Adventures in Advantaged Thinking to find the places, people, opportunities, deals and campaigns that harness the talents of all young people. Wherever in the world, the aim as an 'advantaged thinker' is to breakthrough the deficits and disadvantages limiting human potential. And to do so with courage, wit and style.
Open Talent, Advantaged Thinking, life coaching, Healthy
Transitions, Working Assets, accreditation models – over the last 12 years I’ve shaped a growing
list of innovative ideas and programmes at the Foyer Federation. The secrets of my approach aren’t the ones you
will find in traditional innovation manuals or workshops. Here's my top 7 tips:
1)Don’t neglect the power of the moon.
That old phrase, ‘the planets must be in alignment’
has some truth to it. About 10 years ago
I worked out that the period in which the full moon comes together has an
intense creative energy – for me at least – so I always try to harness it as
the perfect time to develop ideas or turn thinking into practice.In Japan they call it ‘being in tune with the
laws of the universe’. As much as anything else, connecting yourself with a
natural energy driver gives you a psychological boost.You can use knowledge of how your body reacts
to the energy around it to accelerate the incubation process for new projects.
2)Manifest your thinking
Creative visualisation techniques are as
popular in sports psychology as they are in Buddhist philosophy. Making what
you want to be real ‘manifest in reality’ focuses concentration and taps into
the power of positively shaping your own existence. I think of it in terms of holding
the seeds of ideas inside you that need to be nourished regularly and then
directed out to root into the external world to grow. Every good innovation I have come up with I
have consciously talked about as if it already existed before I had finished it.
If you keep your ideas as secrets they will wilt in shadows.The brain is like a cinema projector, able to
propel images out onto the screen of the world where they shape themselves into
narratives and being. Treat a new idea as something to be honoured, something
to be discovered, something that will happen because it has to, and let the
abundant universe help.
3)Trust words to lead the way
I’ve always allowed the process of writing
to generate ideas. When it comes to a
new funding application, for example, my approach would be to completely ignore
the application form and focus on allowing the idea to concrete first through free
writing. The application form is the box
you have to tip you cake mixture into but you shouldn’t be restricting yourself
to live and cook within it until you are ready. To generate ideas through
writing I was given a precious tip by an artist I met when I first joined the
Foyer Federation. She told me that inside us all is a locked space – so you
start by trying to visualise what that space looks like on the outside, what shape
it is, what colour the door is. To get to the locked space you have to go deep
sea diving, using a concentrated period of writing to take you to the door and
find a way inside it. Behind the door there is a room full of treasure –
imagery, ideas, abundance. Once you are inside the room you discover and touch
what you can, until the oxygen of words runs out and you have to return to the
surface again. Then you look at what’s in your catch. The more you do it, the
more you can take back with you. It’s a powerful technique.
4)Take a walk on the wild side
Going to new places, exploring other
environments, making yourself vulnerable, pushing the boundary of how you think
– these are critical if you need to work on something ground breaking. You have to trust your instinct here. Where do
you need to go to find what it is you are not sure what you are looking for? I’ve
made all my discoveries in the strangest of places: a New York restaurant; a
train carriage at St Pancras station bound for France; a Tokyo hotel bedroom
cabinet; an airplane back from Australia; the beachfront road at Thessaloniki;
and a dozen other places. Only one of them comes from being in the office. My favourite is the train carriage. I was
about to go on a week trip to southern France to try to write something for the
Foyer Federation that would pull it’s thinking together for the future. I had a
laptop full of articles I thought might help me, but absolutely no idea what I
was doing. It was about 6am and sleepily I picked up a copy of the Times left
in the train and looked through the pages– and there it was, in an article on
the demise of British Tennis, the idea of Open Talent leapt out.I hadn’t even started and I already had the
answer. You just have to be on the right train at the right time.
In 1872, Monet took less than 30 minutes to
paint a picture of sunrise over Le Havre docks in France. It was a ground breaking
picture that would name and define the impressionist movement in art. Monet’s
30 minutes of inspiration was the result of years of research and experience,
in particular his discovery of Japanese woodcuts, that found new definition in a
single moment. Being at the right place at the right time only works if you have
the right experience inside you to interact with the opportunity. I think of this as the jam jar technique: you
have to absorb as much as possible inside you, until you literally can’t hold
onto any more, then look for the best place where you can explode the ideas and
let them interact in whatever moment you find yourself in.When you reach this moment, you don’t edit,
you just create at rapid speed. Rather than crafting something slowly, the idea
behind Soleil Levant is to allow it to grow invisibly and unconsciously, and then
within the limitations of time – a sunrise in Monet’s case, 24 hours in mine –
it is forced to express itself into new form.I tend to use this technique to work on the most complex and challenging
ideas or programmes, trusting in the process to produce at white heat a solution
I would never have been able to craft consciously.
