A little less conversation a little more action please! says Sara Bryson
The persistence of poverty, it seems to me, continues because we fail to tackle a central crucial issue: power. We have centuries of writing, analysis and debate in relation to poverty. We understand the problems well, but do we have the political will to act? Or, more importantly, do we as civil society have the power to compel the state and the market to act, or do we, as Fredrick Douglass once said, ‘get the justice we have the power to compel’?
The greatest analysis, data and framing of an argument does little to support those of us who are struggling to make ends meet, with direct experience of poverty ourselves. Those working but unable to meet the rising costs of living, no longer reliant on soup kitchens but on food banks. If we are truly to begin to make progress, then we need to move beyond words and into action.
My own experience of growing up in poverty, seeing my family still struggle today, makes me angry. It’s that anger that fuels my urgency on this issue. We don’t have time to mess about. This isn’t to say that we let the state or the market off the hook. On the contrary, this is about building enough power to hold the state and the market to account. As Fredrick Douglass also says, ‘power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will’.
“As Fredrick Douglass says, ‘power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will’.”
Citizens UK is a broad-based community organising organisation that seeks to build the power of civil society to act for social justice and the common good. The Living Wage campaign is a well-known example of such community organising. Emerging as a local campaign in East London, the national campaign has resulted in over 150,000 low-paid workers receiving a pay rise.
It was a result of such action that the Webb Memorial trust invited Citizens UK to the North East in 2014 to explore the possibilities of such a movement in the region. In 2017 Tyne & Wear Citizens was launched, with 1,000 people, in Newcastle. Organised people and organised money, with a plan for action.
Tyne & Wear Citizens is an alliance of education (primary and secondary schools, as well as university departments); faiths (churches, mosques and Quakers) and the charity and community sector (children’s charities, drug and alcohol support projects, citizens advice bureaus). Our power lies in our diversity and our numbers. We can turn out 1,000 people from our institutions to act!
In 2017 we conducted a listening campaign, holding thousands of conversations in our communities, exploring a simple question ‘what is putting pressure on you, your family and communities?’ Members voted on the top issues which emerged, to take action on together. Unsurprisingly, poverty was in the top three.
We have the most used food bank in the country in Newcastle as well as being the zero hours capital of the country. We could just write and complain about the injustice of it all. But that does not create the much-needed change in our communities. As an alliance, we feel it is no longer acceptable to just sit by while inequalities deepen. Crisis responses such as food banks fail to address the systemic issues we face. It’s time to up our game.
Over 50 people have formed an action team on poverty in the region, from a wide range and diverse set of organisations. These action teams are not talking shops, but people planning and organising themselves to act. The starting point is breaking the huge problem down into winnable chunks. Two campaigns have emerged as a starting point for action.
- To increase the number of Living Wage employers in our region. Most people experiencing poverty in the North East are in working households. We have the smallest percentage of Living Wage employers in our region. A team is working to increase this, with many accrediting since the launch in November!
- Fair Change Campaign. Secondary school students brought to our attention an injustice in thefree school meal system. If you receive free school meals you receive a daily allowance, usually about £2.10 per day. If you are absent from school, or don’t spend the full amount, the change disappears. Further investigation revealed that this money was being retained by the provider of the school meals on a daily basis. The provider could be the school itself, the local authority or a private provider. The action team are campaigning for parity of treatment between those pupils on free school meals and those who pay for school dinners. This would mean that money is rolled forward, ensuring our poorest pupils are able to spend more money on food. In one school alone, the amount of change kept back by the school was £14,000 per year! Already Tyne & Wear Citizens have four schools that have remodelled a fair change system and are in discussions with a local authority too.
When you consciously build power for social justice and the common good, progress is possible. In Tyne & Wear we won’t just stop at the two campaigns outlined above. Once we win, we will be moving on to the next action and then the next. Already we are discussing within our communities what else we need to do. Beyond the Living Wage, what matters most to our low-paid workers? We don’t make assumptions but act on the issues identified and prioritised by our members. We don’t bemoan the injustice, but work out our asks, the change that we seek to bring about. Then we build power by organising our people and our money to act for change. We invest heavily in training, supporting and developing leaders at a local level. The tools we use are taken from the civil rights leaders who went before us.
So, a little less conversation, a little more action please! Come join us and get involved in moving from the society we have to the society we want.
Sara Bryson is community organiser with Tyne & Wear Citizens, a local chapter of Citizens UK.
If you are based in Tyne & Wear and want to be part of the Poverty Action Team, which meets monthly, contact firstname.lastname@example.org