Although I am loathe to admit it, we are once again hurtling towards the end of another year. If 2011 was a year of change, and 2012 was a year of construction, 2013 has been a year of emergence. It’s been a year when the work we put into developing The Promise Academy has started to take shape, to have an impact-and to gain recognition.
We recently headed off, as we do each September, for a full team day in Shoreham at a wonderful place called The Quadrangle Trust. Such occasions are a rare but vital opportunity to plan for the time ahead but also to take stock of what has been accomplished over the previous twelve months. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve traveled at The Winch, in two short years.
And so this post functions primarily as an update of our progress in building the UK’s first children’s zone-at a time when other organisations are starting to take an increasingly active interest in what this might look like in their own locality. Our vision of supporting children from cradle to career has come on leaps and bounds, with the image below giving a snapshot of our status.
Some work has been about bridging different segments, whereas much has been about developing new elements and building our research and tech infrastructure.
We have been able to secure resource to launch or explore a number of areas this year, but at the forefront of our model lies the Promise Worker Pilot. The Promise Worker role is our best learning about what does and doesn’t work in child and adolescent development, partnership working, impact measurement and traditional play and youth work rolled into one.
We appointed Zenobia Talati as Lead on the Promise Worker Pilot, with Andre Kpodonu focusing on 18 to 25s, at the end of last year-and the approach has garnered interest from all sorts of quarters. Over the next few months, the Promise Worker role will be the approach adopted by an increasing number of our frontline staff, expanding to include 4 to 11s and families. The pilot has been cited as an example of best practice in Camden and won national recognition, being shortlisted in the awards category for ‘Children & Young People’s Charity of The Year’ by CYP Now. This is for ‘a combination of innovative practice, effective partnership working or campaigning for change’ that has made a contribution to ‘improving the life chances of children, young people or families’.
Fatuma Osman and Gian Farci picked up awards for their Gap Scheme, with Ace United winning their 2012/13 league. How will we fare at the Children & Young People Now Awards?
I am rarely, if ever, able to complete a blog without a rallying cry-and I am afraid that this one will be no different. It is both exciting and gratifying to see how a children’s zone is emerging in North Camden, to see how it is connecting and impacting more effectively on the lives of children and young people-and of course when it is recognised elsewhere. Yet it still feels very much like a work in progress, the beginning of the journey. The next twelve months will see us focus more intensively on impact measurement across the cradle to career spectrum and invest in developing early years services. We are excited about our imminent launch of the Promise Partnership Report, and working with organisations across and beyond Camden to make the zone a reality.
In this endeavour, I hope you can support us: through encouragement, through funding, through learning and introductions and support. Perhaps the most important insight we took away from Harlem was that here in London we have a latent civic infrastructure that can deliver better outcomes and improve life chances for our children. However, it will take time, resource, patience, determination and a commitment that takes precedent over individual agendas and aims. Please join us in making it happen.
A few months back I met with Abigail Wood, Chris Wellings and Hollie Warren from Save the Children, after they heard about our trip to New York and in particular Harlem Children’s Zone. They were interesting in hearing about our experience, insights, observations and how we are intending to apply our learning from Harlem as we look to develop a cradle to career pipeline of support for children and young people in our part of the world.
There are, of course, amazing lessons to be drawn from HCZ and Geoffrey Canada’s leadership. It has been interesting to see how the much-lauded ‘Promise Neighbourhoods’ promised by Barack Obama have fared-the only reports I have read suggest they have often floundered for lack of local infrastructure and personnel. To a degree though, perhaps we shouldn’t be overly surprised at this-simply because a model is replicated in the same country, doesn’t mean it’s the same context.
Suffice to say, the difference between a children’s zone in Harlem and London would require a far greater amount of reflection. There is always a risk with any inspiring or groundbreaking initiative, that we seek to import it without adequate reflection on context, partnership, resource and leadership. It’s why I also think the jury is out on the debate about scalability: how uniform and easily repeatable can a highly effective approach be? And what then are the tools that allow this endeavour to succeed?
Whilst it’s a shame not to have been acknowledged in Save the Children’s recent report then, it’s a very exciting piece of work which highlights the prospect of English Children’s Zones-and what they might look like. For the most part, the report acts as an excellent introduction to the model and is certainly a document I have shared with our team, supporters and others who are interested in what we’re developing. It’s downloadable here, and on Save the Children’s website.
There is always a challenge and a question to be posed about to what degree one can codify the elements of a model or change them-and still allow the model to retain adequate consistency and identity with the original. Certainly the report’s helpful description of a ‘doubly holistic approach’ (meaning working with children both over a long period and across all areas) aligns with its Harlem origins, as does the attempt to wrestle meaningfully with data.
However, there was one critical oversight in Save the Children’s report-a perhaps predictable assumption made in importing the children’s zone concept from the US to the UK.
It is easy to forget that the emergence of Harlem Children’s Zone, formerly Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, came out of a period of reflection and change initiated by Geoffrey Canada and his senior leadership team. Rheedlen was an organisation not hugely dissimilar to The Winch in terms of its culture and decision-making approach, although it was much larger: it was a community organisation that responded to need wherever it saw it, rather than in a focused and strategic way.
It’s well worth having a look at the website of The Bridgespan Group, the consultancy who supported a great deal of change at Rheedlen. Read alongside ‘Whatever It Takes’, the story of HCZ as written by journalist Paul Tough, it becomes clear that Rheedlen never started off with a desire to build a charitable behemoth with an annual turnover of $85m per annum. In fact, to begin with there was no intention to establish schools, but to work in partnership with existing ones.
Canada discovered that for an array of reasons, Harlem schools didn’t want to let him in. And to cut a long story short, as schools were central-although not exclusively so-to delivering impact, the decision was made to establish Promise Academies, the initially controversial charters that those going through the full HCZ pipeline became students at. Canada states that his preference would have been to partner meaningfully with existing educational establishments-but they weren’t interested.
I mention this because part of HCZ’s power-its capacity, culture, flexibility and ability to leverage funding, relationships, resources and sponsorship-was the exclusive privilege of a nonprofit organisation as opposed to a form of local or regional government. This isn’t to say that partnering with government agencies wasn’t ultimately central to success-in fact it very much was-but that Canada and his team played a central, relational, infrastructure role in developing a pipeline and filling in the gaps.
There is, hence, an understandable assumption that English Children’s Zones would be coordinated, delivered and funded by the state (StC’s report focuses on schools). That would potentially be fantastic-and an interesting approach to pilot. However, HCZ’s impact wasn’t primarily about its administration and organisation, but about the strengths listed above and of course its place within the community: a position of trust, of longevity, a place where people would come voluntarily, not because they’d been referred.
I am excited to see how the children’s zone conversation in London and the UK more widely evolves. It has enormous potential, and there are many exciting and excited voices in the debate. However, I hope that as we move forward we use this report and the buzz around it in the right way: to grow the local as well as having the policy conversation, to foster a culture of children’s zones, not just a portfolio of them.
It’s often said that ‘small is beautiful’. At The Winch it’s beginning to feel more fitting to say that ‘small is powerful’. It’s in these ‘small’ contexts-where we know our communities, the assets and needs and opportunities within them-that we are building a children’s zone model that is far more powerful and effective than today’s policy nod or tomorrow’s fundraising idea. And most of all, it’s an approach consistent with our promise to children and young people.
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.
’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.
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.
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.