Co-producing theory and practice: new Centre for Citizenship and Community launched

May 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The Centre for Citizenship and Community, a new collaboration between the RSA, the University of Central Lancashire and the Royal Society for Public Health, was formally launched at the RSA House yesterday. Grounding academic and social research in community practice, the Centre will bring together researchers and practitioners from universities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and business to implement community projects and guide social policy using a Connected Communities approach to social and community networks. The launch consisted of key-note speeches from the Centre’s associates followed by a series of discussion groups held by delegates from numerous professional backgrounds to debate the policy implications of the Centre’s early perspectives.

Co-production: a connected communities approach to social policy

Prof. David Morris, UCLan.

Prof. David Morris, UCLan.

In a plenary speech David Morris, Professor of mental health, inclusion and community at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Centre for Citizenship and Community, spoke about how the Centre will promote a vision of the ‘social value of empowered communities’ being integrated into public policy, with a culture of co-production emerging in public services. He stressed the need for policy makers to recognise the complexity and potential that lies within communities, to build innovations around shared community assets, and to use Connected Communities-inspired research to inform the production of community owned, networked social interventions.




Steve Broome, RSA

Afterwards, RSA Connected Communities director of research Steve Broome criticised what he described as the standard ‘deficit model’ of viewing communities, which focuses exclusively on their problems rather than their assets and potential. In contrast he demonstrated how social networks approaches help us to understand communities using an ‘attribute model’ which reveals which assets in a community help people interact and support one another. He emphasised the prominent role that public services play in supplying or supporting these community assets, and went on to highlight the danger that ill-considered spending cuts present to social networks when community assets are not mapped or recognised. A forthcoming RSA report will develop these themes further, focusing on the viability of community assets and social networks in the context of government austerity.


Theory into co-produced practice: Murton ‘mams’ and ways to wellbeing

Mary Chivers, Mersey Care.

Mary Chivers, Mersey Care.

Examples of such projects were presented by Mandy Chivers of Mersey Care NHS Care Trust and Lyndsey Wood of the East Durham Trust. Both organisations are working in partnership with the RSA and UCLan to implement co-produced, network-based community projects based on findings from Connected Communities research. In Liverpool, Mersey Care is training volunteers from the BAME community in the principles of the New Economic Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’, while in Murton, a former mining town, the East Durham Trust has helped set up a new social group for single mothers called ‘Murton Mams’, in which the activities and programme are led by the members of the group themselves to help combat the widespread isolation among this group that the Connected Communities findings revealed.

Challenges ahead: austerity, tolerated harshness, and championing social networks

Following the introductory talks, attendees split into discussion groups to debate the implications of the presentations for public policy and community practice, and to begin to think about what the Centre can contribute to such debates in the future. Some key points that emerged from these discussions included:

Attendees at the Centre for Citizenship and Community launch.

Attendees at the Centre for Citizenship and Community launch.

i)                    The need for the Centre to promote and build the status of social networks in a context in which the very existence of ‘communities’ often seems to be doubted.  The evidence base for a networked approach to public and community policy must be vigorously argued.

ii)                   The need to be conscious of the risk of ‘making a contrivance out of ordinary connection’. Co-production, in other words, must avoid the pitfalls of regularising informal, reciprocal relationships, or exposing what David Halpern has called the ‘hidden wealth’ of communities to overly harsh light where they would be better preserved by remaining hidden. An example given was the ‘spontaneous expression of citizenship’ of a train ticket saleswoman who enjoys smiling at her customers and once decided to give Easter eggs to her regulars; if a statutory system of formalised gift-giving on public transport was initiated, the spontaneity and charm of the exchange would doubtless be compromised.

Other challenges were also discussed. Morris and Broome both highlighted the dangers posed to sometimes fragile networks by austerity, growing inequality, and ‘externally enforced fragmentation’, while it was elsewhere noted that cultural norms are becoming less social, along the lines of what Hugo Young described as a growing ‘tolerated harshness’ in society. Other attendees urged that co-productive services must be genuinely co-produced with public services taking an active role, rather than simply deferring responsibility or ‘outsourcing by another name’.

The mood was on the whole optimistic, however, with numerous attendees stating that they welcomed the opportunity to network and debate issues in this way, and praising the new Centre as a valuable line of communication between community-oriented actors from the academic, public, private, and third sectors.

