fbpx

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

Stef Benstead looks back on her experiences as part of the first Manchester Poverty Truth Commission.

Read the Poverty Truth Commission's full report here

I was invited to join the Manchester Poverty Truth Commission by Niall Cooper, after he had met me a few times at various Christian conferences on poverty and related issues. It sounded like a great idea that addressed one of the challenges I regularly come up against in my work on disability and the social security system – that those with power don’t listen to those affected by their policies, and end up making bad policies due to wrong beliefs or assumptions about what the issues are and what are the causes, and therefore the solutions, of those issues.

It’s really important that people with lived experience of an issue are an equal part of the policy-making process. Many of the problems with Universal Credit are because the government didn’t listen to people in poverty and on benefits; problems with benefits for sick and disabled people would also have been avoided if sick and disabled people had been listened to.

But it’s also hard for people with lived experience to get involved. It’s not just a lack of time, lack of contacts or lack of knowledge about how to get our voices heard. It’s also that the bureaucratic barriers that have built up and the harm that flawed policies have caused have built a painful wall between policy-makers, such as the local council, and the people affected. When policy-makers do want to start listening and put into practice what they are told, it isn’t enough to simply say that they’re listening. First there needs to be a relationship between the two sides, so that those of us in poverty and with lived experience of the impacts of policy can be reassured that this time the listening is genuine and the outcomes will be real and positive.

This is what Poverty Truth Commissions achieve. The time taken to share personal stories revealed a common humanity which I at least wasn’t expecting. I thought there would be a middle class/poorer people divide. In fact what I heard was business and civic leaders who had grown up in poverty, brought up by single parents on council estates; and grass-roots commissioners who, like me, had grown up middle-class only to fall into poverty later. Commissioners on both sides had experienced recent bereavement or relationship breakdown. These stories of our lives levelled the playing field: we realised that where we had ended up wasn’t representative of who we are as people, and that was as true for the business and civic commissioners as for the grass-roots commissioners.

The biggest impact for me was when one of the business and civic leaders took an idea that I had put forward, which from her perspective was unaffordable and unworkable at that point, and came back a month later with a revamped idea that could be made to work. I’m still working on this idea now and hope it will eventually come to fruition.

The PTCs break down barriers between the people who usually make policy and those who usually merely receive it. It does this by creating relationship between the two sides, teaming us up in a common fight against poverty and inhumanity. It can be a transformational process with ripple effects that continue long after the commission itself has formally finished. All it needs is people willing to listen.


Stef Benstead is a trustee of Church Action on Poverty, a grassroots commissioner in Manchester Poverty Truth Commission, and the author of Second Class Citizens: The treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain.

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

Lent course for 2022: Life on the Breadline

Our Cookery Book

Keep the Lifeline – sign our open letter to the Prime Minister

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Tracey Herrington from Poverty2Solutions says why campaigners are heading to Conservative Party Conference this week

It has now been 18 months since the country first went into lockdown. As we begin, slowly and hopefully to move out of the pandemic, it has never been more important to make sure that we really do ‘build back better’ and create a better future for us all.  

Doing this properly means politicians and policymakers must start to actually learn from and work with those with the expertise that only comes from lived experiences. As someone who lives in an area too often dismissed as ‘left behind’, working and living alongside people experiencing poverty and the social security system first-hand, I witness and learn from this expertise every day.

The pandemic has been challenging for us all and it has amplified the existing difficulties and challenges faced in low-income communities. But it has also shown us how policymaking too often ignores the expertise of experience; and fails to bring it to bear on decision making. Creating a sustainable road map out to a better future will need us all to come together, to ‘do your duty for equality’; and tackle persistent inequality head on. A just and compassionate society demands this and it really is the only way to ensure that no one is left behind.

Three members of Thrive Teesside, including blog author Tracey Herrington
Three members of Thrive Teesside and Poverty2Solutions, including blog author Tracey Herrington, centre

It's never been more important to listen

At a time of high economic uncertainty, and with a government commitment to ‘levelling up’, there has never been a more important time for people with direct experiences of poverty to be involved in policy and decision-making, contributing their expertise and ideas for change. As Sue, a member of community group Dole Animators puts it:

‘Too often people are portrayed as numbers on paper, or as stats and percentages. It is very easy for policy makers to dismiss who they represent when they aren’t considered as individuals. Having someone describe their lived experience is not only brave but essential if we want positive and long-lasting change. They can show us our failings, our lack of compassion and humanity. If a policy affects someone why shouldn’t they have the right to be involved in its making?’

What we want to change

Poverty2Solutions, a coalition of three community groups (ATD Fourth World, Dole Animators and Thrive Teesside) led by people with direct experiences of poverty, want the UK government to commit to working with people with lived experiences of socio-economic disadvantage in policymaking processes and decision-making. Doing so would ensure that policies that have a direct impact on those in or at risk of poverty make a positive and effective contribution to stemming the rising tide of poverty and inequality. 

Despite the pledges of successive governments, rates of poverty and levels of inequality remain unacceptably high. Covid-19 has hardened and exposed these inequalities, strengthening the case for targeted and effective action.

If Government had listened sooner...

Experiences of the past 18 months show us that harnessing the expertise that comes with experience can lead to more targeted and effective policy responses. 

Whilst the government introduced a range of bold and compassionate policies at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, had they engaged with people with lived experiences as the crisis developed, their response would have been better and more effective. 

