HLJ Case Study 1: 52nd Street Project

A couple of months back, I blogged about the rather unusual trip we took to New York with a group of young people, staff and hangers-on (in the nicest possible way!) on our Harlem Learning Journey. It was a terrific experience, and it contributed to the step-change we’ve been undergoing at the Winch in numerous ways. However, I promised that I would share some of our learning from the different initiatives we visited during our whistle-stop visit, and figured that the least controversial way of ordering this should be alphabetical. And so I give you, the 52nd Street Project.

The 52nd Street Project was founded in 1981, working with children to write their own plays, performed by professional actors and set up in Hell’s Kitchen, at the time one of New York City’s toughest neighbourhoods. In the words of its Founding Artistic Director, Willie Reale, its main purpose was not to teach children playwriting or acting, although they learn both. It was about ‘giving a kid an experience of success’. As he explained, ‘The Project is about making children proud of themselves…It is about giving a kid an opportunity to prove that he or she has something of value to offer, something that comes from within that he or she alone possesses, something that cannot be taken away.’

The Project does this by pairing children with theatre professionals who, depending on which of their several courses they are participating in, learn to write, perform and direct plays. This takes place in after-school classes and culminates in end-of-programme evening performances which the wider community comes to. The real impact appears to happen through this process of partnership which pairs children and adults from very different backgrounds in a mentoring relationship. Indeed, Scene & Heard, the London-based charity which is based on the 52nd Street model (where I am a Trustee), describes itself as ‘a unique mentoring project’ rather than one focusing on drama or theatre.

The 52nd Street Project approach also has a number of other interesting characteristics. It works with children from 9 years old onwards, taking them through its programmes and more recently (from 1997) supplementing this creative content with educational support in the shape of two programmes: Smart Partners (one-to-one) and Homework Help (a drop-in). It forms a sort of community, whereby children who enter at the beginning are taken all the way through, but children do not seem to be able to join at later stages (although presumably they can access drop-in after-school clubs). It is locally focused on the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood and its new(ish) site overlooks a primary school (some of which is visible in the photograph above), where many of its children come from. Up until the late 90s, it had led a fairly nomadic existence which changed with the establishment of The Clubhouse, ‘a center where children can flourish in the heart of, but sheltered from, the tough neighbourhood in which they live’. I wasn’t clear on quite how it came about, but last year they moved into their own theatre, an extraordinary resource right where they would want to be.

The 52nd Street Project was a thought-provoking visit. It didn’t blow the group away. And it was interesting more for what it didn’t show us, than for what it did.

Firstly, it was an organisation which in a time (at least for us in the UK) when charities are trying to communicate what they do, how they do it, what their impact is, and why they should be supported, simply didn’t tick these boxes. We were hosted by the warm and welcoming artistic director Gus Rogerson, who had been at the Project for nearly twenty years but originally as a volunteer. He explained to us a little about the work, but it was very difficult to visualise or understand exactly what it looked like. (I have to say, this echoes a challenge discussed at Scene & Heard, but which I think has been much improved over the past three years. Like almost no other initiative I’ve experienced, the offering of Scene & Heard – and presumably the 52nd Street Project – is one which seems impossible to grasp until you have been to a performance and have seen, in Reale’s words, ‘them [children] take a bow and come up taller’.) I came away feeling frustrated. Frustrated because I knew that the work which both of these organisations do is terrific, and I wanted our group to come away inspired and excited.

But, I found the difficulty to communicate/understand the offering in itself interesting for two reasons. Primarily, it spoke to me – as a visitor – to the importance of being able to articulate what it is we do at the Winch, why we do it, what effect it has and so on. This isn’t just so we can secure funding. It’s so that we have a clear understanding of why we’re here, and how we can be held to account for delivering on our aspirations and promises, and how we can improve. Secondarily, it struck me that the 52nd Street Project is perhaps the most unique of the initiatives we visited – in a number of ways. It had a volunteer-powered model which capitalised on, 1) the strong ethic of civic participation and giving in the US; 2) provided easy access to the theatre community to volunteer with their professional skills in a way which is difficult with generic projects; and 3) is situated a stone’s throw from one of the world’s most famous theatrical hubs (Broadway), hence attracting a high calibre of talent and profile. The culmination of these factors, and the dearth of similar initiatives, means that even with a relatively narrow reach in its publicity (based primarily on the right people attending and being won over by evening performances), the Project has not only survived but grown, generating the income for supplementary activities and even taking over the Five Angels Theatre.

