I’ve left it a while to write up this experience because at the time it felt like there was too much to take in. Back in May I was lucky enough to get off to Birmingham on a Common Purpose Quest. A Quest is an opportunity to travel outside of your familiar area/ region to examine an issue that is, more often than not, shared by everyone, but which we can all learn from each other on by sharing each other’s experiences. The issue that Birmingham was hosting on was ‘diversity’. Birmingham itself boasts one of the youngest populations of the UK, indeed even the fastest growing population. They are also in a race with Leicester to become the first black majority city.

I have to admit that I didn’t arrive in Birmingham with much authority at all! I’ve visited quite a few times in the past but it amazes me how much it changes between visits. The whole city centre felt like a building site, and I can never read maps at the best of times. Needless to say when I finally succumbed to getting a taxi to the venue the cab driver thought I was mad as it was less than a mile away! It’s amazing how lost you can get when you’re in a rush!!

The day was based around some presentations and conversations with local people who had a viewpoint on diversity, and we were encouraged to discover the challenges and opportunities. There was also a chance to go out into the city on some visits to find out, in more detail, about a specific service. Our first speaker was very thought-provoking. He spoke very passionately about how cultural diversity brings a valuable aesthetic dimension to society and widens all of our views and experiences. He also pointed out that, due to globalisation and the improvement of communications technologies, we are in danger of turning into identical robots and will forget to think for ourselves. Therefore any kind of diversity is essential to keep society interesting and culturally rich. He pointed out that identity is not as straight forward as the equality and diversity forms we like to pigeon-hole service users into. He, for example, was born in India, raised in the UK, his parents were from Pakistan and Kenya and is married to a woman from Nairobi – what do his children tick on the form?! Identity we should remember is a complex network and is very, very personal. More on that later…

My visit was to a community centre, which caters for an ethnic minority group who make up 1% of Birmingham’s population. This group, it seemed to me, had struggled to fully integrate into the city, mainly because they were not confined to a geographic area (as you might find with other communities). The centre did some brilliant work to support them – acting as translators, advocates and educators. With the cuts hitting hard the centre will certainly struggle to maintain the level of support they currently offer. It made me think hard about specialist services like this, who are obviously doing a good job, and yet if mainstream services were adequate then the specialist service wouldn’t be required at all? There’s a similar situation happening in Leeds with the Lesbian Gay and Bisexual (LGB) community, who are asking for a specialist centre to be set up for them so that they have a support system that is outside of the traditional gay scene. As a gay man, my concern about this is that it could isolate the LGB community even more. Why do we always want to do things separately from everyone else? Surely the answer is to work on our mainstream services and make them viable and adequate options for people from minority groups so that they feel that they will be supported, they will be looked after and that they won’t be judged if they use them? So, is it that our mainstream services are diverse-phobic or is it that people from diverse backgrounds are phobic of our services? Research that was completed last year (into LGB mental health in Leeds) showed that staff working in mental health services didn’t have the skills to deal with the needs of LGB people. But surely this means that we should train up existing staff/ services, rather than set up a brand new service?

Our final set of conversations gave me some real things to think about. The first lady I sat with was a young, award-winning business woman from the black community. She was very passionate about Birmingham becoming the first black majority city and was joking that she was getting all her friends to have babies. This sat rather awkwardly with me as statistics show that it is people from the diverse communities that have the worst inequalities. If Birmingham is to become the most diverse city then how will it be tackling these inequalities? It’s a challenge for all of us working in large cities. Another comment of hers, which I challenged, was that as black woman she wanted the best for her children, as anyone would, and that she would not want them cleaning toilets as a job. In my view, if I was out of work, then I would be prepared to do any job, including cleaning toilets. I asked her who she would expect to clean toilets if she did not want her children to do it – her answer was that it was for new migrant communities to do it. This sat uncomfortably with me as it made me realise, as someone from a disadvantaged group, that sometimes to succeed in society we risk disadvantaging someone else to get there. Also, because we have such a set ‘hierarchy’ of job roles there will always be someone left at the bottom doing the jobs that no one else wants to. Why is it that a cleaner or a porter is deemed less important than a chief executive when, quite frankly, an organisation would not be able to operate without them.

A more uplifting conversation was with a young entrepreneur who grew up on a large council estate in Birmingham. He had a very heart-warming story about how, when he was doing a paper round, he befriended an old war veteran who ended up becoming an informal mentor to him. He pin points that this scenario led to spurring him on and is the reason why he has gone on to be so successful. Now he is a motivational speaker, encouraging other young people to set up their own enterprises and get good qualifications at school. It’s made me wonder what we could do in Leeds about using intergenerational mentors. It’s a very simple idea but one that could be very powerful for the city.