For example, groups with experience very quickly flagged issues tied to digital exclusion and Free School Meal replacements. Had these groups been listened to and learned from, robust and practical responses could have been better developed that would have mitigated, at least in part, negative consequences that we have seen such as a widening educational attainment gap. Working in partnership with groups with lived experiences would have enabled the government to develop targeted policy responses in an efficient and timely manner, as opposed to taking the more knee-jerk and reactive response we’ve witnessed.

At Conservative Party Conference this week

Poverty2Solutions have been working together for almost five years to develop solutions to poverty that are grounded in our own expertise and experiences. We know what would make a difference in the communities that we live in; creating a fairer and more equal society and we want to be part of conversations about how we improve policies for all of us; we want to ‘build back better.’ 

The re-launch of our report, Do your duty for equality. Making the case for addressing rising levels of inequality in partnership with people with lived experiences of poverty will happen at the  Conservative Party Conference. Poverty2Solutions will be partnering with Bright Blue to host a fringe event: “Leaving no-one behind: the people’s voice in levelling up”

A real chance for transformation

Poverty2Solutions are a bit different from the usual policy wonks, journalists and parliamentarians that you typically find in attendance at the Conservative Party Conference. But we are attending and speaking up because we want to work with politicians to share our expertise and experiences, and to collaborate in exciting and innovative ways to create positive change.

The possibilities that can emerge by working directly with people with direct experiences of poverty and social security is genuinely transformative. I really hope politicians will listen, and grasp the opportunity we’re holding out to draw on the expertise in communities just like mine.

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

Lent course for 2022: Life on the Breadline

Our Cookery Book

Keep the Lifeline – sign our open letter to the Prime Minister

Seeking food justice in York

Jayne and Shaun’s story: creativity, self-reliance and truth

Sign the Anti-Poverty Charter!

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

In north Sheffield, dignity, agency and power are coming to the fore through food

For 11 years, the Parson Cross Initiative has played an important role in its community, coordinating various activities and support. For many years, it ran a weekly food bank session, but the pandemic prompted the change in approach that the team had long wanted. Nick Waterfield, who is pioneer minister in Parson Cross and who features on the October page of the 2021 Dignity, Agency, Power photo calendar, tells us more…

Nick Waterfield on the Parson Cross Initiative allotment. Photo by Madeleine Penfold.

What has changed since covid began?

One of the big changes is that we phased out our old food bank work. By January this year it had finished. That was all done to increase dignity, agency and power of local people. It was about shifting how we do food support.

We now do two things: we do a market and meals service, and a community hub with a social café. There are no referrals now, and people make a small financial donation if they can. 

We have a broader range of people using it now. For instance more people who didn’t necessarily need free food but who do benefit from some support are coming. 

Parson Cross in north Sheffield

Dignity, agency and power through food

Before, we were ringing around for donations of food but now we pay £20 a week to Fareshare and the food comes and people get to choose what they want. It gives a lot more choice and agency, and people can decide what they want and what they can give. It has been a momentous change from the old food bank approach.

There is more dignity now. In a food bank setting, you know why people have come and sometimes that’s the immediate context of a conversation. Now, it’s a more natural welcome, and it’s acknowledging that none of us has a right to know about other people’s private situation.

We never doubted that it was the right thing, to move away from the less dignified food bank approach, but one thing I did worry about was what might happen to some people who might stop coming. In fact, I am encouraged and amazed by how many people have kept coming back.

Dignity, agency and power through food

At the end of 2019, Nick had recorded this video with Church Action setting out his hopes for the 2020s as a whole, little knowing the pandemic was about to disrupt all our lives. 

Nick now says that upheaval has perhaps accelerated some of the change he talked about, reminding everyone of the value of community…

At the allotment, we have had opportunities to do new things. Indoor spaces were taken away from people in the pandemic but we have established new partnerships with other community groups. There’s a group here, Brown Girls With Drills, who we’ve been working with, and some young adults. It has given a whole new group of people access to the allotments.

It has all been about growing. Growing stuff and people and relationships, for want of a better phrase. It has been a major shift over the past year towards working in partnership and sharing space.

And what has happened is, the more and more people we have seen, the more and more stories we have heard of personal and community strength and resilience. Our services weren’t there for a while, but people were still supporting one another and looking out for one another.

Above: Nick Waterfield on the Parson Cross Initiative allotment. Below: A harvest of apples from the plot. Both photos by Madeleine Penfold.

Sharing space, sharing power

That’s where power can come from. You cannot develop community power without a sense of belonging. Only then can you talk about values and hopes and dreams, which is where shared power develops. 

At the allotment now, we have more young people talking with older people who they would not have been talking with before, and all the groups are recognising that the others have rights in the same space. 

These are small shifts in power in a community, at micro levels. Ultimately, you give power by listening to and valuing someone and their story and that comes from connecting.

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

Lent course for 2022: Life on the Breadline

Our Cookery Book

Keep the Lifeline – sign our open letter to the Prime Minister

Seeking food justice in York

Jayne and Shaun’s story: creativity, self-reliance and truth

Sign the Anti-Poverty Charter!

Long read: How do we build dignity, agency & power together?

The story of a Cornish food and community revolution

“You are worthy. Don’t ever give up.”

How can policy-makers and churches work together to tackle UK poverty?

