A call to UK churches: forge new partnerships and make change happen

News of an exciting new partnership... and a call for churches to re-immerse themselves in their community relationships.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.

That quote by American author and activist Helen Keller is a timeless and vital message to anyone who wants to make change happen. None of us can achieve much by acting alone. But when we unite, the opportunities are huge.

As Church Action on Poverty this week turns 40, we look ahead with optimism. Not because of what we do ourselves, as one charity, but because of the larger, inspiring, tenacious and thriving movement that we are one part of, and the partnerships we cherish. 

A new partnership with Co-op

This week, we are particularly delighted to announce that we have signed a new national partnership agreement with Co-op, to help strengthen the voice and power of people in poverty. 

The Co-op will support a new Speaking Truth To Power programme and the growth and development of the Your Local Pantry network, enabling people on low incomes to start redressing Britain’s power imbalance and to have a greater impact over the decisions and systems that affect their lives.

A growing movement for change

We know that across the UK, there is a vast movement of wonderful people, proactive neighbourhoods, community organisations, residents’ associations, faith groups, charities, activists, campaigners and many others, working to improve everyday life. And it’s when we do so together, in partnership with people in poverty and across organisations, that we see the most remarkable results.

That’s why Church Action on Poverty’s task for the coming years is to focus on working with a wide array of partners to promote initiatives in which local people and communities struggling against poverty can come together, and take collective action to reclaim their own dignity, agency and power. In this way, we can together mitigate the impact of a further economic squeeze but also build a movement against poverty.

Some of our new partners will be very localised and relatively small: individual church congregations, or neighbourhood community groups. Others, like the Coop, are much larger. All can make a difference, and if you want your group or church to start having more impact, then start by looking at who you can partner with. 

Partnerships in practice

Here are some of the partnerships that we are going to be part of in the year ahead:

1: Poverty Truth Commissions

Poverty Truth Commissions bring together people with direct experience of poverty in a town or city, and decision-makers whose professional position enables them to quickly effect change. Everyone works together as equals over 18 months or so, to identify local solutions that will make a real difference. 

No individual commissioner could make informed and effective change happen on their own. But by working together, and focusing on what they can change, commissions can make a difference.

We are now working in partnership with the Poverty Truth Network, to help to set up more commissions around the country.

2: Speaking Truth To Power

Church Action on Poverty has a long history of supporting people whose voices had previously been drowned out, to ensure people with personal experience of poverty are heard by people in power.

We have now teamed up with local partners in Liverpool and London and with the Coop and Joseph Rowntree Foundation nationally, to develop a new programme launching this summer. This will support a new generation of activists, including people personally struggling against poverty, to further develop their skills and confidence to speak their own truths to power.

Being heard is not in itself enough, however. We want the truths people speak to have an impact, and to help change the broken systems that hold people back. We want people to be heard and their messages heeded. In partnership with other organisations, including media partners, we will work to truly engage people in power in meaningful discussions about how we can work together to solve poverty.

3: Your Local Pantry

The Your Local Pantry network was launched in 2014, and has grown especially quickly in the past two years. Today, there are 75 pantries nationwide, supporting more than 60,000 people to build community and save on their essential outgoings. 

Pantries soften the blow of high living costs, and create the conditions for communities to grow and thrive, by bringing people together around food. Members pay a small amount each week, and choose groceries worth many times more.

Each of those 75 Pantries is a partnership. Church Action on Poverty provides logistical support and national oversight and coordination, but it is the local partnership that makes each Pantry thrive.  Pantries are all about dignity, choice and hope. Each one operates as a member-led neighbourhood hub and a springboard to other community initiatives, opportunities and ideas. As we all continue to press for lasting change, pantries are an immediate positive step.

4: Self-Reliant Groups

Self Reliant Group

Self-Reliant Groups are small groups of people who meet save together, and use their savings together in a joint venture. Many involve craft-making, or cookery, and they bring dignity and power back to people who have often been sidelined by the mainstream economy. Around 80% of the members are women.

Church Action on Poverty works in partnership with organisations in Scotland, Wales and North West England to help the network of SRGs to grow, and we are also now partnering with an organisation in Leeds, to spread the movement there as well.

5: Challenge Poverty Week

Attendees at the Greater Manchester Big Poverty Conversation

Challenge Poverty Week is a moment when all the myriad groups and partnerships in the movement to end UK poverty can come together. 

The week in October is a time for us to hear loudly and clearly the voices that are too often ignored. It’s a chance to show that it is possible to build a better, more compassionate society in which everyone can live life to the full. And it’s a chance to widen our perspective, and see the vast amount of inspiring hope-filled work that is going on across the movement.

Church Action on Poverty coordinates the week in England and Wales, working closely with local authorities, community groups, charities, and the Poverty Alliance in Scotland, where the idea had first begun,

The role of churches - locally and nationally

A silhouette shot of a church, with the setting sun visible through its steeple

Alongside all of these partnerships, Church Action on Poverty will continue to work with the churches, at local and national level. 

Churches are ideally placed to play a key role in improving UK society, but that requires selflessness and an institutional, theological and cultural shift away from models of rescue and ‘service provision’. Churches must avoid any temptation to do things for people in poverty, and instead do things with people in poverty. 

Churches nationally will also need to invest in models of mission, leadership and discipleship which affirm the importance of social engagement and transformation (the missionary goal of transforming the unjust structures of society). Through our existing church partnerships and Church on the Margins programme, Church Action on Poverty can play a modest role in advocating for these new ways of working, and in challenging the institutional churches to invest accordingly.

Widening our lens, and self-reflection

Churches will also need to recognise the links between poverty and other social justice issues, including institutionalised prejudice on the basis of race, gender, disability and class. The churches and the anti-poverty sector (within which we include Church Action on Poverty) need to recognise and actively re-dress our own biases, and take seriously the challenge of intersectionality if we wish to be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem in future.

Time for churches to take this opportunity

The past few years have been tumultuous for all of us, and in response many radical voices are calling for a new social revolution, rekindling democracy or a shift towards a wellbeing economy,  or circular economy. All of these ideas, in their different ways, rightly seek to place local people and communities at the centre of society.  

As we have also found, particularly since the start of the pandemic, local communities are huge reservoirs of ingenuity, mutual support and goodwill. Churches can be a central part of this, drawing on the radical visions and ideas across scripture and the anti-poverty movement to help improve their whole community. Those who take the leap will be amazed at what they can achieve in partnership.

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