The second thought-provoking aspect of their approach – and one which brought about some heated discussion in our group – was the quite exclusive nature of the 52nd Street community: children who joined at 9 and went through the various programmes until they were about 15 years old. There were major objections to the lack of flexibility around access points and in a sense an affront to the culture of opt-in, opt-out youthwork which typifies much of UK provision and is often seen as a form of youth participation or empowerment (in its most laissez-faire, apathetic form). It’s a challenging question, though, and not one which should be dismissed in the light of recent events in London and across the country. It got me thinking. Let’s park for a moment the (I presume) more or less universally held position that those working with children want to support as many as possible and exclude as few as possible. As a model, this approach spoke to the idea of creating a community which children were able to feel proud of, progress through and even graduate from. It didn’t have airs and graces about producing actors or playwrights and its user group reflected its very local commitment. There are questions about how this initial ‘recruitment’ might happen, and currently it operates on a self-selecting, whoever-drops-in-first level. But it did bring about pause for thought: what are the benefits of creating a sense of belonging and journey which contributes meaningfully to children and young people, who both stay the course and benefit throughout the course? Is our commitment to inclusion counter-productive when we are seeking genuine impact? This opens a can of worms and I would caveat it by saying that to be exclusive for the sake of impact both requires serious consideration and a commitment to the right kind of exclusivity. Nonetheless, grappling with what brings about belonging as beyond attendance or participation is a question with real resonance.

So, the headlines:

Why did we visit? We had some young people interested in drama who wanted to learn about the project (and I was intrigued to see where the excellent work of Scene & Heard had sprung from).

What we liked: A quality offering driven by a belief in the imagination of every child and the importance of investing in and fostering this.

What we weren’t sure about: How to understand the impact, and how to respond to this ‘community of belonging’.

Main learning for us: Be able to articulate what you do and the difference it makes. This may involve putting significant resource and time into exploring and understanding this. Engage with difficult questions around access, inclusion and belonging. Speak to famous actors living locally.


How did youthwork contribute to the riots?

The dust has settled on the riots, more or less. It’s a shame, because dust should never settle so quickly on so great an upheaval. In the end there was a brief window for us to wrestle with the glimpse we caught of something quite enormous bubbling beneath the surface of our society, before politicians grasped the nettle and subjugated this remarkable happening to their own agendas. To be honest, I suspect the only reason it didn’t happen more quickly was because everyone was on holiday. Either way, the propagated narratives are crystallising and debate seems long gone.

In my blog during the riots, I speculated on the wide-ranging suggestions as to their origin and cause. From MTV Base to fatherless families to consumerism to a lack of gun ownership, we had the lot. Of course, I regarded some as much closer to the mark than others. But if there was one thing which was conspicuous by its absence, it was the fact that no person, or institution, or organisation which I heard came forward and said: this was my fault. Or our fault. Or at least partly. Nobody claimed responsibility, at least not for themselves.

Of course, that isn’t to say it didn’t happen anywhere, or behind closed doors, or in intense discussions in think-tanks or Westminster or around the dinner table. Simply that I didn’t come across any such confession myself. But I have a confession. It’s based, of course, on a certain understanding of the riots which accepts certain theories and rejects others. For example, I don’t think MTV Base is a helpful place to start. I can see that the offerings of MTV Base as reflections of a wider culture, in a certain context, without the discipline of critiquing and reflecting on what is coming through the TV, over an extended period, with a number of other factors which exacerbate the impact of select messages, might be problematic. But to start with it? Ludicrous. My confession starts with the role of organisations like mine, which work with young people.

Some of the most sensible analyses which I have seen are reflected in the excellent book ‘Whatever It Takes’, written by Paul Tough, who takes the discussion about riots/poverty/criminality/insert-word-here beyond the see-saw of Left and Right and into the grey middle, which common sense tells us will always yield a more holistic truth than can be found at the extremes. He rejects arguments that ‘criminality’ is exclusively the terrain of moral decline (right) or systemic poverty (left) and indeed Harlem Children’s Zone, the extraordinary experiment and organisation led by Geoffrey Canada, creates a model which seems to move beyond this decades-old debate on urban poverty in the US into a programme which transforms the odds for an entire community’s children, not the ‘one in ten’ who can be saved with what Canada describes ‘the Superman approach’. Of course, there is much more to understanding both the moral decline (or more helpfully put, the values debate) and the systemic poverty pieces. They have their own histories and analyses, enriched – if that’s the right word – with economic and social narratives which have further entrenched their effects. Phillip Blond tweeted that the riots were the upshot of neo-liberalism and social libertarianism. Whilst I find myself unconvinced with some of the conclusions drawn along the way and how they translate into future policy, I think this interview provides food for thought.

So what’s the confession? Well, I’m a youthworker by trade and have been working with young people for about 13 years. We’ve been everywhere for the past few weeks, youthworkers. Giving interviews, sharing our thoughts, explaining the riots and perhaps most importantly, thinking about how we respond. It’s quite a novel experience for us as a community. We’re usually seen but not heard, except for when someone needs a soundbite on the cuts.

I remember when I qualified as a professional youth and community worker in 2002. I was at the end of a boom in the industry where supply was starting to outstrip demand. A few years before, a number of new youthwork training programmes had sprung up (in addition to the few which had been running for years) to respond to a burgeoning market for ‘professional’ youthworkers: people who had diploma-level qualifications, would work full-time and were in high-demand due in part to policies coming out of government. The people I trained with were a mixed bunch: a diverse group – age, gender, ethnicity, background, outlook – with a common passion for transforming the lives of young people and their communities. It’s one of the reasons we were fairly laid back about the relatively chaotic course administration and the absence of the benefits usually associated with going to university: we just wanted to make a difference.