How have Christians responded to poverty during austerity?

Reset The Debt in Parliament

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

Seeking food justice in York

It’s not enough to hand out food, if the broken systems are allowed to continue.

Two people who know that well are Mary Passeri and Sydnie Corley, co-chairs of York Food Justice Alliance and tenacious campaigners against the causes of poverty.

York artists Sydnie Corley and Mary Passeri, who run the York Food Justice Alliance at SPARK in Piccadilly, York. Picture by David Harrison.
Sydnie Corley and Mary Passeri, co-chairs of the York Food Justice Alliance. The duo are both artists, and are pictured in their old studio. Photo by David Harrison.

Mary and Sydnie feature on the September page of our 2021 Dignity, Agency, Power calendar, in recognition of the work they do across York and beyond.

Before covid, the alliance existed to coordinate all the different food aid projects around York and to speak up about what was causing hunger in the first place. A report was sent to the city council and Mary and Sydnie joined in others in producing this short film, focusing on hunger in the school holidays:

The duo also ran their own project, a zero-waste food stall, which helped many people get by day-to-day. But they both believe passionately in the need for a long-term focus. “We need to look for an exit strategy,” says Sydnie. “We need to look at how we can end the need for having food banks.”

Sydnie Corley, co-chair of York Food Justice Alliance. Photo by David Harrison.

Speaking up and sharing insights

To that end, they have spoken up in local and national media, sharing their insights on Radio York, BBC 5 Live, the Six O’Clock News on TV, and in The Yorkshire Post. 

They also helped to write the 2020 Reporting Poverty guide and addressed a room full of journalists, on the need for more first-hand and less stigmatising journalism.

Mary said then: “We’ve done media work because we want to challenge preconceptions. People have ideas about single parents or people on disability benefits or whatever, and we wanted to challenge the stigma and stereotypes.”

Mary Passeri, co-chair of York Food Justice Alliance. Photo by David Harrison.

Vision of a better society

This year, they have also been involved in the Covid Realities initiative, and the Food Experiences During Covid-19 research project, both of which aim to help ensure lasting change, as the country rebuilds after covid. 

People with experience of poverty know better than anyone what needs to change, and why. Those are the voices that must be heard most loudly.

More 2021 Dignity, Agency, Power stories

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

Lent course for 2022: Life on the Breadline

Our Cookery Book

Keep the Lifeline – sign our open letter to the Prime Minister

Seeking food justice in York

Jayne and Shaun’s story: creativity, self-reliance and truth

Sign the Anti-Poverty Charter!

Long read: How do we build dignity, agency & power together?

The story of a Cornish food and community revolution

“You are worthy. Don’t ever give up.”

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

Jayne and Shaun’s story: creativity, self-reliance and truth

Jayne and Shaun have worked with Church Action on Poverty on Poverty Truth Commissions, Self-Reliant Groups, and creative workshops. Watch their story below.

Find out more about the projects Jayne and Shaun have been part of below:

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“You are worthy. Don’t ever give up.”

Monica Gregory, who works with homeless people in Oxford, has been speaking out as part of our Food Power programme. We talked to her about the importance of dignity, agency and power.

Monica works with Good Food Oxford, one of the local food poverty alliances involved from early on in Food Power. She found confidence through speaking out alongside other people in Food Power, highlighting the poverty that exists in Oxford but is often not acknowledged.

“It doesn’t matter what people think of you, you know, as long as you believe in yourself and you love yourself. Just look in the mirror and tell yourself that you know that you love yourself and that you are worthy. Don’t ever give up.”

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

How we can use poetry to accelerate social change

Poet Matt Sowerby harnesses the power and resolve of people in poverty.

Matt started using his skills as a route to social justice, when he became involved in the End Hunger UK campaign. From there, he hasn’t looked back. 

In 2020, he became poet in digital residence at Church Action on Poverty, and worked with fantastic campaigners around the country to produce Same Boat? a powerful anthology of poems based upon poverty and the pandemic. 

Poetry as a force for good

Church Action on Poverty supporters might recognise Matt, as he is the July feature in the 2021 Dignity, Agency, Power calendar. This week, Matt and our Food Power officer, Ben Pearson, caught up on Zoom, and you can listen to the conversation on our latest podcast here:

Poetry can make the world a better place

In the podcast, Matt tells how and why he became involved in social justice movements. 

He tells listeners: “I’m really interested in the way that poetry can be activism and poetry can make the world a better place. I think especially in this sector, there are some things that are so unjust you feel you need to do something about it.”

He says: “There’s a very thin line between making something, and making a change, so I think it does teach us something about our agency and the ways we can make a difference in the world, the more we engage in the arts.”

Matt talks about the number of people who became creative at the start of the pandemic, turning to the arts as a vital response to the crisis. He talks also of poetry as having the power to fossilise the feelings of a particular moment, and he and Ben talk of the empowering force of the Same Boat? anthology. 

Matt says: “The feedback I got was that it did mean so much to so many people, to engage in the process but also to be able to say ‘I am a published poet’ at the end of that and to know that for the rest of their lives, that that is part of who they are.”

 

  • All photos in this article are by Madeleine Penfold.

Other 2021 calendar stories:
Dignity, Agency and Power

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

Activism, struggle and superpowers

Scouse writer-actor Ellis Howard has worked with us over the past year, helping people channel their experiences of poverty and struggle into powerful activism. In this new video, Ellis explains why telling your own story is like having a superpower.

