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

Saturday, 15 November 2014


Autumn is the season between. Things fall away, turn in colour, reveal otherness in them. Summer is waiting to be wintered out.

Walking through leaves in London’s St James Park, I read the news on my phone: Beat Bullying is in administration. A man stooped on a bench looks up from his vain interest in empty larger cans, to register my surprise with a grim gummy smile.

Today, I’m reading stories of how staff at Beatbullying were themselves bullied inside a ‘business’ careering out of control. Like the Roman Empire facing barbarians, this seemed a leadership imperious to the idea of loss.  It kept on killing because it had the power to make others submit. Until, flagless in the field, a golden eagle gone, bodies begin to speak from the carnage.

We look to the hollow centre, choking on disgust.  How could a charity responsible to fight bullying, appear to bully others? But lynching crowds miss the real story. Beatbullying is all of us. Whatever gets proven, those wielding its power had reached a point of truth: for in the darkness of our modern Charity is a brutal void. All Beatbullying did, perhaps, was occupy its empty heart.

Once upon a time, the word Charity equated to love. Then, it was alms for poor people -  the deserving, the undeserving. We became an industry; companies; the business of doing good with contracts.  Now, there are more innovators employed to develop fundraising campaigns than those creating ideas to eradicate the issues we are meant to address. Charity has moved from the ‘giving’ of love and solutions, to the ‘getting’ of funds and the delivery of project plans within structures of work, pay, and governance that are devoid of love. Where the most precious resource, the staff who work with direct relationships on the ground, are paid and supported the least. 

The adverts, the impact stories, the speeches and tweets; we are the science that has learnt to sell disadvantage for itself. We are the graffiti makers of trickledown compassion.

Charity is a muddied, constrained word that loses value each time it is spoken. I don’t believe it anymore. I want to beat its hurt. Beatcharity for something else - a feeling, a being that can make intelligent love breathe among us again, from lost city estate to lonely field. I imagine a revolution led from the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, taking back its assets from the hands of those who have vacated the responsibility to believe in a different shape.

I’m walking in St James’ Park. There are less leaves now. Couples seek comfort in clutched hands. I wonder, how many of them know this place is named after a leper colony, dedicated to a man beheaded for his beliefs?  That’s what it means to love.  Prepared to lose everything, prepared to live everything; in pure integrity. Not the compromise of another bullied year to survive. 
The martyrs die in silence among us, beaten by our life.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Radio reality

Logic models face a challenge when they touch the human face of feeling.  No matter what the fidelity system  -  the values, the intentions, the authentic purpose – their words exist only in the agile interact between a model and the matter of experience from which our lives are drawn. Like sandpaper against a fresh scar.

The most interesting leaders are those that thrive in the conflict of play between our internal and external world. It’s where the pearl of learning resides. How we shape and are shaped. The humans that do are preciously rare fragile angels of ice holding molten iron to heat our hearts.

We are receptors for feelings that stretch back generations, mixing within our identity, our senses, our taught responses, our instincts.  Radio reality.  The best we can do is embrace each aspect of being and know its use: those to be left behind; those to explore; those we are not ready for yet.  While it is true we cannot be defined by our feeling, our feelings are acts of becoming.   

I write a lot about ‘complex’ emotions because within their sharp figurines are transformations.  The decision points of our spirit.  I’m not afraid of the past negative, because I know it can be remade a brilliant diamond. It’s one of the amazing traits of the young people I’ve witnessed; their capacity to blossom out from pain.  The up-cycling of human courage.  Advantaged thinking, therefore, is not just about pinning up gold stars to smiles. The philosopher's stone needs blood too.

In the East, they believe in the laws of the universe; the cause and effect that threads through life.  Our propensity is to code the feelings we see in young people as a sickness to be cured. We fail to see the signs of the coal-mine canary in the cage of youth, pointing back to us. We are the cause of the effects around and inside us; while we live out effects from the cause-line we have been born from. And we do it in rigid silence. Adults luxuriate in the knowledge of a system flawed to the core of executive office chairs.

Confined in such models, we rationalise ever new structures, to hide from our inability to love each other as the people we really are…...........scared of.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Feelings never go away. They are cat paws in cement.  Some nights, they chase you down and mug you.

The lights through a train window flicker back years. You are running out of the pub in a purple blue hippy dress. ‘You don’t care,’ are the words crushed under a falling wall of tears; letters left to hang in the air like a child’s floating balloon tied to my dumb head. I’m sitting alone, fingering a cracked glass. Even its slice of lemon is shrivelled, gin-less.