But it seems that youthwork, somewhere along the way, lost its soul. As supply outstripped demand for serious youthwork jobs, hundreds of short-term, part-time, stat-led initiatives sprung up all over the place. Youthworkers were a dime a dozen, and a sort of lowest-common-denominator youthwork emerged. Perhaps the discipline simply struggled to move forward, to understand itself outside radical Leftism when society and policy changed. New Labour policies and the subjugation of youthwork to state surveillance and economic unit production activities (a question which was hotly debated in the 1980s and before) further confused a professionally naive workforce intent on securing funding and maintaining activities regardless of cost. Mixed in with the political cocktail of quick-fix solutions and sexy numbers, many parts of the sector has seen a near-complete loss of professional integrity over the past ten years. Let me be clear: this is not a dig at one government. I have no doubt that youthwork would have been seen and utilised in the same way regardless of the colour of government. This is about the hard place which youthworkers occupy, between the hardest-to-reach young people and a wider society impatient for peace.

Let me give an example. Most youthworkers understand that, whilst there must always remain a drive to improve effectiveness and efficiency, the nuts and bolts of our trade are fairly common sense. Long-term relationships beat short-term relationships. Young-person-centred conversations beat funder-stipulated-conversations. Community-based initiatives trump centralised or super-centre initiatives. And this is in relation to impact: to making the difference which whether you’re a neighbour, a funder, a councillor or a youthworker, we all agree on.

But we have not maintained these working practices. There is pressure to bring young people in through the door (even if they’d rather meet outside). There is pressure to record their behavioural changes (with their token endorsements). There is pressure to gain them ‘qualifications’, whether or not these are meaningful in the employment market or are what they really want to do. And this has led to incentivisation, increasingly coercive approaches to engaging young people and underming the core values of informal education which lead to an individual voluntarily, responsibly and productively choosing to engage with mainstream society and to be bound by its (mutually beneficial) social norms. To paraphrase, youthwork has increasingly been guilty of encouraging young people to engage for what they can get, rather than investing in the best ways to inspire personal growth and civic responsibility.

Please don’t get me wrong. Funding requirements are partly to blame, but so are we (and this is only one area in which youthwork has compromised). It is not enough to resent administration and to point to the virtuosity of our work as an adequate basis for its continuation. The fact that youthworkers are often nice people doing nice things does not mean we should be invested in. If we are unhappy with what is required of us on this front, if we feel that the existing methods of evaluation are inadequate for capturing impact, then we should be at the front of the field for developing models which do exactly that. A criticism which has been levelled at the industry (and apparently me) is that our ‘positions depend on the continued creation of [these] dysfunctional miscreants who wreak havoc’. We should be clear: when people invest in youthwork, they invest in impact, not in nice activities. We want to solve problems, not maintain them. And we should be at the forefront of explaining that.

Youthworkers have been on the frontline for many years. Almost all of the young people involved in the riots will have had a youthworker or contact with one, especially in London which is saturated with provision. The question is whether this provision has been high quality. This is the difference between simply having ‘somewhere to go’ or having a significant adult who builds a long-term, trusting relationship and understands their mandate for facilitating personal growth, social education and civic responsibility. It is the difference between taking a certificate home for the sake of ticking a box or investing the time, energy, commitment and resources in a young person which not only allows them to build dreams and futures but communicates to them their worth and our commitment.

Youthworkers are not, of course, responsible for the riots in any sort of all-encompassing way. I have sought here to reflect on what we as a sector might do better in the future, not to absolve or ignore the plethora of other causes which need to be explored (and taken responsibility for). As the last line of defence, we should ask what has happened to the midfield. And we should ask whether youthwork is best positioned solely as the last line and not as the attack. But while there is the dreary squabbling and co-opting of the riots for agendas far and wide, we must seize them as a wake-up call. The impact we have had is not enough, and we must own that. If we are to have the sort of impact which brought many of us into this line of work we must sit down honestly and openly and be prepared to criticise our own practice as well as the policies and approaches which have exacerbated this problem. We must reclaim the power of youthwork as having a transformative capacity which empowers young people to claim fuller, happier and more responsible lives. And we must lead the way in capturing, explaining and securing investment for exactly that.

The 100%.

‎’There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.

There has been much analysis of the past extraordinary week in London and across the country, as we start to get to grips with several days of rioting, looting and social unrest. In a funny way, it has seemed as if the rest of life has been put on hold as we observe the emergence of an extraordinary narrative, albeit one which we struggle to pick apart given its complexity and variability.

And complex it undoubtedly is. Few people would disagree with the MLK quote above in principle, but whether it should be judged on a micro, personal level or or on a macro-economic or social level, there appear to be a huge raft of factors which need to be considered. Of course, that’s not stopped a cascade of opinion covering all sorts of different angles (and conjecture) pouring out across the debate, even as we are still discovering what has happened, who has been involved, how it has progressed and so on. Let me give a few examples.

