“I am one of those privileged people who work on something they are passionate about. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” Yadvinder Malhi is reflecting on his choice of career, on a sunny day wandering around Wytham Woods, an ancient woodland used by Oxford University for environmental research.
We are checking-in on some of Yadvinder’s graduate researchers around the woods, while we talk about how to make a difference with ecosystem science. Yadvinder is a professor at Oxford and has a string of academic roles around the University and the world. His work aims to increase understanding of the interactions between forest ecosystems and the global atmosphere.
“When I was little, I was always fascinated by the bugs and snakes my cousins would bring home,” Yadvinder tells me. These were the early signs of future interests, when he was a child living with his grandparents in India. Later, after a physics degree at Cambridge, he thought he would become an astronomer. However, he quickly realised he’d rather be outside than stuck in front of a computer screen. That’s what attracted him to his current discipline, the earth sciences.
Nowadays, Yadvinder has a young family and only manages to get out to his tropical forest research bases once every couple of months. However, when he first started out in the 1990s, he would spend all day on treetop research towers in the Amazonian rainforest. It was a dream job.
His first post-doctoral study aimed to measure the carbon dioxide flows above the tree canopy in Brazil. However, a four month wait for some equipment to arrive gave Yadvinder the time to “poke around” the forest. He explains: “I was struck by how huge it was. So much uncharted green, and amazing biological function.” Yadvinder became hooked on documenting unexplored forests, as well as how energy and nutrients flow through the forest and interact with the air. “A lot of the work, I have done, has been pure discovery. That’s why I find the forests in the tropics so fascinating, because there is still so much to learn. In many of our sites in Peru, we find a new species of tree every day.”
The majority of research funding that Yadvinder gets, is to understand the impacts of climate change on the forests. By comparing forests in Peru and the Amazon, he and colleagues have discovered that the forests are increasing in biomass over time. This, they have concluded, is as a result of the increase in CO2 in atmosphere. Normally, you would expect forests to be in balance: “It’s a moderately good thing. If the rain forests weren’t doing this, climate change would be 10 or 20% faster. But the ecology is also changing.”
As well as the impact of climate change on forests, Yadvinder is interested in all kinds of contemporary change, for example, deforestation, over-hunting and logging. He wants people to appreciate that there is a middle way where communities can live and use the environment around them: “It’s often characterised that it’s either all or nothing. When I tell people that I am working in the Amazon, they ask me “Is there any of it left?” Well, we are talking about a forest the size of a continent. It’s still there!“
Over the years of working in Brazil, Yadvinder has seen a big positive change. In the mid1990s there was massive environmental destruction in the Amazon, but now there has been a complete turn around: “Brazil has reduced its deforestation rates by 10 percent. It has contributed more to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere than the entire Kyoto Protocol.”
This is the result of a cohort of Brazilian scientists, that rose through to positions of influence in 2000s; in the government, key NGOs or media. Suddenly, there were respected Brazilian voices arguing for the need to protect the Amazon, rather than just outsiders. Within a few years there was a huge change, with the Brazilian government engaging with the issue and improving top down governance. In addition, international pressure on multinational companies who were responsible for much of the deforestation, started to have a significant impact on how they operated.
This growth in local capacity and international consumer pressure is a source of great optimism for Yadvinder. There is a thirst for data and knowledge about the forest, and the way his research is done in the field has changed for the better. Rather than exotic explorers, helicoptering in every few months to gather data, there are now many highly skilled local scientists who can be on the ground all the time.
As well as these enhanced networks of cooperation, big technological leaps mean there are major advances in the work that Yadvinder can do. Hyperspectral sensors are allowing them to see the biology of the trees from the air, and in the future from space. Yadvinder likens the progress to the use of MRI scanners ten years ago: “We are seeing patterns in the biology of the forests, but we don’t understand what they mean yet. The technology is driving a whole new vision of landscapes.”
When he cannot get to the Amazon, Yadvinder loves to come to Wytham to oversee the research projects there. “It’s my therapy!” Yadvinder says. How brilliant to be able to describe your work in that way. Any advice to those who are wanting to make a difference like him? “Find something you are really passionate about, because that way you will get a lot further”
Become a Union Learning Representative
One might have thought that the accomplishments of a former General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress would be topped by industrial disputes resolved, political battles won and workers’ rights protected. However, Brendan Barber, who retired from the role in 2012, talks most passionately of what he achieved in the arena of skills and learning.
As a result of a programme which he helped to push through, every year 250,000 workers are receiving training through the workplace, often in basic skills, like literacy and numeracy. “Giving people, that may have been regarded as failures in traditional school education, the confidence to have a go. That’s the kind of magic ingredient,” he told me as we sat in his living room in Muswell Hill. He is also keen to tell of the significance of the 25,000 union learning representatives, that are part of the same initiative. They have been critical in encouraging fellow workers to get back to school.
I met Brendan Barber back in 2013, soon after his retirement as General Secretary, and so this interview has been in my archives since then, awaiting its moment. How to Make a Difference has been on sabbatical while I focussed on another project, but now we’re back!
Brendan started working for the TUC in 1975, as an industrial training assistant in the Organisation and Industrial Relations department. Interested in Trade Unionism as a force for positive social change, he had no idea that he would make such a “varied and interesting career” out of it.
In 1979, after just three years as an assistant and much to his surprise, Brendan was appointed head of the Press and Information department at the TUC. He found himself at the centre of everything the TUC was doing and loved the role. “I started a month before Margaret Thatcher was elected. There was a huge political change going on. A lot of people in the TUC didn’t realise how big that was going to be. For 18 years. So that was a fantastically challenging time. Fantastic job.”
In the 8 years that Brendan remained in the press role, he witnessed many pivotal industrial dispute negotiations, notably including the miners’ strike. “I tried to make it my business to be involved in every key meeting, on the basis that it was important for me to know exactly what was going on.”
During long, difficult discussions, Brendan developed the confidence to put forward his own negotiating suggestions. He sat, listened and then passed pieces of paper with his ideas to the then head of Industrial Relations, John Monks and the General Secretary of the time, Norman Willis. Brendan loved the role: “I had an absolute ring side seat.”
He was a rising star, moving quickly through the ranks. He became head of Organisation and Industrial Relations, then Deputy General Secretary and finally General Secretary in 2003. However, when he reflects on the impact he has had, it’s not the industrial action averted or the political influence exerted, that stands out for Brendan; it’s another role of the TUC which Brendan complains, “hardly gets any media attention”.
When he was head of the Organisation and Industrial Relations Department, they started to look at the potential for the unions to negotiate for learning opportunities for their members. They wanted to convince employers to provide space and time for skills development at the work place and to encourage educators to help provide the necessary learning opportunities.
Once he became General Secretary, Brendan encouraged the development of UnionLearn, a semi independent body supported by the TUC. The idea was to improve skills development opportunities across the country and establish the role of Union Learning Representatives. These people not only bargain with employers to make the time for learning, they talk with local colleges who provide the teaching, and most importantly convince fellow employees that it’s worth going back to study.
The true impact of UnionLearn was brought home to Brendan with the arrival of a bundle of letters from Stoke one day: “Some workers had decided that they should write to the TUC and this was the first letter that they’d ever written in their lives. They’d written to say thank you for giving them this chance, it was making a huge difference in their lives”
Brendan is now chair of the council of ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), so it appears, the negotiation table still offers its attractions. UnionLearn is also still going strong and for many it is just the start of their educational journey:
“One of the things we discovered is once people had the confidence to take that first step back, if they succeed, then they want more. Once the basic skills are in place, they want to get professional qualifications. So, it’s not the end of the process but the start.”
Give ethical career advice
I wish I had met Benjamin Todd fifteen years ago when I was considering what job to take after finishing my masters degree in Environmental Technology. Or rather, someone with the knowledge he now has. Ben wouldn’t have been old enough to advise me back then, but now he is well equipped with a great deal of evidence about what kind of career can have the greatest impact. I decided that working for a multinational oil company was going to be the way that I could help to protect the global environment, but it was based on a hunch. I still have no idea whether that hunch was true. I would have loved it if someone could have told me how much carbon would be saved by the environmental careers I was considering. That’s the kind of statistic that 80,000 hours aims to provide would-be do-gooders, on their search for an altruistic career path.
Ben and some college friends set up 80,000 Hours in 2011 in the hope that they would help people “use the 80,000 hours you’ve got in your career to make a difference”. They were initially inspired by their involvement in an organisation called Giving What We Can. Giving What We Can encourages effective philanthropy by identifying the charities which do the most to alleviate poverty. Their work inspired Ben and his friends to think about what careers do the most to make a difference. They even came to accept that sometimes earning more and giving generously to charity may be the most “ethical” path.
During his final year at Balliol College, Oxford, Ben spent at least as much time on developing 80,000 Hours as he did on his studies. By the summer of 2012, he and his friends had raised enough capital to start paying Ben to work for the organisation full time. Over one year on, they are already employing 3 staff, have a number of interns and have raised over £280,000. Donors hope that by supporting 80,000 Hours they will enable many young people to be successful at making positive change happen.
Ben and his colleagues hope to help people by providing one-to-one intensive coaching to specially selected “altruistic” job seekers. The service will be provided free of charge to those with a strong desire to make a difference. 80000 Hours staff will use their compelling research and evidence base to enable candidates to weigh up the potential impact of their career choices. Ben is planning to have a global impact. Currently working in Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and Yale, the long-term plan is to roll-out their ideas across universities world-wide.
Become a police officer
Policing is not the obvious career choice for someone wanting to change things. Becoming a police officer implies a readiness to follow pre-existing rules and orders, but Peter Neyroud was not born to conform and it didn’t take long for the police force to realise it. In his 30 year policing career he pushed through significant changes, many in controversial areas such as ethics, human rights and firearms.
Peter joined the police after he graduated from Oxford University in 1980. Many of his contemporaries were choosing careers in banking or law, but he wanted something different. “Up to that point my parents and grandparents had paid for my education. I was on a tramline that took me to Oxford. I felt like I hadn’t made any choices. So at 21, it was time to branch out. In a sense, it was a form of rebellion.” He was inspired by a fellow student, who was on sabbatical from the police, who suggested that he observed a night’s work at the local police station. Peter was immediately intrigued. “I applied to do a vacation course for 5 days with the Thames Valley Police, which was equally fascinating. I went out on patrol in High Wycombe with a sergeant who was assaulted while we were out. It didn’t put me off in the slightest!”
It was obvious that he was different from the outset of his career. Peter recalls his first day of service at Romsey police station: “When I walked through the door they expressed huge relief that I wasn’t Asian. They thought from my name that I was. That was not a good sign at all.” He was joining the police in an era when ethics and human rights were not at the forefront of practice. So there was plenty of scope for a bright trouble-maker to change things for the better. After 6 months as a probationer, in a highly unusual move, the Chief Constable asked to do Peter’s appraisal. This caused waves among his senior colleagues who wondered: “Why does the Chief want to see you?”.
His first experience of police reform came quickly. He was given the job of evaluating and rolling out a radical review of the beat policing system in his constabulary. Next he worked on reforming the juvenile cautioning system. “Both involved me sitting to the left hand side of the Chief Constable, addressing the entire senior management of the force, who had mostly grown up in the era of national service. They were skeptical about a very young looking Oxford graduate telling them how to run policing. One of them said to my mum, ‘How dare he tell my husband how to do his job?’” Peter was not deterred and felt comfortable in the role of rebel. “I was prepared to stand up to people. Like the detective who kept changing my shifts at the last minute. I was prepared to be quite bolshy!”
In spite of quickly being recognised for his talents by some senior officers, Peter had not been successful in gaining graduate entry to the police. His initial interview report said, “Peter is too nice and will be trampled to death on the road of life.” However, he persisted and after 4 years of experience and on his 3rd attempt, Peter was finally accepted as a graduate recruit. The report on him that day said, “He has learned to dodge the traffic”.
Peter continued to get promoted. “I was a reasonable constable. I was a much better sergeant and an even better senior detective.” As he moved up through the ranks, Peter became a strong intellectual power in the force. In the 1990s he was sent a series of books on policing and asked to review them. He noted that the most important volume seemed to be missing; there was nothing on ethics. So when asked to write “Police ethics and human rights”, he welcomed the task. This lead to him becoming Jack Straw’s advisor on implementing the Human Rights Act into policing. Peter also applied his knowledge of ethics in his role as lead on police firearms in the UK.
Introducing change to an organisation which is so traditional and has such a strong culture is not easy. After an entire career at it, what has Peter learnt? “You need huge zeal and enthusiasm. You have to have a feel for the emotion of the organisation because whatever you’re changing is going to change people’s lives materially. You have to be empathetic enough to understand why they might resist it and creative enough to be able to persuade them that the journey is worth going on. You also have to be careful about not leaving a trail of losers behind you.”
Peter had to put all this experience into practise when as Chief Constable he reformed how Thames Valley Police delivered local policing in the mid 2000s. Even though the Force was almost at the bottom of the crime statistic league tables when he arrived, by the time he left, five years later, they were close to the top ten. He puts this down to the new structure which gives a much better connection between the Force and its local authority and other partners.
Even to an expert operator like Peter, change is not always easy or successful. Peter’s final years in the police were spent “working ridiculous hours” on bringing together the National Police Improvement Agency. He was passionate about the success of the project, but the new Conservative Home Secretary, Theresa May, decided to abolish it as soon as she came to power. Peter is still adamant that this was the wrong thing to do.
His parting gift to the service was a review of leadership and training, which subsequently instigated the establishment of the College of Policing. “I wanted a move towards a chartered police officer with an evidence based training and applied embedded ethics as part of the approach to the job.” Peter is proud that this particular report has been downloaded in over 100 countries in the world. “So it must be doing some good!”
Having retired early, Peter has not lost his passion for improving the ability of the police to support social justice. He’s a member of the Labour Party and is working on Labour’s Independent Police Commission and now a Victim’s Taskforce. He is also working towards a PhD using randomised trial techniques to determine better ways to make prosecution decisions at police station level. Whether an offender is formally warned, cautioned, prosecuted or merely given a “cuff by the sergeant” and asked to pay a fine, appears to have a significant impact on future outcomes. Peter hopes that by analysing 3 million items of data, with colleagues at Cambridge University, they can provide enough evidence to create a model that would challenge the existing criminal justice system. If anyone can do it, Peter Neyroud can!
Become a virologist
Every year the influenza virus changes a bit. Sometimes it changes a lot. That is because it is what is called an emerging virus. That’s why it is possible to catch the flu year after year. Every year the body needs to create a new set of antibodies to fight the virus in its new form. Until recently it has taken scientists around six months to create a vaccine against each new strain. This is a problem because a lot can happen in the viral world in half a year. Even though a group of scientists do a pretty good job of predicting which strain will be most prevalent the following winter. A totally unexpected variant of the virus may emerge. Ervin Fodor and three fellow scientists, have developed a technique which makes it possible to create a flu vaccine in a matter of days. This is great news for vulnerable people who may have found themselves previously unprotected from this potentially fatal disease.
I met Ervin Fodor, Professor in Virology, and one of the world’s leading experts on the flu virus, at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford. It is a surprising piece of modern architecture hidden behind a Queen Anne style façade where the clinically useful form of penicillin was first developed. Ervin first came to study here from his home of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s under the supervision of Professor George Brownlee. The professor was impressed with the young student’s scientific ability, although wondered how he would manage to write up his research with such terrible English! They overcame their communication barriers to make this major breakthrough in vaccine technology, along with two colleagues from the US: Peter Palese and Adolfo García-Sastre.
By the time I met Ervin, his English was perfectly fluent. He was able to explain with fantastic clarity the process by which the flu virus replicates itself within the human body and how scientists create vaccines to stimulate the production of antibodies that will protect us from the illness. Ervin developed a fascination with the flu from an early age. As a secondary school student in the 1980s an enthusiastic teacher sparked his interest in the emerging science of biochemistry. This continued through university until he took up his first research position at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava: “Finally I got down to all these technologies, growing viruses, injecting embryonated chicken eggs..”. After a few years of working for his PhD there, history intervened and the Iron Curtain came down. Opportunities suddenly grew and Ervin won a Soros studentship to come to Oxford for 9 months and study with Professor Brownlee.
Professor Brownlee was able to give Ervin his dream project. “I worked on a machine looking at how the flu virus copied its genetic information. I was already fascinated by this in Bratislava, but we didn’t have the technology there.” Brownlee decided to gamble on Ervin’s English improving and enrolled him on a PhD. “I was lucky, I hit on an interesting problem. I wrote a few papers that became rather high profile about how the copying of the genetic information was regulated at a molecular level.” Ervin puts a lot of his story down to luck, but I suspect hard work and determination have something to do with it as well.
Once his PhD was finished Ervin tried returning to what was now Slovakia, on a Wellcome Trust International Development Fellowship. However, he quickly realised that the infrastructure was still lacking and work was difficult. “I got spoilt here”, he told me. So he said “Yes” to an offer from Peter Palese to go to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. That’s where he started work on creating the influenza virus from scratch using a plasmid DNA. After less than a year, Ervin was offered a five year Post Doctoral Fellowship in Oxford by Professor Brownlee which was too good to turn down. So, he took the influenza virus research with him and made a breakthrough shortly after arriving back in Oxford. It was the late 1990s and they had worked out how to genetically modify the influenza virus to create a vaccine in a matter of days rather than months.
Of course that is nowhere near the end of the story. The patent offices of the academic institutions involved took over. A company in the US bought the patent to the technology and is using it in a nasal spray and has been for about 7 years. It has also made its way to Japan and the Far East and has recently been approved by the EU.
Ervin says that at the time he was absolutely obsessed about resolving the conundrum that would enable this artificial creation of virus. “What drives me is the understanding. Understanding how the virus really works at the molecular level.”
He says he is feeling a similar drive to resolve his current flu related puzzle. He and his team of about ten researchers are now trying to understand how the genetic information within the influenza virus replicates itself and therefore allows the virus to spread throughout the cells of our body. This structural knowledge will enable the creation of more effective drugs to treat influenza. It’s important stuff and fortunately Ervin says he has a trust in himself to succeed. Watch this space and we can all hope for far fewer flu induced aches and pains in winters to come.
Sell Organic Food
Guy Watson is the founder of Riverford Organics, a group of organic farms which deliver around 47,000 boxes of fresh organic produce around the country each week. By doing so, he hopes to encourage the nation to eat more home-made, seasonal food, at minimal cost to the planet.
I went down to Riverford Farm near Totnes in Devon, to meet Guy and see what a multimillion organic operation looks like. What I learnt is that this is a fantastic business, but such success does not come without personal sacrifice. I was also reminded that organic does not necessarily mean best all-round environmental option.
Although Guy started growing vegetables on his family farm in 1986, his story is far from a simple tale of a son following in his father’s footsteps. Guy is the youngest of five children; a position, he says, has made him spoilt and stubborn. He studied agricultural and forestry science at Oxford University before returning to his birthplace at Riverford, with the hope of taking over the family farm. When it became clear that he was not high enough in the family pecking order to win this honour, he left again to become a management consultant in London and New York. However, the desire to run his own farming business was strong and Guy was determined to show his father that he could do it. Aged 26, he came back home at Christmas and started growing vegetables on 3 acres of land, next to the house where he grew up: “Before I knew it I was out in the field with a plough”.
His father’s farm was not organic but an eye for an opportunity along with a sense of self-preservation attracted Guy down the chemical-free path. “I made myself sick from not being careful with pesticides and my brother was hospitalized with Paraquat poisoning.” Around the same time, “There was a bit of a buzz around Totnes about organics, organic veg in particular.” Today it would take at least 3 years to gain organic status, in the 1980s, you could do so instantly: Riverford Organics was born.
