I don’t live in a basement. I do however live a fairly simple life with a modest income in a deprived part of Plymouth.
I come from a micro business background, interested in how individuals effect change in communities starting with tiny conversations around a table. My friend Jade and I had sat down during lockdown and designed the bones of a community work that wanted to put the needs of local people front and centre - by doing things for themselves, rather than others, including us, doing things for them.
Around this time I realised that to effect meaningful change around you, paradoxically, you need to let go of personal power, otherwise – especially in communities that have had little voice for a long time – there is a real danger of becoming the spokesperson, -the Queen Bee/King of the Hill of your local patch. Power politics happens in all sections of society.
I came into the Belong in Plymouth project with very little understanding of how statutory bodies work – both Local Authority and NHS seemed like whole systems with a culture, language and ways of working alien to me. Any success we were seeing in our micro organisation was based on “just doing things”, “not waiting for permission”, “asking the question, why not?” – we were like opinionated, orphaned children.
Belong in Plymouth has taught me some of the realities of living in the adult world – politics, budgets, funding, the persistence of health inequalities and areas of multiple deprivation that rarely move into better circumstances.
It’s fortunate that I haven’t lost my childlike enthusiasm for asking questions and agitating for change!
Relating to others in Belong in Plymouth has also taught me that behind the statistics and inability to effect change are a bunch of committed people, equally holding on to their enthusiasm for making a difference, and constantly searching for breakthroughs and hope.
Finding the person behind the job role is always a good start.
And it’s this passion for people that is my North Star in guiding me through the highs and lows of even talking about system change, whilst banging into existing power structures that seem to have the status quo all sewn up. (Change only happens through our lens and our way of doing things, and we don’t need any help thank you very much!)
My humble view is that system change requires everyone – how else do we know if the system is working before we commission market researchers to talk to people? (Can’t we talk to people ourselves?)
I’ve learnt that this person centred approach has been around for a while, but we are still working in ways that are super cautious about letting actual people in the room to have these discussions.
People living in communities, experiencing heath and other multiple deprivations, are just people. Some of them might use drugs and alcohol to mask negative experiences in similar ways to some highly pressured executives; some might swear more openly; some might have very poor experiences of engaging with services in the past – even having children taken away – which might make them slightly cautious of re-engaging; some managers may have long and painful employment tribunals and disciplinaries that have turned their youthful enthusiasm of having a job that helps people into deep cynicism, hopelessness, anger and despair.
People are people, no matter how much money, or what kind of home they live in. We are really pretty similar.
What would happen if we got into a room to discuss how we might learn from each other, share our common humanity and work out how things might be different, even better, together.
My involvement in Belong in Plymouth has meant I have learnt shed loads – despite never going to University – and my conviction is there are hundreds of people like me, living similar modest lives whose curiosity and experience is leading them to want to effect change.
I’ve talked to young people who are thinking about closing off their streets once a month so their kids can play outside. I’ve talked to others who have been writing to their MP on behalf of elderly residents living in damp flats in their block. I’ve seen relationships develop whereby people can change habits of a lifetime, display acts of beautiful selflessness by acting as food gatherers for their local community, grapple with issues like sharing and having enough. I’ve witnessed meetings where people do feel heard and understood, and others where the chasm between us is so enormous, nobody leaves satisfied.
Belong in Plymouth has been a playground of exploring how to run such meetings well, starting with our own where space has been held for conversations to happen with dignity and respect no matter who we are talking to and ensuring that everyone feels heard.
I’ve benefitted from all of the above and because the programme is all about testing and learning. It embraces uncertainty, it’s not trying to say how successful it is and its honest reflections around failures makes it feel like I can trust the process.
I think local people in my community appreciate that kind of honesty. They understand failures really well. Compassion grows in mutual understanding.
It’s time to give each other a chance – basement , attic and master bedroom dwellers - and create a bit of movement on the stairs of this big old house we call Plymouth.