Based in the School of Social Work at UCLan and the King’s Fund offices in London, the Centre for Citizenship and Community will meet regularly over the coming months and offers organisations dedicated support for community engagement through:

  • Strategies and integrated programmes for social and community- based commissioning
  • Service development and redesign, based on economic modelling and cost-benefit analysis, organisational, leadership and workforce development

This is backed up by:

  • Bespoke programmes of accredited learning and professional development
  • Programme evaluation and research evidence.

Its associates will be posting regular updates from varied perspectives on the RSA’s blogging platform; in the meantime, more information on the Centre including contact details can be found on the RSA website. If you would like to be notified when the forthcoming RSA report on the impact of austerity on communities is published, or to be kept informed of the work of the Centre for Citizenship and Community, email and request to be added the the RSA Action and Research Centre mail list.

Bursting the Twitter bubble

April 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…

Image via
Image via

Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’  She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.

I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.

Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.

Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.

I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.

On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.

In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?

My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about  professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.

They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.

But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.

Opening Minds through Shakespeare

November 16, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.

This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.

The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.

Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.

With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.

I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.

As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.

Do miracles only happen in Finland?

April 23, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Like most people working in the area of Education, I find myself constantly reminded of the shining beacon of success that is the Finnish education model. So I was eager to attend a recent conference by the Finnish Institute and the Embassy of Finland which claimed to explain “the Finish Miracle”.

An even mix of Finnish and English educationalists presented their views on the key features of the Finnish system compared to the English, exploring the measures that have led to success and why. It was an extremely enlightening day that I won’t attempt to summarise in full. The key observation that I took is that when searching for the differences between the Finnish system and our own, we need to look beyond specific measures to an underlying cultural ethos towards education.

Whilst it has been widely noted that the Finns have seen positive results from measures such as children starting school at age seven and no national inspection of schools or league tables, the event’s first speaker, Professor Auli Toom from the University of Helsinki, attributed Finland’s success to their educational approach. She highlighted the fact that Finnish culture regards education as a source of hope for a better society and life. This requires the same educational opportunities for every child, hence a completely comprehensive system. At the forefront of this are excellent quality teachers, who are trained to at least Masters Level, with only ten per cent of those that apply being accepted onto the teacher training program. Although teachers are not paid especially highly, prestige and status attracts the best candidates into the profession, who are then given the freedom and trust they deserve.

Next Professor Andrew Pollard, from the Institute of Education, stood up to give a markedly different story from the English perspective. Whilst he acknowledged that there are good and even excellent aspects of our education system, he queried why it is that we settle for one that is, overall, mediocre. Like Professor Toom, his answer referred to an entrenched cultural approach to teaching and learning, one that he regarded as characterised by a history of reform followed by compromise. He cited instances, including the English Civil War, the 1870 Education Act and the 1944 Education Act, as key milestones in our history where we fought for equality. However, our gains were quickly followed by some form of retreat. According to Professor Pollard, this lack of commitment to equality has resulted in an inconsistent education system, where some schools improve at the expense of others that flounder. It remains to be seen whether the National Curriculum Review will be another instance to add to his list, as it allows more freedom for teachers and schools to define the curriculum on the one hand, but places greater emphasis on core knowledge on the other.

Although Professor Pollard’s view is slightly pessimistic I do think we can learn a lot from Finland in terms of equality in education. What lies at the heart of their ethos is an understanding that schooling provides an opportunity for all children to gain not just knowledge but ways of thinking and the broader skills to contribute to an effective and inclusive society. Perhaps we are stuck in the past, with our traditional concepts of achievement that only allow a minority to succeed. But instead of looking back we need to join the Finns in looking forward and ensure that we prepare every child for life in an ever changing world and trust the people who know best, teachers, to get them there.

Why Stigma Has Had Its Day

January 17, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

In all honesty, I had never heard of The Society for Curious Thought until last week. It says it exists to foster curiosity and intellectual discovery in pursuit of a better future, which sounds good to me. On closer inspection, it turns out to host an eclectic and fascinating collection of articles and contributions covering arts, science, politics, personal experience, the environment and fiction.

As a result of my call-out last week to Fellows and others about mental health and employment, I was contacted by the Society’s Director, Simon Marriott FRSA, and asked to submit an article further exploring the issues I had written about. I was very pleased to be asked, and my piece, Why Stigma Has Had Its Day has just been published.