Transforming lived experience into activism

My name is Ellis Howard. I  am a Scouse actor-writer.  With Church Action on Poverty, I ran a series of workshops all about how we can use our lived  experiences and transform them to activism; how we can own our stories of struggle, of  food shortages, to empower us and to help shape future policy and future lives.  

Celebrating unheard stories

For so long these stories, these experiences, these lives have been completely undocumented.  They haven’t been celebrated in a glorious nuanced way. 

Harness your superpower

Get in touch with all of those things that make you unique, and absolutely harness them, because that’s where your superpower lies.

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

62% want action on income inequality. So, what do we do?

We look at three ways the UK can begin building the society it wants by tackling inequality.

How do we make sure everyone is included in the UK’s pandemic recovery?

How do we ensure the injustices and inequalities exposed and exacerbated by covid are not made worse still when the country gets going again?

There has been much talk of roadmaps in the past few months, but let’s also talk about destinations. Where do we want to go as a country – and how to get there? We can’t have a recovery where some speed off down the road, while others are left behind on the hard shoulder. We need to address inequality.

And, before we set off, we need to make sure all the systems we rely on are roadworthy.

Where do we want to go?

Covid has caused us to reassess our priorities as a country. We have been reminded of the importance of community, the value of neighbours, and the extent to which we all rely on one another.

There are signs also that many of us want to see a more just society, with less inequality. Polling data has shown that 62% of us think the Government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels, while only 12% disagree.

What might action look like? 

There is much work to be done in the UK to narrow the many gaps between those of us who are economically privileged and those of us who are not. This blog looks at just three potential steps: one simple and immediate policy decision, one medium term strategy, and one profound long-term change, all of which would help to reduce inequality.

1 - Protect Universal Credit

43% of Universal Credit claimants experienced food insecurity

Millions more people have been receiving Universal Credit in the past year, as a result of the economic upheaval caused by covid. It is not a great system. The security it provides is flimsy and volatile, and frequently insufficient.

Data released this year showed that people on Universal Credit were eight times as likely as the national average to be food insecure.

Universal Credit should be increased, but instead the Government is planning a cut. It intends to reduce weekly payments by £20 a year from the autumn, which would reduce many struggling people’s incomes by £1,000 a year. That would increase inequality rather than reducing it. We should all be included in the post-covid recovery, but that won’t happen if the Government leaves people without enough fuel in the tank. 

The public want the Government to reduce income inequalities. It should start by abandoning this cut, and keeping the Universal Credit lifeline.

2 - Carry out an MOT on the benefits system

Protecting Universal Credit is a vital first step, but we need to go further. The benefit system needs to be made roadworthy. Just like other vital public services, it needs to be invested in and kept up to date, so it is fit for purpose when needed.

A fair assessment of our benefits system would likely reveal that it does not generally meet the cost of living, and that it is too detached from the people it is meant to support. Payments undoubtedly need to be increased and reviewed annually to ensure they keep pace with living costs. 

More fundamentally, the DWP needs to change the way it works, to ensure the system is designed in conjunction with people who have used the system. Groups such as Poverty2Solutions and the APLE collective (Addressing Poverty Through Lived Experience) have shown how systems and services can be enhanced when people work together. We can’t hope to narrow inequalities in the UK if the primary support system is sub-standard.

3 - Address the UK's underlying power imbalances

There is a more fundamental reassessment that we all need to take part in, which is to address the underlying power inequalities in our society. Only if we do that will other inequalities ever be resolved.

There are inequalities in the UK, around gender, race, region, class and sexuality. Each of these linked injustices harm individuals and hurt society as a whole. Inequality violates people’s dignity and curtails their opportunities, meaning countless dreams and possibilities go unrealised, meaning the whole society always falls short of what it could be and do.

None of these inequalities is new. They may even feel entrenched, but they are not inevitable and they can be addressed. 

All of them stem from an unjust distribution of power, which allows inequalities to perpetuate. We need to break the cycle by truly challenging where power lies and why, by speaking up loudly against systems that allow injustice and inequality to continue, and promoting work that redistributes power.

Initiatives such as participatory budgeting and Poverty Truth Commissions have shown what can happen when communities are entrusted with decisions, and when people meet as equals to find solutions. Such work needs to be supported, encouraged and accelerated if we are to make lasting changes to inequality.

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

Lent course for 2022: Life on the Breadline

Our Cookery Book

Keep the Lifeline – sign our open letter to the Prime Minister

Seeking food justice in York

Jayne and Shaun’s story: creativity, self-reliance and truth

Sign the Anti-Poverty Charter!

Long read: How do we build dignity, agency & power together?

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

Long read: How do we build dignity, agency & power together?

Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, asks:  How do we build dignity, agency and power together as a society? 

Introduction

Church Action on Poverty’s vision is that the UK can and must be transformed into a country where everyone can live a full life, free from poverty. Poverty robs people of dignity, agency, of power over their own lives. We believe our vision – an end to poverty in the UK – can become a reality.

Our goal over the next 5-10 years is to contribute to building a social movement based on organising with people and communities struggling against poverty, to create the social and political space to reclaim dignity, agency and power.

I have been director of Church Action on Poverty for nearly 25 years, and will reflect here on our experiences of trying to develop a variety of practical organising, empowerment and advocacy programmes, and look ahead to new paths.