6)Listening with an open heart
The power of listening to people is a much
neglected art. I often meet clever people who are too busy projecting their own
ideas and organisational brand to be ‘open’ to contemplate someone else’s. Being
completely empty of ego is the perfect place to listen from. I know nothing; I
am nothing; everything around me is abundant. Listen to it. Why are you here to hear it, what is its
meaning? There are so many voices to
tune into each day, beyond the one in our head. The answers are all around us
but we don’t bother to find them outside ourselves. If you want something,
listen for it in others. Not through
scripted questions, but through the flow and interchange of people’s passions. Speaking
and listening to each other is the space where we collaborate. If you exit a
conversation having heard nothing but yourself repeated back to you, you have
lost a chance to discover something new.
7)Surf the waves with shin pads
If you really want to be an innovator, you
must be prepared to be laughed at, seen as potentially dangerous, told that
people don’t understand what you are talking about, accused of lacking patience
or focus, criticised for not having a strong enough evidence base or commercial
market for an idea, and dismissed as a failure developing things that can’t work.
If you don’t experience any of these, then you are doing something wrong. Innovation
if it is innovative is all about riding the crest of the wave of new ideas that
challenge how others think and see in the present. You need to pad up to deal
with the knocks and ignore them while you continue to ‘listen with an open
heart’ to the reality you are making. You also need to take some care, though, with
how you shape the wave and who you allow to be part of that. Waves can easily
get diverted and broken up before they have power. But if the wave does get
stopped, always remember it’s still in the sea, waiting to be part of the next
one.I’ve never known a failed idea not come
back even stronger. It’s your responsibility as an innovator to
ride the waves to the beach.
I was introduced to Lorna Sage by my tutor at University.
She had been taught by Lorna, and, up to that point, my tutor was the most
fascinating person I had met in my life. She once took a Henry James novel and
caressed herself with it in front of our amazed class of innocents. Clearly, there were more
to words than we had realised. Academia became life defining. What would Lorna
be like, if this was her protege? Somehow I had to find out. I had a hunch I
was onto something.
So, armed with my British Academy Award, I ended up at UEA
in Norwich to take a Master’s Degree.They say you
should avoid meeting your heroes because the image you build is infinitely
better than the real thing. Not with Lorna.Her beautiful brilliant mind cast the rest of the famous UEA Literature
and writing departments into dark shadow. Under Lorna’s eccentric style, Literature
and philosophy turned into comic one-liners and quips that revealed new depths
to Plato’s Cave. I had never laughed so
much; I had never thought so hard.
Lorna was a Socratic treasure trove of stories. The day Bobby Sands died, she had
walked into a Republican Irish bar in New York. It was early. People
moved away as they heard an English voice call the barman over; but when she ordered an extra large gin and tonic, the pub
relaxed, including her in stories of troubled times- through the currency of intimacy, she said, politics no longer mattered. I’ll always
remember the day an American student dared to suggest that Umberto Eco’s
Foucault’s Pendulum was not worthy of study because of his portrayal of women.
Lorna, as passionate a feminist as she was a fan of Eco, used the deftest of touches to disarm the student's argument, and rebuked us all
to ‘pick one’s fights with greater care’. Eco and Lorna were heavyweights.
Beneath the smile and laughter was someone with tremendous steel and insight. She had thought hard for her success. Women of her background and generation weren't meant to go to University, let alone teach in them. I realised that for Lorna teaching and
writing was a calling, and with it came huge responsibilities.When her friend Angela Carter died, she felt
the pressure of being left behind to put the pieces of her life together. She
gave us a tutorial on her writing just the week before, and referred to her only in the third person. Some of us left the
classroom in tears.‘It’s what we have to do,’ she said to me.
‘You go to the party, you soak up their drink, canapes, and words, and the next morning you
wake up and turn it all into something else, something essential, because you
have to – it’s inside you.’I didn’t
have a clue what she was trying to tell me at the time. It would take another
15 years before I realised what she meant.