Criminologist and ‘youth culture expert’ Professor John Pitts says the looting is ‘fuelled by social exclusion’. Mary Riddell in the Telegraph blames an indifferent political class and in particular the compounding factor of major recession, citing the fact that Tottenham has 10,000 people on Job Seekers Allowance and 54 applicants to every available job. Behind this scenario, she quotes J K Galbraith on the parallel circumstances of the 1929 economic crash: ‘bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in ‘corporate larceny’, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance’ and reminds us that Adam Smith ‘recognised…a well-ordered society [cannot] develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous’. Stafford Scott in the Guardian suggests ‘deep problems in our youth were being ignored as a black problem’ and goes on to point the finger at ongoing historical social injustices, government cuts, withdrawing Educational Maintenance Allowance payments, the raising of tuition fees and high youth unemployment as factors ‘add[ing] to their sense of isolation and lack of a stake in society’. Philip Blond blames social libertarianism and neo-liberalism.

This is only the beginning, though. Graeme Baker, the News Editor of the New Zealand Herald, blames neo-liberal dogma, consumerism and individualism. Andrew Bower levels accusations at the abandonment of morality and a pervasive culture of ‘human rights’. Zac Goldsmith MP blames policing policy. Boris Johnson also blames policing policy. Steve Brewer, writing for the Huffington Post, suggests we may be seeing ‘the long awaited proletariat uprising’. Paul Lewis and James Harkin describe what they observed simply as ‘unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui’. A friend of mine on Facebook says ‘they just want to get stuff for free’. Danny Kruger, of hug-a-hoodie fame, blames ‘a narrative of unfairness’ emerged from a ‘wider culture…[that] has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism’. Melanie Philips doesn’t let us down by pointing the finger squarely at ‘a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value’, and in particular ‘[t]he married two-parent family, educational meritocracy, the punishment of criminals, national identity, enforcement of the drugs laws and many more fundamental conventions’. Not to forget the rise of welfare dependency. Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail blames immigration. Esther Addley reports anger towards a combination of cuts to youth services and stop and search tactics by the police. Ed Miliband blames gangs. David Cameron blames gangs. Labour councillor Meric Apak blames ‘the minority who simply refuse to accept that wrong is wrong’. Katharine Birbalsingh blames MTV Base.
Deep breath, we’re nearly there. Mike Butcher on Tech Crunch blames Blackberry messaging. Brendan O’Neill blames the welfare state. Russell Brand blames Margaret Thatcher. Dan Mitchell boils it down to the government’s failure to protect property and a lack of gun ownership (yes, apparently so). Allison Ogden-Newton focuses onunemployment and the social contract which comes with having a job. Camila Batmanghelidjh cites the rise of antisocial (rather than prosocial) communities and their emergence as a result of various social and economic factors. In news shocker, Ken Livingstone blames the Coalition. Michael Gove blames Labour. Harriet Harman blames the Tories. And if you want people blaming Twitter, intergenerational alienation or the demonisation of young people, please go ahead and Google them.
The mind boggles. That’s a lot of blame. Clearly, there are a lot of reasons this happened. There are a lot of people at fault. Typically, the reasons and the people to blame are different from those articulating them. Of course, some I agree with more, some less (some not at all). We must problematise each assertion. We must ask questions about what is symptom and what is cause, what is manifestation and what is paradigm. I personally thought that Will Davies’ piece, ‘London riots: the limits of Left and Right’ was excellent, and thoroughly recommend reading it. I also think that we’ve had far too much from everywhere but young people. But those are just my opinions.
Several weeks ago, when Anders Behring Breivik massacred 76 people in Norway, the world watched as its people responded with extraordinary dignity and integrity. Anger was palpable, but talk of retribution was strangely absent. In fact, many people I follow on Twitter and across the media quoted Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg with admiration: ‘Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity.’ Examples were given of our own and other governments, past and present, using rhetoric which was quite simply embarrassing and tribal in light of this response.
The issues which have given rise to these circumstances are truly complex and in many ways seemingly intractable. The cocktail of the individual, the local, the political, the social and the societal conflate to create a melting pot in which nobody can be proved wrong, nor can they be proved right. The anecdotal holds more power than the rational, the ability to weave words together more important than the commitment to seek truth.
It is something we are not very good at: reflecting on what has happened, taking personal and collective responsibility, giving the time required to formulate appropriate responses, learning and listening from each other. Our desire for quick fixes and aversion to reflection is matched and compounded by the unhelpful structure and culture of our politics. Our use of language is deterministic, conflictual and closes down debate. Even this conversation evidences the absence of dialogue in a fragmented society.
We must resist the desire to demonise or explain away. We must reject simplistic soundbites and externalising responsibility. We must look inside ourselves and our institutions and our shared life rather than use this as an opportunity to further promote our own mantras and long-held beliefs. This applies to us all, to the 100%. It certainly applies to the voluntary sector, to those of us working with children and young people.
We have caught a glimpse of the ugly underside of reality, and our separate analyses are woefully inadequate. If we take the opportunity to soulsearch together, we may have a chance of a brighter, better future. If not, we will never grow up.

Distracted by the sensational.

Here’s the full text of the piece printed in this week’s Camden New Journal.