At the outset, Guy was doing all the digging, ploughing and planting and then distributing the vegetables in his car boot to local shops. “It went from 3 to 18 to 50 acres quite rapidly. I was so driven. For the first 5 years I worked 70 or 80 hours a week and then went back to my room and collapsed. I had a demonic determination to succeed and prove myself.” The hard work did not stop there: “By the time I was thirty, I was married and started a family and I continued to work ridiculous hours. For ten or fifteen years. If I’m perfectly honest, the business came first. I don’t ever want to work like that again in my life.”
Back in the late 1980s London was the big market for organic food, but logistics were troublesome and unreliable. Trying to coordinate with passing lorries was a nightmare. Guy tried negotiating with the big supermarkets to become a supplier, but a fair deal was impossible to obtain.
Two organizational innovations were critical in Riverford’s successful development. The first was the idea of a veg box delivered to the customers’ door, inspired by some other local organic farmers, in 1993. This was something unusual at the time, but it quickly caught on. “For the first few weeks I did all the deliveries myself and I knew immediately that I was on to something. The people were really interested in the product.” The second important innovation was linking up with other farmers in a producers cooperative. From 1997 to 1999 Guy worked with ten other farms to become organic, and provide the variety and quantity of produce that was needed to fill the boxes.
Business really took off when they gave up on supplying supermarkets and decided to focus on the boxes. “Between 2003 and 2007 we went from 4 or 5 million to 30 million pound turn over. It was very stressful and probably one of the most miserable times of my life.” Are these the inevitable costs of success? Guy Watson’s marriage broke down a few years ago, and he now wistfully comments on his somewhat belated appreciation of time spent with his children. Guy reflects that there is no easy way to do what he has: “What I’ve achieved has come at great personal cost. I’m not sure what I would have done differently. Lived a lesser life perhaps….”
A few years ago Riverford took on a Chief Executive, so that Guy could have more time for his personal life and work on some of the more thorny strategic challenges faced by his business. Getting Riverford’s environmental performance right is clearly one such tough issue. Their largely middle-class and environmentally-conscious customer base expect that an organic vegetable box is an all-round, positive environmental offering. However, the trade-offs between different environmental concerns are complex. Unafraid of an intellectual challenge, Guy worked with Exeter University and uncovered some surprising facts: The cardboard boxes they deliver their produce in – well designed, 98% recycled materials, easily folding and reusable (up to 10 times) – have a greater carbon footprint than their entire UK haulage fleet and using plastic crates would be better; Using biodegradable bags, which cannot be recycled, is worse than using plastic bags; As the climate changes and becomes more unpredictable, it is better to import food from kinder climates than to try and grow locally and ultimately waste crops.
Guy claims that many customers are too prejudiced to take on these conclusions. This is disheartening but probably realistic. Considering this lack of consumer push, the costs of change are often too great. For example, switching from cardboard boxes to plastic crates would take a £1 million capital spend and a massive logistical overhaul. In a tough business environment this is a difficult step to take. Last year Riverford lost 30 to 40% of production because of the bad weather. That was the equivalent of about 300 pounds for every acre. Even with climate change having such a direct and negative impact on their business, it is difficult not to focus on more short-term business pressures. On the day we met it was actually IT that was top of the agenda. “It’s crippling our business”, Guy sighs.
I leave Totnes struck by the how difficult it is for a business to truly minimise their carbon emissions. We still operate in a world where the true cost of carbon is not accounted for. Until that changes, businesses will focus on the factors that we do value in our society. Guy himself has undoubtedly made a massive contribution to fuelling the nation’s appetite for good quality, fresh, organic food. It shows what a thoughtful man he is, that our conversation has made me as aware of the environmental pitfalls of what he is doing, as much as it has the benefits.
Charge a fair price for electricity and gas
Luckily for the UK’s fuel poor, Hugh Lee and Phil Levermore were both attending a meeting of the Oxford Diocesan Synod in the late 1990s. Phil had come up with an idea which would help provide electricity and gas at a much fairer price to those who struggle to pay their bills most. He asked the Synod meeting how he could get hold of the addresses of everyone in the diocese, so that he could try and get his idea off the ground. The addresses were unavailable, but even better, he was introduced to the speaker that day, Hugh Lee, a minister in secular employment (Hugh prefers the term “worker priest”), with 25 years experience of the energy industry.
15 years later, Hugh (pictured above) and Phil are both directors of Ebico, the UK’s only not-for-profit energy supplier. Ebico provides electricity and gas on a single tariff, without a standing charge, to all customers. This means that if you are a direct debit customer, you will not get the discount that you are used to and may pay 2 or 3 pounds more a month. However, you will know that you are getting a fair rate, that is always competitive, and that you are helping some of the country’s fuel poor. If you use a prepay meter or use very little energy, you will save yourself from being penalised with higher tariffs and unfair flat-rate standing charges. Ebico is the energy industry equivalent of Fair Trade bananas.
Hugh told me how he knew he wanted to help Phil soon after hearing his idea. Phil was working for British Gas during the liberalisation of the energy markets in the late 1980s and 90s. He realised that the most profitable strategy for a company like BG was to attract those who pay by direct debit and to penalise the less attractive prepay meter customers. He could foresee a gulf emerging in how different customers were charged and that the poorest would end up paying more. He wanted to set up a company which would provide energy at a price that was fair for everyone and decided to quit BG and follow his dream. He needed to get his message out which is why he tried the Diocesan Synod.
Hugh Lee had worked for British Coal for twenty five years and like Phil had an in depth knowledge of the energy industry and a wide network of energy contacts. He was also ordained in the early 1980s and had a strong wish to make a positive difference. The two men decided that the best way forward was to try and work with one of the big energy companies. They talked to lots of their contacts in the industry, but success came when they met with the sales manager of Southern Electric. Although Southern were also keen on the more reliable direct debit customers, they were interested in the opportunity to extend their reach provided by Hugh and Phil’s proposal.
Hugh and Phil used a philanthropic donation of £5000 to write a business plan and set up a company, using off-the-shelf legal documents. Southern Electric organised some focus groups and market research and agreed details of how much they would pay Ebico to manage these customers for them. In February 1999 the company was launched at the House of Commons with lots of publicity.
Hugh told me, “Several of my friends thought that it was amazing that I was starting a new company. Phil and I were doing everything in our free time and there were lots of meetings and discussions, but it was totally fine.”
Ebico now has 50,000 customers. More than half of these customers are of the “altruistic” variety, who could probably find a cheaper tariff elsewhere if they chose to. The others are made up of prepay customers and lower users, who definitely save money with Ebico. “We suspected that this group of customers would be very conservative about switching and that proved to be true. We try reach them by word-of-mouth, as that tends to work best”.
As Ebico is a not-for-profit company, any surplus is reinvested back into the company or into the Ebico charitable trust. Recent years have been so lucrative that the trust has been well endowed and they have been able to invest in eight projects around the country that help those who struggle to pay their energy bills by visiting people in their homes and giving out practical advice.
The plan for the future, just like any successful company, is for sustainable growth. Hugh is keen that they retain the ability to maintain very good customer services (at the moment, if you call Ebico, you will always speak to one of two people who manage the phones). “Most companies want to grow to increase their profits, we want to grow because we want to help more people”.
Create a social space for social change
Adam O’Boyle was a second year at Oxford University, when he first started planning how to help students be better at making a difference. At the time, he was finding social action more rewarding than his studies. It was a tough year for him: Academic life was not going how he wanted and a time-consuming attempt to set up a student volunteer project for street children had been a “dismal failure”. Adam wanted something to really put his energy into, and with a few friends he started thinking about how to improve the student charity work they were involved in.
He wrote down some of their proposals on two pieces of A4 paper and started to arrange meetings with people who might be able to assist. Adam felt that more collaboration between charitable organisations would help and that contributing to the community should be more embedded in the university experience. In the back of Adam’s mind, was the idea that this might be his ticket to a year off his academic work.
Adam says he’s embarrassed now thinking back on the “lofty” people he tried to engage with his ideas, but over lunch one day with a visiting masters student, he had a conversation that would stay with him for the rest of his life. This slightly older, slightly wiser acquaintance simply asked if Adam and his friends had thought of writing a business plan. They had not, and so when he went home, Adam googled “How do I write a business plan?”; that was 2007 and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m listening to this story in what I consider to be one of Oxford’s most hip restaurants, the Turl Street Kitchen (TSK). It has great food, a relaxed atmosphere and lively buzz. The hugely successful Kitchen is the profit-generating arm of the Oxford Hub: The impressive organisation which has grown out of Adam and his friends’ initial proposals. The TSK sits in a four storey Georgian town house beneath the Hub’s offices and meeting spaces.
The Oxford Hub aims to support and inspire students to get involved in social action while at university and beyond. This Hub is one of a growing network of eight Student Hubs around the country. The TSK opened in September 2011, to help the Hub achieve financial sustainability, after they won a competitive bidding process to rent the building from Oxford City Council. “We created a bidding document of about 100 pages with letters of support from all the colleges, the mayor and the careers service. We’ll never have to do anything like that again because now we can show them what we’ve done here.”
Clearly, a lot of talent and hard work has gone into getting from a first-attempt business plan to a thriving social enterprise. After securing a small amount of funding back in 2007, Adam’s tutors agreed to let him have his longed for year-off to work up his proposals. He worked with a team of student volunteers to start exploring what could be done. The work quickly mushroomed, but a year later as another tranche of funding was found, he returned to complete his studies while fellow student, Adam Grodecki, took over the helm.
O’Boyle came back to the Hub once he had graduated and even now says he’s surprised when people ask him “When are you going to move on?”. “I don’t have any particular need or desire to move on,” he tells me. “The organization is still growing.” His role as Executive Director is both intellectually and practically challenging. When I ask about the potential pitfalls of a volunteering programme, I can see that there has been no shortage of debate. “Soul searching is definitely the hard part. We have had some long brainstorming meetings, which are not to everyone’s taste, but there has to be a constant process of going back to first principles and making sure the organisation is aligned with them.” This is no ivory tower though. The Hub coordinates and inspires armies of volunteers around the city, as well as fundraising activities for local and international causes. At the same time, Adam and his team value the accumulation and retention of knowledge. “Wherever possible, we try to spot good ideas and take what’s useful to us from them.”
Adam tells me about some of their future plans: “We’ll be opening a guest house soon, and hope to start a deli nearby as well”. With financial sustainability, Adam wants to grow the charity: “Hub Ventures aims to create social spaces for social change, with a focus on students at university and afterwards. I hope that vision will expand nicely to operate in a broader context.”
I agree that there is a great appetite in the broader population to make a positive difference. If thoughtful and creative people like Adam and his team are able to channel a wider audience towards worthwhile volunteering projects, we will all be better off. As Adam puts it: “People largely do what’s put in front of them. The Hub tries to create easy opportunities for students to give back to the community. Things that you can do with your friends, that aren’t too scary, but nevertheless, make a difference.” I know plenty of non-students who would willingly take some of that as well.
Campaign for people with disabilities
I met Wendy Tiffin earlier this year as part of a series of portraits of inspiring folks selected by the Media Trust for their annual review. I was commissioned to take her portrait in her room in a Leonard Cheshire home in Poole, where I found Wendy surrounded by personal memorabilia. I posted some of these photographs on my Portraits that Matter site way back in January, but ever since I’ve been meaning to write a little more of Wendy’s remarkable story here. From behind my camera, I couldn’t help but ask Wendy a bit about how she had come to the Media Trust’s attention. She is an impressive example of triumph over adversity. Challenged with serious ill health since an early age, society’s response has been to try and exclude Wendy. Strong-willed and tenacious, she refuses to be discouraged and diverts her energy to campaigning to make life better for all those with disabilities.
Doctors found that Wendy had a brain tumour when she was three, and then again aged eight. When the local authorities wanted Wendy to go into special school, her parents (who clearly share Wendy’s genes) fought against it. She proved them right by gaining enough qualifications aged sixteen to go on and work for the Inland Revenue. In her mid-twenties, Wendy again suffered a long period of illness and was asked to take early retirement. Not a decision she was happy to have to make. Another big operation at that time left Wendy with no feeling below her chest, and she was told that she would soon become wheelchair dependent.
Wendy had managed to live independently with her mother until she died last year. Her grief was compounded with the loss of freedom that was to follow. Wendy decided that she had no choice but to move into a Leonard Cheshire home. Many of the other residents suffer from cerebral palsy or MS and so communication can be difficult for them. However, Wendy, a bright forty-something who just has trouble getting around, has no trouble at all getting her opinion understood. She refuses to let her loss of career get her down and is determined to use her skills to make a difference in whatever way she can.
Wendy started with local campaigns, such as trying to improve the steep camber on local pavements, which makes getting around by wheelchair treacherous. Then she decided to try her hand at bigger issues: “When the proposed cutbacks to the disability living allowance were announced in the 2010 Spending Review, I was livid and thought “what can I do?” I started by writing to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Maria Miller to name a few.” Wendy went on marches in London and gave her first speech at a regional march in Southampton. She attracted enough attention that she was asked to participate in the national Low Review; An attempt to assess the impact of changes to the Mobility Allowance for people in residential care. When I met her, Wendy was delighted to report that this benefit would be staying in place: “A relief after all that campaigning”.
For now Wendy is devoting her efforts to making a difference within Leonard Cheshire Homes as a representative on the Service Users Network Association at local, regional and national level. I suspect it will not be long before she finds another campaign for disability rights that needs her support and skills.
As I prepared to leave, Wendy surprised me by asking how old I was. It turns out we are both the same age at 42. As I write this now and I find myself thinking about what was happening in my life as Wendy battled with ill-health, lost her career, her mother, and then her home, I have even more admiration for her ability to forge ahead and make a positive difference to the world around her. Thank you Wendy for sharing your story.
Don’t over plan things
There’s a concept in psychology called “nominative determinism”. The idea is that men called “Dennis” are more likely to become dentists, or those with the surname “Lawman” are ever-so-slightly more likely to take up a career in policing or criminal justice. Well, I’m sitting in a fusty corner of a fusty hotel in Oxford, and I’m talking to Dr Brilliant.
If Larry Brilliant was a character in a book, nobody would believe in him. Trained as a doctor, he joined a group of protesting native Americans – “Indians of All Tribes” – on Alcatraz island, acting as midwife as a protestor gave birth to her child. His resulting fame turned into a role in a hippyish movie, Medicine Ball Nation, the movie role turned into enough cash for a cross-continental bus ride from San Francisco to India, the bus ride turned into a fundraising effort for a cyclone in East Pakistan, and so the epic continued. With his wife, he studied yoga in a Himalayan monastery – pretty much everyone did at the time, he deadpans – before, on the instructions of his guru, he joined the effort to eradicate smallpox in India and throughout the world. It was the first and, so far, the only time that a disease in humans has been completely wiped out.
That’s enough for one lifetime, but Brilliant and his wife also founded the Seva foundation, which has restored sight to over two million people. (It was kicked off with a donation of $5000 from a then-unknown Steve Jobs.) He co-founded The Well in the 1980s – the stone-age version of Facebook that pre-dated the world wide web itself – became a dot-com CEO, worked in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Tsunami, won the “TED Prize”, was the first head of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm – not a happy experience, he admits – and now runs the Skoll Global Threats Fund. These days he is probably most famous for his efforts to nip modern-day pandemics in the bud. Who am I trying to kid? He’s most famous for being called Larry Brilliant, and on this particular afternoon he is on particularly charming form.
Officially I’m there to interview Dr Brilliant for a column for the Financial Times about the economics of pandemics. But I can’t help but hijack my own interview for ten minutes to ask him about his career, and about what advice he would give anyone seeking to emulate his astonishing journey through life.
“People should read the Financial Times instead of the Wall Street Journal,” he begins. Flatterer. But then things get more serious.
“You can over-plan things. Some people have ten year plans. I don’t. The best things that ever happened to me, I planned zero of them.”
Should you just hope to be lucky then, or is it about seizing opportunities when they come along?
“A bit of both. But if you just say, ‘I’m going to be lucky,’ you’re not going to get very far.”
Brilliant is warming to his theme, now. “You have to believe that one person can make a difference. I always quote Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
Well, it’s easy for Larry Brilliant to say. He’s on first name terms with the Silicon Valley billionaires, he’s a media darling. Of course Larry Brilliant can make a difference, but what about the rest of us? I don’t say this out loud, but the question seems to be on his mind, perhaps because he found fame so early and in such an arbitrary fashion. After Alcatraz, he discovered that the world’s media treated him as though three weeks with native American protestors had made him the world expert on the subject of native American rights and culture. But that media glare was out of proportion to anything he felt he deserved.
“It starts with ordinary people. Ordinary people do extraordinary things, and then we lionise them. We make heroes out of them. And that’s a problem, because it makes other ordinary people look at these heroes and think that they can’t achieve the same things. But that path is open to everybody. Anybody at any time.
“There are so many wonderful people who, if they had the spotlight, their lives would read in the same wonderful way as mine. Sometimes I feel embarrassed about the attention. I mean, I wrote a book about eradicating smallpox, about being the mascot of the eradication effort, and everybody thought it was just me – that I single-handedly wiped smallpox from the face of the earth. But it’s a team sport. There were 180,000 people involved in India alone.”
“Think about Zafar Hussain. He was born in poverty, raised in poverty. He decided to become a sanitary inspector – his job was to test for shit in the water. And he became my translator. He risked his life many times because he realised the campaign to eradicate smallpox was something he could help with, something that he could do. He eradicated smallpox.
“It’s ordinary people who become the heroes.”
Bring development data to the world
Many thanks to Tim Harford for this guest post
Hans Rosling is the darling of the world’s favourite ideas conference, TED. He’s a man who has revolutionised the display of data, who rubs shoulders with Bill Gates, who has nudged and teased the World Bank into opening up its vast development databases. He’s a professor of public health. He’s worked with Google. He is by some distance the most famous statistical guru in the world. And it all started with coffee.
“My father was a blue collar worker, a coffee roaster,” recalls Rosling. “He used to bring home coins from far away countries, from Guatamala, Brazil, British colonies in Africa. They were coins that coffee pickers or coffee packers had dropped, which had fallen into the coffee and come all the way to Sweden.
“And so I thought that these people were the friends and the colleagues of my father.”
As young Hans grew up he realised that the coffee pickers didn’t rub shoulders with his father. But the emotional connection was still there. His father explained, pointing to the coins, what small wages the coffee workers received. He took Hans to lectures on the international labour movement. “He never travelled, my father, but he always had a big international interest.”
If the emotional lead came from his father, Rosling also credits an unlikely source: the washing machine. In a remarkable TED talk, he recalls the first time his mother got a washing machine, and how much time it saved her, getting electricity to do the work of heating water and scrubbing clothes, work that had taken hours. Because his mother had more time, she had time to read books to him, and to teach herself English. At the end of the presentation, Rosling opens the door of the washing machine and out comes “The Cat in the Hat”. The washing machine, says Rosling, gave him the gift of an early education because it freed his mother from drudgery.
We’re sitting backstage in a theatre in Oxford, in a barren dressing-room, snatching a few minutes to talk before Rosling goes on stage at the Skoll World Forum to give yet another inspiring presentation. (I sit in the audience. The presentation is about demographic change, and Rosling uses everything from stacked walls of toilet rolls to animated computer graphics to make his case. It’s wonderful.)
