About 80 of us came together over the course of a day on October 14th at The Loft in Leeds to learn about innovation and apply what we learned to the ‘wicked problem’ of poverty, especially child poverty. I had already spent the afternoon before talking about the event on Radio Aire, and one of our participants, Jason Slack from The Hunslet Club, had been on Radio Leeds talking about poverty and the work of the club in alleviating it. Add to that the facebook page and the traffic on twitter and other social media and we had succeeded in raising the profile of poverty as an issue in Leeds. Before we even started we had made a significant contribution to raising awareness of the issue.
And, if you doubt that this is necessary let me tell yo of a conversation I had with Leeds property developer recently who told me that Leeds was a good city struggling, because of complacency, to become great. I asked him how we could consider Leeds to be a good city while 1 in 4 of our children live in relative poverty and in some wards almost 50%? His response? ‘We just don’t think of the city in those terms, we don’t see it that way’. I guess for some property developers it is all about the shiny, happy people and the shiny, happy buildings.
We were a pretty diverse bunch, students, vicars, academics, youth workers, poverty professionals, councillors and just some folk who wanted to see what they could do to help. One of my regrets was the failure to get more voices of the young poor in the room. Despite several conversations with NSPCC they were just unable to make it happen. So, instead we used theatre and first hand testimony to bring detail, personal experiences and an emotional depth to our conversations.
The morning started with a visit from Greg Mulholland MP who said a few words of goodwill to open proceedings, while East End Park resident Andrew Grinnel built and talked people through his map displaying the demographics of poverty and wealth in the city.
After some further preamble from me I was delighted to introduce Leeds resident and international guru in innovation and strategy Max McKeown who spent 45 minutes talking us through some of the challenges of strategy and innovation, including the malleability of the future, and the importance of learning to think and talk together in pursuit of a future that is better than the present. The humour only helped to reinforce the significant messages about strategy, innovation and progress.
The next 90 minutes were led by Leeds Theatre in Education who performed their very powerful play Telling Stories highlighting the issues of looked after young people and their relationships with family and wider society. At this stage I was running around like a dervish taking delivery of 80 packed lunches from an unmarked car provided by an anonymous donor, and liaising with Ed Balls and his team to see if they were able to pop in. However Leeds traffic conspired to scupper his flying visit. The Leeds TIE performance really hit the mark for some and I am sure I saw a few tears in eyes.
Then Lucy Meredith told us of the work of another Theatre Company, Urban Sprawl, Yorkshire’s only homeless theatre company. For me, two lessons came out of Lucy’s presentation. The first, down to a Paulo Freire quote, reminded me just how much our education system had gravitated towards a perspective of education that is about compliance and control rather than potential and individuality,
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” FREIRE
The second point that I took from Lucy’s presentation was the possibility of engaging with people around something other than their poverty. This was an engagement around performance, group-work and potential. It was engagement with humanity – not poverty – made possible by a drive to include some of the most excluded in our society.
This theme of how to provide access to the poor to those things that many of us take for granted seemed to run throughout the day.
In the morning Max had showed us how showing other people our ideas was a bit like showing them pictures of our children. And while most of us love our own children it can be hard to love and nurture someone elses! So, after lunch we spend half an hour working in small groups showing each other some of our ideas, and did our best to nurture them – even if they weren’t ‘ours’.
We then broke to listen to another Leeds resident Richard McCann share his story of growing up in Leeds and dealing with the reality of poverty and care in the city. By telling his personal story I think he offered us several clues about what might make a difference. It was yet another emotional presentation showcasing some of the remarkable talent, knowledge and experience that we have to draw on in our work.
Finally Max returned to centre stage and, with the help of the Y U No…? character took us through a process of sharing ideas, combining, re-shaping and culling them until we came up with a picture of 7 or 8 areas that might allow us to make a real difference, while all the time people thought about:
What they could contribute personally –
And what they could do collectively:
Another theme of building a city where people could help and be helped came through – without the barriers of pride or insensitivity getting in the way. By this time Leeds City Council Chief executive Tom Riordan had joined us to listen to the conversations and take stock of what was being said.
Mid way through this session Leeds MP Hilary Benn quietly joined us and sat in with the group listening and adding his thoughts as appropriate.
So, 15 minutes after we were scheduled to close we were still working away on the basis of what started to look like a manifesto, and there was a desire expressed that we should meet again, preferably before the end of November, to engage more people, continue the work and generally get more done!
So watch this space for what happens next….