My heart sank last Wednesday as news of major police activity in Queen’s Crescent emerged. At first, I feared the worst, not knowing that it was part of a long and carefully planned operation. Then, fear gave way to the frustration of another cliched headline: youth, crime, drugs, violence. And then I thought, I really hope this doesn’t knock the real news out of view: the decisions which would be made that same evening at the Town Hall.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it did. Last Wednesday night, the Cabinet decided to accept recommendations which will reduce budgets for work with children and young people by £2.8m and £2.3m respectively. It will have a profound impact on families as well as their children, and is likely to force up to a quarter of current Play & Childcare-using parents into unemployment (according to a report commissioned by Camden). Of course, a 200-strong police raid complete with Territorial Support Group, dogs, helicopters and an impressive enroute arrest by Chief Supt Sutherland is pretty exciting news, and it’s the sort of thing that trumps the countless similar news stories this decision on services will eventually espouse, which lacks the same drama and immediacy.

In fairness, the Camden New Journal has done its fair share of reporting on this issue, including a front page devoted to the two fantastic (albeit ignored) girls who challenged councillors over proposed cuts to Play & Childcare services earlier in the year. But the absence of adequate coverage of the final decision, relegated by a high-profile event, is symptomatic of a much larger and very typical problem.

As my mother would say, we allow the urgent to overtake the important. The decisions made on Wednesday night, as they stand, is a case in point. It can only lay the foundations for an increasingly fragmented and dangerous future. Cabinet Member for Finance Theo Blackwell has said as much, warning that cuts will have a real and negative impact on the lives of Camden residents. It is a good thing that this is understood, but concerning that it is accepted. What is clear is that psychologically, politically and socially we humans struggle to recognise and respond to this deeper, seemingly more mundane ‘real story’. We have a sensationalist bias and preference. Despite what common sense tells us, what research in the children and young people’s sector makes clear, indeed what Camden’s own Day Care Trust-commissioned consultation shows, we are failing to make the responsible decisions required to deal with problems which are very big, but can be tackled.

Tomorrow’s raids, tomorrow’s gangs, tomorrow’s underachieving young people, will trigger the lecturings of the next generation of politicians and policy-makers who tell us how they can solve these problems whilst at the same time having no choice but to action further Operation Targets and ASBOs and child incarcerations. And yet we know that the solutions which exist are not implemented because there is not the resource which requires political will to see them succeed. Indeed, such is our commitment to the sensational over the important that we make this rod for our own backs.

The mountain we have to climb – as children and young people or those working with them, as parents, as a wider community, as a borough – just got a lot higher. But if we turn on the news and dazzle ourselves with the latest sensation, we might just be able to forget about it.

Posted on Aug 1, 2011

A resolution to our Thorpe Park question

Whilst most of this has been played out in 140-character lines, I thought it would be easier to clarify in 140 words (or about that).

Yesterday, Kim Mabbutt, our Play Development Officer phoned Thorpe Park to book summer tickets for children on our play schemes. She was told that children would be charged £17.40, apart from disabled children: they would need to pay approximately £8 more, at £25.20. This was not including a carer, who would have to pay the same rate again.

We were pretty sure there had been a mistake so we spent a while on the phone. We sometimes take children to Chessington and Legoland, also operated by Merlin, where we’ve never had a similar problem. However, the operator we spoke to was adamant and even went to check with her manager to ensure she’d got it right. In the end they insisted the prices were as had been quoted, and that if we had complaints we would need to take it up separately. We were provided an email, which we wrote off to.

Hence, we pushed the issue out on Twitter and found, as expected, that people were outraged by this (thank you for being outraged if you were). Thorpe Park were quick to respond and got in touch with us to discuss yesterday’s call. They said that prices given had been wrong (£17.40 related to a child in a group booking whereas £25.20 related to a standard rate for a single disabled child), despite having involved both operator and manager, and apologised for the inconvenience.

So there you have it: Thorpe Park doesn’t charge more if a child is disabled. If you get the right operator. Or failing that, if you kick up a fuss on Twitter.

NB This said, if others have similar experiences they should be reported. I expressed concern to Thorpe Park that this wrong information could also be given (or have been given) out to other individuals and organisations, for whom clarity might not arrive quite so quickly.

Why the Winch has got involved in Belsize Library

It’s quite possible a few eyebrows will have been raised with the news that, amongst the headlines of libraries ‘going it alone’ and ‘call-ins’, the Winchester Project has been mentioned as a possible ‘community-led solution’ for Belsize Library. Indeed, it’s been an interesting process for us, and one which reflects a conversation happening across much of the public and voluntary sector.

The possibility of getting involved with Belsize Library emerged last November, when the Cabinet published its medium-term financial strategy for dealing with the budget reduction from central government. Belsize has always been one of the most vulnerable sites, scoring relatively low on usage and lending rates in comparison with other better placed, more popular libraries. This announcement of a £1.6m reduction from the library services coincided with the Winch securing funds to develop a number of social enterprise ideas intended to inform our future strategy and refurbishment plans. More specifically, the funds allowed us to research and produce preliminary business proposals for up to 15 different ideas. I approached our local councillors and the Friends of Belsize Library to offer one of the spots, and they didn’t just give us a green light: they proposed a unanimous resolution in support of developing proposals and speaking to the council. Cllr Siddiq and council officers were also extremely supportive, meeting with us along the way. The rest, as they say, is history. Albeit unfinished.