All I remember was, you said you were going to do a PhD, and I replied – ‘oh, on what?’  It was the broken spell; the moment a thread that held our hearts ripped.  What - what - what.... Oh.

 I got up to follow.  Like the film we were in expected something. You’d run across the road, weaving into the crowd beneath the city castle, until your dress blurred into too many colours to distinguish a presence. I thought, if I could reach you now, could we go back to the beginning? Do it all again, without crossings out? In the street at night, by a grilled shop-front, hugged together to the touch of cold metal – that was the moment.

The sky begins to rain.  Outside the pub, someone I don’t even know is weeping  under a grey hoodie.   ‘Fuck you,’ I hear them say.  Their face lifts, with eyes so burnt with red, it’s as though someone has scooped them out infront of me.  

I watched myself walk home, like when I was so small, I watched myself watching someone hit someone else  - in front of me.   I found a distance to be outside my body, so whatever happened to me, in that moment, I wouldn't be there to be hurt by it.  Maybe that's why the feeling keeps coming back. Because it couldn't get me. And it wants to, each time someone cries and looks at me, it wants to. The hit; you running away. The hit; you running away.  Under the tears, the eyes keep saying ‘Fucking fuck you.’

We used to take the hand-outs at the back of the lecture hall, slip out to play pool, plot mad schemes, dance by the riverside, listen to Bob Marley with the phone pulled out from the wall.  Jammin. You seemed so happy when you got your son back. We’d present him to the crèche in the morning, the worst parents in the world as he wailed the endless snaking bus journey through tutting stares. It was when you had to give him back, all the drugs started.  ‘You don’t mind,’ you asked, explaining how you’d moved in with the dealer. We were eating soggy lasagne in your room, in front of the TV news so no one could hear us say nothing.  When we met in the corridor, a week afterwards, I didn’t breathe a word. I wanted to pretend that I couldn’t feel anything at all.  'I've hurt you,' you offered, trying  to hunt my gaze; but I shook my head, lost in the peel of paint on a rusting radiator.

It’s the purple blue dress I remember the most: the one she wore when we were happy with each other. I hadn’t seen her wear it again, before that last day atthe pub.  It's always running away from me in my mind. A moth that won’t stop haunting the lampshade with tears.
A few years later, when I was emptying a room, I discovered a beautiful green frog. I meant to give the smiley face to him but he vanished before I ever had the chance. I took it to the charity shop. 'Please,' I asked, 'make sure someone good gets this.' A last touch of velvet left my hands with love.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Toxic - How charity has become the wrong Monty Python joke

When Monty Python were in rehearsals for their comeback this year, one wonders if they reflected on how some of their sketches would stand the test of time.  If they did, then their confidence in performing The Four Yorkshiremen sketch  – a parody on narratives about difficult childhoods – seems sadly well placed.

In the charity sector there is a techincal term to describe the Four Yorkshiremen sketch – it’s called research-based fundraising narratives.  The basic principle is to paint as negative a view of young people as possible, sprinkle a few connections to the inspiring works of the charity publishing the report, and make recommendations which will validate the charity's own needs for further funding. 

Following The Prince’s Trust’s ‘Youth Index’ –  an annual event of self-serving misery – now we have Centrepoint’s ‘Toxic Mix’, a report on the health needs of those they continue to stigmatise as ‘homeless young people’.  Centrepoint has published some useful things in its time, but this report marks a low point.  I have to confess, I didn’t have enough wellbeing to read beyond the executive summary leaflet, which limits my views. But there is plenty here to get upset about.

Let’s start with the pictures.  Centrepoint has made a name for itself in recent years as a campaigner offering black and white images of young people looking sad for us to donate 40p to.  At least we are treated to colour pictures, though their penchant for using actors or posed images remains. One can only assume the young person with a smiling face reading a book in the library wasn’t looking at a Centrepoint report that has hardly a positive word to say about them.

I had harboured the hope that Centrepoint’s successful fundraising was investing in innovation. Indeed, I know that their health work is meant to be pretty good.  It and the people they serve – and let’s not forget that word– deserve far better than a report whose negative language and understanding adds little to the pressing need to address the health inequalities experienced by youth in homelessness contexts.  Not that this is a summary which even mentions the word ‘health inequalities’, or can find in its heart to suggest that young people might also possess the health ability to shape their own thriving futures.

We are told that within Centrepoint, ‘working with young people to address their health needs is a fundamental part of the process…’ But strangely it doesn’t appear to be one that stretches to recommending that anyone should actively involve those young people in defining their experience of a healthy life and how its supports can be shaped. Clearly, young people’s role in this bleak view of charity and health is to ‘get’ rather than to ‘give’. It makes for a thin set of recommendations.