The other thing that got me thinking was around cultural identity and what it means to different people. One lady, who was Bangladeshi, was born in this country but has a very strong family unit and strong ties to her religion. Her whole cultural identity is about being Bangladeshi. I, on the other hand, have recently found out that my grandfather was a Romany gypsy. But he was encouraged by his family to keep it a secret and so it has never been part of my cultural identity, despite being part of my heritage. This is a real shame as I feel that part of myself has been compromised by history and it supports the comment made earlier that we need to be positive about all diversity so that people can truly be themselves. Unfortunately I doubt that everyone in society is in a position to celebrate their own cultural identity – because of taboos. And I also fear that when we ‘pigeon-hole’ people we are, in turn, compromising their own identities.

So, sorry for the extremely long post, but you can see I had a hugely thought-provoking time in Birmingham. I came away realising that to truly make our local authority reflect the diverse community it serves then we need to properly tackle the problem of inequalities and poverty. There are also some low-cost interventions we could put into place, such as an intergenerational mentors model, which could really make a difference to the lives of lots of people – young and old.


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Banged up!

My final ‘raid’ (a description of what this means in reality is in the previous post!) was exciting for me because I got to have my first trip to prison. We all have our own stereotypical images of prison, none of which are played into reality at HMP Kirklevington Grange. It is mostly an open prison and is home to low risk prisoners who are in the process of rehabilitating back into the community. The prison is one of three of its kind in the country and is one of the cheapest to run as it requires far less staffing than a high security prison. The prison focuses on education, training, volunteer placements and employment opportunities for the prisoners – with the aim of making their transition back into the community as safe and as successful as possible.
The prison itself is great. I had a real positive feeling as I wandered around the grounds, which included residential blocks, a gym, workshops, extensive gardens and outdoor play facilities. The main staff area is an impressive Victorian manor house, which was converted into a young offenders institute last century. I was impressed by the honesty, openness and passion of the staff that I met – who were all extremely knowledgeable. They all gave the impression of having the best interests of the prisoners at heart, despite the contentious relationship I had expected. Similarly the prisoners, who we spoke to over lunch as part of our investigation, had all experienced other institutions and were grateful to be given the chance to sort themselves out at Kirklevington and get back into meaningful activity like training and employment.
Our challenge was to identify some new ideas around how the prison could improve public perceptions of the institution. My first question was why was it important for the prison to have a good image out in the community when it was not the local community they were fulfilling their service obligation to. Ultimately their service will exist and operate regardless of what the public perception is, so why does it matter? It was a shame that on our tours around the prison we did not get to meet any community members as this meant that a big part of the story was missed out. We got to hear from the prison staff and prisoners, but not from local people. Therefore we had to make assumptions about what the public perception was about the prison – and our assumption was that it was negative. Incidentally when I was on the train home a fellow passenger commented ‘look there’s another one of those bloomin crims out’, so perhaps our assumption was the right one?!
Our challenge was made easier by the fact that the prison obviously has a lot of key assets to celebrate. This included:
  • the fact that it’s cheap to run;
  • prisoners, on the whole, want to be there and want to succeed;
  • it can boast a passionate and hard working team of staff;
  • there is lots of evidence of positive work in the community, especially with local charities;
  • there is lots of evidence of successful employment placements that have led to positive outcomes for employers and employees.
Our ideas were based around how the prison could more effectively communicate these successes, such as:
  • Producing ‘video diaries’ of staff and ex-prisoners, so that the public can hear the positive real life stories that we got to hear and which had a real impact on us. These could be uploaded to the website.
  • Articles in the local press about the charity work that is done.
  • A documentary to be made about life in the prison and its success stories – to be shown on local TV in the first instance.
  • Producing ‘virtual tours’ of the prison, to be used on the website so that the public can tour it like we did.
  • The prison to hold an open day for the local community, or host a community event in the vicinity of the prison to bring together prisoners and community members.
  • The prison to train up prisoners to develop a new website and also as communications officers.
It transpired by the end of the presentation that the prison does not have a budget for communications, nor does it have its own website. It also became apparent that the staff were not sure that communicating about their successes was really the way forward for them because it is not part of their core business to the local community. This was disappointing, but confirmed to me the concern that I had at the start of the day – that the challenge for the prison was not to improve public perception at all.
Anyway it also got me thinking about the everyday bureaucracies that exist in the prison (and our own organisations) that mean we may instantly say no or have a ‘but’ up our sleeves every time a certain idea is brought to the forefront. For the prison this was most certainly the communications issue – nationally they do not have a budget for this nor are they encouraged to tackle it. In my own organisation we have started to identify the ‘wicked issues’ that have been issues for decades but which we struggle to tackle effectively – such as inequality between communities. My concern is that the bureaucracy that governs the local authority (it’s our heritage!) will stand in the way of us ever thinking differently and truly tackling our challenges. This in turn becomes our own internal prison and we will struggle to make a difference until we break out of it. On a more positive note I think we are already starting to break down the constraining realms of the local authority – and this is largely due to the arrival of our new and innovative leader – we just need to take this further and also help him to do that!