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before the TED talks, his innovative presentational software “Gapminder”, and his campaign for open data from the World Bank and the OECD, came the education of Hans Rosling.
One might expect that a man famous for bringing development data to the world discovered his mission because of what he discovered sitting in front of a spreadsheet or a mortality table. Not true. “I came to understand the world by visiting it. I use statistics to check my understanding and to tell others.”
But how do you “visit” the world? Rosling started young, travelling through Denmark and the UK by bicycle at the age of 15. A year later, having married his school sweetheart (“my family life is very conservative, family values, very ordinary”) he was exploring Greece. He studied medicine and statistics in his home town of Uppsala and at the age of 24 he was taking a year abroad, studying medicine in Bangalore – an experience that opened his eyes to the nature of the assumptions he had been making.
“I saw the lecturer put up a slide for discussion, I thought, ‘that’s kidney cancer, I’ll keep quiet and let the Indian students talk before I explain’. In six minutes, they had exhausted all my knowledge. In those moments I realised the Indian students were better than me. I had always been in the top quarter. In Bangalore, I was bottom quarter. And that was when I realised how racist we all were, how we thought we were better because we had been born in a richer country, with better institutions.”
Rosling qualified as a doctor and moved to Mozambique – “my son Ola went to school on the floor in Mozambique” – where he discovered Konzo, a paralysing disease which he studied for two decades. Eventually, when he moved back to Sweden, he found himself appalled by the ignorance of westerners about progress in “developing countries”.
This is a term Rosling dislikes intensely. This is partly because it sticks – to some organisations, Korea (home of some of the most sophisticated manufacturers in the world) and Singapore (lowest infant mortality in the world) and Qatar (highest GDP per capita in the world) are still developing countries. It’s also because there are tremendous differences, not only between, say, Mali and China, but even between Mali and Ghana.
At one point Hans rails against western ignorance so vehemently that his English starts to break down, “it is not the fact!”, he declares, dismissing the idea that Africa is a basket case. “So stupid!”
Many people make a difference in the world by doing advocacy, campaigning for some cause. Rosling takes pains to distance himself from his. “Everybody wanted to say, “do this, do that”. Nobody took it as their task to describe the world as it was. So that is what I did.”
“We get out information from three places: school, personal experience, and the media,” he continues. “But things change since our teachers were at school or since the textbooks were written. But also, when things change slowly, the media miss them. Iran has a lower number of children per woman than Sweden. Where was the media story about this? It changed too slowly for it ever to be in the news.”
It is a remarkable life, and as he approaches 65, Hans shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down. The twists and turns – from doctor, to researcher, to communicator, to campaigner for open data – are remarkable. I was wondering how to ask about those changes of direction, but as our interview drew to a close, Hans answered my unspoken question.
“I had cancer, testicular cancer, when I was thirty. It helped me to do what I wanted to do in my life.
“I have a motto: it’s never too late to give up. It’s never too late to give up what you are doing, and start doing what you realise you love.”
Stage a protest
“I’ve had a few labels in my life: juvenile delinquent, maladjusted, crook, coke head, alky, drug dealer and prison reject..” So says Gary Staniforth, another of the fantastic characters who I met recently while making portraits for the Media Trust. I did wonder if I was crazy traveling all the way to Bradford with my then 6 month old son to meet this guy, but it was well worth the nine hour round trip. In recent years Gary has turned his life around in a remarkable way.
Four years ago Gary was homeless, addicted to cocaine and dealing drugs. Gary is very open about the childhood that led him there: a father who was violent when drunk, and being taken into care age 8, certainly contributed to his downfall. While in care he was subjected to emotional and physical abuse. He remembers being made to stand outside all night in his pyjamas in the rain, and being jumped on by support workers from table height. This horrific treatment unsurprisingly made the adult Gary angry and unwilling to trust.
Gary had three children of his own, but after 17 years his relationship broke down and he felt he must leave his family home. He stayed on the floors of friends and family for some time but eventually lost his job, partly due to the instability of his living circumstances. In 2008 Gary found himself living in a Salvation Army hostel, unable to spend the time that he wanted with his children, and with no prospect of the situation changing soon. He didn’t qualify for any “high priority” housing lists, and says, like many other single males in the hostel, he felt like the “hidden homeless”.
“I remember wandering around the town centre, feeling isolated and alone, desperate and like my life was over. The pain of being separated from my kids was unbearable. I was angry and frustrated but tired and weak with it all, ready to just give up. I very nearly joined the Salvation Army residents drinking club but knew I had to do something. So, I got myself some cardboard, wrote out some slogans and stood on the City Hall steps in protest in the rain, snow and sleet. I was on my own for 2 days and then a couple more from the hostel joined me. For 3 weeks every day we sat on the City Hall steps collecting signatures and talking to people.”
Gary and his friends collected over 300 signatures and handed them to the council. He wanted to highlight the fact that single males like himself who aren’t in any drug rehabilitation programme, or probation scheme, or on other priority housing list feel forgotten and discriminated against. Gary was asked to speak to the next council meeting and his words received a standing ovation. This was when Gary’s life started to turn around.
After being rehoused, he was asked to contribute to Bradford Council’s homeless core group, and various other service user committees. He’s completed an NVQ with the Chartered Institute of Housing. Gary has led several creative projects with the aim of destigmatising homelessness and providing homeless people with a creative outlet. He helped put together a book called “Forgotten” which was nominated and highly commended at the national charity awards in London 2010. He was also involved in a film called “Hidden Voices” and a billboard campaign around the Bradford District. He is the editor of a magazine and he is now setting up his own social enterprise “The Hidden Homeless”, which will work with homeless people to renovate disused properties around Bradford and bring them back into use.
Gary is infectiously enthusiastic for his projects and the direction his life is taking. “Now I have a few labels I’m proud of,” says Gary, “Active citizen, community learning champion, service user rep, company director, magazine editor and friend.” I bet his kids are proud of him too.
Be an environmentalist
I’ve been taking a series of portraits over the past few weeks for the Media Trust of users of charities that they have helped over the year. I did the same job two years ago and once more I have been so impressed with the people who I have met. The first of these was the Kenyan Environmentalist depicted here, Joab Omondi. He chose that we met in Kew Gardens, an environmentalist’s paradise. The variety of plants and the scale of the trees there, even on a sunny January day, is stunning. As my role was to photograph Joab, I didn’t get a chance to interview him properly about “how to make a difference” but we did manage to talk a bit while I worked and I still think it’s worth sharing here.
As a student activist in the 1980s in Kenya, campaigning to protect wetlands in his local area, Joab was tortured by the authorities. Realising that he was at risk of arrest and further persecution he decided to leave his home and come to the UK. He was not able to return to Kenya until the end of the regime of Daniel arap Moi, in the mid 2000s, not even at the time of his mother’s death.
In the UK, Joab was helped by the charity Prisoners of Conscience to retrain as a geography teacher. Joab loves inspiring children at school with stories of the natural world, but now hopes to progress his own studies further, again with the help of Prisoners of Conscience, through a PhD on issues related to climate change.
Joab now has four children of his own and lives in Essex. He says “It’s hard to get them to understand how life was for me as a child”. “They cannot imagine how poor we were and that some nights we went to bed without food.”
It was lots of fun to photograph Joab. I am always a little apprehensive about asking people to lie on the floor, or climb up trees, but Joab was fantastic. He immediately started recounting stories of how his school lessons used to take place under trees and they used to write in the sand because there wasn’t any paper. Despite the frigid January temperatures, he happily lay on tree branches as if he was back in his sweltering home land.
I hope one day to find out more about Joab’s life as a young environmental campaigner in Kenya. He’s keen to write a children’s book too, which is something I hope to help him with. There’s another picture of Joab at Kew on my Portraits that Matter site.
Address childhood health inequalities
“Sometimes shit just happens! Some health problems are unavoidable, but what really gets my goat is the avoidable ill health and anxiety and I wanted to set up a charity that would try and prevent that.” This is how Alison Baum describes the emotions that brought her, a mother of two children born with significant health issues, to set up a charity that aims to address childhood health inequalities in the UK.
Alison knows first hand, what it is like to not have the healthy child you expect. Her first son David was born with a cleft palate and Pierre Robin Sequence. Then, lightening struck twice when her second son Joshua was also born with a cleft palate and developed viral meningitis at 8 days old. Alison was determined not to let this prevent her breastfeeding and through a combination of tireless expressing and special feeding bottles she gave both her children the best possible nutritional start she could.
During this time, Alison came across the bra which she says changed her life – the Easy Expression Halterneck Bra. A friend told her she could buy it from the US, and it allowed her to hold or feed her son, or read a book at the same time as expressing milk. She set up a company called “Express Yourself Mums” in order to distribute the bra to other women in situations like her own. It was through talking to these mums that Alison started to realise some of the health inequalities that emerge from the earliest stages for children in the UK.
Alison, was a science graduate, working as a film maker at the BBC. After having her first son David, she went back to work and ran Express Yourself Mums in her spare time. She also trained to do peer support for breastfeeding and became a breastfeeding counselor. She was shocked to discover that “In spite of the fact that its benefits to babies and mothers are undisputed, you are much less likely to start or continue breastfeeding if you are from a lower socio-economic group or are young.”
After the birth of Joshua, and spurred on by lots of evidence that improving child health can also lead to better social outcomes, Alison set up Best Beginnings in 2006. “We started with breastfeeding because it’s such an effective public health intervention. But breastfeeding is just part of the bigger picture around child health. For example, it’s simply not acceptable that a baby born in Birmingham is 6 times more likely to die in infancy than a child born in Hampshire.” Alison realised she could use her media and networking experience to campaign across a range of health issues: to encourage breastfeeding, empower parents of premature babies, support new fathers and generally shake up the services provided to new parents for the better.
I met Alison in a café close to the office of Best Beginnings. She arrived directly from accompanying her two sons to the dentist, somewhat harassed and late, in a manner that I suspect is not uncommon for someone who has both been given, and taken on, some impressive challenges. Alison told me that when she first started Best Beginnings, she did something which would be worthwhile in many fields. She brought together 40 organisations, all of whom were trying to promote breastfeeding and got them to work together to produce the Breastfeeding Manifesto. By getting these groups to speak the same languages (“A task not for the faint hearted” Alison points out) she made them a much more powerful lobby. As a result of this coalition, the right to breastfeed in public has now been enshrined in UK law.
It’s this kind of practical, results focused approach which has allowed Alison to become welcomed and respected in the world of child health even as a relatively new kid on the block. “Prevention isn’t as sexy as cure, but it’s more effective. When you go to a conference and midwives come and give you a hug, as has happened to me, and thank you for what you’re doing, it’s wonderful.”
After raising enough funds, she used her film-making experience to put together the Bump to Breastfeeding DVD. The DVD was given to every pregnant woman in the UK from autumn 2008 to November 2010. It aims to provide women with the most up-to-date facts about breastfeeding, and shows a wide-variety of women making breastfeeding work for them. “Women are bombarded with inappropriate marketing in this area. I don’t want to pressurize people, just to create an enabling environment for them to be successful. 9 out of 10 women stop breastfeeding before they want to because of pain or insufficient milk, both of which are avoidable with the right support.” Independent evaluation by university researchers has shown that the DVD does increase breastfeeding rates, especially if given to an expectant mother with a recommendation from a midwife. The DVD is still available, but now that the benefits are proven, Best Beginnings is encouraging NHS trusts to purchase it themselves.
The next big challenge is the Small Wonders project. This aims to help parents with premature babies. Fundraising is still in progress for another DVD which will provide parents with a gold standard resource. “Small Wonders is about enabling parents to play a key role in the care of their premature baby: Giving them the confidence to ask questions, giving them the knowledge and support and the confidence to establish milk supply. All of which can lead to positive health outcomes.” Best Beginnings are recruiting champions in all neo natal units and have gained funding to pay for specialist nurses in two hospitals. The aim is to “prove that the intervention can reduce hospital stay, infection (which breastfeeding can) and readmissions to hospital and therefore to demonstrate that this can be a cost saving measure. We hope that the evidence we create will encourage all units to recruit specialist nurses to support this work.”
“It’s about never taking your foot off the pedal. These are real, very deep issues, but they’re not insurmountable. I have a stubborn streak in me. I’ve always had the need to do something and have a social impact.” Alison is certainly right that these are incredibly difficult issues to resolve but her approach of engaging widely with stakeholders, using the power of narrative films and encouraging external assessment of the impact of their work seems like it has as good a chance as any of success. Good luck to the team with this incredibly worthwhile cause.
Imagine a world where Ecocide is a crime treated with the same seriousness as Genocide. CEOs, prime ministers and investment bankers could all stand to be imprisoned if they were guilty of contributing to the extensive destruction of ecosystems.
It’s a world that former barrister Polly Higgins is toiling to achieve. About eight years ago, Polly found herself questioning the value of her legal career. She was in the middle of an employment case, and looked out the window and thought: “What the f*** am I doing?” She was defending a client who had gone beyond the point where she thought they should settle, in a case that had dragged on for three years. Polly had a revelation: “I care about what’s out there. I care about the planet. I don’t care about this anymore. I’m fighting unworthy causes.”
So Polly quit the Bar and took a far less lucrative option. She is now developing and promoting the legal instruments she believes are necessary to protect the environment: “I realised that if I were to take on the planet as my client, I didn’t have the tools of my trade,” Polly told me one damp morning in the basement kitchen of her Islington home. “We are predominantly governed by laws of property and ownership, which leads to use and abuse without consequence”.
She has now written a book “Eradicating Ecocide” and regularly promotes her alternative vision through public speaking: “We need to recognise nature’s rights and the planet’s rights and put in place crimes which will uphold those rights.” Reflecting on the personal implications Polly says: “I do not make anything near what I made when I was practicing, but you never know!”
Polly thanks her father for the inspiration to engage with the environment in this way. “He was a meteorologist during World War II. He had the most unusual capacity to analyse weather patterns. He instinctively knew what was coming next, with a very sound knowledge of first principles. I feel the same way about how Ecocide could work as a crime. I have an instinct that it’s going to happen, but could not have done it without my legal training.”
A chance phone call from the UN in 2008, asking Polly to speak about women and the environment, gave her the perfect platform to really develop and start promoting her ideas. “I said ‘Go and ask the highest person that you can about whether I can talk about a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights instead?’ and they came back very fast and said ‘Forget about the first conference, come to one in 5 months time about climate change’.” That gave Polly the time to really put her thoughts together. “I just treated it like a legal brief and by the time I spoke at that conference, I really had an idea of what needed doing.”
Polly based her concepts on the example of Raphael Lemkin who proposed the introduction of the law of Genocide after World War II. In the wake of the Holocaust, the world was more than ready to accept a law that would address the intent to kill off an entire sector of people. “Civilisation gets to a certain point where it has sufficient knowledge, that it has to close the door. At the moment we have vast damage and destruction to the planet, but there’s no way to address it.”
Polly believes that if individuals within companies and governments are made responsible for environmental crimes, we will immediately see a change in behaviour. In response to pressures to invest in environmentally damaging projects, company directors would refuse on the basis that they could go to prison for it. “It’s about putting something in place that shifts what’s acceptable. Like when William Wilberforce created laws that shut off slavery. There was no point in saying ‘use your slave a little less’. That’s like energy efficiency. Wilberforce knew you needed laws to stop slavery completely. Literally over night it changed from being de rigueur to utterly unacceptable to have black people in chains.”
At the UN Conference in 2008, Polly proposed a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights. By September 2009, the government of Bolivia said that they were interested in proposing a similar Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights into the General Assembly at the UN. They have now done this.
The next piece in the puzzle, Polly decided, was a new language around environmental destruction. She came across the term “Ecocide” and decided it was exactly what was needed to express the crimes against the planet which she is so eager to stop. Polly proposed that the crime of Ecocide be added to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. She submitted a paper on the subject to the UN Law Commission in April 2010. In order for the crime to come into force, two thirds of the UN member states will need to agree.
There’s still a long way to go before Polly’s ideas are implemented, but her determination is unwavering: “I believe we are living at a very crucial time in history when we can do something and make something happen. I believe that we can do this. I also believe that we have a moral duty to do so.” I just hope we don’t need the equivalent of an environmental holocaust this time, to spur the relevant authorities into action.
Creative disruption is Reed Paget’s aim. He believes that by setting up very environmentally conscious businesses, and proving that they can succeed in the market place, he can influence the behaviour of business as a whole.
His first attempt has been to transform the bottled water industry with the brand Belu. 8 years ago, Belu was just an idea for the documentary film maker Reed, who had come to the UK from the US to run an on-line news channel. The dot-com bubble burst and the channel lost its funding. Reed, who had always been passionate about the environment, decided that ten years in the media was enough for him and it was time to do something more practical. “I thought instead of talking about the problems of the world, why not get involved in business? I saw business as the main culprit and thought maybe I could do more there.”
Reed chose the bottled water industry, in spite of its overall reputation of being unsustainable, because “in a world where many countries don’t have good water, or people don’t trust the water they’re being given, people will continue to consume bottled water.”
Belu distinguishes itself from other bottled water companies in several ways. They are always striving for environmental best practice and low carbon emissions. They are also a not-for-profit organisation which donates any surpluses to clean water projects.
I met Reed on the South Bank of the River Thames, near to one of Belu’s most recent philanthropic projects. They have funded a Passive Debris Collector to sift some of the tons of rubbish that get thrown in the Thames every day. The ability to fund such projects has been “The biggest success and the biggest mistake of Belu”, Reed told me. “It was the best decision because it told our customers that we were in this together, and trying to do something good. The downside is that it has been almost impossible to raise growth capital.” Investors don’t want to risk their capital unless they can see a potentially, significant upside if things go well. This has meant that Reed has only ever been able to get access to small loans. “During 6 years of trading, we have done 35 rounds of funding from 14 different funders. Had I made Belu a for-profit, green business, I could have raised the money in 1 or 2 rounds.”
However, other aspects of Belu have worked very well. Initially, Reed scoured Google for green investors. Eventually, he came across Hal Taussig, an investor from the US, who had previously set up a green travel agency and was interested in the concept of Belu. Hal provided enough money for Reed to complete a product design which in turn enabled him to get a contract with the UK supermarket Waitrose to sell Belu Water. “We had never manufactured at that point. We didn’t even have the money to manufacture. We didn’t tell Waitrose that! But they liked the idea. Good for them!” Once Reed had one contract they were able to find other funders who would give them long-term loans to manufacture. “Then we started selling. First with a glass product line, then plastic, then we went carbon neutral. It was very hard though.”
I am so impressed that Reed was able to turn his hand so easily to starting a business. “Having worked in documentary film, I had to learn how to be entrepreneurial and to manage projects. But, I had no idea what a profit and loss statement was, or cash flow or the difference between branding and marketing. I didn’t own a single button-up shirt! What I realised is these things are learnable.”
Within weeks of starting Belu, Reed was talking to the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US about biopolymers: plastics made from an infinitely renewable resource, plants. After a three year research and development project, Belu introduced its first corn plastic bottles in 2006. It’s still early days with these, but according to Reed, if they become more widely adopted, their lifecycle is 50% less carbon intensive than traditional plastics. Neither does Belu use PVC liners in any of its caps. A common practice which apparently has uncertain health consequences for consumers. What carbon emissions they are unable to save through energy efficiency in production and distribution, Belu offsets. Belu is made in the UK, using UK raw materials (if available) and is not exported. I wonder how Belu can compete on price with all these extra costs. “Every company has a profit margin, but because we are a not-for-profit company we can take out of our profit the cost to be green. Nevertheless, we haven’t been the cheapest in the market.” Reed is convinced that scale will help with this.
