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3 Things I've Learned this Week

Published: 6 Oct 2017

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Starting my first week at Toynbee Hall, I’ve had many helpful and revealing insights from the team about how and where we need to focus our efforts to help people to find ways out of poverty. The range and depth of experience I’ve encountered has been very powerful, and I’ve already been exposed to an incredible amount of knowledge and learning, delivered in a welcoming and generous way.

I’ve also been regularly reminded of Toynbee Hall’s long and important history of using our insights to affect change. This is something I strongly believe we must continue to do. Despite the murkiness of Brexit, the domestic policy focus from the main political parties – as played out during their recent Conferences - is increasingly on things which directly affect the people we work with: housing and benefit reform, access to jobs and services and the cost of energy bills etc. Fringe events at the conferences also focused attention on the role of civil society in shaping policy and the importance and value of volunteering.

While it can be tempting to see the party conferences as being very distant from the experience of the elderly people singing, socialising and supporting each other in our Wellbeing Centre, the resulting debates that are emerging across a wide range themes do have real relevance to what we are hearing and seeing locally in East London on the ground.

So in that very broad context, I’ve picked out just three early insights from my many conversations this week that I hope will help guide me – and Toynbee Hall – as we go forward.

1 - Even when policy objectives are sensible, implementation isn’t thought through. I heard this week of a diabetic man, told by his GP to eat more fresh fruit, who ended up stressed and impoverished spending money each day on taxis to get him from his isolated estate to the nearest supermarket. Good advice from the doctor, and in line with health policy ambitions, but not recognizing the practical challenges. As we hear about new commitments on social housing and welfare reform it is vital that policy makers engage far better with users and practitioners in design and implementation. This narrative has got to be a priority for us.

2 - There is a newly energised spirit and confidence in civil society and its role in shaping policy. We have a real opportunity to use our strong connections within communities to make change. I’ve been struck by the power and mutuality of those connections. Within our teams there are single parents, those with caring responsibilities for elderly relatives, people with housing challenges and many other issues. So when we talk about people who are struggling and facing challenges, there are plenty of people around us, among families and friends, to whom this applies. This gives us an empathy and an understanding in shaping our own services – and the chance to influence and advocate more effectively. I spent an afternoon this week at a consultation with the Mayor of London’s team on how we might have a stronger role engaging with the GLA, so I want to make the most of opportunities to be a voice at the table going forward.

3 - Engaging service users really can bring those multiple benefits. I met an inspiring group of ordinary Londoners – our Money Mentors Trainers - who told me of their pride at having completed their qualification and excitement at going out into their local community, to provide debt and money management advice to local groups. Engaging users is a vital part of our offer – and I want to make sure it is an explicitly valued part of what we do at Toynbee Hall.

 

These early insights will be nothing new to many people, and of course there are very many other important things I will need to understand. But they are already helping to confirm to me the vital role that Toynbee Hall plays – and the essential need for us to bring our very practical approaches to social justice into the realm of policy makers. System change needs to be rooted in the experience of users and practitioners. I don’t think that is radical. It is common sense.

I am in my first week. I am conscious that I am new to this role, and that both within Toynbee Hall and in the wider world of poverty and social justice policy making, there is a wealth of further knowledge about these issues. But I am excited about the opportunity we have to share our learning; and to open up opportunities for those we work with to have a say. And crucially also, to better design and inform our own services and those of our partners. I know many others share these ambitions, so I hope we can work together to achieve this.

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