I was worn out when I went to UEA. I found myself battling doubt
in the first few months, unable to focus, stuck with writer’s block from
finishing my first essays. Trying to copy the lifestyle of philosopher John Dee didn't help either - two hours of sleep, with bread and port, and you too can start believing in angels. Lorna could see through me straight away. When she
invited us round to her house for a party, she sat next to me in the circle and
we realised that we both had the same habit of drawing impenetrable doodles
that nobody else could understand. People thought we were writing notes on everything said, but what
we were really doing was secret thinking, processing for gold to store among
the flowing rivers of words inside us.‘You look like you need a drink, go get us one next door’. Next door
turned out to be a room with crates of wine bottles from her beloved Florence,
piled to the ceiling, from wall-to-wall. Her drinking might have been
legendary, but when she had a glass of wine or gin to the lips, it was her eyes
that shined with clarity of spirit. Language and meaning had a potent thirst for life in her.
Later that night, we made a pact together. Lorna revealed a strange
box of papers and said she was going to write a book called Bad Blood, based on
the influences from her family’s past and her belief in the transformational
power of writing to change personal narratives.She told me that I should choose a novel from the writer Colin Falconer,
who had taken my name instead of his own Colin Bowles, and rewrite it in the style of the 'real' Colin Falconer as a form of postmodern tongue-in-cheek reconstructionist revenge.
I forgot all about it. The only thing I followed was her
advice to get a teaching qualification, something that would change my own story forever. I tiptoed out from Eco's scriptorium and closed the door behind me. Farwell to Foucault, Derrida, Barthes. My thesis on the 'Hermeneutics of Susipicion' vanished in the toxic haze of a MIddlesbrough sunset.
Years later, I saw Lorna’s
younger face pasted all over a shop window, like a Warhol screenprint. Bad Blood was out. The book felt cold in my hand,
like marble, a choc ice in winter. I ran straight home with my copy clutched to my heart. I already knew that it was too late.By the time I could write to her, she had
gone. Bad Blood stayed by my
bedside.I have never been able to read it though. Even now, when
the pages open, Lorna’s voice cracks another joke about Borges, raging against the dying of the light. Wake up and write. Not because
you want. Because you have to. The words are our blood; make them into something good...
This morning I was at the launch of the Mayday Trust Foyer
in Rugby. A new Foyer is always something special – but particularly when it is
the ‘The Learning Ability Foyer’, designed to help harness the talents of young
people who are experiencing what society calls 'learning disabilities'. It’s a good
example of 'advantage thinking’: recognising the ability, not
stereotyping a disability. As someone
who was stuck in remedial classes as a young boy, classified with ‘learning
difficulties’, I feel passionately that people deserve the right approach to
find and grow their unique talent in life. The friendly, interactive
environment created by May Day, with staff coaches on hand to encourage the
development of skills and resources, is exactly the sort of place every
community needs. It was no surprise the event was packed out.Those attending were treated to a table
tennis display from paralympic table tennis champion Victoria Bromley, and an
inspiring speech from Special Olympics athlete and board member Greg Silvester.
As Mayday's dynamic CEO Pat McArdle explained, "We have invited our
Olympians here because we are using exactly the same model to achieve
aspirations, with no limit on goals and potential."
I think Pat is right. The real potential 2012 legacy is
staring us in the face, yet is somehow being missed.Great Britain was a top medal winner; our
children, however, lie at the bottom of the table for wellbeing across Europe. Why
can’t we take the learning that helped us develop such successful elite athletes,
and apply it to those in our society who we continue to fail?
We can. There are 3 ingredients to seize on: a focus on high
aspirations, to believe that the young people we tag as ‘disadvantaged’ can
build thriving lives; an approach that uses world class coaching, to enable
young people to find and nurture their talents; and targeted flexible
investment that can give young people the power to shape the path they need to make
their dreams a reality.
ingredients are precisely what the Foyer Federation believes all services for
young people should offer. It is
something the Foyer Federation calls Open Talent – a campaign to pull together the
many different ways these three asset-building ingredients can be put into
practice. It is possible to achieve, and it is essential to achieve. The expensive
evidence base of services ill equipped to nurture young people’s talents, from
care homes to job centres, is all around us.
Later in the afternoon, I attended an event hosted by the
Big Lottery to promote work to rekindle the Olympic ‘Spirit of 2012’, including
the launch of new funding to encourage positive volunteering activity such as
the excellent Pedal On UK initiative led by the Sustrans charity. After a morning of table tennis, we had speeches from Olympians Chris Tomlinson, Andrew Triggs Hodge, and Lord Coe. While this was all vital stuff, I couldn’t help but
think how the Spirit of 2012 should set us a challenge worthy of the Olympian inside us all: to be more
advantaged thinking by asking us to apply the three ingrediants behind the success of the GB olympic and paralympic teams to how we work with our young people. Just like the Kaos Singing choir, who were the highlight of the event, we need to sing out loud, embrace our learning ability, and ‘do things differently’.
This week I went to an evening at the Canadian Embassy in London
to listen to Craig Kielburger talk about the work of Free the Children and
their signature 'We Day' programme.