Now Belu is growing fast: “We’re at 2.5 million pounds turnover. We’ve recapitalised. We’ve hired a new managing director who has more commercial experience.” But for Reed the aim is not just market dominance: “The goal is not Belu. Belu is a tool that achieves a bigger goal. We’ve planted a seed and now others are trying to copy us. It’s going to create a change even if I don’t ultimately own the company that sells the product.” When Belu started business, there was very little environmental awareness in the drinks sector. Now, most of Belu’s competitors are doing something and Reed believes that the existence of Belu has helped to push them that way much faster.
So what’s next? Reed has set up a new company called One Earth Innovation. This company will endeavour to spawn more start-ups like Belu, in different sectors. “We’ll find out how to create the greenest brand, then we’ll bring it to market. Either we’ll win the market, this time with capital, or we’ll force our competitors to be green by disrupting the market.” He wouldn’t give me any clues as to what those new companies will be, although toasters did come up in the conversation quite a lot… Reed says he has learnt the hard way that it’s best not to go public until you know the timescale you can deliver on. People have criticised him in the past when things have been harder than expected, and taken a long time. “When I started Belu I was very naïve. Hopefully, the next venture will be more successful, without as many mistakes.” I think the chances of that are looking good.
Become a sculptor
I interviewed the sculptor Jon Edgar as we walked between his sculptures in the gardens of the former estate of Jane Austen’s brother, Chawton House, Hampshire. It was a rainy day in August but it felt like such a privilege to have an artist explain his creative works in person. He told me how the deeply intertwined figures, carved from large blocks of stone and wood, had emerged from a process of improvisation. Rather than approaching the block with a preconceived idea, Jon works with the materials, turning and moving them as he carves, until images emerge from the block. His blocks are often reused materials from interesting sources: Like a pedestal from Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove House or a log from James Lovelock’s garden. Jon says that what emerges from the blocks is a form of self discovery “The bits out here are the equivalent of going to look at a monk in his monastic cell. It’s just someone dealing with their life.”
Jon originally trained as a landscape ecologist and designer, but after ten years of countryside management and landscape projects he wanted a change. “I’d been working for a local authority, doing good things but then I had this awful realisation it was all about mortgages, business planning and managing people and my creativity was going down and down and down. Perhaps the trigger was one relationship ending and I thought I’d got nothing to lose.” So Jon signed up for a two year course at the Frink School of Figurative Sculpture. That was ten years ago. Now Jon has two distinct bodies of work. The large blocks which we were looking at in Hampshire and what he calls his terracotta “sketches”. These are heads which he creates while spending four to ten hours with a sitter.
What has his work got to do with the making a difference? I was intrigued by a series of heads of well-known environmentalists that Jon has created. He wanted to capture eminent environmental thinkers who are ahead of their time, and who are not normally the focus of today’s celebrity culture. People like writer Richard Mabey, moral philosopher, Mary Midgley and scientist James Lovelock. He has also “sketched” environmental do-ers like the conservationist Lady Scott and Tim Smit from the Eden Project who I also interviewed recently. “I’m not seeking to aggrandize or flatter the sitter. The main thing is that the terracotta comes into existence.” Jon explains. “There’s not a conscious desire to make a difference but there’s an energetic impulse within me. I would like to think that the portraits have a role in people thinking about why we have believers in one thing and believers in others.”
While carving his more abstract works is a fairly solitary occupation, the heads fulfil Jon’s gregarious side. It is not a standard commissioning process just a request that each person gives a bit of time. Jon says he enjoys the opportunity to spend time with his sitters. “It brings about a day with people who I care about. It’s a real privilege to learn more about them. It’s almost like a doctor patient relationship for that time. They’re sitting and don’t have much else to concentrate on.”
Jon is using his skills to promote the work of these people who he considers important. He gives his time, as do they. He is proud of the fact that these are not commissioned works. In many ways, Jon and I have similar aims. It’s a real treat to meet someone who can also see the value in portraying inspiring people, just for the satisfaction of the process itself and not for financial gain. I’m also delighted to have been introduced to Jon’s more abstract work, which I love. If you want to see the blocks on display they will be at Chawton House until October 31st.
When I met Brigit Strawbridge in St Pancras Station, before the summer, she was at a crossroads in her own life. It seemed appropriate to meet her at this bustling transport intersection as she left one chapter behind and set off on a new path. Brigit was in a contemplative mood and had plenty of wisdom to share.
You might remember Brigit from the BBC TV show a few years ago called “It’s not easy being green”. She and her family lived with around-the-clock TV cameras as they searched for a more eco-friendly existence. Unsuprisingly, perhaps, media scrutiny left Brigit exhausted: “Afterwards, I spent about a year curled up under the duvet until I literally thought ‘Get over it!’”.
The show had re-ignited Brigit’s childhood love for nature: “I was desperate to put all my energies back into it. To make up for lost time.” She decided to pursue her passion by setting up a charity called the Big Green Idea. The Big Green Idea aimed to answer the thousands of requests that Brigit was receiving for practical advice about living a more eco-friendly life. She kitted out a double decker bus with all the latest green technology and materials and set off to spread the word around the country: “People are drawn to the bus like a magnet. The seats are hemp, we used sustainable woods, there are solar panels, the lighting is low energy, the floor is lino, the paints are green paints. It’s absolutely beautiful. And it does what I hoped it would do.”
Her Big Green Bus offered fun ways to inform all ages about green issues. But after three years, the reality of running a small charity and the constant search for funding left Brigit feeling burnt out once more. “I spent my entire time answering emails, following up contacts, making contacts that would lead nowhere, just filling in funding bids. Paying for an office and never having enough money to pay for myself. I was OK. It was just that everything became so difficult. You persevere because it’s what you set out to do, but my energy levels dropped and dropped.” So, when I met Brigit, she had just decided to do the brave thing and wind her charity down. She was looking for a home for her bus (Tim Smit’s Eden project came to the rescue) and is clearly relieved: “The weight has fallen off my shoulders. It’s almost as if my garden has responded. I’m starting to really feel my reconnection to nature.”
Brigit is now shifting her focus away from the big bus, to a very small, and yet incredibly important element of nature: the bee. Bees have been rising up the agenda of environmentalists in recent years. They are critical to the pollination of plants and their numbers have been plummeting. “If we lose the bees we’re doomed, we’re lost. And every single person can do something about it.” What does Brigit recommend? Plant more flowers, don’t use pesticide sprays, build a bee hotel, leave your lawn to grow and your garden to flourish. The bees will love it. She also urges us all to stop buying products with neo-nicotinoids – a pesticide many suspect is responsible for the collapse of the bee population. Brigit’s own favourite bee is the hairy-footed flower bee: “It’s an utterly beautiful, solitary, little bee”.
And so opens the next chapter in Brigit’s environmental quest. She’s writing a book about bees and their significance, and giving talks wherever she can. Local primary school children already know her as “The Bee Lady”. It’s a much more personal campaign: No office overheads, no staff, no big assets, just unwavering passion and commitment. Brigit is reinvigorated and we should all take note of her message. “Environmentalists are at risk of being crushed by the enormity of the problems we face. I’d love to campaign on lots of issues, but now that I’ve chosen to focus on bees I feel so much more energised.” Brigit will undoubtedly need all the energy she can muster for this campaign, and I wish her every success, for all our sakes.
Organise a street party
“Britain isn’t broken, it’s just a bit bruised around the edges. The reason that we don’t know our neighbours is because we’re all quite shy and don’t know how to give ourselves permission to get to know each other.”
Tim Smit’s words really ring true to me and my life in an inner city borough of East London. I do know some of my neighbours to say hello to, but would like to get to know them better, without seeming like a weirdo, desperate for new mates. Plenty of others I don’t know at all, and wouldn’t know how to go about meeting them.
Fortunately, Tim has an idea to help with the problem. The founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall is now promoting The Big Lunch. A country-wide push to encourage street parties on the 18th July every year. Communities have to organise the parties themselves, but Tim and his colleagues at Eden are trying to give us the excuse we need to get to know our neighbours better. The Big Lunch started in 2009 with 8263 big lunches across the UK. Now in its second year, Tim has high hopes for the event: “Ideally, I’d like to turn it into the British equivalent of thanks giving.”
I met Tim on a sunny morning in a cul-de-sac in Highbury, North London. He was there with Kurt Wenner, a renowned street artist, promoting this year’s lunch with a huge chalk drawing of a picnic in the middle of the road. Tim, who admits to being “quite restless”, has been an archaeologist, worked in the music business, unearthed the Lost Gardens of Heligan and been a driving force behind the construction of two biomes in an exhausted clay quarry at Boldeva, that became Eden.
So why the Big Lunch now? Tim believes there are many potential benefits, to the environment, society and for individual well-being. “We want to help communities become resilient. When people know each other, they start to do stuff together. For example, if you’re going to use fewer resources, one of the best ways of doing that is by sharing stuff.” Getting communities to know each other is a good way to prevent extremism, and allow “the good people to get organised”.
Tim says that they are just aiming to be a catalyst for people to do their own thing. What a brilliant, and simple idea. I’d never thought of organising a street party before, but now I’ve already been in touch with my local council about getting our street closed. I’m still scared. Would anyone come? Would motorists get angry with us? What if someone comes and causes trouble? But so far the response from the neighbours I’ve spoken to has been great. I just think it might work for us and I hope lots of other people will give it a try too. Why don’t you?
Invest in reducing greenhouse gases
One of the challenges I find with being both the writer and photographer behind How to Make a Difference is that moment when I have to switch between being interviewer and photographer. With James Cameron, I realised once again that the more interesting the conversation I am having, the more difficult it is to get a great photograph. James, who is a founder, vice chair and executive director of Climate Change Capital, has a truly impressive track record in the field of climate change. 45 minutes was barely enough to scrape the surface before we needed to dash outside for a quick few snaps (OK, excuses over!).
It was only just before the photographs that I discovered James role in instigating the Kyoto Protocol. In 1988, he co-authored an academic article which was the first to argue that an international negotiated agreement was the best way to use the law to resolve climate change. This article led on to a study into what such an agreement would look like: “We attached the research to an entirely made up group of countries: low-lying developing states. Then, we set about introducing ourselves to the governments of those countries and said ‘There should be an international climate change agreement. We could represent you and you won’t need to pay. It’s all pro bono.’” The Alliance of Small Island States was born and the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol ensued. While we can’t yet look back and say climate change is resolved, the Kyoto Protocol has been a very important step on the path to controlling emissions. James’s ideas, followed by years of involvement in negotiations, have had a notable impact. I hope I didn’t miss anything else this significant in his past!
I met James in the library of Climate Change Capital, at the heart of the very impressive Norton Rose offices, just South West of London’s Tower Bridge. The view is over the Thames to the Tower of London and the skyscrapers of the City of London beyond. In this kind of situation, one realises that environmentalism has made huge steps towards the centre of how our society operates. James is quick to emphasise that much more needs to be done. “We’ve done a lot. Our capacity to make the revolutionary changes to our energy system and reorientate our economy is growing. But the things that we do are still very peripheral. The bulk of financial resources that are needed to make the transformation are still locked onto fossil fuels.”
A qualified barrister, James was a practicing legal professional until he set up Climate Change Capital in 2003. His work with the small island states was one of the first projects of the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) which he helped to found. Later in his career James set up the climate change practice at the law firm Baker and Mckenzie. “I could not have imagined creating Climate Change Capital if I hadn’t done it before with CIEL, FIELD (CIEL’s UK offshoot) and the specialist practice in Baker and McKenzie.”
About ten years ago James, along with other climate change “pioneers”, saw the potential of a commercial enterprise which would invest in the global transition to a low carbon economy. A chance meeting with Mark Woodall, a former investment banker with considerable environmental expertise, led to Climate Change Capital taking off as a separate entity. “Mark had the clarity and wanted to start something new. Without him we wouldn’t have got going.”
Climate Change Capital now manages funds with over US$1.5 billion of commitments. They have funds which are directly targeted at reducing greenhouse gases, as well as more traditional investments, like property, which aim to invest with a “climate change lens”. James is proud of the team that he has around him: “We cannot deliver on the mission ‘creating wealth worth having’, unless everyone here is of a very high standard, whether they’re investing for environmental purposes or not.” On his own role: “They look at me and know that I’m not a professional investor but I am the creative force behind the business.”
James muses that it was probably the news of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, while he was studying for a post graduate degree in international law at Cambridge, which inspired him to pursue a career focused on international environmental issues. “It was a perfect example of transboundary harm, which needed to be addressed through legal systems that crossed boundaries.” Growing up as an expat in Lebanon and then Singapore was formative too: “All of my idealism and excitement about politics was fixed on power and abuse of power, and ultimately how to you reconcile competing interests where the state has a fundamental role, but where individual liberty is at risk.”
For now things are good. The business is going well and James is pleased to note that the new Lib Con coalition deal includes some elements that Climate Change Capital have been proselytizing: “I’m very happy at the minute with the space that I’ve got to be me, and the people I’ve got to depend on. When you see the potential of what you’ve created, and you reset your ambitions, then you have to work out when to let go, but that time hasn’t come yet.”
Work with people in other fields
Nigel Bell, past retirement age now, still loves what he does enough to keep him at the office. He’s a professor of environmental pollution at Imperial College, and for much of his 40 year career he has run one of the best Environmental MSc courses in the country (I would say that. I’m a former student!). Nigel has seen over 2600 students graduate from the MSc and claims to know them all by name. He is at the nexus of a generation of environmentalists who are working hard to protect the planet’s natural resources.
I’m talking to Nigel in his office which adjoins the current MSc students’ common room. Nigel is definitely not an academic who is isolated in his ivory tower. “I love being in the heart of things, where the students are.”
When the MSc took in its first students in 1977, it recognised that the resolution of environmental problems required a multidisciplinary approach rather than relying solely on science and technology. Social sciences like environmental management, law, policy and economics are critical. “It was really quite a heresy in those days because Imperial College was almost entirely science and engineering,” Nigel tells me. The MSc drew upon specialists who were often somewhat marginalised in their own departments by virtue of their interest in the environment. Nigel’s research interests were in, and remain, the influence of air pollution on plants. He was then in the botany department, but the chance to work with others across departments with interests in environmental issues was very attractive.
To this day, one of the reasons why students from the MSc course are so effective at tackling environmental issues is because of Nigel’s enthusiasm for networking across disciplines and occupations. Environmental problems are so complex that these links are essential. Take for example the resolution of stratospheric ozone depletion in the late 1980s. It took scientists, politicians, international lawyers and negotiators, manufacturers, retailers and consumers working together to achieve the successful phase out of CFCs. Nigel and his colleagues are educating people in all of these fields to resolve the even more intractable issues we now face.
Nigel is palpably proud of his ex-students’ “devastating success” in such a wide range of occupations. All bringing their environmental expertise with them. “When the course started we didn’t know what jobs people were going to get. There weren’t very many truly environmental jobs and most of them were in the public sector.” In the late 80s the private sector started showing an interest in environmental issues and EU legislation started driving things forward. Now, 40% of the students go into consultancy: “environmental consultants, energy consultants, carbon management consultants, consulting engineers, management consultants etc”.
I came to talk to Nigel at this time because I want to explore making a difference to one of our generation’s most incredible challenges: Climate Change. Climate change is now a major element of the MSc course and Nigel tells me that 20 students annually move into professions which are specifically aiming to tackle the problem: They become carbon traders, or work for energy related NGOs, charities and consultancies. These are some of the people who I plan to talk to over coming months. “Climate change is hellish important”, Nigel confirms, but then he’s quick to caution me: “The trouble is that it ain’t the only problem. Over population and over consumption are equally worrying.” I take the point, but let’s start somewhere.
I wonder what this man, who has probably influenced more people wanting to make a difference than most, thinks is the best way for an individual to have an impact. “ Get right into the heart of it. I think you can argue that the solution to the world’s major environmental problems lie in the self-interest of big business. You’ve got to be able to talk the language of big business and the City.” Personally, I found trying to change things from inside Shell International very tough, but hopefully there are plenty of other MSc graduates out there having more success than I did. I’m planning to put Nigel’s network to the test and write about the most inspiring examples for you here.
Rama and Sujata Bhalla
Redirect waste to where it is wanted
Rama and Sujata Bhalla are the brains and the energy behind Giving World Online, a charity which takes business waste and redistributes it to those in need. Businesses can use GWO’s simple website to ensure that their surplus IT equipment, stationery, furniture and other goods are not wasted, but instead put to good use by reputable charities.
I met these entrepreneurial sisters at their warehouse in Leicester. The three storey former printing press looks almost derelict from the outside and I wandered around for some time trying to find an entrance that was in use. In the end I had to resort to my phone and after a couple of minutes Rama Bhalla appeared from behind a peeling green painted door.
On the top floor of this mainly unused building is a room filled with boxes of medical equipment, toys, books, computers, a whole range of unwanted goods. In the corner of the room, a small office is walled off. This is where Rama and Sujata do their business. “Actually most of the goods don’t come to this warehouse anymore,” Rama explains to me. “We arrange for the equipment to go straight from the business to the charity; directly from waste to want.” In 2009, GWO prevented 66 tonnes of waste from going to landfill. They have rescued about £1.5 million worth of goods since they started 8 years ago.
The idea came to the sisters when a friend of theirs bought a warehouse in the outskirts of Leicester that was full of paper and said that he planned to throw it all away. The pair were horrified and said that they would find places where it could be used. Nurseries and schools around Leicester took the paper with pleasure and the seed of an idea was sown. Word spread about what they had done and further offers of goods from businesses came in. The women spent their evenings and weekends finding charities who needed what was otherwise going to be wasted and started to call themselves Konnect9. In 2003, someone offered some medical supplies which could not be given away in the UK. Rama and Sujata linked up with a charity in Mumbai and organised a container to get the materials there. “It was going to take four weeks to ensure that the supplies made it to their intended recipients. So I reached a turning point. No-one was going to give me four weeks off work without knowing if I’d be back.” Rama decided to take the plunge and quit her job with the Local Authority. Luckily, family support made this possible: “I live with my family so I was OK.” Also, when she got back home, Sujata managed to fundraise a part-time salary for her.
They carried on working like this, Rama on a part-time salary and Sujata working in her spare time, until 2007. It is so impressive to hear how people give up their time to work tirelessly on something just because they believe it is the right thing to do. That’s exactly what Rama and Sujata were doing when a donor who they had approached phoned them and said “You’re asking for £500, wouldn’t you like more?”. They replied that they certainly would. So the donor gave enough to pay Sujata full-time for two years and it was her turn to give up the day job. “Having Sujata working full-time made a huge difference. We have the space to think a bit more strategically.”
They realised that the internet could really help them with what they were doing and so worked towards launching Giving World Online. “We went on whatever course we could to learn about the internet, so that we were able to direct our website developer as well as possible.” The website is still evolving, but right now, businesses can go on there and advertise what they are trying to give away. Then the charities, which are screened by Rana and Sujata, can say that they have a need for particular goods. If the business agrees to give to that charity (they will receive a brief profile about them) then the transaction goes ahead. Usually the charity will then pick up the goods, or pay for the transportation. The aim is to make the process as simple as possible for the businesses.
Rana and Sujata are on the cusp of a big expansion. They are planning to employ 4 more staff members to fuel their growth. They have a charity song written for them by a chart topping, Swedish pop star and Discovery TV have offered to make a TV advertisement for them. I’m so impressed with their innovation and drive. These women have worked for many years now on reducing waste and reducing deprivation. When I ask them if they enjoy what they do, the smiles that cross their faces speak for themselves. Their role models? “Our family spirit is one of service to the community. Our mother would do anything to help others.”
