looking around for escape. Brian, who seemed oblivious to this, persisted, leaning in. This wasn’t babble – this was a coherent and knowledgeable monologue – from Greek mythology, ancient monuments, obscure world war 2 battles to Mahler, Wagner, the Labour party. It was also unrelenting. People tried to manage Brian by interrupting, shifting topics. However, BP new his stuff, made connections – and went with it. People tried moving. Getting up, shifting seats. BP would follow.

Brilliantly, some people took a lead with Brian, welcoming him and pursuing conversation – actively engaging and listening. Within a week or two, the whole group was compensating. It was like friendly tag wrestling, taking turns, welcoming Brian and sharing our responsibility too him across the group, watching out for each other, like a peculiar dance.

When BP died in October 2012 the eulogies from those at thE Meal clocked how much he had impacted on them. Irritating, difficult, offensive, yet people listened, persisted with him, asked him about his life and got to know him for who he was – this obstinate, fragile human. Babble from Brian turned in to conversation and then,  listening to one other, with Brian asking questions, tuning in to others around him.

So food becomes an opportunity for an encounter with someone different, a moment to share story and be listened too. For BP it was a moment of grace. “I’d wish I’d known about this before…”

Greenbelt 2014 – It Had it All!

Here’s a brief reflection as chair of Greenbelt, following a fabulous festival at Boughton House in Northamptonshire:

Greenbelt Festival is a late summer, long weekend of art, music, performance, food, drink and ideas, provoking, affirming, challenging and inspiring. And it’s about now, after the festival, over the next few weeks that stories pop up – of someone enrolling on an art course, another joining a creative writing class, or going along to a book club. You get the picture. Another may click on that campaign petition, sign up to a cause, volunteer at the night shelter, set up a project, or remarkably – find their vocation. I know a bloke who moved into a housing estate in Weston Super Mare to live and work, after being inspired at a session on “Living in a Crap Town”*. Another year someone went home and set up a project in their city to assist refugees. There are lots of stories like this, from a festival that’s more than a festival, seeding ideas that just might change your life.

Greenbelt is a festival hand-made by hundreds of volunteers, led by a small clutch of staff. So, this August’s festival was the outcome of gazillions of emails, phone calls, car and train journeys and meetings – lots of meetings! Oh, the time that goes into choosing venues, timetabling artists, planning for stewards, positioning a Glade Stage or a Big Top.

The other weekend staff and volunteers pulled off a spectacular festival, in a gorgeous new site. Did I mention the new site? Part ‘Secret Garden’ part ‘Enchanted Forest’, with trees magically up rooting and mooching about after midnight (no, they don’t uproot and mooch about after midnight… but this would be great for one year). The move was a bold and necessary decision led by Creative Director Paul Northup, CEO Beccie D’Cunha and Operations chief Derek Hill, and backed by the board, staff and volunteers. Of course, the words ‘new’ and ‘site’ are an exciting distraction from the tough realities and challenge of rethinking and reimagining a 41-year-old festival in a new and very different location. They hide the hard work, the planning and preparation to get it all just right. It’s a huge credit to staff, contractors, volunteers and everyone involved, that their plans pulled together so well, and so much of the festival (so much!) was pitch perfect. Alongside this, we didn’t get everything right. As chair of trustees and on behalf of the board I’m very sorry about this. I’m only thankful that as issues emerged, staff and volunteers responded rapidly, where possible addressing the immediate concerns over the weekend.

Moving house, moving site – any move – can be tricky. You make plans, map out the space and decide where the furniture goes. It’s only when you’ve moved in and you’ve lived with it for a while, do you get an idea of what really works. So, this was the year of the move**. Of stepping off, jumping in, setting things up and trying things out at Boughton.

For the organisers, this year had it all – the challenges of a new site and then, on the Monday, big, fat, blobby, bank holiday rain. For many festivalgoers packing up and returning home it was astonishing to see and hear how site crew and stewards dealt with it all. Our car spent the entire festival in the long stay car park merrily letting off its alarm every two minutes. By Monday night, it was all honked out. Within a few minutes of reporting the problem to stewards, the unlikely double-act of Monty and Minion, part of the fire crew, volunteering across the weekend, emerged across a soggy field in pouring rain – all beard and jumpers. In a moment they had the motor sparking into life and the engine ticking over. It was their breathtaking warmth, kindness and generosity that stay with me. Their passionate commitment and solidarity with festivalgoers, as the rain fell and the temperature dropped was repeated across the site with stewards, fire crew and others. These are Greenbelt moments, even as you head off, leaving the site.

We could talk about the programme – the art, music, performance, food, drink and ideas and all this provokes, affirms, challenges and inspires. I’m grateful to all those who made it possible – who make Greenbelt ‘festival’, who got it to Boughton, and in less than 365 days reimagined a spectacular new festival – art, faith and justice that germinates into all sorts. Not bad. Zero to spectacular, in under a year! Here’s to the next.