Kielburger’s life is all about inspiring stories. At the age
of 12, he was moved by the death of another 12 year-old from Pakistan, who, forced
into bonded labour in a carpet factory from the age of four, had become an
international figurehead for the fight against child labour before being
murdered. That story led Kielburger to form a group in his school who set up
Save the Children, a charity aimed at mobilising young people to
help other young people around the world. Seeing the pictures of Karl and his school
friends at 12, now as adults fronting the work of a highly respected
international charity, is very moving. Kielburger uses that story to engage
thousands of young people to raise funds and volunteer to change the world for their
peers wherever there is a need. We Day is all about making the story plural,
developing and celebrating a community of young people who want to use their
energy as part of what Kielburger calls ‘a riot for good’. It’s stirring stuff.
As someone who enjoys speaking on stage, I couldn’t help but
shift my attention from being an audience member to someone watching how the
story was being told. And there was something which fascinated me. In the
speech, and in the marketing material pack, there was no detail whatsoever of
the actual change that people were bringing about to ‘free the children’. There
were more specifics about the impact on the young people being mobilised to be
part of the change – how they were more likely to volunteer, vote, and be
active citizens – than there was of the project impacts bringing the promise of
change itself.Free the Children are
focusing on all the right things, offering charity in the form of school
buildings, water and health projects that are part of a model promising alternative
income and livelihood to break the need for charity. But the story they are
telling is not about that. The emphasis is on the vision of change by children,
and on the impact of the behaviour on children active in the change process. The audience gives the charity the permission
to tell that story, without the requirement to have to explain and show what
the actual change everyone is really achieving for the other young people ‘receiving’
On the one hand I find this partly refreshing. I’m part of a
group of charities who are not given that permission – who are required at
every step to have to justify the change we are bringing about, partly because
the greater audience in our society do not fully believe that the young people
we work with can make the shift from surviving with deficits to thriving with
assets. I liked the way the story wasn't being required to have to justify itself.
However, the better part of me is very wary.The story not being told here is directly
(but by no means deliberately) linked to the fact that, deep down, many people don’t actually believe that certain
individuals and cultures we classify as ‘disadvantaged’ can achieve sustainable
livelihoods. There are people who like to raise money for charity in its role
as a ‘safety net’. They can be inspired by the charity and do inspiring things
to help in raising that money, but they don’t expect the people they are
raising money for to give back or be part of the solution themselves.The only child I heard about at the Free the
Children event who did that was the one who had been murdered at the beginning
of the story.Perhaps he is a symbol of how
young people who need the change are sometimes seen by ourselves: sources of
inspiration for charity in the stories we create about them, rather than the
agents of change creating their own stories to change our world.Ironically enough, some charities are so busy
trying to change the world, they neglect that it’s the disadvantaged thinking
in our world view which is so much more the cause of the problems on our planet
than the ‘disadvantage’ we raise money for to solve. We might not shoot our
young people to get rid of them from the story, but we certainly exclude them from being part of it.
While I love what Free the Children is doing in it’s We Day
programme, to give young people a charity programme to be part of, I felt that
most of the young people we work with in Foyers would be excluded from it. Don’t
get me wrong, We Day does work in state schools, so they are trying to engage a
wider cross section of society and their school programmes clearly have reach
and impact. What I’m alluding to is the fact that the lives of our young people
would be seen as a charitable cause in itself.The idea of young people from homeless backgrounds having something to
give, of having solutions of their own to offer, of a Foyer being a place equal
to a school to reach new activists, is not something that is widely believed.We (our Foyer young people) are meant to be one of the sources of
inspiration for others to help us.We
are meant to look dishevelled in pictures, cry on camera, be disadvantaged, and
talk about how our broken lives were fixed by an organisation seeking more
funding or an individual publicising his latest book. In short, we are meant to
know our place in the story as the context for someone else’s action.
But the WE in We Day is also about US. Which is why, whatever my reservations, I want a ticket for it too. Because there is one
message that I have heard consistently over the last 12 years at the Foyer Federation:
that there are countless young people who
do want to be part of the change, who do want to give, and who do in fact give,
but who don’t always have all the assets that Kielbruger had to make that
happen. They are the change too.
