Positive ways to bring people together: courses for 2020

As an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) Practitioner, I’ve trained for many years in ways to bring diverse people together to make great things happen.

Aligned with positive psychology, AI is useful in helping people mine their own experiences of achievement and discover what they have in common with one another; much needed at a time when communities are divided.

Most of the time when I’m called upon to provide training in AI and related engagement tools and techniques, it’s by large organisations across the UK – but seldom in my home town of Southend. So I thought I’d begin 2020 by addressing this.

I’ll be offering a series of short, accessible, workshops on practical ways to bring people together to resolve issues, coproduce services or organisational strategies, or develop community projects.

The workshops will be equally relevant to volunteer community organisers as to people working with citizens professionally.

The sessions will be:

  • An introduction to Appreciative Inquiry: an overview of what it is and how to apply the principles. AI is scalable – it works as well with groups of 6 people as it does at conferences or summits for 600.
  • Open Space Technology: a superb self-organising tool that can be used for coproduction, deliberative events and any time you want to work with a diverse group of people and want to encourage them to take the lead in developing actions.
  • World Cafe: A fun, creative and interactive way to collect a plethora of ideas while bringing together diverse people.
  • Designing Community Projects: practical tools and tips for moving from ideas to action and delivery. Don’t just talk about it, do it!

At time of writing, I’m exploring suitable community venues in Southend. If you would like any or all of the above run in-house for your organisation, business or group, please get in touch!

Southend-on-Sea Prosperity for All Campaign

I’ve been trying to think what to call the movement we’re building in Southend.

Our local movement is inspired by the Poor People’s Campaign in the states; whose aims include challenging damaging stereotypes associated with a life in hardship.

In the UK as in the USA, people without enough money to meet their basic needs, living in housing unfit for human habitation, or in insecure tenancies, people that have to visit food banks, people depressed by crippling unending debt, people that aren’t working or are working low-paid jobs – all tend to be blamed for their own circumstances.

When we talk about anyone as though they are an underclass of society – as less than – it makes it easy to continue to oppress those people. It also makes people who are not in hardship a) feel better about themselves – I must be doing ok because I’m not like those people and b) work 40+ hours per week, constantly worry about money/job security and get themselves into debt, because they so fear becoming those people.

A narrative that blames the poor is a convenient way to control the many. It’s also convenient misdirection from the deeds of those at the top.

However, as an Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, I want to focus on where we want to end up. We want all citizens of Southend to have opportuntities to flourish. To prosper not only in terms of income, but in health, learning and in building the life they want for themselves and their families. So, for now, the working title for our movement is “Prosperity for All”. That may change. I believe in allowing things to evolve.

We held our first gathering at the beginning of December 2019. Around 20 people attended. Our intent was to gauge interest in forming an alliance of individuals, groups and organisations with a determination to challenge inequalities and work to achieve a better quality of life for everyone.

People shared their own stories about economic insecurity and hardship. It was quickly apparent that this can happen to anyone, and it can happen quickly. With the sudden loss of work, you can find yourself both a volunteer at the food bank and a customer of the food bank.

I had some ideas about core principles and actions for our movement/alliance, based on those of the Poor People’s Campaign:

  • principles similar to those of the Poor People’s Campaign; about social and economic justice, peace, equality and protecting the environment.
  • Setting up a website, or a blog site, to encourage people to get involved and share their stories.
  • Holding public gatherings around the town where people affected by poverty can share stories and talk about what would make things better. Sharing some of these stories via podcast and/or video online.
  • Championing the concept of a Universal Basic Income
  • Engaging with local politicians and policy-makers

I asked attendees at this first meeting what they thought we could do. Here’s what people said about principles and actions:

  • Everyone has a story and every voice should be heard. Listen to lived experiences.
  • Everyone should have enough money to live and thrive
  • Everyone deserves to feel valued and have high self-esteem. Services and systems should promote self-esteem/self-worth
  • Empowerment – make sure the voices of the unheard are given centre stage
  • Sustainability – ensure the movement continues even if those involved at the outset drop out or become unavailable
  • Focus – not trying to take on too much too soon. Stay focused on a core agenda
  • Produce a Connected Community information leaflet – signposting people to support
  • Equip people involved in the movement with skills and confidence to make a difference
  • Climate justice – be a part of a borough-wide pledge to reduce emissions and foster healthy climate behaviours
  • Economic justice – voting, ethical banking and other factors that support stability and prosperity
  • Involve organisations such as SHAN, YMCA, local foodbanks, Southend Food Partnership, CAB, Citizens UK, Step Change, Christians against Poverty.

We also asked people to think about their personal skills. Everyone is a unique blend of knowledge, experience and skills. We find our collective strength when we bring together the best of who we are as individuals. One of the greatest assets people can bring to this movement is connection. The more people we are connected to, the more stories we can ensure are heard, and the more ears we can ensure those stories reach.

I’ll be arranging our next meet up and activities in the New Year. I hope you will join us.

In the meantime, I leave you with this quote from one of the attendees:

Poverty is everyone’s business. Poverty is in Southend. This is our town and should be everyone’s business. That we allow people to experience hardship; it is at a cost. A social cost. An emotional cost. A monetary cost. If we want our town and community to thrive we have to have a stake in it and do something. It’s everyone’s business.

Make 2020 the year of radical change. 

A decade on the streets

Imagine, as you looked back over the past decade, you were looking back on a life on the streets.

This is the reality for many people in the UK. Soup kitchens, food banks, shelters and hostels have become so much a part of society’s infrastructure that we take them for granted. Lots of people volunteer to support those that are homeless over Xmas; ensuring everyone gets a good meal and isn’t alone on Xmas day. There are, in Southend, a lot of great organisations and individuals doing a brilliant job of supporting people who are homeless and/or in crisis.