The two women themselves are incredibly modest about their achievements but if all families could say that in the last 8 years they had diverted 200 tonnes of waste going to landfill into the hands of those that need it, just imagine what a different world we would live in.
Form a football team
Can football make a difference? Street League uses the sport to help some of the most vulnerable members of our society get back on their feet. For someone who is homeless or without a job, maybe just out of prison, or suffering from an addiction, a regular game of football can help build the self esteem and confidence necessary to get their life together. At least that is what I am told by Street League’s founder, Damian Hatton. We met in their Stratford offices, in the shadows of the Olympic Village, East London.
Street League started in 2001, as a football tournament between 16 homeless hostels. At that time, Damian was an accident and emergency doctor at University College Hospital, London. He was troubled by the number of homeless people who came into the emergency department with multiple needs, and left again with little hope of being helped long-term.
As a young person himself, Damian had found sport to be a great refuge. “When I was 15, I had a fantastic rugby coach. I played six days a week and it had a very beneficial effect on my grades. I ended up going from the bottom to top of class.” So, when he saw NHS systems were not helping those in need, Damian thought he might be able to do something about it through the power of sport. “Whilst I was still on the wards, I dreamt up the idea of engaging people through a fun and healthy activity, working with lots of friends and contacts. So, I picked up a phone book with the hostels written in it and just rang around them all.” Damian organised six weeks of training leading up to a football tournament. Kit, equipment and transport were all laid-on to make participation as easy as possible. It was a huge success. “The homeless guys and their workers were saying: ‘This is fantastic! Great! We’ve never seen them so enthusiastic!’. We started to see some major breakthroughs with people.”
The next significant step forward was later in 2001 when Damian decided to take a year’s sabbatical. He was given some funding for Street League and the rest is history. “It’s the longest sabbatical ever!”, Damian now jokes. “It was an opportunity to go and do this, and so I just jumped. Once you’ve jumped, you figure out how to fly on the way down. That’s the only way to do things, otherwise nothing ever happens.”
While Damian loved being a doctor, he wanted more. “This is akin to me going into management and asking “How do you change the landscape?” It’s difficult to do that in a front-line job. I loved being a doctor. The people contact was fantastic. But I’ve always been an ideas person. I want to create and grow stuff. That’s where my ambition always lay.”
In its current incarnation Street League works with about 1000 people in London, Glasgow and the North East of England. They work in partnership with about 60 organisations. Players come from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds including homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, displacement, unemployment, crime, learning difficulties and mental health. In addition to football, Street League runs self-defence and dance sessions, which also attract women to the project. About 20% of all participants are now female.
Once a player joins Street League, it’s more than just a game, as the organisation’s strap line goes. All individuals are encouraged to participate in a range of training from goal-setting to back-to-work skills and sports-based qualifications. Even those who want to choose a more “free flow” route, are still expected to reconsider their desire for employment at regular intervals. “We’re not here just for free football. If you’re interested in moving yourself onwards, that’s great, but we need to know what that destination is. It’s not time bound, and if you’re not ready yet we’ll check in again to find out if things have changed.” Once players do get a job, they can join Street League’s graduate league, which is run in the evenings and on weekends. “Sport then becomes recreational and an integral part of their success story. If you’re fit and well, you tend to have lots of other things going well in your life.”
Many of the players have been failed by the traditional systems of education, and not everyone is ready to be helped back into employment. “It can be very frustrating in this field of work, because you’re sometimes working with people who don’t want to achieve what you want them to achieve. But if they are ready, then we can fast track them through that process.”
And what about the future? Since I met Damian, Street League has already moved to bigger and better offices in Kennington, right next to the pitches of Kennington Park. Damian also sees huge opportunity for growth in football as a tool for development, both in the UK and internationally. He is on the board of Street Football World and through that sees how football is being used around the world by NGOs to help with issues as diverse as HIV awareness, women’s empowerment and conflict resolution.
Damian sums it up: “It’s fun. It’s healthy. It’s a bit of a no brainer to use sport as a social development tool. That’s perhaps it’s purest use in society.” I have a feeling he will have no shortage of volunteers to help him.
Plant a Forest
Buying two hundred acres of land and planting 60,000 trees on it, is not a way to make a difference that I would suggest is available to everyone. However, I do admire Paul Priestman’s approach to spending his extra cash.
By day, Paul is a founding director of Priestmangoode, an internationally renowned design studio, which specialises in the interiors of airplanes, trains and cruise ships. But Paul and his wife Tess, have long since held another ambition: to plant trees. In 2005, they decided to look at a range of sites in Northumberland, where Tess’s family are from. Paul says they immediately fell in love with one piece of land: “They were asking much too much. We offered to buy half the land at the going rate and they took it and so we ended up with 200 acres! It’s about a mile square. It’s a whole hill with a derelict farm in the middle.”
The deal was completed in 2006 and all 60,000 trees had been planted on about 100 acres of the land before 2007. Paul’s years of experience in product design clearly helped to take this project from concept to completion so fast: “I’ve always loved projects. I like to do things and create things,” he told me.
Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Paul in the woodland itself, but I was able to see some photographs over coffee in his Notting Hill mews house. Paul and Tess visit their trees about three times a year, when they hire a camper van and go and park it on the site; a side benefit which Paul clearly takes great pleasure in: “It’s fascinating to see the trees growing. It’s got two footpaths through it, so people can enjoy it. It’s lovely to see people walking their dogs on it. And we have local school children coming to visit. We’ve met so many local people through the project.”
The Forestry Commission have been of great assistance. They provide up to 50% grants for this kind of project. Although Paul and Tess had to find all the money up front, the grant will be repayed to them over the next five years. Paul says they want to reinvest that money in more land and trees in the same area. They clearly have the woodland creating bug!
The Forestry Commission also advise on which trees to plant and who to get to plant them. “They assessed the land and then planted willows down by the river and other trees, like rowan and holly, higher up. It’s all native species. It can never be cut down.” Along with the Forestry Commission grant came an archeological assessment, which is why trees are only planted on 100 of the 200 acre site “The archeologists said there were some interesting earth works in certain places. You could plant all over it, but that would restrict the grant.” At a cost of £2 per tree planted, you can understand why the grant is worth taking.
Other than that minor setback, Paul sees no downsides. To him it’s a fun and interesting way to invest some money. He’s happy to talk about how the woodland is developing; what measures they have taken to manage the wildlife in a way that protects the young trees; and what he’s learnt about ecosystem management along the way.
“There’s not many things where you just pay your money knowing you’re not going to get anything in return. It’s not for financial gain. I’m not going to sell it on. It’s something that’s going to be there forever.”
Paul is pretty circumspect about the whole project. “I don’t really talk about it very much. It’s just one of those things that have gone on and I enjoy. I can’t quite believe that it’s sitting there now.” If Paul doesn’t want to talk about it, then I will have to. Wouldn’t it be great if woodlands rather than yachts and sports cars became the ultimate status symbol?
Send emergency supplies to disaster zones
If you are wondering what you can do to help, as the people of Haiti await aid, please donate to ShelterBox, one of the most inspiring charities that I’ve come across in five years of interviewing people who are making a difference.
Last September, I was asked by the Media Trust, to travel to Cornwall to photograph Sally Grint, the Head of Development and Communications at ShelterBox. I was immediately capitivated by Sally as she spoke with such passion and conviction about the value of this charity’s work.
ShelterBox is usually one of the first aid agencies on the ground in emergency situations, like the one currently unfolding in Haiti. They use their military expertise – founder Tom Henderson is ex-military, as are many of their employees and volunteers – to transport survival boxes to the heart of disasters as quickly as possible. Each box has the equipment for a family of up to ten people to survive when they are left with nothing: A purpose designed tent, cooking equipment, water purification kit, bedding and other supplies depending on the nature of the situation. Each box costs £490 to fill and transport to where it is needed, with the support necessary to make sure the equipment is distributed and used to its utmost advantage.
Sally took me around the ShelterBox warehouse in Helston, where volunteers were packing the piles of equipment into hundreds of green boxes to ship to “holding” locations around the world. The boxes are dispatched in advance to sites near to disaster hot-spots, so that they can be deployed as rapidly as possible when needed. Thanks to the large amount of volunteer support that the charity receives, almost none of the £490 is spent on overheads; it’s almost all to pay for the equipment inside the box and for the transportation to where it is needed.
Trained ShelterBox response teams are mobilised to take the boxes into disaster situations. They travel with the boxes, and stay for 10 to 14 days to ensure that their contents are distributed effectively and used correctly. ShelterBox currently has 150 such trained volunteers around the world, divided between Europe, America and the Antipodes.
Sally herself is an amazing and deeply inspiring woman to meet. Within minutes of picking me up in the ShelterBox Landrover, she was sharing the very moving story of the last conversation she had with her husband, who had died five years previously. He was sick with depression and had asked her if there was any hope: “Hope for the future, hope at all in life, hope to be happy again?” After his death, Sally moved from London, with her two young children, to Helston so she could be near to family. Late one night, her husband’s words still ringing in her ears, she typed “hope” into Google and up popped an article titled “Hope in a Box”. The article was about ShelterBox and Sally was amazed to find that this “hope in a box” was actually located down the road from her in Helston. Having devoured all the information on their website, she turned up the next day to find out more.
Sally started work the following day as a volunteer. While in London, Sally had a very successful PR career, working with all the big labels of high fashion. She had become disillusioned with that world and saw in ShelterBox a way to use those skills to really make a positive difference in the world. She initially helped with fund-raising and trained as a response team volunteer. She was deployed to Bangladesh following Cyclone Sidr: “The journey of my role within ShelterBox begins with the families out there in Bangladesh who will still be recovering from their losses. One man who had lost his wife and eldest daughter held my hand and said ‘I prayed and someone cared’; a sentence that has stayed with me, putting the box into perspective. It is a tent, some tools, some vital equipment but it’s the getting it there that is so important. It’s the packaging up of so much effort from so many people. It’s an incredible box.”
Now Sally heads up ShelterBox’s communication department and has helped transform the organisation’s press relations, as it has grown in recent years from a small charity into a major aid industry player. This week, I am sure, she will be incredibly busy trying to tell stories which will bring in funds, so that they can get more of these life-saving boxes to those who need them in Haiti. Having seen their operations in practise, I know that money given to them will directly help those most in need at this time. Please think about donating something to their efforts if you can.
Make the history of ideas more accessible
I met Sophie Howarth last summer, so this blog post would not win an award for being up-to-the minute! Last year’s How to Make a Difference films have led to a bit of a posting backlog. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be writing about three great interviews I did over the summer. Then I’m going to embark on a season of Climate Change related How to Make a Difference profiles which, I hope, will inspire lots of you to do your bit towards that very pressing agenda.
Now back to Sophie, who is the founder of the School of Life; A social enterprise which, in her words, aims to “take a self-help approach to the history of ideas and make them more relevant, alive and a lot more fun.” In practise, this means that she and her small team of colleagues run adult education courses from their funky looking shop in Bloomsbury. Courses with titles like “how to be a good friend”, “how to make love last” and “how to be alone” aim to explore a wide-range of literature and thought in a way that attracts the modern consumer.
The price tag is £30 for an evening discussion or £125 for more extensive weekend courses. Sophie says: “People are used to education being free, or very cheap, and we’re putting it out at cost price. So there’s the idea that we’re very expensive and only cater to a certain section of the population. Actually, our competitors are all government funded or heavily subsidised.” Sophie is adamant that she does not want to go down that path, with its endless form-filling and potential compromise of ideals. “It would be lovely to offer the courses much cheaper, but it’s quite a good test of whether people have got something out of it, if they are prepared to return as paying customers. It makes you more genuinely accountable.”
Sophie had been mulling over the idea of spicing up the world of adult education when she had “a stroke of luck”. A friend of hers suggested she pitched her idea to a group of funders who were looking for a culture project to invest in. She convinced them that the School of Life was a good place to put their money and quit her job at an East London arts centre in Summer 2007. For a year, Sophie was paid to develop the idea at home while pursuing an exhaustive search for suitable premises. After realising that she could get a lot more for her money if they located themselves in a shop, they chose their current premises on Marchmont Street. The ground floor is an appealing, if sparsely stocked, bookshop and downstairs, their seminar room is beautifully decorated with the illustrations of Charlotte Mann. Sophie muses that “it’s difficult to remember which came first, the idea of approaching education like retail, or finding ourselves in a shop”. Whichever way around things happened, the recipe has been one of success. The School of Life has attracted lots of media attention and has developed a powerful brand. When I met Sophie they were not in the black financially yet, but had plans to sell bespoke courses to blue chip companies as one way of getting there.
“The ideas we don’t have to pay for, so that’s an asset to our business plan!” Sophie laughs. The big challenge has been finding teachers who can deliver the material in a way that meets Sophie’s demanding requirements. “We want to be really quirky and humble but we want to deliver something completely extraordinary, that is intellectually up there with the best universities, that is up there with the most extraordinary personal development or drama experience you might have.” This has taken a lot of coaching and preparation on behalf of the School of Life team: “The amount of effort that we put into everything makes it utterly illogical.” But once the teachers are on board, Sophie says they are “very wedded to us”. Another asset to her business, I’m sure.
Sophie enjoys helping her contemporaries work out what to do with their lives: “Our audience is mainly our own age. They are thinking how can I make the most out of life? We’re here to say, ‘take the opportunity to come and work out your own thoughts. Even if you feel like you’re 45 and should have sorted them out by now.’”
What about the future? Sophie would like to see the School of Life replicated on high streets around the country. “We want to be like the Boots for ideas.” I suspect they could be a much cooler chain-store than that. Right now, I think Sophie is on maternity leave and so probably has other priorities, but watch this space for more engaging evening classes coming your way.
Make the most of urban green spaces
Thanks to John Little and the Grass Roof Company, the Clapton Park Housing Estate in East London, looks like no other. The borders are filled with wild flowers, red poppies drape onto the pavement and residents grow vegetables in former rose beds. Rather than rows of unchanging shrubs and acres of fenced, mowed grass, John has created gardens which encourage the wellbeing of residents and enable those who want to grow things, to do so. John tells me, many of the wildflowers are grown from seed: “We seed the whole estate for 250 quid”. The resulting plants need far less watering and have lowered the need for herbicides. It’s hard to understand why this isn’t happening on every estate in the country.
I met John in Venetia’s Coffee Shop, which is just up the road from Clapton Park. John explains how he has always appreciated plants: “When I was a teenager in Essex, I was very interested in wild plants. Which was a bit bizarre. Not many kids were into that. I loved planting in my grandfather’s garden and I did voluntary work with the Wildlife Trust.” However, for the first 20 years of his career John worked in the family shoe business. It was only when his father decided to retire, in 1998, that John thought he would also pursue another path: “I thought I’d have a go at gardening: Turfing and whatnot.”
John, and his brother Robert, started the Grass Roof company which concentrated on designing and building garden projects. As the name implies, one of their specialities is installing roofs that are covered in vegetation. John explains some of the many benefits: “Green roofs keep buildings cool in summer, they reduce the urban heat island affect and they encourage sustainable drainage, because they hold onto sixty percent of the rain that falls onto them.”
During the first couple of years of operating in Essex, John enjoyed experimenting with different habitats and materials. They worked for some schools and found them very open to using wild plants and even, after some pursuasion, green roofs. The next big thing was when the Clapton Park Estate asked if the Grass Roof Company would do some work for them: “We dug up a load of concrete either side of the road, put in some beds and some art works. Just to make it look different from a council estate. We experimented with using different planting – not shrubs that have no seasonality.”
The residents liked the way that they worked and when the contract came up for the estate maintenance, they asked John and his brother to tender: “I just thought, there’s no reason why we can’t view maintenance like the other things we do. I said ‘We want to put wild flowers in and make some room for food’. They gave us the benefit of the doubt even though we’d never done anything like that before.”
Not everyone was immediately convinced by the more “organic” looking estate: “The first year we had to put signs up. It just looked like we’d left the weeds to grow everywhere.” John also had to win the contract for herbicide control on the estate to prevent their flowers being sprayed with weed killer. He says he still struggles sometimes to convince the contract manager about what they are doing: “Our guys know what a poppy looks like and so they don’t spray the plants that look interesting. It does sometimes look like we ain’t done bugger all, but when there are poppies coming up through the cracks, it gives a really nice feel to the place.”
Some residents were particularly enthusiastic about the opportunity to grow food. Like Zanep, a female resident who used to spend all her time indoors. There were already allotments on the estate but the waiting list is about five years long: “We saw pieces of land with fences around them that no-one goes in to. So, we’ve been nicking pieces of suitable ground and giving them to people to make food. It just made sense really.” Now Zanep has a nice big plot where she grows food and she even bakes bread outside for her friends. “It’s concrete stories like that which really make you feel like you’re making a difference. That’s the kind of thing I like to hang on to.”
In 2007 John and his brother won a silver gilt at the Chelsea Flower Show with a Clapton Park Estate garden. They took some of the residents to this quintessentially English event. “They enjoyed that because people were interested in where they lived. It’s an incredibly white middle class event and our people were the only black people in the show.”
John wishes that other councils would copy some of the ideas from the Clapton Park Estate. “What’s tricky is organising things so that it’s easy for a big team to do. To roll it out we’d need some kind of formula that works, but you need to be flexible. They’re flowers at the end of the day. Sometimes the seeds grow, sometimes they don’t. Because most of the contracts are council run, they’re not so inclined to experiment.” Turning over land to allotments seems to be an easier model for other estates to follow: “There are often spaces that have been mowed for years, with a fence around them, that no-one has ever stood on. If councils realised they could be maintained more cheaply by turning them over to food growing, then they might be interested. If you add up the green space on social housing there’s a massive amount that could be used better.”
It’s hard to see the downside of what John is doing: Helping some of the people who need it most to get back in touch with nature and the seasons. When I met him he was just back from telling his story at a conference in Glasgow: “I go to these conferences and it makes me wonder, why am I the only person who has managed to deliver this on a housing estate?” I leave John with the same view. Why is it so hard to make this happen? As John puts it “it’s so ridiculously simple, I can’t understand why it’s not mainstream.”
Educate teenage parents
Rosie Payne was introduced to me by the Charity Bank; they wanted me to see one of their most exciting investments of recent years. Rosie Payne runs the Young People’s Project, a centre which helps teenage parents turn their lives around. The Project makes it possible for young parents, who often have not succeeded at school, to get an accredited education. They can put their children in the on-site crèche while they focus on all-important qualifications. Community midwives and careers advisors also work out of the YPP centre, making access to support as easy as possible. Volunteers do outreach work on the streets as well: “It’s all about engagement with young people who are not adhering to the mainstream”, Rosie explains.
I met Rosie at the centre in Ilford. A modern block where every inch of space is being used. Walls have been erected to create classrooms, offices and consultation rooms. We met on a day when there were no classes otherwise, Rosie tells me, there would have been no space to sit in.
A service like this makes such perfect sense that you would expect to find centres like Rosie’s all over the country; especially, as teenage pregnancy is rising in many areas. YPP is one of a rare breed however, and it only exists thanks to Rosie’s tenacity, passion and hard work.
Rosie was made redundant, back in the early 1990s, from her role as a professional youth and community worker. A friend asked her to help out at a toddler group on Monday mornings for young mums who had recently left care. Soon after, Rosie took over running the group herself. The young people were asking questions like: “What do I do if I’m having a bad day on a Tuesday?” and “How do I get to college?” Rosie wanted to help and managed to secure some funding which allowed her to move into central Ilford and run the group two days a week; the Project grew from there. They became a constituted organisation in 2000 and in 2005, thanks to a loan from the Charity Bank, they purchased their own premises. The Charity Bank loan meant that they could now run five days a week and are in touch with several hundred young people.