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City within a city

I’m coming towards the end of my four month stint on the Common Purpose and soon I will be a graduate. If I’m honest I will miss it – each session has been completely different and very exciting, putting me out of my comfort zone. I’ve made a great new group of friends and contacts and it’s been a fantastic opportunity to be whisked across different parts of the North of England making me remember how great the region is for innovation, ideas and dedicated people.

On Tuesday I took part in my first of two ‘raids’. A raid is a chance to be parachuted into an alien environment and be completely immersed in its culture and issues for a day, to then present back some innovative ideas at the end. The idea being that we as individuals can develop our presentation and leadership skills and that the organisations taking part can benefit from having complete outsiders act as consultants on  a challenge for them . Indeed when you are completely immersed in something it’s often easy to be blinded by the obvious.

I found myself at Liverpool University, one of the 20 Russell group academic institutions. I do have some experience of higher education. I studied at the University of Leeds over ten years ago and then my first job was working for the student’s union on their executive team. I played a part in campaigning against top up fees and encouraging better wider participation. It was a great year and I have missed it ever since.

The challenge presented to our small team was that higher education is about to enter a whole new era. Teaching budgets have been slashed by 80% and universities have no other choice but to charge the full £9000 tuition fees. This will undoubtedly put off many new students, who will not want to start life with such a huge debt, but it also puts universities in a new competitive market. With fees set so high students, as consumers, will expect more and more from the institutions that that they choose, and they may even consider using cheaper options abroad. Suddenly the UK’s universities are competing in the global market. We were challenged to identify what it was that Liverpool can use to set it apart from its competition.

To bring us up to speed we were introduced to a range of speakers that included the Head of Alumni, Head of International Students, Chief Executive of Liverpool Vision, Head of Partnerships, Head of Careers and a lecturer, who we were able to cross examine in some cafe conversations. We were also given the opportunity to see the beautiful Liverpool campus – a true asset for the institution.

From all the conversations we were having with the experts one thing stood out for us the most – Liverpool University’s international connections. It has a sister campus in Shanghai and Liverpool’s positioning to great transport links make it an ideal place for students who have designs on vocational travel. In contrast the other asset was the strong local feel that the campus has. Almost all of the university buildings are bunched together in one part of the city and it is obvious that hundreds of millions of pounds has been and is being spent on making it aesthetically and practically pleasing. The campus has a relaxed , safe and comfortable feel, something I know would appeal to prospective new students and their parents. What’s more the university promises to house all of its first year students in university owned halls on campus. This is a great asset as my experience of working in Leeds is that this is a very rare thing to be able to do – in Leeds our clearing students could end up living in Bradford or Wakefield if there was nowhere else to go!

With that in mind we pitched it to the Pro Vice Chancellor that the university should play upon its international opportunities but also the fact that its campus is a city within a city. We used the tag line ‘why choose one university when you can have the world?’ Our more specific idea was that the university could offer its students credits (which could be used towards academic achievement or money off services and accommodation) for taking part in voluntary activities in the local community. This would not only benefit the ‘Big Society’ but would also give students much needed vocational experience – vital for getting a job in this very competitive market.

In hindsight – having been presented with such a broad and complex challenge we perhaps, as a team, should have picked a very small element of it to focus on. I think our ideas reassured the university that they were on the right track with the plans that they did have. I hope they didn’t expect a golden bullet, as not even the best of consultants would be able to do that for anyone in the time given. As for me, it was a great opportunity to revisit a higher education environment ten years on from last being there. It’s a shame that what I was campaigning against back then is now coming into fruition and I hope the new system does not encourage more inequality. Personally, I surprised myself at how quickly I could put a two minute presentation together. It reassured me that I can react positively under pressure. I was pleased that the feedback I received was that I presented from the heart. I think that if you can speak passionately about any topic then half of your battle of winning the audience round is won. I look forward to my next raid in a prison in Yarm. I will aim to be more focussed this time and not try and change the world.