We have neglected an important truth here. A positive investment
is about growing the impact an individual can make in their life and society. Surely, then,
one of the ultimate positive outcomes is to open the talents of those
who can use their experience of personal challenges to activate positive solutions
for someone else in society? Surely one
of the ultimate acts of giving must be to give the skills, resources and
opportunity for someone to give back and create their own story of change? A
story that is actually more about changing our
perceptions of what young people can achieve. A story that is actually more about changing how
our disadvantaged thinking limits
that potential. A story really about changing the lives we are giving to as the main narrative action rather than
In my recent New York trip, I met a brilliant young graduate
from the Foyer in Chelsea who wanted to set up an alumni so she and others
could give back the inspiration they had achieved in their lives to help people in Foyers around the world. Just like the young boy from Pakistan, she is
the real change that needs to be freed to make change happen. Her reality, like
those of many young people, is excluded from the story we tell about charity. The day will come when it will be her, and people from
Foyers and other services like her, who will bring about a revolution in the
way that charitable giving works. They will turn the ‘disadvantaged’ beneficiaries
from charity stories into the writers of a more
advantaged thinking narrative - one that will change how we are inspired. Why her, why them? As Kielburger so eloquently replied at the age of 12, ‘Why not?’.
Each morning at 7am a crowd gather in a neat, moving line beneath my Affinia Manhattan hotel window. It stretches to a hundred or more. As if from no where, people appear at the back of the line as fast as the front swarms away from view clutching the precious honey of small white bags dished out from a bin. What is so important at 7am that they stand in the rain to wait for? A new album release, the latest gizmo promo, another chocolate bar no one really needs? I watch them reach out for their plastic bags like marathon runners at a drinks station. As fast as they receive them, they disappear into the race of morning commuters that walks past the line. No one seems to speak. After years of watching people wait for freebies on their walk to work in London, it would be easy to think that this is just New York's equivalent. But it isn't. The people in the line are here to be fed. They are beneficiaries of the work of the church of Saint Francis Assisi, which since the great depression of the 1930s has offered a daily Breadline service that feeds around 400 people a day. It might be popular to talk about crowdsource solutions and popup phemonomena, but there is one crowdsourcing popup that goes on each morning in New York and other cities around the world: the wait for a hand out. Looking down at the faces below, I don't see the homeless stereotypes preached at us by the posters of disadvantaged thinkers. I just see a line of individuals, old and young, men and women, as diverse as the ticket line in the metro station. To this fate we may come. I'd like to think that the people who get their bag, can go to a block round the corner, a place where they can eat its contents while receiving the painstaking guidance and investment they require so one day they won't need to be in the line anymore. We are so used to the line for a handout, that people in New York just walk around it. But what about the line for a hand up? What talents would be in its bag? Who would be dishing it out? Where might it happen? The crowdsourcing popup of the food line needs a 21st century equivalent - and just like in the 1930s, it won't be from the state. It will depend on the innovation and vision of charities who want to lead direct action. That's why the launch of Popuptalent.org in the UK is so important. It is the beginning of where charity needs to go next, from offering the safety net of food in the stomach, to providing the springboard of skills, resources and opportunities in the mind for people to move on to a thriving life. I hope it will be appearing beneath a hotel window soon.
A rough transcript of my keynote address at the Good Shepherd's Foyer 10th Anniversary event in New York, hosted by BNY Mellon, Thursday April 11th (I don't use scripts for my speeches, so it's not word-for-word accurate but represents the main content)
When I arrived at the airport yesterday, customs couldn't understand why I was coming all this way just to speak at an event celebrating the 10th Anniversary of a project working with young people. But that's how much we value the work that you and your partners have done in developing the Chelsea Foyer. I am very happy to be here to share in your celebration.
I am going to introduce two hashtags as part of today's discussion on #housing4youth. They are #advantagedthinking and #opentalent. They form part of a revolutionary approach we at the Foyer Federation would like to share with you.
Let's start with a 'tale of two cities' to make a connection between New York and somewhere in the UK - called Liverpool. New York and Liverpool have over history shared many journeys across the atlantic. But there are two amazing facts that link them together now. The first is Central Park. Central park is one of the most famous and beautiful parks in the world. Its design though was based on a park in a place called Birkenhead in Merseyside on the edge of liverpool. Just like you have taken a good idea from Birkenhead and made it even better through Central Park, so the Chelsea foyer has taken the foyer approach and made it your own here in New York. There's more. Birkenhead is not just the origin for Central Park, it has its own foyer, run by the excellent Forum Housing Association, which is also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. So there is a special link between you, the significance of which I will return to later.