Another really valuable aspect of the Young People’s Project is their involvement in sexual education in schools. A group of young parent volunteers at the centre run the Respect Programme. I met some of the enthusiastic team and feel quite sure that they would be more convincing than the teacher with fuzzy felt who taught me about the birds and the bees at school!
Many of the young people who come to the centre looking for support, become volunteers and even employed by the project. This all helps build their skills and confidence. Rosie says that loyalty is high: “People come to me if they’ve been volunteering and say, “I’m really sorry. I’ve got another job and I don’t want to let you down”, but I really want the best for them and it’s about moving on.”
There are many reasons why teenagers get pregnant, but according to Rosie deprivation, poor sex education and media pressure are some of the key causes: “According to statistics, if you don’t have anyone who believes in you when you’re ten, then you’re much more likely to have a baby as a teenager. A lot of young people don’t have anyone around them to support them and they haven’t found school to be a place that they could develop in. They’re hard to reach, but they’re the ones who I’m trying to help.”
Seeing lives turned around makes it all worthwhile for Rosie: “Working with young people is fantastic” she tells me, even though she tempers that with, “it’s working with organisations and structures that’s challenging”. A sentiment shared by many social entrepreneurs who I’ve talked to.
After our interview I chat to some of the teenage mums who are around the centre. They are full of enthusiasm for the project and seem confident and happy. Rosie has clearly created an environment where these young people can grow and I leave with a feeling that these particular teenagers are very lucky to have found her.
Become a social banker
Malcolm Hayday is an unusual kind of banker: One who is not out to make big profits, but whose main aim is to help charities succeed. He is the Founder and CEO of the Charity Bank, the UK’s only not-for-profit bank. The bank lends money to other charitable organisations who otherwise find credit hard to come by. I met Malcolm at one such charity in East London, called the Young People’s Project. It is an education centre for teenage parents and the Charity Bank lent them the money to buy their new premises in Ilford a few years ago.
Malcolm’s appearances would not set him aside from others in the banking profession. Wearing the uniform pin-stripped suit which betrays his 20 years of international banking experience, he looked a bit out of place in this run down East London borough. In the early nineties, Malcolm was “a casualty of the last recession”, and found himself looking for work. He told me he wanted a change of direction, “If I’m honest, I never felt totally comfortable in the City. There was always the feeling that there was another way of doing this, that would somehow make it easier to sleep at night.”
Malcolm took a position at the Charities Aid Foundation, CAF, to research the potential of making loans to the charitable sector. It was 1993 and he found charities needed capital, but were against the idea of borrowing money. At the same time, banks were unconvinced that charities were credit worthy. So, Malcolm started a private loan fund with donations by CAF’s trustees who agreed to take the burden of the risk on initial loans: “To everyone’s amazement we lent the money and got it back.” The Charity Bank grew out of this initial pilot project.
By the late 1990s Malcolm had a team of 6 people working with him and they decided to scale things up. They wanted to become a bank but it was a “tortuous road” to get there. The Financial Services Authority, the Charities Commission and the Inland Revenue were all very nervous about the concept of a not-for-profit bank. Nevertheless, on Valentines Day 2002, the call came to say that they had authorisation. Malcolm and his team had six weeks to start operating: “They weren’t waiting to shoot us down, but they were waiting for us to fall over. Each year that goes by, people believe in us more.”
The Bank is now based in Tonbridge with 34 full time employees. They have a balance sheet of £50 million pounds, £30 million of which is lent out and £12 million of which is “waiting to go”. Their loans are made very carefully and sometimes the best advice that the bank can give to charities is to go elsewhere. Surprisingly, Malcolm comments that, “In many ways the most satisfying part of the job is getting a thank you note from those who we turn down.”
Malcolm clearly gets great satisfaction from what he does and admits that many weekends and evenings are taken up by his work. As well as running the bank, he spends lots of time building links with similar banks overseas and with universities and colleges who will produce the social bankers of the future. “You can’t do this half-heartedly. You’ve got to completely commit yourself. You have to recognise that it’s going to demand everything.”
The Charity Bank is unique because it invests the money from savings accounts solely in charities and not-for-profit organisations. The credit crisis has led to a surge of new depositors: “There’s a desire among part of the population to do things differently or to buy things from somebody who’s doing something differently. You don’t have to go to the big provider who doesn’t actually treat you as an individual.” The credit crunch may also lead to a growth in demand for the Charity Bank’s services from borrowers. As government funding is squeezed, more and more not-for-profits will be strapped for cash. “The big challenge is still getting the bank well enough known. There are still parts of the charitable market that don’t know us well.” Hopefully you blog readers will help out there. Spread the word!
Care for vulnerable inner city children
“You couldn’t get a more privileged background than mine,” Camila Batmanghelidjh laughs as she contrasts the first ten years of her life, as the child of a wealthy Iranian physician living in Tehran, with her current life: “Who’d have thought that the child who grew up with such wealth and two police body guards would end up in Peckham?”
She is founder and director of Kids Company, a charity which provides practical, emotional and educational support to 13,000 vulnerable inner-city children and young people each year. We are sitting in a strikingly creative office space; Camila and some of her clients have transformed the inside of the drab former government offices, which Kids Company have just taken over, into something which resembles a fairy godmother’s grotto. Camila, who looks like a fairy godmother draped in a long flowery gown and pink turban, has just asked me to cover my ears as she literally yells for someone from the other end of the floor to bring us some tea. “Quirky” is a word at the front of my mind.
As surprised as Camila is to find herself in a deprived part of South London, she has been keen to work with vulnerable children for a long time. Aged 9, Camila had already told her parents that she planned to run an orphanage and she was regularly entrusted by her teachers to entertain 70 to 90 primary school aged children: “I loved it and obviously I had a special talent.” Camila was also intrigued by how the mind worked and insisted that her mother joined the Child Development Society so that she could read the journals. This was not easy for a girl who was already becoming aware of her own global learning difficulty: “Reading was hard, directions too, stairs flatten out and even now, I can’t use a keyboard at all”. A love for children, psychology and an empathy for those who don’t fit in, provided the building blocks for Camila’s future career.
Age eleven Camila was sent to one of the UK’s top private schools for girls, Sherborne. Not long after arriving there, the news that her father had been imprisoned in the Iranian revolution turned her life upside down. Although family connections enabled her school fees to be covered, Camila started working with children during the holidays to earn extra cash. First she got a position as a nursery worker, but as her experience and knowledge of psychology increased, she built up a private practise for disturbed children of the very wealthy: “These were people who didn’t want their children to appear in anyone’s clinic. I used to go to their houses and problem solve, often using a suitcase full of art materials.” By the age of 19 she had a full practise, just through word of mouth. “I was very confident. I’d accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge over the years and because I came from an incredibly wealthy background, I wasn’t phased by the chandeliers. They could tell that their wealth or power wasn’t impressive”
Camila says that the issues faced by these children were similar to those of the deprived London children who she works with today: “It’s all about lack of maternal attachment.” Aged 25, when Camila became a part-time therapist at family services in South London, she realised that many of the children who she was trying to help didn’t have a functioning parent at all to bring them to appointments. So, she put together all her talents and experience to date to create a new model of care: “I decided to set up a therapeutic service for children within a school, that children can self refer to. So I cleaned up a broom cupboard in a primary school and called it the “Place to Be”.” Five years later, in 1995, Camila left the Place to Be, to set up Kids Company with a £20,000 grant from the local authority.
Kids Company aims to provide a nurturing home environment for children who are missing a functioning parent: “The way you do it is you put a collection of staff on a premises and let the children come when they like. Those who desperately need it will come seven days a week. You provide three meals a day. You have your doctor, your dentist, your psychiatric nurse, optician, youth worker, artists and sports workers. You don’t open and close files on children, you just get to know them. It’s a partnership with the parents and the centre where possible.” Kids Company operate variations of this model in 37 schools across London. They have a crisis centre for 2000 children and an Urban Academy for “two or three hundred really challenging students”. The Company has 336 paid staff and 5600 volunteers.
As with many charities, fund raising is a major task. They have to raise £10 million each year. Camila takes this in her stride: “When you’re a lifeline to so many children, you’d better show up and get on with it. If they can survive that amount of neglect then we better get on with the fund raising.”
In spite of all her experience, and her self evident success, it’s still hard to imagine this elaborately dressed woman relating to the street kids of Peckham. She’s realistic about the risks she faces: “When they first arrive, some of them are capable of great harm. You have to be realistic and know that they lose control very quickly.” She has a suitably unusual approach to “de-escalating” any tense situation: “I pinch their cheeks! I say ‘Do you really want to frighten me that much? Is that what you want me to think of you? To me you’re a really small boy with lots of painful feelings and I’m not scared of you.’”
Kids Company is very successful at what it does; At getting children back into education and reducing crime. But Camila sees the overall problem for deprived inner city children increasing: “Violence is spreading like a virus among disturbed children at street level and they are forcing otherwise well cared for children to become involved.” Kids Company has a vital role to play in alleviating the situation by helping violent children not to become violent parents: “It’s a cycle. No-one becomes violent randomly. It’s about giving people genuine tools to solve the problem so that there’s no violence any more.” Privileged background or not, Camila is using her drive, experience and personality to make a big impact in this area and I am thankful.
Sail across the Atlantic
Amelia Fawcett captures my attention with a quote she likes to live by: “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” I couldn’t agree more. We are chatting in the kitchen of her house in South Kensington. She’s making the coffee, having just dashed here from meetings about her newly announced role as chair of the Guardian Media Group. Amelia has a string of such responsibilities: She’s Deputy Chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, Chairman of the London International Festival of Theatre and a director of the Board of Business in the Community to name a few. Until 2007, Amelia was Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of Morgan Stanley and one of the most powerful women in London’s banking circles.
What had initially interested me about Amelia was a voyage which she made across the Atlantic in 2007, a short time before she departed from Morgan Stanley. The timing was not a coincidence. “The journey gave me the time to think,” she explains. The 17 day sail was much more than a personal sabbatical; Amelia was approaching 50, wondering what to do next with her life and sure that whatever it was, she wanted to make a difference. She was also lucky enough to have some share options which had expired and “a little extra cash”. A life-long hankering to sail across the Atlantic and a position on the board of Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s Generations Appeal gave Amelia the idea to make her epic fundraising voyage.
Amelia immediately applied her business experience to the cause. “I treated it like a project. I called my brother, an outstanding sailor, and asked him if I could hire him to see if we could do it. Is the project a go or a no go?” That was in January 2005. By late spring they had decided that it was possible and by the end of the year they had picked the right boat and equipment. Then Amelia had to turn her skills to fund raising. She went to the chairman of the Generations Appeal, Mervyn Davies, and said “I think I can raise £50,000”. Mervyn told her not to get out of bed for less than £150,000. He advised the stunned Amelia to get six corporate “anchor sponsors” to pay £15,000 each, which is what she did. She ended up aiming to bring in £250,000 and the final total raised is over £300,000. Amelia covered all the costs of the voyage herself, so every penny raised went to the appeal.
Even for someone with a wealthy contact list like Amelia’s, raising this kind of money is no mean feat. “I sent 475 letters out and wrote a personal note on each one. I think we had a 65% hit rate and money came in in 5 pound and 5000 pound sums”. Amelia was amazed by people’s generosity and by how many people had been touched by breast cancer and wanted to contribute. “I arrived one night at my home in Wales to find a rain sodden envelope waiting for me in the post box. Inside was £20 and a note from a neighbour saying “I’m a survivor of breast cancer. Please will you sail the Atlantic for me?””
The weight of responsibility of the voyage was not lost on Amelia. She was worried about the safety of her crew and achieving what her sponsors were hoping for. “I said to people I wasn’t sure what was more terrifying, failing to sail across the Atlantic – I’m not an outstanding sailor, just a day sailor – or failing to raise £250,000. I live in fear of letting people down. I don’t want to do that.”
As it turned out the journey was far from straight forward. The weather forecast made their voyage difficult and they had to sail to the North on the perilous Iceberg Highway. For Amelia the decision was enormous: “For the 36 hours that we were in the Iceberg Highway I don’t think I slept a wink. The temperature of the water plummeted and as the temperature gauge went down, I felt more and more nervous. In the end, the icebergs had moved 40 miles North and we were OK. We talk about taking risk in business, in banking, or walking across the street, but deciding to put people’s lives in harms way is real risk. I don’t think you can really know what risk is until you take that kind of decision.”
Amelia’s risk paid off, and their vessel passed safely through the Iceberg Highway, but the voyage was gruelling. “People had told us that at that time of year it would be lovely and warm and very slow, so take lot of books to read. No one read a book. You couldn’t. We probably had two nice days! At the worst we had fifty five mile an hour winds and 20 ft seas. We were chased by a pod of whales. I got so tired of sleeping in my waterproofs.”
After two and a half weeks, the team made it, and the sponsorship money flooded in. Amelia is understandably nostalgic: “Arriving was probably one of the greatest senses of achievement. To have finished it was extraordinary. It had been terrifying on every level. I was tested sorely, physically and emotionally. I let myself down on how I behaved on some things, but it was a great experience and it’s a great thing to look back on.”
Although the drama of a Transatlantic sail is hard to beat, Amelia has been committed to making a difference throughout her career and continues to do so, even in her traditional business roles as chairman of Pensions First LLP and as non-executive director at State Street Corporation. She holds the early lessons of her family dearly; When growing up in Boston her parents taught her “the only thing that matters is that you work very hard, you put something back and look out for the underdog.” Her grandfather’s older sister made an impression too, when admonishing Amelia after a family argument: “Amelia! You must put your best foot forward and keep it there!”. Amelia still lives by this advice today, as she continues to work tirelessly across a range of issues from supporting the arts, to increasing transparency in the pensions industry. For a woman with so much drive, energy and passion, I wonder if there might not be another epic voyage to come.
Stop food waste
Every year, UK supermarkets throw out at least 100,000 tonnes of food which is still safe to eat. It’s a shocking figure when considered against a backdrop of global poverty and environmental degradation. Tony Lowe is the chief executive of FareShare, an organisation which aims to be part of the solution to this profligacy.
FareShare takes waste food from manufacturers and retailers, that is still within its sell by date, and feeds 26,000 people daily. It keeps to the same hygiene standards of any mainstream distributor and ensures that the food remains appropriately frozen, chilled or at ambient temperature. FareShare then redistributes the produce to organisations who look after people with no or low income: Homeless hostels, substance misuse projects, breakfast clubs for children, centres for refugees or the elderly. Eager not to create dependence on free food, FareShare’s wares are only available to people who are willing to accept other services to help them out of the poverty trap.
Tony greeted me in his tiny windowless office in the middle of FareShare’s Bermondsey warehouse. It reminded me of another windowless office which I visited five years ago to talk to Robert Egger, a man who has also made a business out of waste food. In his pinstriped suit, Tony has the look of a corporate manager and I get the feeling the image is intentional. “People expect a charity to be rubbish, but we have very strong processes and systems to ensure that all the food is safe. Showing that this thing is viable and doable has been tough, but now we have an industrial operation and we don’t have to prove ourselves every day,” he explained. You can tell that Tony has to spend a lot of his day talking. When he’s not trying to generate the 3 million pounds of capital they need to reach their target of feeding 100,000 people a day, he is working with all the majors in the food manufacturing and retail industry. They take food and drink from Coca Cola, Nestle and Pepsico along with many other manufacturers and big supermarket chains. These companies can and do send people to check on FareShare’s warehouses at any time.
Tony had the perfect background to take FareShare from a project within its “parent” charity Crisis in 2003 to become an independent enterprise. He had experience both in retailing and the not-for-profit sector. He has worked for Marks and Spencers and Alliance Unichem as well as Oxfam’s trading arm. He also ran his own business for a year but found “the stress of working for myself was too much.” Having sold that business he went to work for Waitrose again as a department manager. “After a year, I had already decided that I no longer wanted to be in the mainstream retail sector. I was delighted when an agency contacted me and said they were trying to find a director for FareShare. The job was made for me!”
FareShare are trying to make their operation into a profitable business by charging the industry for taking their food away. “They would have to pay to dispose of the food anyway. At the moment 20 companies pay us and it gives us 7% of our income. In the future we hope that it will give us half,” Tony explained. The problem with payment is the complexity of who is responsible for the waste food but FareShare are determined to overcome these barriers. For the first time government is also considering funding part of FareShare’s operations. It’s a big step forward for Tony and his team.
FareShare has grown enormously under Tony’s watch. “We started with 6 staff and a turn over of £300,000. Now we have 17 staff and a turn over of £1.6 million. We have 13 depots and 300 people volunteer for us every day.” Volunteering is an important part of the business model. The vast majority of volunteers start out as members of the “client group” who receive food. FareShare offers them work experience and certificated education that will help them get back to work.
Sadly, at a time when the organisations FareShare works with need food more than ever, the economic downturn is making fund raising increasingly difficult. “Individual giving is dropping off, corporates have less money to give, trusts and foundations have lost so many of their assets that they are also losing their giving power.” But Tony remains determined: “We’re a bit disappointed that we can’t grow faster this year. Everything is already done on a shoestring. But I’m bloody minded and I will make it happen. What drives me is that I know the difference that it makes. I’ve seen what good the food does.”
FareShare seems like such a brilliant way to reduce some of our society’s terrible waste, while giving decent food to people who need it. I really hope that it remains a funding priority and FareShare will achieve its three year ambition to open 17 more depots across the country. In the meantime Tony urges us to “Ask questions of organisations that your involved with. Ask what’s happening to waste food and if there’s fit for purpose food going to waste, go and ask the person in charge what they’re doing about it!”
Teach people to cycle safely
“If you want something doing, ask a busy person.” Liz reminds me of this old adage as I wonder how on earth she managed to juggle her four young children, a full time job and a start-up company in her basement. I think that an amazing propensity for hard work might also have something to do with it; that and a passion for what she does, and I can see why. Liz’s company BikeRight trains about 12,000 people a year to ride their bicycles safely on the road. School children, policemen, firefighters, street wardens and anyone who wants to, can sign up for a course. Manchester’s roads are safer because of it.
In the 1990s, there were only 20 cycle training courses each year across 168 Manchester primary schools. Now, thanks to BikeRight, there are 30 courses a day. Liz started working on her mission in 2000 when she discovered that her children’s school, the largest primary in Manchester, ran one cycle course every three years. “You were lucky if you got trained at all, and if you did, it was never on the road,” Liz explains. Things had not changed for many years. Liz recalls her own cycle proficiency training around cones in the school yard: “Afterwards I got a brand new bike and then I cycled 3 miles to school on the road.” Few parents would feel happy with that situation today and Liz wanted to do something better for her own children.
When her youngest child was two Liz decided that she did not want to go back to her former career, working with children in care. “It all felt too much and so I looked around for something else to do,” She says. Liz started an access course at the local college in IT and then got a place at Manchester Metropolitain University. Three years later she came out with a first class degree.
At university, Liz had already started working in her spare time on BikeRight. It was set up as a community project as part of her partner’s company, Infrastruct. Bouyed by an initial grant of £5000, Liz and some others trained as playground cycle instructors and started to give some cycle training at after school clubs. At the same time a Department of Transport review of cycle training, nicknamed the “shambles” report, was released. Liz’s business grew as a national standard for cycle training was being developed. She played a major role in pushing that along. Now all instructors have to be trained to meet that standard (as Liz says “would you send your child swimming with someone who couldn’t swim?”) many of them by BikeRight, and training takes place in real life situations, on the road.
