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Colin@advantagedthinking.com / @C_Falconer. Writing to explore new ideas.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Social Harmers

Pick up the knife.  In posters, speeches, research, headlines, campaigns; its slash marks a vein of problems that dis-ease our humanity.  This is how we cut young people up and down: as feckless, untalented, without grit, thuggish, disadvantaged, homeless, soft outcomes, at risk – Neets, Not Etonian or Easy Enough To Save, undeservingly poor. These are the people we stab with our images. Just so many charity cases to hide capitalism’s collateral damage in. Labelled like oversized luggage to carry the body bags of our market economy's age into another poster asking for 40p to help kill again and again.

Is it the self-harm of teenagers that cuts so deep today, or the social harm perpetuated by adults to feed their pain? Our policies, our irresponsibilities, our ignorance of what it takes to inspire and engage a generation, boomerangs through history. Specialists in failure, we are qualified to strip hope away to replace it with blame. And so young people become our scars lined up in prisons, gangs, A&E, welfare queues, systems of neglect, locked in disinvested rooms, whatever stereotype we can house them in - except a place to become themselves.  

We must scar our youth so they can express our failure to lead. We must disadvantage them to give us an excuse for failed dreams. They must carry the reason we can not harness the resources of our planet.  For we are the real harmers - the ‘social harmers of the self’ – addicted to cutting, punishing, manipulating, hurting the wellbeing of those who will not behave as we wish they would, to suffer in silent passivity to the conceit of adulthood.

Our social harm has turned the language of support into an anthem for doomed youth.  Hear its miserly abuse, see its squalid PR graffiti, and turn your heart away. Fresh words will sing elsewhere.

Friday, 28 February 2014

A Bridge for Young People's Future

A speech given for Bridge Foyer's 15th Birthday:

"I’ve come all the way from London to be at this special 15th birthday celebration, because the Foyer Federation holds Bridge Foyer and the other Foyers of Your Housing in high regard. And at a time of great innovation in Foyers in the UK and overseas, represented by programmes such as Open Talent and Healthy Conversations run with Your Housing, I want to try and understand why it is that a beacon Foyer like Bridge could be put in a position where its vital service is under threat through the current commissioning climate.

I’d like to begin that by looking at a quote:

‘ Tomorrow’s leaders, artists and innovators are busy growing up but they can only achieve their potential with our whole hearted and expert support. That is why we need a director who’s not just skilled but driven and not just capable but passionate. In short, we need a true leader who understands why this job is so important.’

So marks the introduction for a job at Haringey Council as Director of Children’s Services – an authority trying to move on from the legacy of the Baby P scandal to put in place a culture of high aspiration for children and young people. They are using what we call at the Foyer Federation ‘Advantaged Thinking’; to start with what is possible –tomorrow’s leaders - and develop services to ensure that young people can create the possible in their lives.

What about Cheshire West and Chester?  What vision is being expressed in its strategic commissioning consultation document?  If you look at the outcomes, there is no sense that the young people of Chester are being prepared as tomorrow’s leaders, artists and innovators. In Chester, young people are not being equipped to thrive; they are being given an offer of ‘Housing Related Support’ that is only prepared to help them cope. Because all the evidence shows that services, such as Foyers, designed to do more than housing related support, enable young people to navigate a world that is far more complex that the choices suggested in the consultation document. Instead of the Advantaged Thinking approach in Haringey, Cheshire West and Chester start with what is not possible, the suggestion that young people cannot do more than sustain a tenancy, and then they propose commissioning services that ensure people can never achieve anything else. It’s what we call Disadvantaged Thinking – seeing young people in terms of problems instead of possibilities.

The difference between Haringey’s job ad, and Cheshire West and Chester’s consultation document, is like the difference between the story of the good and the bad parent. When a child is learning to walk, the good parent holds out the aspiration that the child crawling on the ground and falling down will be able to do something that is beyond their current ability. They encourage the child to keep trying, because they believe that they can and will be able to walk in the world. Compare that to the story of the bad parent  - who, when their child falls down trying to walk, says – I’m sorry, but walking is not for you, you are best crawling, and we’ll help you develop the skills to sustain your crawling for the rest of your life through ‘crawling related support’ so you can cope with not having the talent to walk like the rest of the children in town.