Our context: the denial of dignity, agency and power

The task of organising is indeed difficult in the current context. There is little prospect of significant action to tackle poverty at UK level, with a Government with an 80-seat majority in Parliament, which came to office with a focus on delivering Brexit but which is now faced with having to deal with the hugely damaging long term social and economic impacts of the pandemic. 

More widely, the Covid-19 pandemic has both brought into much sharper focus pre-existing inequalities in society, and led to dramatic increases in poverty, debt and levels of unemployment (especially for people under 25), which are significantly worse than that following not just the 2007 global economic crash, but the deep recessions of the 1970s and 1980s. 

For all the talk of ‘building back better’, this leaves many families and communities with the prospect of reduced life chances (and indeed, life expectancy) for years to come.

Beyond this, there are strong and deep seated public attitudes in the UK which stigmatise and blame individuals for their own poverty. 

Professor Ruth Lister describes this in terms of the ‘othering’ of people living in poverty.  Over many decades, these attitudes have not only been embedded in the welfare system, but have also been internalised by many people living in poverty themselves. 

In the words of Wayne Green, who spoke at the first National Poverty Hearing we held back in 1996: 

“What is poverty?  Poverty is a battle of invisibility, a lack of resources, exclusion, powerlessness… being blamed for society’s problems”  

To be clear also, the Churches have not been immune from these attitudes, from treating poverty as a problem to be addressed through individual behaviour change, or in more theological language ‘saving’ people from their self-inflicted poverty. 

This is the context in which poverty – and even many attempts to tackle it – rob people of their dignity, agency or power over their lives.

In spite of this, Church Action on Poverty affirms the belief in the transformational possibilities of people coming together to reclaim their dignity, agency and power.

Dignity

Pope_Francis

For Christians, the centrality of human dignity is based on the foundational theological principle that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. 

Maria Power states that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, “offers a new vision of society in which human dignity and the human rights of all are respected…He has always wanted to make it clear that his papacy is one of action – placing the needs of the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised at the centre of his ministry.”

According to the United Nations, poverty is not only deprivation of economic or material resources but a violation of human dignity too.

The concept of human dignity is based on a particular pattern of perception: of perceiving humans as beings rather than things. The thing about dignity, and the reason it is a transformational concept, is that it knows no social, economic, gender or ethnic barriers.

Dignity is not something that can be given, but it is very definitely something that can be taken away.  This is not just a question for the way the state interacts with its citizens, for employers, the media or society at large, but it is also a question we have to address to ourselves.

Agency

To be truly human means being invested not only with dignity, but also with agency.  Agency is about people’s ability to act individually or collectively to further their own interests.  Agency is tricky.

People on the right seek to blame people for their own poverty, without understanding the wider forces which come into play on peoples lives to restrict their agency to act.  People on the left can focus so much on structural forces that create poverty and inequality they risk denying people any agency to change anything.

In Church Action on Poverty’s experience, people who struggle against poverty on a daily basis have far greater insight not just into the challenges they face, but a really deep understanding of what needs to change, and some of the best ideas for doing so.

In my experience, there is nothing more transformative than enabling a group of people to bond together, through sharing their own experiences and ‘truths’ about poverty, and to discover that these are not ‘personal’ problems, but shared experiences – and then to generate ideas and take action to address them together.  

This process of empowering people to ‘create their own space’ for reflection and action, is the heart of enabling people to reclaim a sense of agency, not just over their own lives, but to start to challenge and change the wider decisions, institutions and attitudes which so often constrain or negatively impact on them.

Power

Martin_Luther_King_monument

I frequently find that people both in the churches and the voluntary sector have a problem with the idea of power.  It makes us uneasy.  But I’m reliably told that there are more references to power in the Bible than to prayer.

What is power, other than, in Martin Luther King’s words “The ability to achieve a purpose…  It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.”

We like to focus more on loving our neighbours, than on wanting to claim or challenge power.  But again, Martin Luther King challenges us to think differently: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Transforming unjust structures is core to the mission of the church, but if we are serious about transforming the unjust structures then we have to be willing not just to speak truth to power, but to enable people to do so for themselves.

We need to talk more about race, class and poverty

One of the key insights of the past year is that we are not all in the same boat – and that poverty intersects with other social inequalities.  If we didn’t already know this, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought this home with greater sharpness. 

Black people are disproportionately affected by poverty, by low pay, by poor housing, by health inequalities. These are aspects of structural racism which impinge directly on peoples lives. 

We have not done enough in the anti-poverty movement, in the churches – and within Church Action on Poverty ourselves, to acknowledge this fact, and to ensure that the views, voices and experiences of black and brown people are visible, or heard in and through our work.

But equally, poverty intersects with inequalities in relation to social class, gender and disability.  The way we frequently talk about these are as if they were separate categories of experience, but in reality, they are complex and interlocking injustices and inequalities that exacerbate poverty for specific groups of people. 

We cannot hope to create solidarity by glossing over the differences. Rather, the challenge is to build solidarity among people by affirming their specific experiences.

What does this mean in terms of what we do?

None of these are abstract ideas. 

Too often, poverty is discussed in the abstract.  For Church Action on Poverty, this has never been our way.  For us, making change happen must always start at street level, at local level, by working with small groups of people to enable them to reclaim their own dignity, agency and power. 

