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

“We all want a better world. We have the money, we have the expertise, we have the technologies. It’s just political will.”

Wayne Green from Hear My Story in Worthing

Those are the words of Wayne Green (pictured above) who has been striving to improve society for more than 25 years. 

He was first moved to act by his own experience of eviction, poverty and injustice, but he has gone on to take part in many powerful campaigns locally and nationally. 

And he keeps going still today.

Wayne is the June feature in Church Action on Poverty’s Dignity, Agency, Power calendar. We asked him to talk about some of the work he has been involved in, but also to outline his own path to campaigning, his inspiration to keep going, and the lessons he would share with younger campaigners seeking to make society better.

Wayne: why I started campaigning

I got involved because I had two young children. At that time, I had been made unemployed as a young man, my wife had just given birth and we were renting a flat in Worthing and when the baby was three months old we were evicted.

I was shocked because I came from a middle class background and I had never experienced anything like this before. Here I was with my wife and three-month-old baby with no work, nowhere to go, nowhere to live and I was shocked.

I put my baby in a cardboard box, wrapped up in a woollen cot sheet and we went in the back of a garage van at 9 o’clock at night and drove for 12 hours to Cornwall to live with my mother in law.

I was really angry. I was told at local authority ‘sorry, can’t help you’. That was it. I thought ‘oh my gosh, what do I do?!’

Later we moved back and ended up in Shoreham an as we moved in to this new flat we managed to rent. 

This woman over the road saw us and almost adopted us. Jocelyn Underwood. She was an inspiration to me and a guiding light to me on the issue of social exclusion and poverty and the work of the church, and justice and peace, and also the issues of good local people and what can be achieved.

She basically said to me: you can do anything, and always challenge the system. She was very inspirational and she brought together a group of church goers at our local church. St Mary de Haura.

She was so giving as well but above all her connections were unbelievable within justice and peace groups locally and the church and she was eloquent, she could out-talk any politician.

Some of the reports Wayne has contributed to

Starting to speak up

I spoke at the first National Poverty Hearing. That was quite an interesting and really giant move, not just for myself but local society and national society. I think that’s something that did change society very deeply.

We started a group called Adur: Local People National Voice and we put together our first ever poverty hearing in the local area and we attracted 300 local people. Our local MP didn’t turn up but other local politicians did and Church Action on Poverty came down and gave us full support.

It was interesting to turn the dynamics round. Here we were, a group of six of us on a panel who were in poverty, unemployed, speaking to our local decision makers and local population, and that was new.

At the Hearing, Wayne described poverty as “a battle of invisibility and being blamed for society’s problems.”

That’s how I felt it and that’s how I still see it. It’s exactly what’s happening today. The experience of being part of a poverty hearing, going up and speaking to 600 leaders was quite frightening but the process leading up to it was quite empowering. It broke a lot of barriers. Being poor in the south is still going without food, as you would in the north. There’s a lot of similarities that broke down barriers.

We had a really good core group of people around us who would nurture us as well. and we found that was good and gave us access to a huge amount of people you’d never believe, like politicians, church leaders. I used to pinch myself, saying ‘Am I meeting these people, are they actually listening to me? You couldn’t believe it in some sense. We call it imposter syndrome now.

The Houses of Parliament

What happened next?

Wayne helped to organise a further local poverty hearing in Worthing, and after some persuading Sir Peter Bottomley MP attended.

He came to the meeting but I think it shocked him, the level of interest at that meeting.

The National Poverty Hearing itself, to my mind, unified the conscience of the country. It pricked the conscience and said ‘here we are’. We were opposite the House of Lords, the Houses of Parliament and we were saying ‘come over and speak to us’. Unfortunately, the leaders of the parties didn’t come but other politicians did. I remember in the afternoon a massive argument started in Parliament and I thought ‘at last, we’re having a proper debate’, which was good. It was quite empowering.

Next up was the Future Of Work report, which influenced the thinking of many politicians, including Gordon Brown when he was the incoming Labour chancellor in the 1990s.

I have a copy of that report here and I still read it today and that was very, very interesting to get involved in. You actually felt you had something really to say and people were prepared to listen and we were part of this policy group that went across the nation and brought people together and we covered everything you cover today. I was just reading the issue of flexibility. Flexibility for who? This was 20 years ago and there’s a woman in this report and she talks about flexibility with no contracts. 20 years ago!

Networks of support are vital

Those with first-hand experience through Church Action on Poverty were encouraged to meet once a month or once a quarter, and put our findings together of our experiences of policy. And we covered all the areas of the benefit system, the welfare system, we covered all the areas of work, housing, tax, food, living, but most importantly how society sees you at the local level and national level.

That’s where I said what I still say today: poverty is a battle of invisibility. It’s not being seen and if those in power do see you, they will see you but not let you join in on the actual policies themselves.

Speaking truth to power

Speaking “truth to power” and having agency as an actor can be difficult and can be very challenging. But at the same time, you are speaking to human beings, and human beings do have the capacity to change.

My experience over the 25 years is if I was to put all those reports together, you would see there have been some dynamic changes, such as understanding of mental health issues, understanding the importance of policy, but what we are actually seeing is a harsher world to live in if you are poor.

For example, Hear My Story is working towards a Poverty Truth Commission. You’re seeing community trying to do more themselves, but we had quite a lot of resistance that I was quite shocked about.

What has kept you going?

If I go back into my personal life… I was adopted, I also have Black African-Caribbean ancestors who were slaves. I think there’s a genetic resistance in me; I want to see a better world. I care about the world.

I’m not a truly religious Sunday person, but I believe all faiths have a golden thread running through them and I believe it is possible to change society and one must keep going on this issue.

I also get inspiration from other people. Young people give me more inspiration today. How is it that I see so many older people saying ‘ohh, what’s to be done in the world?’ and you’ve got young people ride up saying, ‘I’ve had enough’.

Church towers in York
Wayne has worked with the church over the years and says it is a fundamental pillar of change

What do you see as the church's role?

Jesus was a radical. He was on the outside and he saw change. Not only that, if you look at other issues of the church, its roots are deeper than politics in the community. I find the church an area that does actually listen to you. If you talk to a local vicar, you’ll probably find they’re very academic people, quite willing to listen. 

I’ve been critical of the church, saying it’s become too middle class and feels too safe, and won’t want to go on the radical side of life but it’s slowly having to because of our morals and ethics. For me the church is a fundamental pillar for change.

Lastly Wayne... what do you say to newer campaigners?

First and foremost, your experience is proof that you exist. Secondly, you are equal to anyone else and your knowledge is probably more than the person you talk to who wants to know. Thirdly, I’d say to young people, don’t ever give up on a cause, because that’s what they want you to do, to walk away. Don’t. Be a thorn in their side. Rock that boat. Be a troublemaker! Troublemakers help change.

Believe in yourself. The experience you have is unique to you. Poverty is a battle of invisibility and you must be seen. Demand to be seen. And don’t ask for the lowest. Why should we ask for the lowest? We want the best out of our society. And everyone should have the best.

Why do I work with Church Action on Poverty after all these years? What I have benefited from is seeing change within systems and structures that others don’t see.

The support mechanisms are very important as well. People do care and having that sisterhood or brotherhood matters. You’re all different but have all experienced the pain, the hurt, the disillusionment, the exclusion of being outside society. But also, if you work hard all together, change can occur. It has to.

“We all want a better world. We have the money, we have the expertise, we have the technologies. It’s just political will.”

Listen to the podcast:

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

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