Why does Cheshire West and Chester only have the vision to offer young people the Housing Related Support options to help them crawl through life, instead of learning how to stand tall to find their talents through talent-building services?

Just imagine if the people responsible for the consultation document had been tasked with managing the GB Olympic team.  A team of athletes, prevented from breaking any bones, supported to sustain their tenancies and behave in in the Olympic village – but not equipped with the skills and experiences to win any medals at the games. At the Olympics, the GB team succeeded in winning its biggest medal haul through 3 key lessons: giving athletes access to high quality coaching; providing flexible, personalised budgets for athletes to navigate their life needs so they could focus on thriving; and creating a culture of high aspirations that believed in success, instilled confidence, and encouraged peer-to-peer positive support. Where are those ingredients in the Cheshire West and Chester consultation document?  In Chester, the service best placed to offer young people access to those 3 things, with the experience of doing so successfully, is now in danger of being axed because it doesn’t fit the strategic commissioning model being proposed.  Where is the Olympic legacy in that? 

The Olympic Games opening ceremony was memorably kicked off by a local Cheshire lad, Daniel Craig, famous for James Bond – a character associated with standing up against those who threaten our freedom.  I wouldn’t dream of comparing the intensions of Cheshire West and Chester with those of SPECTRE from the early Bond novels and films, but they do share one thing in common: an attempt to impose a system of control over the world that we know in our hearts is wrong, that we know only benefits a few, and that we know needs someone with the courage and determination to fight against.  The logic behind the Cheshire West and Chester consultation amounts to this: that there are some young people who we should only offer a minimal Housing Related Support offer to because they don’t have the talent to invest in their development through a more specialist talent-building service such as a Foyer. They are wrong. The logic is faulty. And the implied intent will leave Chester with a generation of young people with short term tenancy skills but without the longer term investment in their talent to build our collective future.  

What can we do about it?

At the Foyer Federation, we are creating a new movement to tell a different story about young people.  A story that can challenge disadvantaged thinking with the reality of who young people are, what their authentic voice is, and who they can become.  It’s a movement for ‘Taking Advantaged Thinking Action’.  And you can be part of that here, in Chester, by becoming an activist and special agent for Bridge Foyer.

You can be 001 – and make sure that the language we use about young people is focused on who they are, not the negative stereotypes and deficits that get attached to them by others.

You can be 002 – and make sure that the knowledge you have of young people is based on what they can do and aspire to, as we have witnessed in the young people performing today, not just their problems.

You can be 003 – and make sure that the way you work with young people is shaped around the power of coaching as opposed to supporting.

You can be 004 – and make sure that the future isn’t about the 20% savings the commissioner needs to make through service cuts, but about the 80% that will be wasted in just supporting people to cope instead of equipping them to thrive.  

You can be 005 – and make sure that you express the highest aspirations for young people as a good parent would.

You can be 006 – and make sure that we really involve young people in what we do, enabling their experiences to shape the services they receive in a more genuine way than the processes used in this consultation.

And you can be 007 – the ultimate agent - by challenging and campaigning for Taking Advantaged Thinking Action to secure a better world for young people.

So respond to the consultation document. Stand by the staff and young people of Bridge Foyer.  Think what talent you have to offer to help open young people’s. And whatever happens tomorrow, remember this song, by a music band called the Manic Street Preachers, from 1998 when Bridge Foyer was being built: ‘If you tolerate this, your children will be next’…"
With thanks to all the amazing young people and staff from Bridge Foyer in Chester

Create the future with me in a night of Taking Advantaged Thinking Action  at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE


Friday, 21 February 2014

That Feeling...

 I saw the poster inside the shiny offices of Prince’s Trust as I trudged through the rain to work from Liverpool Street station. That Feeling – a big face catching the eye with the sensation of doing something challenging and exciting to raise money for The Prince’s Trust.  Or, in the words of the poster, to support ‘disadvantaged young people’.  Or, from a more honest perspective, to support the Trust’s ongoing communications campaign to stereotype young people as being ‘disadvantaged’ and other negative labels as the most effective way to raise money for itself.

At least the poster was colourful. At least the poster would motivate thousands of people to do things for others. At least the poster would stimulate an interest in the future for young people. Atleast some individuals would directly benefit from the promise of inspiration.

But I had a different feeling.