Our initial involvement was well-intentioned, if a little fuzzy around the edges. Belsize Library, like libraries all over the borough, is a fantastic asset whichever way you see it. In Belsize ward, it is the only public interface with the council. It has a thriving Rhyme Time community, based as it is only a stone’s throw from England’s Lane Hostel. It has an active Friends association and other groups who use the space for various activities. How does one approach such an organisation with not only the intention of maintaining its existing offering, but looking to improve it whilst building a sustainable structure which can continue into the future?

We put a lot of work into developing a vision and a potential structure to support these aspirations. The starting point, of course, was the Friends. We found there support for being proactive about initiatives which might safeguard the library’s future. And we also went out talking to other organisations, doing surveys and knocking on doors. We asked people how they used the library and why they didn’t access it more. We asked more generally what people’s hopes and fears were, what their aspirations for the area were, and what contributions they could make. We were overwhelmed by the response. We had stumbled on a rich resource of local people interested not only in accessing activities but in offering them. Teaching Spanish, delivering lectures, giving pottery-making workshops and providing salsa classes were amongst the contributions volunteered. Beyond the question of compatibility with a library, these activities were evident of a quality of offering which was both challenging and inspiring.

I then attended a Friends of Belsize meeting in February during which former chairwoman of Camden Public Library Users Group, Helen Marcus, gave a speech about the importance of libraries and, particularly interestingly, their founding principles. It was an inspiring reminder of a vision often cited as one of the most important planks in the vast public reform programmes which gradually took hold of Victorian society and led to the establishment of a raft of progressive foundations and initiatives we still hold dear. It also got me thinking. If libraries were established for the primary purpose of providing free education for ‘the poor’, for the swathes of society without access to the resources and tools which allow people to transform their lives and exploit their potential, how were we doing at fulfilling this mandate? What does this task look like today in the context of a library?

From 826NYC, an educational creative writing space in New York.

The establishment of the public library system, a subject I make no claim to be an expert on, is based on a timeless set of values and aspirations. There is no doubt that a commitment to education for all – and in particular extending that commitment to those who are let down or left out by our current education system – is of huge importance. Furthermore, the integration of diverse communities around single or central experiences and learning spaces has been shown to have profound effects on the learning and wellbeing of all involved. (One example of this from Johann Hari explores the different approaches to educational reform in the US cities of Syracuse and Raleigh, primarily through the mixing of children with different educational achievement levels and socioeconomic backgrounds.) Either way, the idea of rediscovering the meaning of the library movement for the 21st century was one which we could get excited about, albeit with a series of caveats. Recent works such as Architecture 00’s excellent ‘Compendium of the Civic Economy’ explore case studies of individuals and groups acting innovatively to realise change in new and creative ways. The conflation of these ideas led us to a vision about enabling our wonderfully rich and resourceful area to expand the conception of ‘library’ to include a place for accessing not just books, but also other tools, resources, knowledge and courses, and more than anything seeing the library as a meeting ground, a place for diverse members of the community to come together and to take initiative together. There is the potential to (re)create the village square of the modern age, and to develop a more entrepreneurial operating model that enables Belsize Library to be open more and to offer more than it currently does.

I should at this stage offer some words of caution. The vision is an exciting one, but not without legitimate critique. There is good reason for libraries to be publicly funded, no matter how safe or trusted an alternative community organisation is perceived to be. There is a major difference between a professionally run library and a space which embraces entrepreneurship and volunteerism. There are as many perspectives as people on what constitutes a top local authority priority, and as such an offer of involvement like ours might not be as welcome in every context as it has been at Belsize.

We are also realistic. I said a couple of weeks ago, that if it is viable this is not something which the Winchester Project will do or can do on its own. In terms of the local community, this means people with energy, expertise, time and investment coming forward and getting involved. It means more from the council too. Our discussions with experts in the Asset Transfer Unit, for example, have said that unless access to Camden stock and IT systems are included and made freely available, the chosen ‘Option A’ is simply a non-starter. With a 100% cut to annual funding from the off, the £49k devoted to ‘transitioning’ Belsize Library over the 2012/13 financial year is woefully inadequate and must be revisited. (For example, we had explored contingencies based on anything up to a 60% cut.) Presumably arrangements for ‘community-led solutions’ will include favourable lease and maintenance conditions, and a zero or peppercorn rent on the building. If not, it is unclear whether what might have been an opportunity for Camden to trailblaze and save libraries will simply be experiments destined to fail. In this sense, whilst the move to ‘call in’ the Cabinet decision by opposition councillors seemed quite bizarre given our conversations in Belsize and the Big Society backdrop, it will provide an opportunity to clarify a number of these important points.