2013 is a great year to be celebrating your 10th anniversary. Far from being worn out or outdated, the Foyer 'approach' continues to innovate exciting breakthroughs. This month has seen the launch of a new initiative called Popup Talent, redesigning the jobcentre and work programme into a youth-led 'popup' model where young people can access inspiration, develop skills, and showcase their talents to employers to take work as well as create their own enterprises. Because when we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about creating opportunities for employment. Next month sees the launch by our partner the Mayday Trust of the world's first Learning Ability foyer - a project applying the foyer approach to work with young people experiencing learning disabilities. Because when we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about using what works to help those young adults who are most poorly served by current provision. Three weeks from now sees the opening of another foyer in Melbourne, Australia - what will be the first Foyer ever set up applying some of the new #advantagedthinking and #opentalent principles I will introduce today. Because when we talk about #housing4youth, we need to be talking about doing things differently.
2013 is an important year for Foyers. More than ever, the transition of young people into adulthood remains complex and challenging. The stakes are high, the signs ahead confusing. Today in America there are 6.7 million young people aged 16-24 struggling to make the transition, in need of services such as the Chelsea foyer. In three years time, our failure to enable more young people to develop a positive route into adulthood will become all the more symbolic. 2016 is the year that those young people born in the first year of the 21st century will begin, at the age of 16, to need the services we provide. In 2016, we will see that the 21st century has not brought about a breakthrough in how we equip our young people to become positive adults. Why is that?
I'd like to suggest that our society has created an entrenched dichotomy between advantage and disadvantage. On the one had, cities like New York and Liverpool are capable of creating abundant sources of wealth, developing incredible achievements in the arts, science, business and technology. But on the other hand, they establish services called 'disadvantage education centres', and continue to fail large numbers of young people. Why can't we learn to apply the approaches that develop advantages, to address the challenges where we create disadvantage?
We can see the same dichotomy if we look again at 2016 when the next Olympics will be held. At the London Olympics, the country that topped the medal winning table was America; the the highest winning country from the EU was great Britain. You would expect that countries who know how to develop talented athletes also know how to develop the talents of all their young people. But you would be wrong. America, the country that won most gold medals, is also the country with one of the highest numbers of young people in the criminal justice system in the world. Great Britain, the country that was fourth in the medal table, is the bottom of the table in Europe for the wellbeing of its children.
The reason for the dichotomy is because we are applying two different approaches. America and Great Britain's success at the Olympics was due to 3 key ingredients: access to high quality coaching; access to flexible, personalised investments and resources; and access to a community with high aspirations for success. The young people in America's criminal justice system, and at the bottom of the league for wellbeing in great Britain, don't have access to either of those things. One approach is about how people can develop the assets and advantages they need to thrive; the other approach is about how people can survive and cope with their deficits and disadvantages. We call the latter 'disadvantaged thinking'.
Disadvantaged thinking is what happens when you see people only interms of their needs and problems, when you create services that seek to solve a perceived deficit rather than than address the individual. Disadvantaged thinking applies disadvantaged fixes to help disadvantaged people cope. It doesn't work. It isn't in the business of looking for solutions that create sustainable advantages. That's why we need to stop talking about our young people in negative stereotypes which promote them as disadvantaged. I have never seen a homeless person in my life; I have only seen people experiencing homelessness. There is an important difference between the two; between the stereotype and the person beneath it. Because when we talk about #housing4youth we need to talk not in terms of disadvantaged safety nets, but about advantage building trampolines and ladders that enable people to thrive.
In the UK we have been experimenting with offering young people such advantaged thinking programmes. Giving them access to the three ingredients of coaching, flexible investments, and communities with high aspirations. Working with employers, such as Virgin Trains, Toyota and Ford, to provide contexts where young people can build their confidence and thrive. The programmes are not only successful, they are also more cost effective in applying smaller, more targeted investment to develop assets.
The argument boils down to a choice: we can either continue to present young people as disadvanged youth to fund their deficits; or we can see young people as 'opportunity youth' and look to invest in the assets they need to develop to become thriving members of our society. And let's be clear, we can't afford to choose the first option anymore. Not just morally, but economically. In America, the 6.7 million young people struggling to make a positive transition will cost almost $14,000 dollars a year between the ages of 16-24. If the same number remain as disadvantaged youth, they will cost the American tax payer a staggering 4.75 trillion dollars over the course of their lifetime. We need to make a breakthrough.
That's why, in the UK, we have introduced a concept called Open Talent - to help make the shift from disadvantaged to advantaged thinking. Open Talent has a simple but powerful idea: that every young person has a talent, and that it's our job to work with young people to help them harness that talent for personal and social good . It offers five domains of inquiry, which effectively question how #housing4youth can be developed.
First, Open Talent PLACES. Places where young people can go to be inspired, to feel safe as part of an empowering community, and to begin a conversation on how they can achieve their dreams. Where are those places in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about places that can grow young people's talents.
