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

Sunday, 21 September 2014

A trip to Kangan Foyer, a home for Advantaged Thinking

 At the immigration museum, in Melbourne, they talk about the symbolic power of the suitcase - something a traveller takes with them (if lucky enough to have one) in hope or fear of the journey ahead. Since my bag had got lost in transit, it seemed rather appropriate to ponder its significance. Rather like a home, the suitcase is a material comfort zone, and to be without it has its own sense of displacement. But what was more important to me – the clothes in the bag, or the memories, feelings and ideas in myself? We pack stuff in the suitcase, when the important thing is what we unpack from ourselves through our connection with others.

I have been lucky on my third trip to Melbourne to be in the company of the wonderful people from The Brotherhood of St Laurence and Hanover.  Friday, I got my first chance to visit the Kangan Foyer in Broadmeadows, about 30 minutes outside the city centre, which last time I was out here was just a concept and a set of drawings the organisations were working on together with me. It was truly magical to see its bold, vibrant colours rise up in the landscape, and then open the front door to the sign ‘welcome home’ hanging in reception. 

The Foyer is the only service that has been fully shaped through Advantaged Thinking and Open Talent concepts from the very outset, so what you see in the building design, the staffing, the programme, and the community of young people, is an expression of the philosophies in practice.

And what a sight it is: space, light, colour, welcoming faces, bundles of activity, places to do things, and all the vibrant chaos that makes a community alive and real.  With a huge kitchen area as the hub of the service, a beautiful patio with views of the hills, and a mixed group of young people from different backgrounds, you immediately feel part of a positive family setting. Only the young people here are all called students – and the point becomes very clear that this is about a collegiate environment to learn and develop in, with access to all the facilities of the local college that shares the same land area.

I was able to join in a session with the students talking about what they thought the values of the Foyer are.  I’ve always judged a Foyer from how the people living and working inside interact with you as a person, and I was gripped by the quality of the exchange in the session just as much as in the informal conversations over a barbecue. The values recognised ranged from being bold, aspirational and imaginative, to strength, consistency and honesty, to teamwork, approachability and respect, to diversity and kindness, openness and intuition. It was an amazing choice of words from an amazing group of people. Who wouldn’t want to live among them?


One of the messages I am here to share on my trip is the importance of using our values to invest real value in young people.  Adult institutions often think they are the guardian of values, but the reality is that we lose sight of what our values mean, until we become their antithesis in what we do and how we behave to each other.  Look at some of our mean spirited social policies, and the competition between organisations in the charity sector, and you see exactly what happens when we lose our grip on what defines us as humans. Maybe it’s the young people, the students of the Kangan Foyer, who can best remind us of what we have lost in the baggage of growing up.  If values mean anything, they are defined in how we create communities where we all feel at home.


For further information, see:

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Adventures of tATa-man - post show reflections


The performance is over. I’m reminded of something Fassbinder wrote: what happens when the credits finish rolling, the audience leaves, and you are left with yourself in shadows.  You realise that, while you may - hopefully - have left an imprint on others, you can only feel emptiness where the words and images had lived in your heart, slowly filling up like a dam with the next emotional current to feed on.  It’s a bit like wandering into a desert where the eye of a lake has been burnt out, feeling the horizon sun brand your lips with its memory.

There is nothing you can ever do to feed the hunger of ‘remedial child’.  I’m not brave or courageous at all; I’m just a car driven by a memory of pain that is remorseless in its desire to voice all the things it sees a connection with and wants to reclaim.

4 years ago, on my first visit to Japan, I woke up in the early morning, crying in abandonment, with the memory of my grandfather choked in my mind. I had no idea why I was crying or why I was thinking of him. On my return home, I discovered that the man I never saw in my life or previously gave any consideration to, would walk through Farringdon meat market every morning, just as I do now, and his first name was given to me as my middle name – the one I like to use with my friends. So there I was, thousands of miles away in a country he never visited, thinking of him as though the closet person in my life had died. I suddenly caught a  glimpse of the deep DNA link we have with our ancestors; a water well, frozen in space in time, while we stagger in thirst. And so, the performance was dedicated as a gift to him, just as the ideas in it were gifted to the audience in whatever way they wished to receive them, to generate an energy that might break through the ice, a ‘source’ banana to feed new action.

It’s time to finish writing the script now – or at least to say there way one – and put it away in a box on the shelf. What next, my friends ask? Social shiatsu, canary freedom and fusion, are all dear to me though perhaps beyond the remit of Foyer Federation. Of course, there are many ideas still to come, just as there will be many other people running down different tracks with fresh vision. I only know that I’m moving on, flourishing with my remedial mind…
Check out the story from the 6th August show:

Thursday, 5 June 2014

People First

After two interesting evenings spent at a YMCA London celebration at City Hall, and a Lankelly Chase hosted conversation about the concept of ‘Housing First’, I feel compelled to ponder the question of why the charity sector has not been able to translate its work with young people into a more urgent issue of social justice. Looking out over the view from City Hall, what one is faced with is one of the worst poverty gaps in the western world;  but what one sees is just more housing developments along the river.  We don’t seem to be getting the message.