Our aim at the Winch in entering this conversation is not to influence or legitimise the debate or decisions on libraries in any particular direction. It is a recognition of the importance of Belsize Library to the community, and an attempt to explore how we might be part of a solution to the challenge it now faces. It reflects a desire to grasp and enshrine in a way which is meaningful and impactful for our time and place the founding principles described by Helen Marcus. Whether or not that proves viable, is ultimately in the hands of our elected representatives across the parties, and the officers who work with them. So far they have been excellent, but now the heat is on.

A field trip across the pond.

It’s been a little while since I was involved in taking a large group of young people away, and not something I’ve done before on the same sort of scale as we just did at the Winch. As reported by the Camden New Journal and Ham & High, we took a group of about 18 young people, youthworkers and a couple of hangers-on to New York, to learn from some inspirational projects working with children, young people and the wider community. It was a profoundly affecting experience.

Taking young people away is always terrific fun. And exhausting. And memorable. But there was something about our Harlem Learning Journey which made it a different type of ‘residential’.

The past six months at the Winch have been incredibly busy, even more than before. We secured funding last November to commission two big pieces of work. One was a social enterprise feasibility study, the other a full set of architectural plans for the refurbishment of 21 Winchester Road, for which we appointed Architecture 00, an exciting firm with an unusual interest and engagement in the political and social debates framing our plans.

Harlem Learning Journey was about the central process of change, reflection and reimagination the Winch has been undergoing for a while, but which has been given sharper focus and intensity by the arrival of these new partners and the work they’re doing with us. At the heart lies a very simple set of questions. What is our raison d’etre at the Winch? How good are we at achieving this? And how are we currently – and could we be better – achieving this?

This is a conversation which every organisation should of course be having all the time, over and over. For us at the Winch, it is something which we had regularly touched upon, but the suggestion that an organisation needs to spend substantial time and resource on such a process is one which can be daunting, and is often only precipitated by a culmination of other quite wide-ranging factors: the ongoing desire to not simply ‘do good work’ but understand its effectiveness and impact, the occurrence of events or incidents which call into question orthodox ways of doing things, broader shifts in economic and political debates which mean we must reevaluate our approach, and the opportunities for change brought about by all of the above.

In New York, we visited six amazing projects:

52nd Street Project: Founded in 1981, working with children to write their own plays, performed by professional actors and set in Hell’s Kitchen, at the time one of New York City’s toughest neighbourhoods. A sister project, Scene & Heard, runs in Somers Town and was recently given the Queen’s Award (the MBE for voluntary organisations).

Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store: The shopfront for 826NYC, part of Dave Eggers’ fantastically successful 826 Valencia, works with students from 8 years old up to support their creative writing skills through encouraging their imagination and partnering them with writing professionals for one-to-one support, publishing a number of books in the process. The first London ‘826’, Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, opened last year.
Harlem Children’s Zone: Described by President Barack Obama as ‘An all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children’, HCZ is led by Geoffrey Canada, named by Time magazine this year as one of its ‘100 Most Influential People’. It is an extraordinary organisation making the difference it aims to make, changing the odds for children growing up in one of America’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

Lower Eastside Girls Club: Established in 1996 to address the historic lack of provision for young women and now engaged in its own multimillion-dollar capital refurbishment project, the Girls Club works with girls and young women to enable them to ‘grow, learn, have fun, and develop confidence in themselves and their ability to make a difference in the world’, employing a broad range of activities including social enterprise.

Red Hook Community Justice Center: Set up after a local primary school headmaster was shot when he went looking for a missing child, the Justice Center is at the heart of a transformative process which has turned Red Hook from a deprived, dangerous neighbourhood to an increasingly prosperous and thriving community. Combining restorative justice theory with educational and support functions, and fully plugged into the wider legal system, it includes a pioneering youth court where young people resolve cases in partnership with their peers.

The Children’s Storefront: Running for 45 years, the Children’s Storefront is an independent (read private), tuition-free school which operates a lottery system to select Harlem children for a high-quality education. It engages in fundraising rather than fees to pay for its services, and delivers educational outcomes over double the Harlem averages.

I mentioned above that Harlem Learning Journey felt like a different kind of ‘residential’. The key reason was our agenda: we were still doing the things we want to do around the development and support of young people, but we were undertaking a very similar process in relation to ourselves, as individuals and as an organisation. We were asking questions about why we do what we do, whether it’s as good as it could be, how it needs to change. We were asking about what works elsewhere, why that is, and whether it can be brought back and incorporated in our own approaches and work. And as professionals, these questions were challenging us in the philosophy and theory of work out of which we act and work on a daily basis. The partnership of young people, youthworkers and other professionals in this discourse of discovery and its application to the Winch has had a huge impact as we think increasingly critically about our future and what that means for our shape, our services, our building and our relationships with children and young people, and the local community, council, partners and funders.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing up some of my learning from New York, focusing on each of these six projects. Admittedly, there is plenty to inspire but not necessarily to import. But I do think that the catch-22 we need to overcome as leaders and activists of the voluntary sector is accepting that whilst we do some fantastic work, we have plenty of room for improvement. Indeed, our failures or shortcomings are often the best springboard for such processes of reflection and change, and we need to come to see them as such. I hope that, as so beautifully paraphrased by one of our newly arrived young social entrepreneurs at the Winch, ‘failure makes progress’. It certainly will if we let it.