But what will we do when the season of goodwill ends and many volunteers go back to work, or other commitments? What happens next month? Next year? And the year after that?

A couple of weeks’ back, I met “John”. For the past 10 years, he’s been homeless. No security of income or shelter – for TEN years. John’s adapted well to life on the streets, even styling himself as a Gentleman Tramp. He says he enjoys the lifestyle. However, living on the streets is to live in purgatory. You can’t plan for the future. Can’t realise your ambitions. You’re at the mercy of charity. Your life isn’t your own.

It’s easy to lose your sense of identity and worth. You’re bullied, humiliated, assaulted, spat at, blamed for your own circumstances. You feel a failure. Little wonder many homeless people turn to alcohol or drugs and suffer with poor mental health.

Homeless people DO have hope and dreams, and ideas about how to realise them. They have ideas about how to improve their own situation and that of others. John told me about a scheme he’s been researching where homeless people have lockers for their valuables. As John explained: “You think being on the streets is rock bottom. It’s not. Rock bottom is when you lose the things that remind you who you are – your photos, poems, papers, books”.

If we want to change things, we must listen to the voices of lived experience. We must consider how to give people back their power; give people mastery of their own destiny.

My friend James Vessey-Miller has started a story-telling project to ask homeless people in Southend-on-Sea about themselves and their aspirations, and to ask what they would do to improve their situation. James plans to use stories to illustrate the individuality of homeless people and their creativity in coming up with solutions.

Tying in with my wider project about changing the paradigm around poverty and economic injustice (which involves many of the aforementioned organisations/individuals) we hope James’s project will start conversations with service providers and others about how we help everyone in Southend to thrive. When we enable everyone to contribute to society and the economy, everyone benefits.

So, when you reflect on not only the past year, but the past decade – the highs and lows, the laughter, the magical moments, the tears, the grief, the loved ones lost and new friends found – think about how different that life might have been had you woken every morning on the street, wondering where your next meal would come from.

And, as you make plans for the coming year, consider what your contribution could be to helping someone realise their dreams.

(Also published on LinkedIn)

Essex Girls wear white stilettos

Essex girls wear white stilettos
And Essex girls wear brogues
Essex girls wear too much make up
And Essex girls wear woad

Essex girls carry dogs in handbags
And Essex girls keep rats In their hair
Essex girls have plastic tits
And Essex girls wear hijab to prayer

Essex girls like to smoke and drink
And Essex girls take drugs
Essex girls like to swear and fight
And Essex girls make love

Essex girls are lawful good
And Essex Girls are bad
Essex girls make awful wives
…except to one another

Essex girls excel in science
And Essex girls make art
Essex girls are pharmacists
And Essex girls don’t work

Essex girls are white as socks
And Essex girls are tangerine
Essex girls are black as cats
And Essex girls are Green

Essex girls live in country manors
With tennis courts outside
Essex girls live in council houses
Where roses grow beside

Essex girls live in tents in car parks
And dream of better times

Essex girls are shy and demure
And Essex girls are loud
Essex girls are sick of your shit
And Essex girls are proud.

11 things you can do NOW to save the planet

Did you watch David Attenborough’s Climate Change Facts on BBC1? If not, have a look. It’s tough, but essential, viewing.

If you watched, were heartbroken by baby bats clinging to mothers killed by a heatwave, were astonished by how quickly things have escalated and were left with feelings of despair…

…hold onto the thought that we can and must do what we can, while we still can.

11 things to help save the planet and the baby bats that you can start RIGHT NOW:

1. Switch your energy supplier to one that uses 100% renewables. There are many companies to choose from, but I opted for Ecotricity as they don’t use biogas which comes from animal farming.

2. Only buy what you really need – especially food. Eat everything you buy. (Again, especially food. Maybe not those old trainers. Maybe don’t eat those.)

3. Avoid food and, where possible, other products that has/have been air-freighted. (Apparently air is far worse environmentally than boats.)

4. Stop eating meat and dairy, or at least reduce your consumption. It really is easier than you think. Yes, soy and palm oil also cause devastation, likewise sisal, cashew and anything else that’s mass produced. Capitalism/consumerism is the issue, not veganism. Do what you can to make ethical choices that are more gentle on the planet.

5. Avoid single use plastic. If you haven’t already, invest in a metal water bottle (and reusable coffee cup while you’re at it) and pledge never to buy a bottle of water again.

6. Find out if you have a zero waste shop in your area. Near Southend, we have The Refill Room in Leigh-on-Sea where you can fill containers with shampoo, conditioner, laundry and washing up liquid. There’s also one in Colchester Zero waste shop in Colchester

7. Make your garden a green haven. Plant stuff, have a pond, grow veggies. If you haven’t got a garden, get some window boxes or find a community space to sow some seeds.

8. Get a bike. Use it as more than a coat stand.

9. Elections are coming up in May. Ask your candidates what they are doing to combat climate change and reduce emissions. Ask what’s in their manifesto. Make sure they know this is an important issue for you as a voter.

10. Learn about Permaculture as a lifestyle. Earth care, people care, fair share. Author and all round smashing person Graham Burnett runs courses. 

11. Be inspired by children around the world that are striking for their and their planet’s future. Join your voice to the Extinction Rebellion XR. There are groups around the UK, including in Southend. 

These are simple things that can be started immediately. I’m aware choice is a privilege that not everyone has. Do what you can. Even doing one or two or a few things from this list will help.

And those of us that CAN make choices, that have privilege – we are duty bound to do as much as we can. It’s the wealthy that have fucked up the world and it’s the poorest that will bear the brunt of those harms.

These are desperate times. Perhaps it’s too late, but let’s behave as though it’s not.