My article attempts to summarise an issue adjacent to those I raised last week in my two blog posts about mental health and employment – the problems associated with using ‘stigma’ as a conceptual framework for talking about the social exclusion of people with experience of mental illness.

Here’s a taster:

Discrimination and social exclusion are very real aspects of living with the experience of mental illness and the consequences can be grave: loss of opportunity in education, employment, housing and civic participation. Thirteen years ago, the disability rights campaigner, Liz Sayce did her best to change the way we deal with discrimination against people with experience of mental illness. She wrote an important article explaining why using the notion of ‘stigma’ to describe what is actually discrimination is in itself dangerously marginalising. Disappointingly, no one took very much notice, and these days, ‘stigma’ is still the primary conceptual apparatus used to describe what happens when people who have experienced mental illness are unfairly treated. 

Sayce’s key point was that the notion of stigma is problematic because it locates the problem within the person with the mental illness. This has the effect of individualising what is really a social problem. It amounts to a kind of victim blaming. Stigma (literally, mark of shame) carries with it the implication of there being something inherently discreditable about the person being stigmatised. Sayce argues that the ‘mark of shame’ should not be attached to the person with the mental health problem, but rather with the person who is behaving unjustly towards them.

It might be tempting to cast aside such issues as being merely semantic trifles. You might think that anti-stigma campaigners are fighting a good fight, and we all know what we mean when we talk about the stigma of mental illness. In fact, the reasons why discrimination against people with mental health problems continues, may well be partly down to the persistence of a damaging conceptual framework. Conceptual models carry enormous power. The implicit assumptions about where responsibility lies, or whose is the problem, determine to a large degree how we approach the issue as a society.

If you want to read more, please visit The Society for Curious Thought.

Networking by numbers

December 5, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.

What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.

A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.

Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.

We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.

And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.

Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.

We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.

You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers

Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.

It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.

This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.

Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.

So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?

The medical model of mental illness: we’re not convinced

November 11, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

A great systematic review has been published in this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry. It has the slightly less than tabloid-friendly title Biogenetic Explanations and Public Acceptance of Mental Illness: Systematic Review of Population Studies, but behind the dense title is a really useful and important piece of work.

Matthias Angermeyer and his colleagues examined 33 studies which looked at the public’s beliefs about the causes of mental illness, in order to find out whether there is a relationship between those beliefs and the degree of tolerance people show towards people with experience of mental illness. This is important, not least because the shape of anti-stigma education and campaigning is determined by the causal model on which it is based.

Historically, the dominant model for public anti-stigma campaigning has been built on the foundations of the biogenetic model of mental illness, in which it is assumed that mental illness comes about primarily as a result of biochemical or genetic deviations.

Anti-stigma efforts have led to simple messages being devised, which are designed to get people to leave their prejudices behind. Under the biogenetic model, the types of messages you end up with are ‘mental illness is an illness just like any other,’ and ‘mental illness is treated with medication’.

Angermeyer’s systematic review concludes that biogenetic explanations for mental illness are correlated with less tolerance of people with mental illness amongst the general public, and therefore, basing anti-stigma work on biogenetically based causal models is an inappropriate means of countering stigma.

if you stop and think about it, it’s no wonder that the public are unconvinced by messages like ‘mental illness is just like any other illness’

This is not at all surprising to me, and you if stop and think about it, it’s no wonder that the public are unconvinced by messages like ‘mental illness is just like any other illness’. The reality is that mental illness(es) are not very much like physical illness(es). We need only to think about the way mental and physical illnesses are diagnosed to realise this.

In general medicine, diagnosis typically proceeds through the identification of signs which indicate the presence of disease. In the case of diabetes, for example, it is possible to determine whether the patient has the condition by measuring their blood glucose level. The patient may have been experiencing symptoms such as feeling thirsty and tired. These symptoms, although they do indicate the possible presence of the illness are not sufficient for a diagnosis of diabetes – the physician relies upon the results of a blood test (a sign) to make a confident diagnosis.

Psychiatric diagnosis does not work like this. Although it is assumed that there is a biological dimension to mental illness, there are no definitive physical indicators of mental illnesses which categorically and objectively confirm the presence or absence of a mental disorder. It isn’t possible to determine, say through measuring their serotonin level, whether a person is suffering from depression; nor is it possible to diagnose psychosis through carrying out a blood test or x-ray. Instead, psychiatric diagnoses are made by way of observation or reporting of ‘symptoms,’ which are nearly always subjective judgements about what people say and do.