Where now for the voluntary sector?

Yesterday I received a phone call from one of the countryʼs top youthwork funders. ʻItʼs bad news, Iʼm afraid,ʼ said the voice on the other end of the line. ʻItʼs never been as tough as this. Of the nine projects we proposed to the Trustees, only four were funded. Thatʼs us done for the year.ʼ Ours was one of nine initiatives from across the whole country shortlisted and recommended for full support, from hundreds of applications.

Itʼs an increasingly common experience in a sector reliant on the generosity and support from others. Money is tight, resources are limited, people are cautious. And in the meantime, need remains critical, with the recession hitting the poorest hardest. The bottom line is that for work to be effective, it has to be resourced. People donʼt want to hear it, but there are no shortcuts. Of course, there is work which is more or less effective, organisations which are more or less efficient, but why should the business of making a difference in children and young peopleʼs lives be cheaper (or less worth investing in) than others?

The voluntary and community sector (VCS) is made up of thousands of groups and organisations: a response to and expression of our collective responsibility and aspirations. It is a complex coalition of cultures and networks, facing major challenges in the months and years ahead. Some of these are programmed into the cultural DNA, whereas others have been given sharp focus by the financial crisis and looming cuts. Either way, if we are to ensure that the sector is not decimated and continues to play a powerful and meaningful role in society, there is work to do.

The challenges we face are oft-quoted and well-known: a lack of stable and sustainable funding, the weight of expectations, increasing levels of paperwork, attitudes towards what we do and who we work with. There are issues which undermine individual organisations: attitudes towards the private and statutory sectors, cultures of dependence and entitlement, a perceived lack of professionalism, a lack of recognition for what is done on limited resources by hard-working people going beyond the call of duty, who could have earned four times as much employing their energies and talents in the private sector. The achievements of VCS agencies are a wonder even in the years of plenty; their fate in the coming, leaner times fills me with fear. Is all the talk of Big Society underpinned by real investment or simply a smokescreen for fast-disappearing support?

In this environment, how do we ensure that the myriad of agencies, charities, organisations who do so much for our society do not simply survive, but also thrive?

Firstly, we must take a good, long look at ourselves. A huge amount is done on very little, but that doesnʼt make it sustainable or of the highest quality. In a less commercial environment, the idiosyncrasies and relationships within a charity can relegate the most obvious necessities to missed opportunities. There is an edge to our work, but sometimes an amateurishness to our efficiency. We must consider how we do things and why, and what needs to change: whether that is at ground level, in our business operations, or at Board level. We must marry our experience with the ever-evolving environment in which we operate.

Secondly, we must explore the alternatives for sustaining our work. Much of this is around partnership, in some form or other, whether with like agencies or across sectors. The Hub in Kings Cross is an excellent example of not only harnessing a business model for social good, or even of providing an ethical product, but of bringing together professionals from entirely different walks of life. Here, a youthworker meets a banker who meets an artist who meets a policy wonk. People who would never have crossed paths not only encounter each other, but in so doing, they create. In developing partnerships and exploiting their potential, we must look at the resources we do have rather than those we hanker after. At the Winch we have a long-serving staff, a fantastic site, a proud tradition of making a difference. Other charities will have other strengths which they can develop and trade: in order to sustain and improve the work.

Thirdly, others who have an interest in the success of the voluntary sector (and, assuming that people generally want to live in places free of fear, knowing their neighbours, with no crime Iʼd say thatʼs all of us) should also look at what they can offer in this synthesis of give and take. A local tenants and residents association has offered space for our children to grow fruit, and weʼve asked whether theyʼd like assistance in applying for funds. The Wet Fish Cafe, a terrific establishment in West Hampstead, ran a charity dinner donating £5 a ticket to the Winch, in exchange benefiting from increased exposure and publicity. Local authorities in particular should take note of this: patronage must be replaced with partnership, short-term targets with the bigger picture, ivory tower plans with investment in people with innovative, sustainable ideas. The Winch is a perfect example: give us security and support in our building and we will commit to delivering on a vision of the voluntary sector which is sustainable, inspirational and as committed as ever to our mission. In this sense, change on only one side will be futile: we are all partners in building a better society.

In all of this, our responsibility is to maintain focus: the opportunities presented by partnership may be exciting but not always relevant. We must commit to maintain our principles of being relational and responsive. We must do what we say we will and be honest about our failures, understanding this teaches as much as the successes. We must challenge attitudes of entitlement and self- justification, and take responsibility for financial sustainability. However, our ultimate success will hinge on the actions and reciprocity of others: the local authority, the private sector, people who live and work in our area, people like you and I. Back in 2002, speaking at the United Nations, Kofi Annan said, ʻIn an age where community involvement and partnerships with civil society are increasingly being recognised as indispensable, there is clearly a growing potential for cooperative development and renewal worldwide.ʼ I only hope we recognise and harness this potential here in north London.