Our vision for building a social movement is rooted in this approach – finding ways to enable groups of people to come together in ways which are transformative. 

To paraphrase Margaret Mead, that’s the only way that true and lasting change has ever come about.

So our vision for building a social movement is still rooted in building the capacity and skills of a network of local leaders – to equip people and communities to come together. 

I now want to share some examples of how we do this in different ways and at different levels, which I will describe for the purpose of this talk as community self-organising, organizing at town or city-wide level, speaking truth to power nationally, and congregational organizing – or becoming a Church on the Margins.

Community self-organising

We know change can happen when small groups come together. I want to outline two examples here.

Self-reliant groups

The most small scale level at which we promote organising is through Self Reliant groups. Taking inspiration from the ways in which some of the poorest people in India manage to survive and thrive, almost 10 years ago the Church of Scotland decided to see how working in groups could change communities for the better.

Following a visit to see the Self Reliant Groups movement in India, in 2011, a group of women came together as its first self-reliant group (SRG) and looked at how they could generate their own capital. Through small savings, they started a lunch club, raised money and eventually started their own laundry business.

Today there are almost 100 SRGs supported by Church Action on Poverty and four partner organisations in Scotland, England, Wales and the Netherlands each with its own achievements and stories.

Each group, typically of 6-8 women, meet and save together on a regular basis, and use their own skills of creativity, craft-making, cookery etc to produce and generate small amounts of money – effectively creating their own micro-businesses. This video explains how they work:

The social impact of SRGs for people who are very economically disadvantaged, mostly women, and from very diverse ethnic backgrounds are very powerful in terms of creating a strong social solidarity amongst their members, in which their own skills, ideas and creativity is affirmed, and through which they can become producers rather than just recipients, and collectively have control of small might seem amounts of money – maybe £200 or £300 – that they themselves have generated.

The links between SRG groups are also important, with regular local peer gatherings, and national gatherings (when possible), so that each small group feels strongly connected to other groups as part of a wider SRG movement.

Your Local Pantry

Since 2017 we have been also working on a second approach to community-level organising, by growing a network of Local food pantries – social supermarkets – across the UK.

Each Pantry is hosted by a local community organisation – some are in high street shops, but increasing numbers are hosted by local churches, community centres, schools, even public Libraries

This work has expanded rapidly as a response to the Covid 19 pandemic.  We will shortly be welcoming the fiftieth Local Pantry into the network, and look forward to our ten thousandth member household. This video, filmed at two of the Edinburgh Pantries, explains a bit more about what makes them so effective:

What sets Local Pantries apart from the foodbanks which many churches have opened in recent years are that they are

  • Member-run: Pantries are run along co-operative lines, by and for their members, many of the volunteers who run the Pantry are members too. Members pay a small weekly fee, so have a genuine stake in their Local Pantry
  • Open to all: Membership is open to anyone local neighbourhood, with no requirement to be referred by a professional or other person.
  • Quality: Local Pantries are deliberately created with the look and feel of a little local shop, and with a strong emphasis on good quality food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen and chilled food, including meat and dairy products, alongside the usual supplies of tins and packets that you would find in a foodbank.

We recently carried out a survey of the social impact of being a Pantry member and produced an impact report.  We gave this the title ‘Dignity, choice hope.’  This demonstrated that the impact of being a Pantry member extends far beyond simply access to food.  Every Pantry member is able to save at least £15 on their weekly food shop, which equates to an annual saving of up to £780 a year. Beyond this

In the midst of the dark times, the Your Local Pantry network, offers a beacon of hope, demonstrating that local communities can be at the forefront of developing practical and sustainable long-term responses to the current crisis. 

Re-oxygenating local democracy: organising at town or city level

I now want to turn to two examples of organising that enable groups of people struggling against poverty to engage directly with and exercise some agency and power in relation to Government and other public and private institutions that exercise significant power over their lives at town or city-wide level.

Poverty Truth Commissions

The Poverty Truth Commission is a unique way of developing new insights and initiatives to tackle poverty, developed in Glasgow ten years ago, and now being replicated in more than a dozen towns and cities across the UK. The key principle behind a Poverty Truth Commission is that decisions about poverty must involve people who directly face poverty:  Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us.

The Commission process is one of deep listening, relationship building, and shared reflection over a 12-18 month period between people with a direct experience of poverty and civic and business leaders within a town or city. 

Two years ago, I co-facilitated the Salford Poverty Truth Commission in Greater Manchester, which was sponsored by the Bishop of Salford and the Salford’s City Mayor, and which brought together 15 civic and business leaders with 15 people from across Salford who each had their own personal experience of and ‘truth’ about poverty to share.    

In preparing for the launch, the ‘grassroots’ Commissioners jointly produced a graphic map of the key issues and problems they experienced living in poverty in the City.  Slap bang in the middle of the map was an image of Salford Civic Centre.

Debbie Brown, who represented Salford City Council on the Commission, recalled her reaction to seeing this at the launch: “The thing that stopped me in my tracks was a picture of Salford Civic Centre – the City Council was identified as cause of poverty. I was devastated! I hadn’t expected to see that at all!”

As the Commissioners shared their stories over the coming months, what transpired was that several of the grassroots Commissioners had traumatic experiences of bailiffs arriving at their front door, sent by Salford Council with the power to seize and sell their property to repay their Council Tax debts.  One Commissioner told how a Council Tax debt of less than £100 had grown to over £1,000 once court charges and bailiffs fees had been added, putting her deeper into debt.  