I was walking down a street in East London. One where there are not-so-shiny housing estates with young people who experience multiple challenges to harness their potential for life. Directly outside the estate, in the bus stop normally postered with KFC and drink ads, the Prince’s Trust’s ‘That Feeling’ image stared back.  It stopped me in my tracks. Not even I expected this.

How could they?  How dare they allow a poster to be put up here? Raising money in the name of supporting young people like some of those on the estate, who receive absolutely no service what so ever from The Prince’s Trust?  Using the image of their so-called ‘disadvantage’, in order to raise money that they never see?  I know, because I've lived there.

I wondered how many people had signed up to help the campaign, thinking their donations would make a difference in their actual locality.  Does the Prince’s Trust have a plan to help those young people on the estate?  They have great resources to offer, but do they and will they ever reach here?  Do they have an intention to share funding with those local charities working with young people in the areas where they put up their posters - those who actually have the best expertise to reach out and connect young people with opportunity?

I doubt it. After all, this is just the way that big national charities meet fundraising targets  to protect their status quo - in a clever, well done, and utterly shameful manner.

That Feeling….

Of betrayal. 

Of broken trust. 

That’s what putting a poster, with that language, with that intent, in that place, amounts to. For me.

As I walked home, I wondered if I could sign up to help the Prince’s Trust’s work.  The 'That Feeling' campaign has four options to choose your challenge, none of which I'm that good at, so I reasoned I could come up with my own.  And in the spirit of the campaign, it's a life-changing challenge - to convince the staff at Prince's Trust to 'Take Advantaged Thinking Action' in the way they talk about young people; in the way they invest in young people; and in the way they behave as a charity.  Because ‘That Feeling’ really really needs to change.
If you like a challenge, come and explore a night of Advantaged Thinking Action with me at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Running for never

‘Running away together, running away forever…’

Words from the (in)famous Brotherhood of Man hit that haunt me, not with the idea of eloping from reality, but the image of charity marathon runners and the causes they are prepared to hurt for each year.

I usually don’t get too excited by an email asking me to sponsor another runner for another cause. This week was slightly different.  The runner in question was the Chief Executive of Leap Confronting Conflict. If you don’t know them, Leap is an authentic, well run and inclusive youth charity, with a value base very different from the mainstream brands.  One of the Advantaged Thinkers in the pack.  In their own language, ‘Leap supports young people struggling with conflict (gangs, weapons, in prison, excluded from school) to transform that conflict in to positive activity, to reduce violence in their communities and to help lead our society. The young people we work with are amazing.’  While impressed with the challenge, it struck me that actually running such a charity ‘the right way’ was its own mental, emotional and physical marathon.  In which case, why weren’t we being asked to sponsor that? Why must a Chief Executive have to run a more publically acceptable form of ‘marathon’ as well, just to get money to invest in the work our society depends on?

Then I had a vision – arguably a nightmare – of all the normal brigade of celebs, well-to-dos, and middle classes looking for a new personal challenge, dressed in shorts and bursting into the doors of my workplace to help run the marathon of running a charity.   Sponsored to achieve various charity marathon challenges (posted up to choose from via our Run-a-Charity app of course), such as: how to prove your impact using tools that don’t reflect what you do; how to build a sustainable future using short-term funding; how to help young people navigate through a policy system designed to fail their every step; how to enable poorly paid over worked and under-appreciated staff on the frontline to pick up the fragments our society disposes of.  Thinking about all the time it takes to train for a marathon there would be more than enough hours to prepare easy-win solutions for the big Run-a-Charity day. Even better, if we could get the people causing some of the social problems that charity is trying to resolve, to come and actually run one, they might see how the true measure of what they do exists in the life of others they don’t understand. Expect moments of confession by the water-cooler as hubris finally melts with the polar ice cap.  

Ultimately, I am something of a 'rebbit' - a rebal rabbit running to get away with saying these things while I can. It won't last. The farmer’s gun isn’t far behind. Every rebel runs the line of a different race, knowing that the only finish line is the end of something or the end of themselves.  They don’t want to go home in foil, a sticker with a fastest time on the fridge, so they can come back to do it next year. They can't keep hiding in their hole. They want out.