Ironically, the report highlights the important issue of ‘the ongoing stigma associated with mental health’.  I quote: ‘staff reported that young people still hold negative views about mental health and are nervous of talking about problems they may be facing because of the associated negative stereotypes.’ Just exactly how are Centrepoint contributing anything positive to this by continuing to use deficit-based marketing collateral to sell homeless services? Why produce a summary report that offers nothing positive in its analysis to address the idea that mental health has anything other than negative needs-based connotations with this particular group of young people?  I can’t understand how a charity could possibly fail to realise that its own choice of language fuels the general stigma that young people face in our sector and society. As Martin Seligman notes, to flourish, you also need the right words and associations to connect with in your environment. Are we really so ill equipped that we can't identify those things in our health assessments and interviews?

Page 4 of the executive summary produces a little image of a person surrounded by circles explaining the various negative health needs of young people.  There is room on the page, but no attempt to offer any of the qualities that young people show in dealing with their health challenges; in the assets and strengths that they do possess; in the many things that they bring to their community; in their personal goals and resilience to keep going in the face of such misrepresentation.  Despite talking about a ‘young person focussed approach’, young people have actually become a set of ‘needs’ in which they are utimately a ‘homeless’ stereotype first and foremost, an actual person second (See how the Teenage Cancer Trust talk about who they work with ‘as young people first, cancer patients second’ for an alternative).

Like the Monty Python sketch, this becomes an executive summary in which you can almost hear the writer salivating over the worst data they can find to support a cause demeaned by its presentation.  Young people deserve a better future – one they can create themselves when they have the right investments and belief.  A toxic mix of disadvantaged thinking about health needs is no remedy.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Vision on

Eyes strain through new glass. Thin wire frames hold a different way to blink in bi-focus. If only I could look a straight line ahead, not be so distracted by cruel, beautiful jewels of experience.

I watch the blurs between people grow; gaps, edges, the way things don’t blend into each other at all. How colours burst the heart. My head has become a camera, endlessly filming for an empty cinema of thought. Someone will edit out the cuts that don’t fit: people wearing the wrong trousers, talking to themselves, not fitting in; a figure menacingly staring at an empty can of larger. My gaze has got lost in the background story; become too attached to sketchy figures in the corner. An old woman, stooped under her load of unbearable time.

Like an out of control receiver, these glasses of mine pick up alternative channels.  Programmes that would never make the radio times:  break-up-fast; lunch hate; the sweet nothing show; scream until dawn.

What if one could reach beyond the suitcase of each person’s eyes, inside to their packed up feelings, stuffed memories? The witnessing-place of narrative exposed.  The guts of our concealed existence x-rayed out.

I hide in the supermarket from my sight, creeping wearily between shelves, squinting at serving suggestions on tins to escape from too much vision, watching lost souls executed with credit cards they didn’t come to shop for.

When I went to the opticians, the lady instructed me to look to the bottom of her right hand ear as she inspected my left eye. Manicured finger nails pointed me towards a brilliant diamond stud. I tried to stare, but its showy glisten and needy twinkle made me shift.

‘What’s wrong’, she said, ‘Can’t you focus?’

From her diamond, I could see the bottom of a mine: a mouth choking without air in the dark.


Wrong John

I sat down in an empty train carriage at night. The ghosts of littered newspapers, food wrappers, the lonely signs of busy lives returned to home. Then, as the metal and glass cranked forward  through shadowy stations, he emerged. Sharp brown eyes in a canvas of pale skin.  The suspicious young person sitting beside me, like a modern Ancient Mariner with hooded fixed stare: ‘I know it’s not a nice thing to ask really…. Would you have 80p?.’

 I glanced at bitten-nail fingers, the pleading look of a different type of salesman to those who had left the train.  Someone worth at least a smile, which I gave while weighing up the exactness of his amount.

 ‘Yeh, 80p’ he said, reading my mind, ‘I’m that skint man.’

80p for something that was probably not a great thing, though how much worse than what I spend all the 80ps of my life on.  A kitkat? Between one need and another, mine felt far less.

I searched in my pockets, fingering through a chaos of keys and pens for what was only a single 20p coin. ‘It’s all I have on me,’ I said.  ‘What’s your name?’


‘I’m sorry, Jon, it’s not enough –‘

‘Don’t be, it’s appreciated.’

Taking the coin from my palm, he touched-in with a quick handshake. The ritual of exchange.

‘At least,’ I said, as he made to go, ‘it’s half what Centrepoint ask for…’

‘What’s that?’