As Debbie said, “We heard some real heartbreaking stories of hiding behind sofas and being afraid of what was going to happen: that was not the city I recognised and certainly not the Council I know”.

In response to this, the Poverty Truth Commission brought together several of the grassroots Commissioners with the head of Council Tax collection in Salford, who was ultimately responsible for sending the bailiffs in. At the workshop he carefully explained the process for sending out reminder letters to those who hadn’t paid their bills. 

Patrick, one of the grassroots Commissioners said “Yes, I remember those. They came in brown envelopes, and go straight into the draw.  I can’t open them.  I suffer from ‘brown envelope’ syndrome.”

The most shocking revelation from the workshop was that the first point of human contact that anyone would have in the process was the bailiff sent to your house to seize and sell your property.

Patrick’s reaction to this was the key to changing Council thinking.  “Back in the day, in Ireland, if I had any problems with the council, I would go and see Mrs Mack. That’s what we need to get back to.  Salford needs its very own Mrs Mack.”

This lead directly to significant changes to Salford’s debt collection process – including swapping brown envelopes for white envelopes. 

As Debbie now says: “…The City Council has changed a lot already, towards a more person centred approach – we now run coffee morning drop-in sessions for any Salford resident who wants to talk through any problems with Council Tax face to face – and we have stopped using bailiffs to collect Council Tax debts from people on low incomes.            


Through the Poverty Truth Commission, the collective wisdom and insights of a group of people sharing their own personal ‘truths’ about poverty has kicked started a process of culture change at Salford City Council, towards a much more human and people-centred approach to engaging with its citizens. 

“I am not naïvely thinking we can change the world overnight, but if anybody anywhere else needed motivation, just look at what we have achieved in Salford.” 

Participatory budgeting

I also want to briefly mention Participatory Budgeting: a process of participatory deliberation and decision-making over the allocation of ‘our’ public funds.

The idea was originated by the Brazilian People’s Party in the city of Porto Allegre in the 1980s. Church Action on Poverty, along with Oxfam, was responsible for introducing Participatory Budgeting to the UK. 

For more than ten years until 2012, Church Action on Poverty hosted a Participatory Budgeting Unit, and worked in partnership with central Government, to assist and advise more than 120 local Participatory Budgeting processes, in which local people directly decided how to spend pots of public funding ranging from a few thousand pounds up to tens of thousands of pounds. 

Our Peoples Budget campaign promoted the idea that all public bodies should allocate one percent of their funds using Participatory Budgeting.

The Scottish Government has now adopted this policy, which will eventually mean that £100 million of funds spent by local authorities across Scotland will be allocated directly according to the wishes and votes of local people. 

Speaking truth to power: organising nationally

Church Action on Poverty has been known for prioritising and amplifying the voices people in poverty nationally since the late 1990s. It is more authentic for people to speak their own truth to power than for church leaders, or me as a director of a charity, to speak on their behalf.

Over the years we have run high profile national campaigns on asylum, debt, Living Wages, tax avoidance but have focussed much of our work over the past six years on the subject of food poverty.

However, rather than focus on our campaigns, I would like to share the story of one young campaigner, who has been an inspiration to me over the past four years.

Tia Clarke, is a young activist from Blackburn in the North West of England, who has just turned 18, but was 15 when she first started her engagement with us. 

Tia and other members of her local child food poverty campaign group have been instrumental in the national #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTYCAMPAIGN.

They are no strangers to campaigning as their involvement is a result of their own campaign in their home town of Blackburn. This campaign was based on experiences at their school where they and their friends living in food poverty often went without meals.

Their hunger led to a lack of concentration in the classroom and tempers flaring with teachers and classmates. With 40% of children growing up in food poverty in their local area, they could see where the system was failing them and set out to fix it.

In Tia’s own words

“Food poverty happens all around me. When you are hungry you get in a mood. Then you are in a mood all day and you just want food. To tackle food poverty schools should get more involved, they should look at pupils’ personal experiences and the Government should help as well.

“I became involved in the Blackburn with Darwen Food Alliance which is part of Church Action on Poverty’s Food Power programme in October 2017. Since then I have shared my own experience of food poverty both locally & nationally, and was one of a small group of young people who set up the #DarwengetsHangry Campaign.

In 2018 I became involved in the national Children’s Future Food Inquiry. This has involved speaking to MP’s in Westminster, appearing on Channel 4 News, as well as being featured in national newspapers.”

The #ENDCHILDFOOD POVERTY campaign has received national profile, and in the past nine months has twice forced Boris Johnston to U-turn and agree to provide Government funding for children who would normally receive free school meals, but who have not been able to do so because their schools were closed due to the pandemic. 

You can see Tia on Channel 4 News here:

One of the strengths of the campaign has been the power of the voices of people with personal experience of food poverty as children.  The most high profile has been Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford – who himself went hungry as a child – and whose petition was signed by more than one million people.  Alongside him Tia and other young campaigners with lived experience have been adding their voices to the campaign.

In September, Tia and others in the group met with Marcus Rashford to film a prime time BBC TV documentary, at our offices in Salford. In this, they discussed their own experiences of food poverty in Blackburn, the #DarwengetsHangry campaign and their demands of government as part of the #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY campaign.          