With a staff of 50, offices in East Manchester and monthly outgoings of £40,000, it’s a far cry from the days in the basement. Liz seems surprised about where she’s ended up. “I never expected to have this as a business” she tells me. But she also adds that “If I want to do something, I want to do it properly”. This is one reason why they made a strategic decision only to train children in Manchester. They wanted to ensure that their training standards remained high. For Liz it’s also about gaining respect from the business community. “We started off as a not for profit business but no-one used to take us seriously. So we converted into a profit making enterprise and I joined the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors. Now I feel like we’re respected throughout the country. Local Authorities consult us when they’re setting up cycle training. We’re seen as a kind of oracle.”
Recognition hasn’t come easily. Liz says many don’t immediately understand the importance of cycle training and it’s a male dominated world. But recently BikeRight won Best Growth Business of the Year and Overall Business of the Year at the 2009 North West Women in Business Awards. Liz says she didn’t expect it at all; “I was amazed to hear BikeRight described as a business that saves lives! There are more cyclists in Manchester now and I hope I’ve been a part of that.” Young cyclists and their families around the city can certainly be grateful.
There is something about Paul Monaghan’s brown shirt, undone at the collar, and his tightly cropped hair, that gives him the air of an activist. It’s not the image that I expected to find in the big corner office of a corporate headquarters. I imagine that fifteen years ago, when Paul was running a campaign to boycott high street banks involved in third world debt, he would have been surprised to find himself here too. Under his leadership, the Manchester University Students Against Third World Debt convinced 32 university campuses to boycott Lloyds and Midland Banks. It was 1994 and he wanted to offer student unions an ethical alternative. The closest he could find was the Cooperative Bank. Paul explains: “I approached them and said ‘Why don’t you do a student account? Get your sh*t together and I can get you all these union accounts and personal accounts!’” Terry Thomas, the then managing director, spotted Paul’s potential and made him an offer: “You’re very good at telling people what to do. Come and work for us!”
Paul comes from a family with seven children and says that he always had “a mission to make a difference”. His political activism was inspired by his father, who was very involved in the British Leyland strikes of the 1970s. His passion for the environment was born out of a childhood playing in the wetlands that had developed on top of disused mines behind his family home in Wigan.
Paul started off at the Coop Bank by running the ecology unit on a one year consultancy contract. The bank had first implemented an ethical policy in 1992 and since then all investments have gone through ethical checks. In 1992 those checks were done by one person. Now a team of thirty are needed and Paul manages them. He’s the head of Social Goals and Sustainability for the whole Cooperative Group and as he explains, “everything from the pesticides that we use in our food business, to the funeral care and the pharmacies, every bit of business that the Co-op Bank does, goes through this unit.”
Their ethical policy is customer driven by large-scale surveys. Consequently, the Coop has tackled tough issues like animal testing and climate change long before their competitors. As Paul describes it: “17 years ago it was radical to say ‘don’t test cosmetics on animals’, but we did it. It sounds ridiculous not to oppose blood sports now, but we did it before everyone else.” In 1996, Paul convinced the board of the bank not to be involved in the financing of the extraction and processing of fossil fuels. “This was radical stuff back then. Look at it now and it was quite prophetic. I was surprised to get the thing past the board. I was amazed. But sometimes you have a good day!” he smiles.
Paul continues to strive to keep the Coop ahead of the curve on ethical thinking. He’s not afraid to diverge from the crowd on hot issues. The Coop supermarket, unlike others, decided not to use airplane labels to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of air freighting. “If we want to reduce the carbon footprint of food, first we need to discourage meat and dairy, then food grown in heated green houses. Only after that does air freighting become important.” Such intellectual rigour is sadly missing in many ethical debates. For Paul, thinking things through is paramount. He surrounds himself with the people who can help him sustain these high ethical standards. When I ask how other people could get into his line of work, he tells me: “I need more people who can be as meticulous about carbon as they can about money.”
But stringent ethical checks, such as those the Coop carries out, do have their downsides. Paul says it causes inertia when every investment has to be screened. However, the Coop Bank is definitely reaping the rewards of its prudence now. “We are one of the few banks that are not going cap in hand to the government. We weren’t playing around with derivatives. We have been making profits while others have been losing millions.” Consumers have noticed this too. “In the last twelve months the Cooperative Bank has seen a 60% increase in current accounts and a 40% increase in deposits, as people have been walking out of RBS and Lloyds and walking in here,” Paul explains.
Thanks to their recent financial success people are paying more attention to the way the Coop does business. “I love working here. It feels like it’s a place to be. People are questioning capitalism and the plc model. Models such as mutualism and cooperation which were not seen as particularly exciting are now being reconsidered.” After 15 years working for one company, I bet not many people feel so enthusiastic about their place of work.
I can tell that Paul’s mission is about much more than just ensuring that the Coop put their money in the right place. He wants to bring about social change on a wide scale. One of his objectives is to mobilise people around key issues. Earlier this year the Coop Group arranged 40 showings of a film about the demise of the honey bee. “We invited people to turn up for free and see the movie and told them what they could do”. I wonder whether this is just clever marketing aimed at consumers with a conscience or a demonstration of true corporate responsibility. Paul says “You’ve got to get out there and do stuff” and I suspect he means it. The activist of the mid 1990s isn’t so far beneath the surface.
Become a teacher
In the current economic climate, a career as a school teacher is especially attractive because of the job security it offers. The career of Dame Anna Hassan demonstrates how teachers can make a huge difference not only to the lives of the children they teach but also to entire communities.
I met Anna (as she insists that all staff, pupils and parents call her) a few weeks ago at Millfields Community School in Hackney. She was head teacher there for just about 16 years and retired only last week. As we walked around the school trying to find a vacant room, it became clear what an efficiently used building the school is. Every little space is utilised by big and small groups of children, well behaved and eagerly listening. As we walked around, Anna took the time to stop and talk to many of them, enquiring kindly about what they were doing and answering questions too. We finally found a music room which would be free for an hour.
The shortage of space in the school is all the more remarkable because when Anna arrived, 16 years ago, the school was only three quarters full. It was failing and staff attendance was only 50%. Anna’s initial task was to merge the infant and junior schools into one school. “It was in a state. There was no leadership and the two schools weren’t even talking to each other and a lot of the teaching was terrible,” she told me in her soft Northern Irish accent. “I said to the teachers that this is a vocation, so they need to be happy if they want to stay. They had to have a sense of humour.”
Anna didn’t realise that teaching was her vocation when she embarked on her career. Her parents were both Italian, “peasant stock from just outside Rome”, who moved to Northern Ireland and began to run an ice cream business and a café. “We were a typically hard working immigrant family”, Anna explained. As a teenager Anna watched her older sister, (“the good looking one” she told me with a smile), being set up for an arranged marriage. As Anna reached 16 or 17 she wanted an escape plan so that she wouldn’t be subject to a similar arrangement and so she decided that “the easiest thing to do would be to go and teach.” She laughed at this statement, although not with any sense of regret.
She was allowed to move to London in the early 1970s and after her first teaching practise, Anna said, “I was hooked.” On her early teaching practises, Anna found education standards in London to be shockingly low. “Children were running riot, there was a lack of rigor and they hadn’t understood that learning was important. Of course, this was down to poor teaching and leadership.”
Anna set about doing her bit to improve things. In a number of positions at London primary schools she aimed to show how providing a loving environment in which children are respected and also follow strict rules, can massively improve educational outcomes. Arriving at one school she was asked “Will you be the disruptive teacher?”. She explained how this meant teaching a class of 6 to 8 year old, unruly, children who had yet to learn to read or write. “The adults had lost respect for them and I had to build it back. It took me 2 years to get them all reintegrated.” This is typical of Anna’s “children centred” approach to education and one of the reasons why she has achieved so much.
Millfields school is now a beacon of educational excellence. Its most recent Ofsted report stated that the school was outstanding in all areas. The school is now oversubscribed and parents, pupils and children all seem extremely proud and committed to the school. The impact on a formerly very transient community is substantial. Many parents who might otherwise have left the area are staying, providing the kind of stability that helps communities to improve. The top quality secondary school, Mossbourne Academy, down the road helps to enhance this effect. Anna likes to say, “Changing schools, change communities and changing communities, change schools. We have changed this school, philosophy, thinking and ways of working. And in turn, lots of the parents are being inspired and taught by their children.” Anna is a strong proponent of the liberating effect of this education on people who might have missed out before. “Education needs to come first to give people choice. If you can’t read and write you can’t do anything.”
Good leadership has been critical in turning Millfields from a sink school into an outstanding one, but Anna definitely isn’t taking all the credit. “I have always found that the right people come along at the right time.” She explained of the teachers around her. “It’s all about respect, listening to people and rarely putting my foot down. Backed up with rigorous systems and structures.” She also emphasises the importance of leadership succession and for the last three years Anna has been executive head while Millfields’ new head teacher has been running the show day-to-day. This kind of succession management is critical if standards are to be maintained.
After retiring from full-time work, Anna is taking up various roles to share her vast knowledge and experience further. She is helping to turn around another local school which is in trouble and also plans to take up a position with Unicef.
Would she recommend that others follow in her footsteps? Without a doubt. “Teaching is the best job in the world.” She told me “It’s never the same any day. I’d do more study if I had my time again. I never dreamt what I would do. “
We quickly had to finish as a class of 4 and 5 year olds quietly came into the room accompanied by their teachers. “Let’s sing a song for Anna!” one teacher suggested and the children happily complied. We were treated to a lively and enthusiastic rendition of “Jambo”. What a fantastic reward.
Make long-term investments in charities
I like a man who can explain complex financial transactions using a sandwich. That’s how Paul Cheng illustrated why we need to fund charities differently. “If you buy a sandwich from M & S you only really care about the quality of that sandwich, but if you buy shares in M & S, then you care about the company as a whole.” According to Paul, most grant-makers want to buy the equivalent of sandwiches from charities: they are only willing to pay for their products and services rather than making a longer-term investment. He is working to encourage charitable donors to change the way they use their money.
Paul Cheng is an investment manager at Venturesome, one of the UK’s first private social investment funds. I met him in the City of London, in offices smart enough to house any investment bank. Paul was very open and articulate about Venturesome’s aims. They are trying to create a social investment market in the UK. They want charities, NGOs and social enterprises to be able to access a range of financial instruments similar to those available to businesses and individuals. Paul explains: “If you’re a company you can raise money in many ways: you can issue shares, you can raise debt, you have lots of choices. If you’re an individual you have lots of choices too: credit card, mortgage, bank loans. If you’re a charity, it’s all grants or donations. It’s difficult to raise debt or take out a loan.”
Paul tells me that this is the reason why in the UK, even though we have 190,000 registered charities, 90% of the income to the sector is with the biggest ten. Without access to a variety of sources of funding it is very difficult for charities to grow. “Some of the most intractable problems of society are left to the charity sector. And yet, if we funded our companies in the way we fund our charities we wouldn’t have an economy. Essentially we view charities as beggars at the gate.” The problem is compounded by the fact that many funding bodies only pay out grants in arrears. Charities have to do the work before they get their money and they are faced with immediate cash flow problems. The “sandwich” problem is another factor because without long-term investment it’s difficult for small charities to turn into new Oxfams or Save the Childrens.
Venturesome was set up seven years ago to try and address some of these issues. It uses private money from foundations and high net worth individuals to try and expand the social investment market in the UK. One major challenge for Paul and his colleagues is to educate people who work for charities and also mainstream bankers. People running small charities are often very passionate about their cause, but may be lacking the financial skills required to be successful. The major banks are cautious about lending to charities even though Venturesome has found that they only have a 5% default rate. A bank might expect a 12% to 15% default rate with small to medium sized businesses.
As an investment manager Paul is involved in “everything from sourcing deals, doing due diligence on deals, structuring deals, giving out financial advice and working at the policy level with government.” He tells me, “I talk to government and explain these are the needs of the market based on what we’ve done. I think you can only work at the policy level if you’ve got your hands dirty doing the deals but if you just do the deals and not the policy, it’s a shame because you have so much knowledge.”
Paul definitely has a lot of knowledge. He was formerly a lawyer in an international law firm, but found himself itching to find a job which had the intellectual rigour of law while also satisfying his desire to make a difference. He had seen a lot of people in the City of London who said they would make their money first and then do good later, who got stuck in jobs that they hated. So, Paul decided to do an MBA in Chicago and became fascinated in the blurring between business and charity. He explains: “Imagine a spectrum, for profit on one end, charity on the other. The profitable end wants 10% return, a philanthropist at the other end is happy with -100% return. There is a whole spectrum in between where we can experiment with financial instruments and get some of the money back while also getting a social benefit.” Developing these new financial instruments at Venturesome, in partnership with charities seems to have provided Paul with the intellectual challenge he was looking for.
However, convincing charitable donors to use their money in different ways has not been easy. Paul has found a psychological barrier: although people don’t mind giving money away, they don’t like the idea that they get a portion back. “They start to worry about why they’re losing money. They don’t want to be there. It’s completely inconsistent. It’s a quirk of financial history that we think in this way. It’s a real challenge”
Paul and his colleagues hope that one day there will be many organisations like Venturesome. “We’d love it if people would fight over different types of deal or co-invest.” For now, 90% of the money in social investment comes from the government. Venturesome would like to see that balance shift so that there are many more privately run social investment funds and presumably, many more investment managers like Paul.
Get your hands dirty and stick at it
As I came into Hackbridge station by train from London Victoria, I was thrilled to see the multicolour ventilation shafts of the BedZED development come into view. Strange as that may sound, I had heard much about this eco village in South London which opened in 2002 and had not had a chance to visit. I was also really looking forward to meeting one of the instigators behind the project, Pooran Desai.
Pooran is a co-founder of BioRegional, an entrepreneurial charity which aims to show us how to live more sustainably. I wrote about Sue Riddlestone, the other co-founder, two weeks ago. One of Pooran’s most visible achievements since he and Sue set up BioRegional is the completion of BedZED which comprises 100 environmentally friendly homes, some community facilities and work spaces for 100 people.
It’s about five minutes walk from Hackbridge station to the eco-development through unremarkable suburban streets. So, as the large glass expanses on the Southern side of BedZED come into view, they seem all the more impressive. The houses are almost woven together by a maze of bridges and pathways. Parking is limited and residents are encouraged to walk or use public transport. Possibly as a result of the design of the buildings, which are quite close together with open-plan garden spaces, residents know each others names and the community spirit is strong.
I talked to Pooran across the kitchen table in his own BedZED home, just a minute or so from his desk in the BioRegional Offices. He told me that now that BedZED is complete, he realises that the impact of housing on an individual’s overall environmental footprint is sometimes over estimated. Choices which people make about transport, food and waste are all very important. Consequently, Bioregional Quintain, the property company which Pooran established in 2004 and where he now works 50% of the time, is focussed as much on long-term management of properties as their initial construction. One Brighton, is their latest development of 170 apartments. By simplifying the environmental specifications, they have managed to complete the building at the same cost of a conventional development. Now they are focussing on how they can foster community living and encourage the residents to have a low environmental impact through their lifestyles.
As a child, Pooran told me he loved animals and wildlife. When he was about 10 years old a lesson on population growth had a big impact on him. He’s been concerned about the environment ever since. At university he studied physiology and neuroscience and then medicine for a year and a half. But Pooran questioned his career path and decided to leave. “I realised so much of health was down to lifestyle and environment, that I decided to try and make a contribution to people’s health by protecting the environment, rather than becoming a doctor.”
After leaving university Pooran spent a year “reading and working in a garden centre part-time.” He then went to work at the local environment centre, which is where he met Sue. Together they informally set up BioRegional in 1992 in a room in the local Ecology Centre and then two years later, the charity was formally established.
One of Pooran’s early successes was the BioRegional Charcoal Company. This company coordinates small British producers of charcoal so that they can supply big chains like B&Q and be competitive with imported charcoal. Their system allows local producers to supply their local stores and reduces the carbon emissions from transportation to store by 85%. The creation of a market for British charcoal also encourages sustainable management of woods in the UK.
Pooran is working on a vast number of other sustainability projects and in 2004 he was awarded an OBE for his contribution to Sustainable Development. He seemed like a good person to ask about how to make a difference and he had two key messages:
Firstly, “theories are important but in the end you need to know if things work. Practical experience is important. Get your hands dirty.” And secondly, “stick at it! If you want to make a difference you need to work at the same thing for at least 10 years to a life time. I think that people who change jobs all the time, can’t have as much of an impact.”
I expect that BioRegional will be coming up with practical solutions to our environmental crisis for some time to come.
Live as if there is only one planet earth
“Wake up! There’s no time to lose and it’s not that hard,” is Sue Riddlestone’s impassioned battle cry to all consumers. A self-taught expert in environmental matters, Sue devotes her life to showing people practical ways to use fewer of the world’s limited resources.
I met Sue and Pooran Desai, co-founders of BioRegional, at their offices in BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development), an “Eco-Village” in South London. BioRegional aims to help us live more sustainably through a wide-range of projects. I’m going to come back to Pooran’s story in more detail my next post.
Sue greeted me in what seemed to be the “dining room” of the BioRegional offices. In the middle of the room were two large wooden tables with big bowls of fruit and in a kitchen at the side, a woman was silently shredding mushrooms. It felt like the home of a large family. It was an inviting place to linger, and an illustration of the community living which is an integral part of the BedZED concept. However, Sue suggested we went back to her home, also in the complex. After 30 seconds walk we were at her front door and climbing up the stairs into Sue’s sunny four bed home. All the BedZED homes are South facing and have plenty of glass which makes them naturally warm and light. The homes are just one example of the many practical solutions to our environmental problems which BioRegional have come up with since 1994.
Sue’s story is unusual because she started off her career as a nurse. After a career break to look after her young children, she decided to redirect her efforts to where her passion lay, protecting the environment. Sue says she was always concerned about threatened species like whales and seals and about disappearing habitats. So, while she was at home with the children, she started to take action by selling “real nappies”, establishing a local Greenpeace group and getting involved in the Women’s Environmental Network. As soon as her youngest child started nursery she found a part-time job at the local environmental centre as an information officer.
It was there that Sue met the young Pooran Desai. Sue was trying to develop ideas for sustainable paper production and use, while Pooran was focussed sustainable wood use. Together the two environmentalists inspired each other and eventually, after the centre director suggested they should start something of their own, they set up an organisation called BioRegional. “We gained lots of strength from each other’s enthusiasm”, Sue explained.
That was in 1994. Since then, Sue has created many real-life examples of sustainable living. Part of her work still focuses on paper. Sue established the Local Paper project, which makes it easier for small and medium sized businesses to recycle and reduce their paper use. She has also worked for the past 12 years on developing small-scale, clean technology to allow non-wood fibres like wheat straw to be used to make paper. This technology, known as the MiniMill, has the potential to relieve pressure on the world’s forests and to use agricultural waste to make paper, cleanly. “If someone had told me at the beginning that I would have to raise 3 million pounds, and the technology would take 10 or 12 years and still not be completely there, I might have thought twice about it,” she admits. However, her hard work has led to an industrial scale demonstration plant now operating in Manchester and the potential to reduce pollution from paper, around the world.
For Sue, the need to stop work and raise funds is an on-going frustration. “Everything always takes so much longer than it needs to, because finding finance is such a bureaucratic process. Better leadership from the government would help,” Sue told me.