Second, Open Talent PEOPLE. People - professionals, mentors, peers - who can coach, enable, and connect young people, not just support them. Where are those people in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about how the people within them will develop young people's talents.
Third, Open Talent OPPORTUNITIES. Opportunities where young people can identify what they are good at, nurture their potential, and promote their ability to employers. Where are those opportunities in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about the opportunities available through them for young people to build their talents.
Fourth, Open Talent DEAL. A deal where young people can access the investment required for them to take the risk to break out of coping behaviour and commit to build a more sustainable livelihood. Even the hotel I'm staying at understands the idea of offering a deal - I have a booklet on my bedside called 'here's the deal'. Where is the deal for young people in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about the deal that can be offered to make a positive investment in young people's talents.
And fifth, Open Talent campaign. A campaign to challenge the stereotypes and myths that young people can only be supported to cope with their disadvantages through deficit-based approaches. A campaign to show that young people can and must develop the talents to thrive in life. Where is that positive campaign for young people in New York? When we talk about #housing4youth, we need to talk about the campaign for that housing to provide a springboard for young people's futures and not just a safety net for their problems.
These five elements constitute a revolution. A Talents revolution. When I was flying over from London, I noticed that my in-flight entertainment was full of films about revolutions: the French Revolution (Les Miserables); the Iranian Revolution (Argot); the political and social revolution that led to the abolishment of the slave trade in America (Lincoln). The proliferation of films about revolutions in Hollywood perhaps tells us something about the uncertain nature of the times we are living in. Part of our revolution is about establishing a more positive paradigm. One where the DNA of how we think about and work with young people is based on a positive belief in their talents. It's about challenging the aspirations we hold for each young person; challenging the aspirations our services instill in young people; and challenging the aspirations of policy and decision makers in society for the type of outcomes they expect and invest in for young people.
I will leave you with three signposts to help you approach this revolution. Beginning with Thomas Paine, an important influence behind the American revolution. Paine was part of a group of thinkers who believed that everyone was entitled to the advantages they were born with - namely the fruits of one's labour and the land that we are born on. If Paine was alive today, he would add another advantage; that the rights of human include being seen as a person who has talent. Talent is not the preserve of celebrity or priviledge. Everybody has a talent. Once we understand that, we can better argue for the need to invest in young people as opportunity youth, so that they and we can harness their talent in society. How to make that investment can be understood by turning to the work of one of the world's leading thinkers, the American Martin Seligman. Seligman's brilliant 'Flourish' clearly outlines the difference between interventions that focus on helping to people to cope, and those that build the resilience and wellbeing for people to thrive. Seligman's work offers an evidence and practice base to invest in the talents to thrive. His approaches are widely used in the world of business, in education and other sectors. Why aren't we using them? My final signpost, New York, can help. The city might have changed alot over the last decades, but it retains two constant characteristics; it's sense of dynamic energy and it's pioneering innovation. We must draw on that energy and innovation, and inspire ourselves to create #housing4youth that looks beyond the status quo to the principles and approaches of people such as Paine and Seligman.
In celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Foyer in Birkenhead, like you, is not just looking back at its past, it's also looking to its future. The Foyer will be one of the first services this year to achieve our new accreditation for organisations who are applying Advantaged Thinking, Open Talent solutions. I'd like to think that, in the same spirit you developed central park and the Foyer here in New York, you'll also want to take Open Talent and make it your own, so you can join us in turning the end of youth homelessness into the beginning of youth talent.
Channel Four’s Secret Millions ‘Popup Talent Shop’ episode
offers some welcome respite from political debate on benefit payments. After
a week that has seen the stakes raised following the Daily Mail’s provocative association
of the Philpott tragedy with the Government’s claims against so-called ‘benefit
scroungers’, Secret Millions has thankfully uncovered a more positive human story
against the grain of stereotypes.
Parties on both sides will continue to argue about controlling benefits
through ever more crude and complex systems of conditionality, particularly for
those unemployed young people aged 16-25 from challenging homeless backgrounds who
end up living in Foyers. But the answers to the issues in theri lives are unlikely to
come from Westminster. Beveridge aside, Government attempts to bring about
solutions have actually created more social problems over the past decades than
they have ever fixed.Universal Credit
and ‘welfare reform’ are just another shaking of the precarious policy jelly. To
steal a quote from Bill Ford, the CEO of General Electric, a growth equity
company investing in enterprise in emerging global markets, ‘I hope the role of
Government remains benign neglect’.(See
Chrystia’s Freeland’s ‘How to get rich from the eastward tilt’, International
Herald Tribune, April 5, 2013). Benign neglect for Ford has meant that ‘poorer’
countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Nigeria are now producing the latest
Steve Jobs as entrepreneurs begin to thrive in the gaps left to tackle unmet social
challenges.These are the same gaps
where charities once flourished as a source for innovation in the UK. But in
more recent times, the role of charity has often been diminished through closer
ties to state funding and the deficit-based thinking that has characterised
much of its commissioning of services and subsequent cuts.With current high rates of youth
unemployment, there has never been a more urgent time to find ‘new ways to
work’. Thankfully, Secret Millions suggests charities can still lead social
change - using the power of young people’s talents, a little help from some
friends, and a healthy dash of pioneering spirit.