“It’s amazing that we finally have so many people behind us… I want to say thank you especially to Marcus for helping people understand what it’s like and put our voices even more out there for all these people who are now behind us and I’m so excited for what’s going to come next.”

Investing in becoming a church on the margins

Turning lastly to the question of ‘what has all this got to do with the task of being Church? Over recent years we have begun to explore more directly the challenge to the church of what it would mean to respond in practical and tangible ways to Pope Francis’ challenge to be or become a ‘Poor church of and for the poor.’

This has included producing an initial popular report setting out in clear terms the challenge to the churches, but also ways in which different denominations are already responding.

We have also started to bring together groups of people living and working in poorer neighbourhoods in Sheffield and Manchester to explore these questions for themselves.

Ultimately, however, this is a question for the churches at all levels – not just in poor neighbourhoods: As institutions that deploy hundreds of clergy and other staff and in many cases hold investments of tens or hundreds of millions of pounds.

“Not just a food bank for the poor, a debt advice project for the poor, a campaigning organisation for the poor… A church for the poor.”  Rev Al Barrett

Part of our inspiration for this work is the Church of Scotland, who more than ten years ago made a national commitment to say that Mission and Ministry in the ten percent poorest neighbourhoods in Scotland was THE Gospel priority. 

Since then they have allocated twice as much ministerial resource to Priority areas, and funded some of the most innovative anti-poverty initiatives in the country – including starting the first Self Reliant Groups and Poverty Truth Commission in the UK.

“Priority for the poorest and the most marginalised is the gospel imperative facing the whole Church, not just the Church in the poorest places.”

We are excited that partly as a result of our programme, in July 2020 the Methodist Church at national level committed to spend £8 million over the next 5 years on a ‘church at the margins’ programme to be invested in ministry in and led by marginalised communities themselves. We are starting to explore what it will mean to be a partner with them in this work over the coming years.

It is our aspiration that other denominations will follow the example of the Methodist Church and Church of Scotland in committing significant and long-term funding to investing in programmes which live out the Churches’ wider commitment to the poorest and most economically marginalised communities, as the Gospel priority, over the coming years.

I will finish with the words of Deacon Eunice Attwood, who has recently been appointed national Church at the Margins worker for the Methodist church:

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

“All it needs is people willing to listen”

1,000+ church leaders say: Don’t cut Universal Credit

SPARK newsletter autumn 2021

Lent course for 2022: Life on the Breadline

Our Cookery Book

Keep the Lifeline – sign our open letter to the Prime Minister

Seeking food justice in York

Jayne and Shaun’s story: creativity, self-reliance and truth

Sign the Anti-Poverty Charter!

Long read: How do we build dignity, agency & power together?

The story of a Cornish food and community revolution

“You are worthy. Don’t ever give up.”

How can policy-makers and churches work together to tackle UK poverty?

How have Christians responded to poverty during austerity?

Reset The Debt in Parliament

Watch the Food Power story

How we can use poetry to accelerate social change

Activism, struggle and superpowers

Why does digital exclusion matter?

62% want action on income inequality. So, what do we do?

Wayne’s story: Why I (and you) must refuse to be invisible

SPARK newsletter, summer 2021

Building Dignity, Agency and Power Together

What I’ve learnt as an anti-poverty activist

Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Update, May 2021

Listening…

How should we talk about poverty in the 2020s?

What’s the best way to reduce the stigma of food poverty?

Food insecurity: now we have the data, it’s time to act

Hold the moment

Why did I write Second Class Citizens and what can we learn?

David Goodbourn Lecture 2021 – register now

A week that changed everything….

‘Life on the Breadline’ announces their End of Project Conference, 24-25th June 2021

Look up child

The Final Push

Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Update, March 2021

International Women’s Day – Sheroes

How do you build dignity & power with people new to the UK?

Right-wing and Left-wing Christian Approaches to Poverty

Speaking of poverty, differently

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR neighbourhood

2021 stories: how friends are striking a chord for justice and unity

Annual review 2019–20

Easter

Press release: Thousands join Your Local Pantry in response to pandemic

Your Local Pantry: A triumph of community resilience, offering dignity, choice and hope in a time of crisis

Dignity, Choice, Hope

Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Update, January 2021

SPARK newsletter winter 2021

Dignity, agency and power: a conversation

32,000 meals, and now a bold new food plan

12 inspiring anti-poverty stars & stories from 2020

Covid pulled us deep into debt. It’ll be years before we are free.

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield: 2020 AGM

People in poverty must be heeded, not just heard

Being Interrupted: doorstep encounters

Thoughts on child hunger, privilege, and immunity against judgment

A child hunger U-turn would be in all our interests

A tale of two covid tests

Untitled – a poem from ‘Same Boat?’

Untitled #1 – a poem from ‘Same Boat?’

Same Boat film

Same Boat? Poems on poverty and lockdown

Untitled – a poem from ‘Same Boat?’

Nothing changes around here – a poem from ‘Same Boat?’

The price of conformity – a poem from ‘Same Boat?’

My Mask – a poem from ‘Same Boat?’

Reset The Debt – email your MP now

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic

13th Sheffield Pilgrimage, 2021

stock cartoon image of two people sitting in adjacent chairs, talking

Listen up to level up: why we must rebuild together

Growing crops & community amid the pandemic