Nothing about us without us is for us

POVERTY-TRUTH-69Church Action on Poverty is involved in setting up a Poverty Truth Commission in Salford – inspired by successful Commissions already running in Glasgow and Leeds. In this guest post, Andrew Grinnell, one of the facilitators of the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission, explains what a difference the approach has made there.

Leeds Poverty Truth Commission set out with a question: “What if people who have directly faced poverty were involved in decisions about poverty?” The commission was convened because we recognised there was a lot of wisdom that wasn’t heard when it came to poverty strategies within Leeds.

I had moved to a ‘low-income’ neighbourhood on the east side of the city 10 years ago. As I listened to local people I heard wisdom about life in general, about how to respond to poverty, and about the kind of things that could make a difference in our neighbourhood. Yet somehow, this wisdom didn’t seem to influence decision-making – mainly because there was no environment where it could be clearly heard and understood.

It was whilst considering this I heard of the work of the Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland. Essentially it consisted of 15 people with direct experience of poverty and 15 leaders of civic society who met together to address poverty. By creating an environment free from the usual trappings of meetings, the commission enabled everyone’s perspective to be considered, and developed a series of ‘calls’ and challenges’ for a variety of issues affecting people in poverty. In summary, the commission challenged civil society “to enable those in poverty to lead the debate on how we can develop a fairer and more equal Scotland”.

I wondered if this was a way of ‘giving voice’ to the wisdom I had heard in my neighbourhood. So, 3 years ago, we established our first commission. Initially we gathered our testifying commissions to share their stories with each other, offer their analysis, and support and encourage one another. Then, after publicly presenting their stories, they began to meet with the civic and business commissioners. Quickly we established three working groups to look at issues that had arisen from the stories:

  • the relationship between mental health and poverty;
  • how families and young people could reach their potential;
  • the stigma of poverty.

The groups met regularly to understand the issues more fully and to consider what is already being done and what else might be done. Through the process, commissioners began to understand that poverty is not an issue where if we just think and work hard enough we will find the ‘solution’. Rather, it is a complex issue where there are many competing and evolving factors that are constantly working on people and neighbourhoods who are considered deprived. Quick fixes are impossible to find, and long-term commitment is necessary. We also celebrated the incredible resilience and creativity of those who experience poverty. One businessman commented that the testifiers were “local entrepreneurs”.

The Poverty Truth Commission wasn’t an easy process. However, it helped to sow the seeds as to how we might respond to poverty within the city more effectively if we allow the real experts – those with experience – to be included in the conversation.

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