The truth is that, whilst it seems there may be some biological and genetic factors in mental illness, the science is not sufficiently advanced to be able to be clear about what they are and how they act. Not only that, but, to a much greater extent than with physical illness, the social and political dimensions in the construction of mental illness are controversial.

Therefore, oversimplified, biogenetically based anti-stigma initiatives are destined to fail because they don’t acknowledge or attend to the true complexity of mental illness. They do little to engage with people’s genuine uncertainty about why mental illnesses come about, and their legitimate fears about the sometimes worrying ways in which mental illnesses affect people’s behaviour.

One of the reasons why anti-stigma work has so far tended to insist on keeping biogenetic explanations at its heart may be to do with psychiatry’s need to assert its scientific credentials in line with other medical specialisms. I particularly applaud Matthias Angermeyer and his colleagues for drawing attention to this possibility in their concluding remarks. In asking whether the insistence on neuroscientific emphases in public education about mental illness is really in the interests of patients, they show a refreshing humility, which should be welcomed by psychiatrists, scientists, and patients.

Hats off for Whitley Academy!

November 9, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Britain’s biggest name in hat design, Milliner Stephen Jones RDI, spent a second day a Whitley Academy last Thursday, delivering an inspirational talk and workshop to a group of sixth form art & design students. Stephen – who has designed hats for the likes of Princess Diana, Beyonce Knowles and Gwen Stefani – is one of the celebrated RSA ‘Royal Designers for Industry’ (RDI). He has been committing his time to working with the Whitley Academy students as part of the RDI ‘75 Days’ initiative, where RDIs collectively share 75 days of their expertise with the RSA.

The brief  Stephen Jones set for students was to design a hat that represented each student’s character and interests. This was an exercise in building self-confidence and self-esteem as well as developing design skills, and it was a huge success. A competitive edge has now been set as Stephen returns to Whitley Academy on 30th November to help them complete their work, and he will judge the finished designs at a catwalk event to be held in the school hall.

A brilliant example of how designers can contribute inspiration and quality to design education, and also of the enrichment that partnership in our RSA Family of Academies can offer.

A citizen of the world

April 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Working on a programme called Citizen Power is, I have to admit, a bit of a challenge coming from a human rights background. Who is this citizen whose power we’re so interested in?

For all that Socrates may proclaim himself a citizen of the world, citizenship is, by its very nature, exclusive. The citizens of a community must satisfy some set of requirements in order to enjoy membership in that community. While these requirements may have changed drastically from the fall of the polis to the rise of the nation state, they serve a similar purpose: to draw a line between those who belong and those who do not. The citizen is inevitably defined in opposition to the non-citizen – the culturally, ethnically, linguistically or politically different ‘other’ who lies on or outside the boundaries of the ‘imagined community’ of the nation state.

This is so for several (interrelated) reasons. First, in the modern welfare state, citizenship confers various social and welfare rights on citizens. In order to ensure that the state remains economically viable, it seems wise to limit these rights to those who, in turn, do their bit by paying taxes, contributing to the labour market, and so on.

Second, the principles of democratic legitimacy require that that rights of political participation are extended to all those who are affected by the political decision-making process. By exercising their right to vote or stand for office, citizens grant politicians a mandate to create or amend public policy on their behalf. Again, it makes sense to limit these rights to the legitimate members of a political community – we can’t have every tourist and their dog turning up on polling day.

And third, citizenship – particularly in its civic republican form – is a reciprocal agreement that demands active participation from its members. Yes, citizens are entitled to certain rights – but, in return, they also have certain obligations to contribute to a common social good (by engaging in public deliberation, shaping public institutions, helping out elderly neighbours, etc). This is reflected in the idea of a “Human Rights Act Plus” (which looks at supplementing existing rights and liberties with citizens’ responsibilities), and documents like the NHS Constitution and the Department for Education’s Guidelines on parental responsibility, which set out both rights and corresponding obligations.

This is all very well in theory, but in practice it gets a bit messy. There are many groups that are affected by political decision-making but excluded from the sphere of citizenship, particularly where this is premised on active participation. This may be because they fail to meet the formal requirements of citizenship (including asylum seekers, refugees and migrants); they have forfeited their rights to political participation (including prisoners); or they lack the basic capacities required to participate (including those who are very elderly, severely mentally disabled, extremely poor, homeless, unable to speak English, or otherwise marginalised).