Looking at the repeated programmes and campaigns that seem to do more to keep their organisations running than to stop our need for them, I really wonder what we have become. A society in perpetual motion, in perpetual denial. The fact we have a marathon to run for young people at all, after all these years, all these initiatives, all this knowledge, all our social wealth, is something to do something about. It’s certainly every reason why we should sponsor someone who is trying to run two marathons at once because, like me, they want the race to cease. We all should.
Sponsor Leap's Chief Executive Thomas Lawson to run the Brighton Marathon here

Find out how the race can cease in The Adventures of Tata-man, a performance of ideas at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Strange Meeting

Your face stares back at me behind a window. I'm not sure if you are smiling or grimacing; I can't make out if you have cried or laughed. I don't know a thing about you. Except, a strange meeting.

We were walking back to the Lodge, in a beautful place among the mountains of Nepal. Three tourists, with their guide, paying to enjoy the universe, safely snugged in expensive clothes to keep out the cold. You had spent the day cutting up logs into wood, packed on your back in an impossible load. Dressed in rags, stinking of sweat. Down the winding muddy path, you followed us. Stopping whenever we paused, curious, amazed at a camera lens. You exchanged hand signs with our guide, and I realised, you couldn't speak the same. As we approached the village below, we watched the locals laugh while you tried to sell them your day's work in urgent gestures. 'She's dumb,' our guide said. 'She's mute,' he made sure we understood. 'But she's good,' he added, and I was grateful for that word against the burden of stereotypes.

An hour later, we had made it back up the final trek. Exhausted, we sat with our mugs of fine tea by the Lodge fire, writing postcards, exchanging stories with fellow travellers. All of us, happy to widen our world through the wonders of Nepal. Then, I saw you. In the corner of my eye, I felt you approach the window from outside, as the night began to grip the sun. Freed from the burden of wood, your mouth hanging open in adventure.  Watching us watching you, and watching you watch us, I sensed the room retreat. Someone laughed. Someone turned away. Someone coughed in fear, incase you made it inside. Someone felt compassion for your wide beautiful eyes. And I, amongst it all, felt, in that famous wonderous phrase of Wilfred Owen, 'the pity'.

There you were, like the picture in every charity poster I hate, dishevelled - but not in pain; poor - but playful; blocking the sunset - but bringing reality to view; without a voice - but saying so much more than the conversation inside; stopping every thought with the fact that you had your own sense of wonder that none of us could include in our self-serving lives. The pity of charity, the pity of pity, the pity of it all distilled.

The lodge staff went and chased you away, like a dog. So we could get back to our plans for tomorrow's walk, the excitement of what dinner would bring, without interruption. I felt my stomach sicken in revolt. The one thing the room lacked; the one thing charity no longer seems to know how to do; the one thing in that moment I couldn't act on - is this: the ability to break through the glass with love.

Love, a word dirtier than the smears on your skin.

The face that stares back at me with a million other unknowns around the world. Like the faces opposite me as I write, hidden in a bleak London estate that not a single charity or service commissioner sets foot in. One day, someone will chase us away instead. Down some profound dull tunnel of disadvantaged thinking and disgust, we will find all the lives and their talents we have killed infront of us. Let's not sleep now...

'Strange Meeting' and other encounters will feature in The Adventures of Tata-man, a performance of ideas at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Adventures of TaTa-man

 The Adventures of TaTa-man in....
                                                                A Night of Bananas
The Velvet Underground’s ‘banana’ album sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years; but legend has it that everyone who bought one set up a band. Can an audience at the theatre find similar inspiration to create a community that ends youth ‘dis’-advantage?

Find out on the 6th August, 2014, at The Cockpit, Marylebone, London.

‘The Adventures of TaTa-man’ is a performance of ideas that invites its audience to explore the powers of ‘Taking Advantaged Thinking Action’ through the story of a modern day charity anti-hero.

TaTa-man’s search for solutions to the challenges ‘dissing’ young people plots an alternative journey from the horrors of the First World War and the origins of Dada, to prehistoric cave-painting and the secrets of coal mine canaries, uncovering the real potential behind Advantaged Thinking as a movement through time and space.

 Offering an anarchic blend of words and images with an urgent social message, this will be a night to ‘TaTa’ on the wild side of the mind.

Are you ready for your Banana?