At the YMCE event, Chief Executive Denise Hatton identified that YMCAs were brilliant at getting on with the ‘doing’, but not always very good when it came to talking about the significance of what they did.  It would be easy to see that as just a challenge for a communications and fundraising team, or another reason to bemoan why the media and Government are more obsessed with headlines of far less significance. There is something more fundamental at stake though: that somehow the charity sector gets easily lost in the wrong narrative of what we are meant to be doing as charity.  On the same YMCA platform, we were treated to a fascinating story about a young person who had benefited from a YMCA, who chose a telling quote from Nelson Mandela to illustrate the importance of the YMCA experience: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice’.  Reminded of the City view, I wondered for a moment if it was not the purpose of charity today, in filling the gaps in our society, to fight for the ‘act of justice’ required to overcome poverty in a more sustainable way. Is that not what we should be ‘doing’?

Which is where Housing First becomes interesting, as a ‘model’ developed from the principle that access to housing should be a fundamental human right. Housing First seeks to find a way to put that human right into practice for people experiencing homelessness, so that housing becomes the initial bedrock around which other services can be connected and support issues addressed.  At the Lankelly Chase event, I was fascinated in the language used by the experts sharing their work on Housing First. They went out of their way to explain it was not of course just about the housing. It was, as I would describe it, more of a ‘people first’ approach, in which the concepts of empowerment and choice were the fundamental touchstones brought to the surface by putting a focus on housing first into the support dynamic. However, the word I kept hearing, again and again, was that Housing First was for ‘homeless people’.  Not people experiencing homelessness, with a whole set of characteristics and issues wrapped around who they are and why they are in that context; but the dehumanising stereotype, ‘homeless people’, with the usual array of problem and negative-based language attached to it. The ‘people’ at the very heart of the empowerment and choice process, by that very language of 'homeless first', were unintentionally being imprisoned within a narrative where they can never find their rights as a ‘person first’. Which is not to diminish the importance of the Housing First model, or criticise the experts sharing its important insights; it is a signification that the rights we need to talk about are not just those associated with housing, but our very concept of what it is to be a ‘person first’.

If you have heard me speak, you might know that I like to talk about the work of Thomas Spence and Thomas Paine, both associated with the concept of ‘the rights of man’. Looking at their arguments about the rights to have somewhere to live and some way to earn a living, one can see a gap in their 19th Century thinking that we can add to today: the right to be seen as a person of value. Or what you might call the right to be seen as someone who has assets, ability, talent, positives, character – whatever society will value and invest in. If that was a human right, what would it mean for the touchstones of empowerment and choice so lacking for some people in our social system? 

In 2009, The Foyer Federation began to take what I now realise was a ‘talent first’ approach: to try - in a similar way to Housing First – to change the conversation and approach on how services work with people based on looking at their potential first instead of just their problems.  Where we have reached in that process, is realising that the answer will never be found alone in workforce development, service design, commissioning, impact evaluation, another innovative programme with funding, etc. The answer is in what all those ‘doing things’ can add up to; how they can create the ‘act of justice’ to alleviate the issue that lies at the heart of why YMCAs, Housing First, and Foyers exist. That ‘issue’, I believe, is how we think about, understand, talk about, involve, and value the people who we work with and for. 

At the Foyer Federation, we call this Advantaged Thinking, and we are launching a Movement to attract those ‘doers’ who want to develop the cause.  Where will it go? Perhaps one day, we will be able to rewrite the words of Nelson Mandela, and say: Charity is an act of justice to overcome poverty in everything we do. That’s the type of charity I want to keep ‘doing’.