In Peterborough, where the Citizen Power programme is based, there are relatively high levels of poverty (in 2009, 18% of working age persons were claiming a key benefit, against the national average of 15%), homelessness (in 2008-2009, 2.41 households were recognised as homeless per 1,000 people, up from national average of 1.03) and ethnic diversity (8.99% of Peterborians were born outside the UK or Ireland, up from the national average of 8.32%) and, anecdotally, large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. Citizen Power aims to revitalise a sense of attachment to place in Peterborough by building connections between people and communities and encouraging active public participation. But, in doing so, how inclusive is it of those who lie at the margins of – or beyond – the framework of citizenship, and are arguably most vulnerable? And, perhaps more importantly, how inclusive should it be?

There are definitely steps in the direction of inclusiveness. The Recovery Capital project is working closely with injecting drug users and prolific and persistent offenders. Peterborough Curriculum draws on the resources offered by a culturally diverse local community to create a unique place-based curriculum. The Take Me To project took a diverse group of residents – including members of the local Polish and Muslim communities, elderly community members, and adults with learning disabilities from 49 Lincoln Road – on an exploration of place and belonging. And the Civic Health project will examine the capacities required for active participation – including, crucially, where these are most lacking in Peterborough – and provide tools for addressing these gaps in order to encourage as broad a sphere of participation as possible.

Citizen Power Peterborough seeks to resuscitate a shared sense of community identity premised on other-regarding behaviour. In doing so, how can we best look outwards towards those on the margins of citizenship who are most in need of empowerment?

Small worlds and lost diamonds

Fairness seems a recurrent theme of late. Today’s breaking news cries: UK society divided and unfair, report claims.”

That ‘report claims’ gets me every time. UK society is unfair: we do not need social network analysis to tell us that who you know matters. UK society is divided: the world is only ‘small’ (all six billon, eight hundred million of us) because we inhabit very specific parts of it.

But my science only gets me so far:  I can construct you a diagram that highlights divisions; others can produce research that suggests that inequality fosters both unhappiness and unsafe societies; academics can debate as to what the conflicting libertarian and egalitarian views of fairness are.  Yet birds of a feather flock; we fear difference and help our kind; and if inequality and stigma become the very lay of the land, then it is hard to see them.

If it is most often those born at the top that rise to it, we must either believe that it is only these children that hold the seeds of future success, or we are victims of a collective insanity that allows raw diamonds to pass for pebbles, as we laboriously polish cubic zirconia.

Our flocking and fearing are very human, but are they fair? Fair for me is that distribution of benefits and duties that reflects our conception of human beings.  If we understand all human beings to be equal, then that distribution should reflect this. If a woman is worth half of a man, then so too is her testimony. Whilst this all very much ties into how I view human rights (a post for another day), and borrows from Rawls in a way both outmoded and possibly to his displeasure, this understanding of fair is very important for the good of society.

Leaving the various statistical squabbles to more accomplished statisticians and their point-scoring, this unfair distribution of opportunity harms not just the individual but, lest we forget this is in our liberal age, it harms the collective. Our collective talent is our collective wealth, but this is squandered to stigma and lack of vision. If it is most often those born at the top that rise to it, we must either believe that it is only these children that hold the seeds of future success, or we are victims of a collective insanity that allows raw diamonds to pass for pebbles, as we laboriously polish cubic zirconia.

In my recent dissertation, alongside positing an understanding of social capital as the indicator for whether the right to participation is fulfilled (another day!), I followed the development of five girls as they took part in a film making and human rights course. These girls found a voice, found themselves as agents of change , and will soon find themselves addressing panels of their fellow residents, and Universty of London MA students. In this project, as in others I have worked on, we see that little is needed to turn aspirations around. And it is our aspirations that drive us.

The UK has shown us that equal opportunities is not equality of opportunity. If social mobility can be understood as sets of escalators, with some automatically on the up, and others automatically being driven down, then it must be surely viewed as discriminatory to not focus efforts on halting the downward trends of the marginalised ‘escalators’, and to instead provide equal amounts of electricity and oil and wish them both well.  The fact that in a liberal society any individual can aim for anything in theory, must not be used to obscure the fact that in a liberal capitalist economy individuals are constrained by their societal and economic circumstances in practice. Life isn’t fair, but less stigma and more tailored and deliberate help to those handed a raw deal might help us on our way. And here my science may help.

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