*Weston Super Mare is not a crap town.
**Greenbelt is fuelled by Angels, who enable us to contemplate things like a site move. Find out more about Greenbelt Angels here.

Shut up or move in?

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece about Owen who ran a community project focused on litter picking, clearing flats, refurbishing homes and recycling furniture.

The project was held together by recovering addicts, who volunteered at the project. While it felt chaotic the outcomes were impressive – huge areas of land blighted by rubbish cleared up, by an organisation committed to involving those most excluded from society. It was brave, bold and ambitious, and preposterous!

Spend any time with Owen and the stories soon start to fly. Dog eared photo albums are dug out featuring filthy infested flats inhabited by haunted figures, each subsequently transformed in part by contact with an astonishing collective of kind, generous volunteers. On the estates workers in fluroscent jackets became common place, while the well-healed, well-to-do queue up for Saturday morning photo-calls; you can understand people wanting a slice of the action, and a guaranteed picture in the paper.

Owen and the project went on to be nominated for various gongs with visits to Highgrove and the Palace. Yet despite the interest, accolades and appearances, the modest funding to keep everything afloat was non-existent. Local supporters were bankrolling the project from private loans, while unemployed volunteers didn’t claim their benefits as they were volunteering with the project and no longer seeking a job. People found their vocation. It was with Owen.

Despite delivering outstanding work, the organisation lurched from one funding crisis to the next. It wasn’t sustainable. The project closed back in 2011 leaving Owen to go on and set up new initiatives.

Despite warm words about the significance of local projects to bring change,  despite the billions spent on research that affirms their critical role in building ‘resilient neighbourhoods’, despite the hours of training and ‘capacity building’ poured into the sector by local ‘council for voluntary service’ and similar organisations, these neighbourhood projects are now threatened by closure. Despite gushing rhetoric from successive governments, each have preceded over an erosion of their status with local authorities, opportunity for funding sliced and cuts to their own budgets. The impact is felt most on small projects and their capacity to work with those most excluded. Since 2011 many have followed Owen and shut down.

Nip back and revisit Owens project and you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the value placed on people written off, both in the brilliant service provided, and the way the team operate. You’d be shocked at the willingness of staff to empathise with the heart break many volunteers experienced, and their flexibility to react to extremes – accommodating difficult behaviour, affirming vulnerable humans. At times we’d be exhausted by the chaos pervading the organisation, frequently reacting to messy situations and circumstances. Getting work done – but at what cost to volunteers and staff?

Yet the problem for Owen isn’t the violent behaviour of a volunteer or destructive person using the service. Its the distance between their activity and the budget holder, the commissioner or policy maker.

Tucked away in a fourth floor office they are busy juggling agendas, making decisions about where dwindling resources maybe allocated, based on the quality of written information provided and targets met. The noisy, chaotic organisation that cannot fill in a form correctly or use the right spelling just fuels a perception of risk. ‘Risk is not good.’ The smaller, chaotic community group that delivers results brilliantly, but struggles to communicate, market, brand and present itself or explain its work, feels doomed. Never mind these organisations are loved locally, work with people and transform lives by the shed load.

Correct the geography – locate decision makers in offices adjacent to our Owen. Prioritise time to sniff out the work – the vulnerability of the volunteers and those calling in, needing help, see the anarchy, feel the chaos. And watch alchemists like Owen and his team doing their work with the most marginalised. Maybe then by being in the neighbourhood, and with a little imagination, projects like Owen’s will remain open, there work understood and supported. Maybe.

Eating as a subversive activity | 1.

In 2004 a tiny group of us decided to set aside a day each week to eat together. Then, we thought, why not widen the invitation?

We decided to invite people for a meal and see who showed up. No agenda – just a meal. Random numbers with no set limit. Between ourselves we thought we knew enough people – contacts through school, church, people living nearby – to make something happen. We wanted to host a weekly meal on a regular day. This meant that over time, people who couldn’t make it, who might forget, or just not make it along – could discover it, and show up. ‘Showing up’ is complicated. We’ll come to that shortly.

So we started – on a Monday. With a young family and a small kitchen, we squeezed in others as word slowly got round. ‘Slowly’ is important. Like a ‘slow’ casserole it took time to get established, for people to find out, remember and nip along to our address. We invited people.

It wasn’t about inviting mates round. It was deliberately not about getting mates round! It was about inviting round people local, on the doorstep – random people we’d met in the week and had a conversation with. People we’d said ‘hello’ to in the street, and had longer lingering chats. More people were invited than showed up. We invited people we didn’t know, who never showed. We invited some people on our street week in, week out. Only in the last year have people we’ve invited been coming along, who we’ve been inviting for years.