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

Sunday, 1 June 2014


‘Nosferatu lands on British shores’ is becoming a predictable headline to the UK’s irrational arguments on immigration. In the 1920’s, German society’s fears about eastern migrants were famously evoked on film through the vampire caricature of Nosferatu. The migrant perceived as a source of plague , someone who sucks people’s blood and brings terror to local communities, is now all too familiar. Today, primeval concerns against ‘otherness’ are played out through debates about the impact of migrants on British jobs and the welfare state.  However the political elite try to portray Ukip, the language of ‘swivel eyed loons’ carries far less potency than the image of the so-called ‘illegal immigrant’ stealing our jobs and national identity without being able to speak the Queen’s English. Ukip might look and sound a bit odd, but the Nosferatu they have conjured up into public consciousness is a far greater magnet for people’s loathing.
What we are seeing are the laws of Disadvantaged Thinking in full play: you remove someone’s humanity under a classification such as ‘immigrant’ or 'homeless'; you tag the stereotype with negative associations until they all become ‘illegal’ and 'feckless'; you narrow understanding of the issues at stake into a limited dialogue  that distorts reality; you invest time and resource disproportionately on controlling a problem that is part of a bigger issue you choose to ignore; you focus on the deficits you see rather than work on harnessing the potential assets to society; you apply a different set of values than those you would in your own personal life; and you don’t challenge yourself to question what your attitudes and behaviour add up to as a human being. Bingo. The Dis-feratu of Ukip and the Coalition Government; one blaming immigrants, the other young people.
Thus, we end up in a 'doublethink' position where, while people migrating from EU states pay more tax than they receive in benefit, and are less likely than UK nationals to claim out of work benefits, we accuse people from Eastern Europe of holding back the UK economy and swindling the system. Indeed, far from stealing our livelihoods, 17.2% of foreign nationals have set up businesses, creating 12% of current British jobs.  Similar disparities in belief and reality exist for young people tatooed by policy makers with the letters 'NEET'.  In both cases, the facts count for nothing against the images that populate our consciousness. Migrants are the new ‘disadvantaged youth’ of our cultural imagination – a bin to recycle our social challenges and failings into an enemy we can hold responsible.   Who cares that even the Governor of the Bank of England thinks capitalism needs to invest more in the social capital of others, when the creakings of the social contract can more easily be blamed on the refugees and yobs of our distorted imagination. We are a society in denial to its abuse of values.
There is something, though, positive about this: British Politics might just be beginning to wake up from its addiction to stereotypes and sound bites under the threat that it has lost the power to touch our soul more deeply than a xenophobic argument.  It is becoming hoist by its own media petard, and it knows it.  Reacting to the success of UKIP in the council elections, Overseas Development Minster Lynne Featherstone MP described to the BBC;All of us have got to the point where we are so guarded, so on-message that we seem to have started to lose our humanity and I think it’s a very human thing that’s happened.’ 
For some time, the status quo in the UK has been more about controlling society to cope with the perceived threat of negative forces, than creating a fairer, equitable world in which we can all thrive. Not used to galvanising people’s power to shape a positive future, our politicians don’t seem to know how to stop Nosferatu from stealing their shadowy soapbox.  If they, like us, can push back the stereotypes of Disadvantaged Thinking, and focus on the humanity of what we can do together, then we are all more likely to see the light of tomorrow’s dawn - where Nosferatu 'dis'-appears in a puff of smoke.

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

Sunday, 27 April 2014

2021: a space for odyssey

By 2021, the first cohort of young people born in this millennium will reach their transition threshold. What we already know is that a significant number will not be in a position to harness their talents.  In the 21st century, we have become the social parent lacking the leadership skills to equip the generation growing up under our watch.  How do we create a different environment that enables all young people to thrive?   

We have a world of diminishing resources, we have an ageing population; we simply can’t afford not to have our main social asset – young people – fulfilling their full potential.  Nor can we pretend that their failure is just the fault of the individuals involved.  When our millennium turns 21 in 7 years time, it needs to face up to its responsibility as an adult by accepting the challenge to shape its own future. One in which all young people can be connected with their talent potential by the age of 21, and know where and how to take the next step in their life. A future where we begin to be more clever about what we invest in to make change happen throughout people’s lives. 

 Our millenium needs to make space for a new odyssey in thinking - by reimaginging the face and voice of charity.  They say charity begins at home; and perhaps the truth is that the home of our social challenges is reflected in the way that charity works.  Because charity is not always working as it could.  The type of charity that has to raise money by peddling stories of despair and competing against each other to support problems is no charity to human potential.  It’s a disadvantaging voice, locked in a narrative where we never learn how to bring about an end to the issues that charities are meant to resolve.   Too much charity in the 21st century is in danger of becoming like reality TV – you can’t always be sure what its authenticity is, the format is stale, and few people can be bothered to track what happens next when the audience has switched over to the next big thing. 

So what does the home of our charity need?  A refreshed vision:  clarity to look ahead to see what needs to be done to live a life that is more advantageous for more people; relentless energy to reach out to work with those who can best help our society achieve that change. It needs the courage to replace our trade in deficits and disadvantage with the ‘know how’ to transform talents.  Above all, it must mark a ‘shift’ in defining what we believe is possible, and take us on an epic journey to embrace how we can choose to live our lives.

On the 30th April, Foyer Federation will be celebrating its 21st birthday.  Among the memories, it will offer up a 7 year vision to create a different story for and with young people by 2021.  What chapters that story will contain, and how exciting the narrative might be, will depend on who wants to write its future.  I’m looking forward to finding out…

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

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