The Foyer Federation is a case in point. It has long argued
that the right investment in ‘something’ for a young person can lead to
‘something else’ that reaps huge personal and social gains.In 2009, the Federation began to articulate
this as an ‘Open Talent’ strategy, introducing a range of inspirational initiatives
aimed at involving young people in finding, nurturing and promoting their
talents – the majority of which have been funded by forward thinking
organisations such as Virgin Unite, the Society for Motor Manufacturers and
Traders, Monument Trust and Esmee Fairbairn. The focus on assets, not deficits,
is where the Federation is breaking important ground.Open Talent suggests that ‘support’ should
not be about how to help someone cope with deficits; its sole purpose should be
how to enable someone to build the assets required to thrive in life, to find
and use their talents.This is the
approach of the entrepreneur: looking for, developing and investing in the
advantages that will create sustainable solutions.Not surprisingly, the Federation’s partners
for Popup Talent include a social enterprise (GoodPeople), a youth leadership
charity (Changemakers), and local community services like Braintree Foyer who
are prepared to take a lead in doing things differently.Together with the freedom of two years
Lottery funding, this is a rich mix for transforming lives.
In the Popup Talent episode, we see young people freed to
express their enterprising nature to find and make work; to be part of their own solution.Secret Millions shows us that it is not
‘hand outs’ that young people need to do this, but ‘hand ups’ – opportunities,
guidance and encouragement to build and exploit the personal assets that we
take for granted in our lives.The Big
Lottery funding awarded in Secret Millions will enable the Federation to do
just that, by filling a gap in the benefit debate in which young people still fail
to receive the emotional and social capital to invest in their future.
Arguments about the size of the hand out needed for someone
to live on are of course vitally important; but without any focus on the hand
up that will build someone’s asset base, the arguments are lost in an endless
‘something-for-nothing’ debate of their own making. The real missing
‘something’ is not the commitment of young people, but whether or not they have
the opportunity to develop and promote their assets to offer something back.That ‘something’ must come from ‘somewhere’
if we are to help young people move on in their lives for the benefit of
society, and it is sadly not coming from the majority of Government funded job
centres and work programmes where the neglect in developing young people’s
talents is not so much benign as wastefully ignorant.If payment by results for job centres and
work programmes was properly linked to nurturing talent, then the current
system would be seen for what it is: hopelessly out of touch, no longer fit for
purpose, in need of real innovation.
Secret Millions reminds us of The Big Lottery’s crucial role
as an intelligent funder: to free up charities and the young people they work
with to ‘thrive in the gaps’; to reveal and empower the hidden millions of
people and ideas that are missed beneath the headlines and policy statements. Why
not believe that young people from challenging backgrounds actually have talent
and potential? Why not provide a job centre model and a work programme approach
that tries to build those talents? Why not involve young people in devising and
developing the content of how these centres and programmes might work? Why not enable employers to develop more
upstream relationships with the young people who could become part of their future
talent pool?Why not save taxpayers’
money by investing more intelligently in positive, flexible, personalised
approaches, that are proven to work. Such questions won’t be found in the
current arguments about benefits, but they badly need to be asked.
Popup Talent introduces a very different perspective to traditional
concepts of welfare. I call it ‘fair wealth’, and it involves us all in how we
think about and work with young people in amore ‘advantaged thinking’ way than the current obsession with
‘disadvantage and need’.It offers a
simple three dimensional solution: treat
young people not as problems in the system but as potential assets for society;
invest in what young people actually require to build their own thriving life,
including the space to take risks, fail and be enterprising; and collaborate
with young people to harness their experiences as part of a community of
relationships able to create its own solutions, including future employment
‘Fair wealth’ is about being more measured, rational and
just in how we invest in the development of our shared future capital - young people.Ensuring each young person grows up as an
asset to society is an aspiration and a responsibility none of us can afford to
hide from too. It is our ‘something’,
our part of the deal. As Secret Millions shows, it’s also a much more exciting
and engaging story to be involved in than arguments about welfare that have long
since lost the plot.