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It’s not what you know…

At our final forum we were asked to consider how important networks are within our own authority. We were introduced to two ‘gurus’ in networks, who on face value appeared to be collecting (so to speak) titles and roles in order to build their own networks. This made me feel slightly uncomfortable at first, as it seemed that only those who are already succeeding in society can become trustees, directors or leaders – where does everyone else start and how do we break into this ourselves without it being a disadvantage to somebody else?

This aside it was actually quite useful to examine how networks operate in my own life and made me recognise how beneficial they are. I am in the process of setting up an underground restaurant in Leeds (Dinner at the Manor). We are still in the very early stages but we have already set our first date and within two hours of announcing it, it was fully booked – by people we had never even met before! I put this down to the networks that we have been able to create, fairly quickly, through Twitter and blogging. This new kind of network allows like-minded people who have never met before, but yet want to get together to do a certain activity or discuss specific subjects. What’s good for us is that we have a ready-made audience and a chance of some free marketing. The next stage will be to create the word of mouth, or hype, by having a successful event that our network wants to go off to talk to others about. It grows like bacteria! What’s more, we’re nearly fully booked for our second event and we haven’t even announced a date yet!

So networks are important. They play a role in making a business successful and in keeping life interesting, fun and enriched. But I do worry that some networks can exclude others – even if they’re not meaning to. Part of my job role is to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in our partnership working. This is easier said than done as even the most robust of arrangements can sometimes feel a bit tokenistic or woolly. Plus our field of health and wellbeing, whilst being extremely important, is not always the most interesting for everyone – why would Joe Bloggs want to get involved and have their say on a service change when it probably confuses most of us? Most of us are happy getting by only interacting with services when we need them, leaving the usual suspects to take part in the involvement, the networking. Is there a more practical way of being part of a network that doesn’t use up too much precious time, is interesting to take part in and which is meaningful to our public services? If our current involvement networks only link in with the same old people then are the needs of everyone else even being considered? Answers on a postcard!…

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The theme for our second core day of Common Purpose was ‘courage’. We were warned that our comfort zones would be stretched and that we should step up to the challenges of being a leader. I immediately felt the fear (not courageous at all then?!) but then found myself volunteering for all and sundry. For me, I initially felt that the day had nothing to do with courage, that is until I came to reflect on it a few days later.

Our first challenge was to descend on the streets of Newcastle (with a small group of people we had only just met from the Scotland contingent). We had been asked to choose a social issue that we would have to come up with some innovative ideas around solving. Our task in the street was to interview members of the public about our issue – vox pop style. Perhaps rather naively our issue was antisocial behaviour and its impact on community spirit. We must have asked at least 10 people about ASB only to receive the same answer – ‘this is not a problem in Newcastle’. Now, admittedly we could have been in the wrong part of town, or indeed asking the wrong people, but looking around they were right. Newcastle was clean, lacking in graffiti and felt pretty safe. More importantly there was a high police presence. Our interviewees praised the work of the police but acknowledged that there were limitations to its effectiveness as it did not always make young people respect the communities they lived in. This was interesting for me, coming from a strategy perspective. We can put as many interventions in to play, but how do we effectively tackle the social values that are so deeply embedded within generations of families? It’s far too complex, we need to truly understand the communities we work with and not just implement a ‘one size fits all’ intervention, even if it has some success. Anyway, in terms of courage, this made me realise that despite feeling slightly uncomfortable at going up to strangers to ask them probing questions, I actually didn’t mind doing it when pushed. Also, not one person refused to talk to us, which surprised me.

Furnished with our newly found knowledge our next test was to ring a complete stranger on the London course to swap ideas about our issues. There was a look of fear across everyone’s faces as the numbers were dished out – but yet again this was fairly normal stuff. We probably ring people we don’t know at work every day, it’s just a perception that it’s a bit scary. This got me thinking, what are we really afraid of in these situations and what is the worst that can go wrong? Maybe there is a built-in human trait that makes us afraid of speaking to new people and of being in new situations. I wonder how many people end up not trying new things because of their irrational fear of the unknown? In terms of my focus on diversity in this course, it is often fear of the unknown which leads to discrimination. To combat this we need to embrace speaking to new people and trying out new things – in fact is this not a condition of good wellbeing anyway?

Anyway, finally our groups reconvened to put together a three-minute presentation on our findings. We agreed that we’d set up neighbourhood watch groups on social media sites, such as Facebook. We also thought that we could develop a phone app that could be used to confidentially report crimes in the community. Now, I’m a fairly confident public speaker and I did try to take a back seat, but for fear of the failure of our presentation I ended up taking a bit of lead. I’ve since decided that my courage challenge is to have faith in the rest of the group and allow them to shine, rather than always trying to control it.