Full details to be revealed in the New Year.  www.thecockpit.org.uk



Saturday, 23 November 2013

From Right Here to Right There

On friday night I was attending a celebration event for the ending of Right Here, a joint project by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Mental Health Foundation. If you haven't been paying attention over the last 5 years, Right Here is a £6m programme to radically change how we look after the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 16 to 25 across the UK. Or, more simply, 'creating responsive services that provide young people with the mental health support and advice they want, when and where they want it.'  As one of the brilliant Right Here ambassadors put it, 'If young people are not part of the answer to their mental health, then what questions are health commissioners asking?'

Right Here is likely to be most remembered for its youth-led work to influence commissioning approaches and develop practical tools for young people to advance their mental health. These are important outcomes, and the Foyer Federation is working with Right Here's group of expert youth ambassadors to apply that positive focus in its own Healthy Conversations initiative to 'bring health to life'.

But there is something else in Right Here which is equally as interesting - and worth much more than the cupcake provided at the end of the night. Over the last 5 years, Right Here has created a network of ambassadors who have grown together from teenagers to young adults whilst participating in the  project's activities. It is a 'transition community' in all senses of the word: a group that has supported individuals to navigate a complicated life period, with a set of professional adults both learning from and supporting the learning of the young people involved. Like all effective communities, its success has been based on a common relation between individuals associated with something of personal interest, and the ability to maintain those connections through ongoing activity that has meaningful impact.  The power of the group is that its value will keep giving back in years to come way beyond the funding ever imagined.

At the end of the event, Rob Bell, Head of Social Justice at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, set a challenge for young people to find a way to 'self-mobilise' around powerful issues to create social change where it is needed most; and to learn from where ever this has been achieved in other cultures and periods. Which set my mind thinking about how pioneering innovative action stimulates the growth of different communities of influence. While the mass mobilisiation of individuals around political campaigns (such as Obama's first election) and popular artists (such as Lady Gaga's 'little monsters') are common phenomena, less attention is paid to how single actions of real inspiration create their own future communities through applied thinking.

A popular example of this is the 'myth' of how the Velvet Underground's 'Banana album' sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years, but each person who bought the ablum would set up their own band inspired by it's ground breaking approach. If you look at some of those bands, they were teenagers and young adults creating their own micro 'transition networks' based around music, which in many cases grew into popular communities such as Punk. The 'Banana album' and its band was the 'source' of action which stimulated the growth of various communities of cultural influence over decades to come.

Why do I cite this? Because, while Rob Bell was rightly pointing people's attention to more socio-political examples of self-mobilisation, what the Charity sector desperately needs is to refind a 'community of innovation' within its soul to be a better source of inspiration at the local and national level. Something not owned by one brand, one body, one set of adults, one hub group, one funded opportunity, one great project; but more flexibly and fluidly lived and shared between different organisations , individuals and age groups, young and old, stimulated into creativity through the right mix of 'source' influences.

For those source influences to exist, we must find and nurture pioneers to 'Take Advantaged Thinking Action' (TaTa) that will bring people together over products and happenings rich and free enough in ideas for others to flourish from. It doesn't need glossy research reports or stategic plans; it doesn't need platforms to applaud the status quo. It is about giving away ideas through innovation 'performances' that stimulate people to think.

Which, in a sector built on competition for funding, is hard to pull off. And given most source innovators never reap the benefits their followers gain, it is also hard to advocate for within most organisational structures where impact is too closely linked with self-survival.

That is why I am launching a 'performance' in 2014 (The Adventures of TaTa-man and the Night of Bananas) to invite a mixed community of people with the ability to grow thinking from various sectors to share in my 'source' of Taking Advantaged Thinking Action. It's a performance on a stage in the theatre (dates and venue to be announced), because the theatre is one powerful example of community experience where we engage in reflective connection through a dramatic source. I am trying to create a 'theatre of charity' that looks for radical breakthroughs in the same way as the 'theatre of cruelty'. A TaTA that applies a new type of DaDa to drive positive social change. It's about putting into one performance the same 'Banana album' thesis: if you are in the audience, then the mobilisation offered in the moment of sharing an experience might enable you to grow your own community of action through whatever inspiration you express through yourself afterwards. I want everyone to take a Banana away.

The project developed by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation might be drawing to a close, but so much is still beginning from all the lives touched through it.  Right Here is when we keep building right there into our future. It's the capital of life.