‘The Centrepoint advert. You haven’t seen it? It says, just 40p could give John a safe place to live.’

‘Well, they’ve got the wrong Jon mate. I need twice that, and I don’t know anywhere I’d call safe.’

‘You should give them a ring. There’s probably a poster on one of the carriages back.’

‘Fuck that - It’ll cost me more than 40p to call.’ He stuffed the coin into his trousers and abandoned me to my thoughts. 

The wrong Jon…

When the real world collides with us, we feel somehow diminished and poor of love.  Or more aware of the fault lines and cracks in our image. If only there was an advert that could actually give Jon something, instead of asking us to give to someone else who claims to know him – because who is ever going to trust jon. I started to imagine a train filled  up with Jon’s, with people like us walking up and down asking for something of value.  What would Jon give us, I wondered? Probably a lot more than 40 or even 80p’s worth of experience.  Though, like me, we wouldn’t know how to ask him for it.  We are so far down the wrong track of value and exchange, we don’t even know what the journey is anymore.  

At that point, I realised I had missed my stop …

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Doing charity differently

'Charity begins at home’ has long been a refrain associated with selfish detachment. Of ignoring social and international responsibilities to focus on ourselves and our personal economic wellbeing.  It’s a hackneyed expression, but one that has a hidden truth to be cherished. We have, for too long, mistaken charity as an act of giving alms, rather than its original association with acts of love.  There are many things to be said against piling up the pennies for one’s self, as an individual or a country; but the absence of love in our own home is something which makes us all less able to shape a thriving world.

As I reflect on my own career in charity, and look over a Berlin-wall of branded fences into the living rooms of other youth charity families, I am left with a horrible feeling that we have become homeless through the disassociation of our love from the causes we are meant to be working for. We develop our skills as project managers, budget holders, communication and relationship experts; we become coaches, counsellors, trainers, mentors; and we all want to be entrepreneurs, innovators, the next big thing.  We go on team building days, we explore our Myers Briggs and other personal and team profiles, we develop a culture and a way of working, we express our values. All this, while we work on programmes and campaigns to improve the lives and prospects of the young people we care for, with the promise that they themselves are the opportunity to transform the narrative of disadvantage which has challenged their lives.

What we don’t do is open up the engine to look into the deeper reality of who we are, where we have come from, and the potential that exists in and between us to recycle and transform our personal narrative into something that can create a different future.  While we might be moved to consider that as a programme to invest in for young people, we are less likely to consider that as worthwhile for ourselves. Which is where the problem exists: we are not authentic, and can never be so while we grapple with or blankly ignore our own inner narratives of being and conflict that we project out through our work onto and with others.  Until we realise that, we will forever be talking about making a breakthrough in the changing paradigm without achieving it, free-falling through space without realising the parachute cord is held between our hearts.

Charity does not do charity, because it is lost in a model of working and organising that is from a different world. Walk into an office, look around the people inside it; see beyond the computer-screen eyes to a hidden place of feeling, experiences, ancestral conflict, secrets, and the huge possibility to connect and shape all that into a new energy to thrive from.  How can we be so complacent to miss that; how can we not see the obvious connection between who we are and the challenges we are trying to address in our society?

There is a fusion to be had, within the home of charities, and between the homes of different charities, that would profoundly change the shape of the sector into a revolutionary community. Just imagine – a charity that is a home for human development; that authentically lives how to transform narrative and maximise personal potential through others in itself; that has abandoned the restrictions of replication for the abundant energy of continual innovation; that can be a philosophers stone to turn disadvantage into advantage.

Perhaps I feel this more strongly than ever in a week when the past has collided with my mind in the form of Lorna Sage, the wonderful teacher and writer who was the subject of one of my former blogs  Her name came up this week in conversation, and with it memories of something important she was trying to tell me one night in 1992 about the concept of ‘bad blood’. Lorna’s turned on its head the idea that we were left to hand down the bad blood of our ancestors - because the power of language and literature for her was something that could genuinely transform personal and social narratives into something new. In the book that idea would became in 2001, Lorna left us a well of good blood to nourish the future.  She also left us, perhaps, something of a challenge; not to neglect the personal history of who we are, and the importance of taking back control of one’s story in order to escape from it. 

That is a challenge which charity is to busy 'doing alms' to begin to see. Charity is failing in its responsibilities to begin charity at home. It urgently needs to wake up and start again, reclaiming its narrative from campaigns and contracts into something more beautiful.  Like the young people our sector is meant to represent, we are in danger of becoming a lost generation of missed potential to change and transform the story we all own part of in our self.  Let’s spill some shared blood and paint the canvas differently.