Now, unbeknownst to us, two common purpose graduates had been drafted in to give frank and honest feedback about our presentations. This feedback session didn’t go down well at all with some feeling that they had been forced in to doing public speaking – something they were not comfortable with at all – only to be criticised. For me, I loved receiving the feedback. It made me think that at work we are not honest at all and we will often dress up a criticism just to be nice. A more productive way of working is to be fair and constructive. So, my second challenge is to try and be more honest with people and to encourage their feedback on my own work – otherwise we’re never going to succeed with anything.

My final challenge of the day was to thank the graduates for their participation – even though everyone was cross with them by now!  I hope I was able to offer them honest and frank feedback just as they had done so for us! Honesty is a gift and as my mother always said ‘lies lead to nothing but trouble’.

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Passion in Preston

When I found out that this week’s session was focussed on ‘passion’ the last place I expected to find myself was at a scrap yard in Preston, but how wrong I was for being cynical! The scrap yard was in fact a very inspirational commercial enterprise. The business is family run and having started small now turns over about £20 million a year. Having lost some passion for recycling and waste management, the owner of the business decided to develop a charity arm of the company. This charity now helps vulnerable young adults to find accommodation, education, training and work experience, with the aim of helping them back into full-time work – often within the recycling business itself.

I felt that there was a lot to be learnt from this model. It would be great if all of our local businesses in Leeds had such a commitment to corporate social responsibility and could see the value in improving local people’s lives, not just in making profits. Our voluntary sector could also benefit from using a model like this. They could ensure themselves a sustainable future by developing commercial enterprises that make money, which can then be spent on services and resources for communities.

The owner of the scrap yard in Preston came to realise that his passion could not be solely fulfilled by creating a flourishing business. He needed to be able to help others as well and share the wealth of his success. To him there was more value in doing social good than in creating capitalist wealth. That in itself is extremely admirable.

I suppose there is a bit of mirroring here with the local authority, as we are expected to make some of our own revenue but also deliver on services for local people. However, soon we may just be giving that money to other providers to run the services for us. Will this mean that we are in danger of losing our passion because we are not working with real people any more? I hope not…


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The brand in me

Last week was the first Common Purpose Forum. The forums take the format of  having a facilitated session in the morning and then structured conversations in the afternoon. These are within allocated groups and we use questioning and coaching skills to try and overcome our own leaderships challenges.

Firstly we had to think about what our own response to change was – do we relish change and embrace every aspect of it, or does it spark intense fear and doubt in us? What I have enjoyed about Common Purpose so far is being asked questions like this, about ourselves, which I’ve never really considered before. So, when asked about where I sit on a continuum of change, I perhaps surprised myself when I went and stood at the end that likes change the most. Thinking about it, I do find change exciting, interesting and creative – which is just as well considering the changes that are going on with the NHS at the moment. It made me realise that even when I am changing the décor in the house again, this is because I enjoy changing things so much! However, I acknowledge that change can sometimes be disruptive and damaging, especially if it is done for the sake of it. It would be useful doing this exercise with any team about to go through a change, to acknowledge that everyone will have a different response to change. And to demonstrate that everyone will need to be treated differently when embarking on a change.

To define our own ‘brand identity’ we were next asked to describe our current leadership style, or desired  leadership style, using three words. These three words would describe the space we left behind in a room after leaving it. My words were:

  • Knowledgeable – mainly because in my old role as a drugs trainer for Adult Social Care I was an expert in my field and when I moved across to the Leeds Initiative I was out of my comfort zone and I found this very challenging.  For me, to be knowledgeable is to have credibility, wisdom and professional respect.
  • Reliable – because so many leaders make promises they can’t keep or do not follow up on actions they have agreed to do. I want to be the leader who people can rely on for action.
  • Confident – this is important to me because I think it is a value which doesn’t come easily to anyone, it is an act that everybody has to get used to putting on in order to be taken seriously and to get down to business. I hope that one day I can be confident in all situations I find myself in – but not arrogant.

Other words in the session that resonated with me were creative, innovative and consistency. Importantly, with consistency, it was highlighted that this needs to come with an element of flexibility otherwise we just end up doing the same thing we always do.

The conversations within the forums have also started now. My leadership challenge for the group was ‘how can we effectively embed equality into a large organisation in a way that ensures it is meaningful rather than tokenistic’. I look forward to being able to debate about it with colleagues over the next couple of forums. If you have any ideas to help with this challenge then do leave a comment below.

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