In our culture, what we’re doing could be considered a bit weird. Polite chitchat in the street leads to invitation to persons home to share a meal? For some, this invitation into a domestic, private space, to eat, with other strangers is threatening.

Invitations are important. The option to belong, and to be part of something is key. We tried to make the invitation easy. “If you can’t come – no worries.” If an invitation is extended its very easy – no pressure “it’ll always be there – come another day, another week.” We then prepare the food.

At this stage we could discuss gender roles. Disappointingly these remained fairly conventional. Women doing much of the preparation, men producing the occasional signature dish. This has changed, with men doing more. We could talk about this – and there’s much to discuss here – Instead I’d recommend ‘Eating Together’ by Alice Julier and her discussion, for a useful critique. We are a work in progress. And this couldn’t be about the astonishing recipes and delicious food and flavour. If astonishing cuisine did happen – and it did quite often – then it was a bonus!

What is important, is a meal and generous conversation and time together and the quality of that opportunity. It wasn’t a foodie thing.

Our culture is obsessed with food. Stuff we drool, chomp, chew, swallow and then… think, talk, tweet about, Facebook and blog. Foodie conversations go in multiple directions – from flavours and food fads, celebrity chefs to the latest café and restaurants. The tastiest recipes are packaged up as glistening food porn, blistered and blurred. Food art to fatties, dodgy diets, and wacky weight loss programmes to eye-poppingly overweight adults and super sized toddlers – each grilled on telly. The good, the bad, the deliciously light all served with a side order of fries.

Eating as a subversive activity isn’t about a fancy recipe or a trendy venue. It isn’t even the food. Instead, our obsession is about what we do with the food, how we prepare it, who we eat with and how we host it.

Finding home

Each Monday we host people in our neighbourhood, cooking food and eating together. For some, it’s a bit weird being in another home, others roll with it, bringing or preparing food. Numbers vary from half a dozen to 25 or more. People muck in and somehow we all eat together.

A recent Monday meal and I’m looking round the room. Times are tough and everyone is looking weighed down. I ask Marcia a regular question I’ve been asking her every week for the last few months. It’s about the flat she’s been renting (for 18 years) and the imminent eviction. “Oh, its been sold” she responds deadpan, “not that it means anything…”. The new owner is likely to let them stay she thinks, though they haven’t said that. What they will do if they’re evicted? Don’t know she says. Find another place, “though there’s nothing round here, it’s all too pricey.”

Hackney is becoming expensive, and rented accommodation scarce. Another conversation – this time Trevor. “I can count rented properties available in this area on one hand. Rent has gone up. People will pay. We’re priced out. Landlords are selling up cashing in on the Olympics.” Janice and her young kids are in tonight. Last seen months ago facing eviction and nowhere to go, she and her two disappeared overnight. This isn’t uncommon. A crisis or catastrophe and people vanish, somehow showing up weeks or months later. Janice is back. She’s found a place round. “We’re OK now. We haven’t unpacked. We never unpack. We may have to move out – it’s not worth it.”

Across London the demographics are changing. This week I’ve had more conversations with people making plans to move out. We read about attempts to move 500 families from their homes in Newham to Stoke on Trent. The cost of a flat to rent, has become too much. Research just published finds 700,000 Londoners needing to do two or more jobs to meet living costs. At least 270,000 sofa-surf, sleeping on a friend’s or family’s sofa and almost 130,000 continue living with an ex-partner for financial reasons.

I listen to Marcia. I can see them turfed out of the flat losing not just the place, but the friendships and supportive networks built up over a lifetime ‘round here’. It’s losing your home, pushed out by owners who are selling up, while landlords prepared to increase rents to eye-watering levels, price out others. I’m anticipating Janice disappearing again. Trevor will move out. What do you do?

Some follow a prophetic tradition like that recorded in the Old Book of Amos, where the author lashes out at landlords raising the rent, making life intolerable for the poor. Others campaign for change. We can all lament at the mess. Maybe we can also be inspired by people and churches, on the ground working for change.

In Hackney, the Round Chapel – a United Reform Church – has worked with individuals and churches to raise money to buy a house. This provides affordable accommodation to local missionaries, community and social workers, people working to support the local area. In a context of impossible house prices, its a small, practical and costly expression of community and hospitality. In Bradford people got together to establish ‘Inn Churches’ – growing a volunteer base of over 350 people who together offer hospitality providing almost 2000 temporary beds for homeless people over the winter. It’s a very practical offering of hope.

I’m still feeling hopeless about Marcia, long-term unemployed, beset with health problems, a friend over the years. I imagine it could be OK, maybe even the making of her. But I don’t believe it. It feels this is the last thing she needs right now. As I write she’s facing up to moving out. Out of the blue I get a text from Trevor. He’s been offered a flat with affordable rent just round the corner. It feels like a reprieve, a shock of hope in the gloom. “It’s going to be home, just for now.”