Sue’s other focus is on One Planet Living. According to BioRegional’s methodology, which measures how much of the earth’s resources we use in our every day lives, the average British person is living at a rate which requires three planets. BioRegional have developed a set of ten principles which can be followed to return to “One Planet Living” and Sue is implementing them in different environments. Currently she is using the One Planet Living framework to help the DIY chain B&Q, Sutton Council and the Chinese Government to return their consumption patterns to a sustainable level. It’s hard to imagine a more diverse set of participants.
Sue is realistic about the size of her task, while optimistic about the possibilities: “We don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we all have to, so we’re going to try.” From the determination in her eyes, I can believe it.
What I love about Sue’s work, is that each of her projects is designed to be a model to be replicated over and over. It’s very satisfying for her to see practical, sustainable, living in action and at the same time, she can say to others, “We’ve done it here, now go and do it for yourself.”
I asked her what her advice would be to others who are trying to make a difference: “There are so many things to do. Read widely, learn, get out and meet people, get involved and once you get inspiration, stick with it. Try and create real-life examples.” Sue has definitely been following her own good advice.
Lend when the banks will not
Even before “credit crunch” became a household term, in the days when you could still phone your bank and get a loan approved immediately, there were 2 million people in the UK who were financially excluded. Either because of their poor credit history, income or social background, banks will not do business with about 3% of the population. Mark Hannam is the Chair of the Board of Fair Finance, a bank which aims to fill that gap in the market and lend to individuals or small businesses who have nowhere else to go. Research has shown that these loans tend to help people get out of poverty rather than fuel short-term spending binges. Fair Finance is making a significant difference to people’s lives.
I met Mark in the basement of his Georgian terraced house, in the heart of Hackney, over freshly baked biscuits and tea in a pot. Mark seems to live a comfortable life, indicative of his 15 years as an investment manager in the City. However, four years ago he decided to leave the banking world behind him and “read some philosophy, do some gardening and cooking and spend more time with my 12 year old daughter.”
When he quit a friend advised him not to say yes to anything else for at least six months. So when, just one week after he’d stopped working, the Chief Executive of a local social enterprise asked him to get involved in a finance project, he asked him to come back later in the year. Six months later, Mark still didn’t have a grand scheme for the rest of his life and so he started to find out more about the fledgling Fair Finance. “Although Fair Finance didn’t initially have all the nuts and bolts that I would have expected in a financial institution, I was really impressed with Faisel Rahman the managing director. He convinced me that this was something worth getting involved in and sometimes you just have to go with your gut.”
Faisel had incubated Fair Finance for two or three years as part of the Environment Trust and then spun it out as a separate company in 2005, just as Mark was leaving the City. “Faisel had a vision to develop a financial services company that targeted poor people and he had a team of people who looked up to him. He wasn’t in it to make people rich, but to make a difference.”
“In those days,” Mark told me, “the board members were mainly from the voluntary sector and didn’t have banking backgrounds. I helped them to bring together a board who understood how financial companies work and to set up a finance committee with people who would focus on the financial side of things in the detail it deserved. After about 2 years, I took over as chair of the board. We started to look more like a financial company that was not-for-profit, than a social enterprise that happened to be in finance.”
Today, Fair Finance offers personal loans, small business loans and debt advice to people in East London who are either unable or choose not to access them through mainstream banking. Clients are referred to them by local housing associations, social landlords and other groups which come across the financially excluded. The applicants then undergo a stringent interview process before they are granted a loan. “Once you establish your clients, then often people come back for a second loan, or someone will come in who is their neighbour or cousin or friend. The second group are more reliable at paying back,” Mark explained.
Financial exclusion is more often thought of as a problem of the very poor in developing countries. One of the most successful banks, providing microfinance services to overcome this, is the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. It was founded by Nobel Prize winning Muhammad Yunus in 1976 and now has 7.5 million borrowers. Since its inception, it has lent $7.5 billion. I asked Mark how Fair Finance’s operation differed from those like the Grameen in developing countries. In both places many of the clients are women. However, the defaulting rates are much higher in London. “In a village, where everyone knows everyone, it’s easy to assess people’s eligibility for a loan. In an urban environment you don’t have the same knowledge of your borrowers, so you really have to focus on the initial interview. Also, in London, you don’t have the peer pressure which means that people in villages don’t default on their loans.” People defaulting on loans means that Fair Finance doesn’t get back 6% of its capital, but Mark says that’s not too bad. He knows of other similar companies whose default rates are 15 to 20%.
Over the past four years, Mark has used his banking expertise to help Faisel and his team transform Fair Finance into an organisation with the necessary financial and business expertise to serve the customers they had identified. In the first four years of business they have lent over a million pounds to over a thousand people and they’ve given debt advice to 500 or 600 people. Currently, they have about £600,000 out on loan. Two thirds of this is to individuals and one third is to small businesses. They employ 14 people. “But compared to the size of the problem we’re still scratching the surface. We still have a lot more people who we need to reach.”
What has Mark’s involvement with Fair Finance taught him about making a difference? “Suspend your preconceptions about what you can contribute to society. One of the most valuable things that skilled professionals can share is their expertise. It can be worth much more than money itself.” But having benefited from Mark’s skills for the past few years, more money is exactly what Fair Finance needs. The aim for 2009 is to secure its own financial sustainability by finding new investors, allowing them to open more offices, make more loans and help more people out of poverty. I’d be surprised if there isn’t a growing demand for Fair Finance’s services.
Become a People’s Peer
I first met Victor about eight years ago when I was working for Shell and he was running a youth homelessness charity called Centre Point. I was really impressed by his commitment, and his passion for all kinds of social justice. Since then his career has sky rocketed: He has become one of the People’s Peers and the Chief Executive of Turning Point, an organisation which cares for people affected by drug and alcohol misuse, mental health problems and those with learning disabilities.
This time I had the chance to interview and photograph Victor for a programme which I am making about social entrepreneurs for the Community Channel. I wanted to see him in both his work environments, so first I met him in his Turning Point office in Aldgate and then at the House of Lords.
Victor is a particularly interesting person because he bridges the divide between politics and the voluntary sector; He is not typical of either. Since he became a People’s Peer in 2001, Victor has certainly stood out. As Victor puts it: “Six foot black guy from Wakefield who isn’t rich, didn’t go to Eton, Oxbridge. Isn’t a lawyer. What the hell is he doing here?” Nevertheless, after a lifetime of campaigning, he was more than happy to become a Lord when he was invited to. Like Vince Cable, he recognises the importance of participating in the political process.
Since he has been a Lord, he says he has been impressed with how hard working his fellow peers are and he believes their advanced age is an asset. “I’d rather have social policy made by somebody who’s been around a bit, than some 24 year old Oxford graduate who wants to be a politician.” He has no time for those who would like to see an end to the House of Lords or criticise it for its traditions. “The people who want to bring it all down will have to come up with something else, and will meet the same challenges. How do you actually maintain the trust of people who aren’t in the halls arguing, shouting, screaming and yelling? How do you keep most people connected with the process? No matter how many revolutions you have, that’s what you’re going to have to deal with. So you might as well deal with it in this system as any other.”
Victor stands out from the voluntary sector crowd as well. Turning Point is becoming increasingly successful and has been winning more and more contracts to provide social care in Britain. What’s the secret of their success? Victor says it’s because he runs his organisation more like a business than a charity. Turning Point is also able to provide a basket of services. “Because people do not generally have one challenge. People who have substance misuse challenges also have mental health challenges. People who have mental health challenges also have substance misuse challenges and people who have learning disabilities may have all three.”
So, Victor makes sure that his organisation can provide “bespoke packages for individuals” through their connected care centres. They are also working hard to address the “inverse care law”. The inverse care law states that people who need services most tend to get them least. “Generally it exists because people don’t understand how to use services that are available and those services are not usually designed with those people in mind.”
Like many of the people who I speak to, Victor is impressive in his energy and absolute devotion to his cause. Before I left him he gave me this convincing explanation why:
“We won a contract last week to provide some learning disability services and I know that our model is going to provide better outcomes for clients. A few months ago we won a service in Somerset which is providing substance misuse services for large chunks of the county. We’ve reduced waiting times and increased access to services, by a significant amount, which means we’re going to save lives and turn lives around. So that’s what I get up for really. I find that a really useful thing to do.”
Become an MP
I met Vince Cable several years ago, when I was still using my old Minolta film camera and when my daughter, who started school this week, was still kicking in my tummy. Vince has also achieved a lot during the past few years. He was already the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor when I met him, but now he is Deputy Leader of the Party. For two weeks he successfully stood in as Leader in 2007 when Ming Campbell resigned. In these times of economic turmoil, he has also gained himself a reputation for being an incisive and trustworthy commentator. Not characteristics usually attributed to politicians.
When I talked to Vince I wanted to know why he had chosen politics as his way to make a difference. He told me how he was strongly influenced by his father who “was a Thatcherite long before Mrs Thatcher had ever been heard of, and very nationalist. Very kind of flag waving. A very firm supporter of Enoch Powell”. Vince was opposed to many of his father’s views and it was having to argue against them, particularly when he married an Indian woman, that helped him to “develop a political awareness and an ability to argue and a feeling that issues matter.”
But political office didn’t come quickly or easily. Vince first stood for parliament in 1970 and was finally elected in 1997. Arguably, the career path which Vince took to power is what has made him such an interesting and effective politician.
“I first got involved as a Labour activist in Glasgow. I was on the Glasgow City Council, quite a radical left-wing Labour council in those days. I stood for parliament in Hill Head. Eventually, partly for family reasons, partly because I didn’t really fit within the Labour machine in Glasgow, I left and got a job in the Foreign Office in London. I did all kinds of jobs, and eventually went to Shell in 1990 and the last job I had there was their chief economist, before I got elected to parliament.”
“In the meantime, in my private life, I was partly bringing up a family – because I wasn’t in parliament it was easier to do that – I was doing my politics on the side and I got caught up in the Labour civil war and I joined the SDP. I stood for the SDP and the Liberal Alliance, in 1983 and 1987 in my home town in York. And then I stood in Twickenham, which was where I lived, in 1992. Didn’t get in then. Then stood again and got in, in 1997.”
Vince points out two big advantages to having taken so long to enter parliament: “One was that I was able to spend more time with my wife and family than I otherwise would have done. I had a reasonably contented domestic situation. And the other was that I was able to do other interesting jobs. Particularly the job that I finished up doing at Shell, was a major job in industry. I was able to write books and do academic work at various stages. So, I’ve done lots of things apart from being a politician. Which meant that when I came into here I was probably rather better prepared to deal with real world issues than many other MPs.”
Vince is passionate about the role of democracy in creating a better society: “Ultimately things have to be achieved through consent and debate and that’s what democratic systems are about and if you believe in that, then the best thing to do is to get involved with it. I find being an elected MP is a very very salutary experience. You’re constantly having to justify what you do and what you say to a critical audience, among the people who vote for you. I find that accountability, constantly having to report back, explain and justify what I do, is a very good discipline, because it means you can’t ever be lazy. You can’t say one thing in one context and one thing in another because people are watching what you do and what you say. But I think, although people talk about cynicism in politics, it’s actually a very good system in many ways.”
When Vince was first elected, his wife, who was terminally ill, became very sick. It was a challenge for him to just keep things going on the political front while he focussed on the important task of caring for his wife and their family during this difficult period. However, since his wife died in 2001, Vince has become more openly ambitious.
“I’m much more single minded and I have higher ambitions. I want to help my party do really well and make big advances. I will hopefully be part of that process. So, I’m no longer quite so defensive. I’m no longer just concerned with holding my own seat and hanging on, but actually moving on and also shifting the debate in our direction. Winning big political arguments. I think is how I would define my ambition now.”
I think we’re already seeing the fruits of his labour.
Give Iraq the tools to re-educate its people
Saad Eskander has such a difficult and important job that it’s easy to feel guilty about keeping him away from it. However, when I met him, he was so relaxed and friendly that it was hard to imagine the challenge he has set himself. He is the Director of the National Library and Archives in Baghdad and as such is trying to heal his Iraq through education, access to information and by creating a democratic and caring workplace.
I met Saad over a cup of tea in the British Library Café, surrounded by stacks of books and students on lap tops using wireless internet. We are so lucky in our society that it’s the kind of environment that we have come to take for granted. That couldn’t be further from the truth for Saad. After years of censorship under Sadaam, the National Library and Archives were almost completely destroyed during the 2003 invasion. That’s why the work he is doing, to make academic resources available again to the people of Iraq, is so important.
Saad speaks English fluently but with a strong Iraqi accent. He told me his story in such an unassuming and modest manner that you would never guess the immense courage needed to stick to his task over the past five years. Only when he talked of the life of his two young children did he say that things are hard. They cannot ever go to the playground because it’s not safe. Even then he was quick to point out how lucky he is because his family can enjoy some country air in Kurdistan every summer.
Through his own free will, Saad decided to return to his home city of Baghdad in 2003 after 23 years of absence, of which 13 had been spent as an academic in the UK. After Sadaam had been removed, Saad and a group of Iraqi artists, writers and academics from the UK returned to their country to see what they could do. All of the group except for Saad returned to London almost immediately because they were so shocked by the security situation. Saad alone was prepared to risk his life in order to assist with the rebuilding of the nation that he loves.
At first, Saad told me, his dream was to become a history teacher at Baghdad University. During Sadaam’s time only one version of history was taught and Saad believes this needs to change if Iraqi society is to progress. However, when he heard of the vacancy for a Director at the National Library he applied for the job. The Minister of Culture felt that Saad’s foreign education and experience made him perfect for the post and he was appointed.
At this point Saad had not yet visited the library for the first time. The Minister of Culture insisted that they go there together. He later admitted that this was so that Saad “did not run away until he’d signed up for the job”. Saad described his shock on first seeing the library to me: “95% of the contents had been either destroyed or looted. Everything had been burnt and even the marble had melted. Everything was covered in soot and the stench was almost unbearable.”
Saad’s first challenge was to find somewhere to work. He could not even find a place to sit in the main building so he went to search in the library’s theatre nearby. He was able to set up a table and chair in the kitchen. This became the control centre from where he started to rebuild the institution.
Like Iraqi society as a whole, Saad told me, the National Library had previously been run like a dictatorship. The former director was Sadaam’s favourite poet. Saad inherited 65 of his ageing staff, all of whom were demoralised and passive after years of living under the former regime. He tried to encourage them to speak openly, to challenge when necessary and to put forward new ideas, but he found that change was slow. So, Saad employed 200 college graduates alongside the existing employees and found that with their influence, everyone was able to adapt to new ways of working much more easily.
Saad also tried to demostrate the power of democracy through the work place. The library was managed by a committee chosen by the former director. Firstly, Saad asked his archivists and librarians to elect their own representative to this committee and then to elect a whole new committee which now works alongside the old one. Saad likens the two management groups to the House of Lords and the House of Commons and he says the system is working well. “They like to compete with each other over who can come up with the best new ideas and initiatives for the library.”
His staff also needed to be requalified. Many of them had not had any training for at least 20 years and so their expertise was woefully out of date. Saad now sends his staff overseas to Czechoslovakia, USA and Italy to learn about topics like conservation and digital archiving.
Saad tries to lead by example and treats all his staff fairly and as equals, no matter what religion, politics or gender. He has encouraged the female staff to set up a women’s committee and supports their career progression. Most importantly of all to Saad, he will not tolerate any kind of corruption. “Violence is not the biggest problem facing Iraq, corruption is”, he told me. For years the staff at the library had accepted bribes and bullied readers who didn’t cooperate. Now Saad prides himself on being completely open about every penny of the budget that is spent and says that he punishes severely if he finds any staff who are behaving corruptly.
As we talked, Saad did not dwell on the security risks he and his staff endure every day. He is focussed on the practical tasks he needs to complete to do his job well. He was visiting London this time to retrieve maps and archives which had been acquired by the British in the first part of the 20th Century. He is also still campaigning hard to regain archives from the USA which were taken during the invasion in 2003.
One of his main objectives now is to get Iraqi legislation changed to enforce freedom of information. Saad currently allows readers to access all records, but he does not want this to depend upon future library directors’ good will. He wants this right to be set in the law.
I asked Saad if he saw signs that other institutions were being inspired by his and adopting more democratic and open working practises. Saad is pessimistic. “Others are scared of their staff. They think that freedom is risky. They try and prevent me from having too much influence.” Still Saad does not seem disheartened and I can see that he truly believes in the power of education to bring wider social change.
I leave Saad feeling humbled. I am so impressed by a man who will take such personal risk in order to do what he thinks is right. It makes me realise that until now the stereotypes of Iraqis which have influenced me most are either those of the victims of violence or the purveyors. Now I feel like I can start to understand a new and much more positive image. A person who is so strong and determined about rebuilding his nation that it is hard not to be optimistic about its future.
Fruto del Espiritu
Offset the UK’s Cocaine Footprint
I just loved the Fruto del Espíritu idea the first time I heard it. They import, market and sell exotic fruit purées from Colombia. By doing so they are developing an overseas market for indigeneous exotic fruits, such as lulo and maracuyá, which farmers can grow instead of coca bushes, the basis for the production of cocaine. It’s such a simple and practical antidote to a massive and complex social problem.
Colombia produces about 60% of the world’s cocaine. The proceeds from the illegal trafficking of these drugs has funded insurgent groups and illegal paramilitary groups during forty years of conflict with the government. As a result at least 50,000 people have died and between 1.8-3.5 million have been internally displaced.
I came to meet their founder, who’d rather remain nameless, at Sabor, a South American Restaurant on the Essex Road in London. She was there with the manager of one the Colombian factories which supplies her. The shiny, modern eaterie’s Colombian owner Esnayder is also very sympathetic to Fruto del Espíritu’s work. A bit of a social entrepreneur himself, his restaurant supports a range of Colombian causes, and hosted, Fruto del Espíritu’s launch to the London Bar industry in 2004.
Fruto del Espíritu’s founder is modest and self-effacing. She has a strong faith and believes that her mission is an answer to prayer. While she was working as an architect in the shanty towns of Cali, she experienced the violence of Colombian society at close hand; someone she knew was killed in a machete attack by an irate neighbour. “There wasn’t much I could do in that situation, but it made me feel that I had to find something in the long-term,” she told me. Inspiration came to her in due course: “I returned to Colombia for a holiday looking for an answer. The fruit idea, linking social development with international business, developed out of an unusual conversation and I suddenly knew this was what I had been looking for. Over the next 3 days I then had a series of dramatic experiences which convinced me that this was something very serious.”
So, together with around 50 other people, she set up Fruto del Espíritu as a non-dividend company and started importing mango, guava, pineapple, lulo, mora and maracuya (passion fruit) purées. They now supply the exotic fruit purées to discerning cocktail bars and events companies who use it in alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails. Fruto del Espíritu can also recommend mixologists (professional bartenders, who specialise in creating new cocktail recipes) for parties, weddings or drinks receptions. The exotic fruit purées are available directly for customers to buy on-line.
A huge amount of care goes into ensuring positive impacts are felt all the way along the supply chain. Fruto del Espíritu makes profits, but they are all reinvested into strengthening partnerships with existing and new suppliers and customers. Currently profits are being spent on developing a dried fruit product which will be produced in a factory which employs displaced women. Fruto del Espíritu also pays a premium towards the education of factory workers’ children.
In the UK, Fruto del Espíritu works with young people and schools to raise awareness about how the market for drugs finances terrorism. Young people can set up their own Fruit Bar – at school or in their youth club – with an investment of £10 each. The young people are trained in top cocktail mixing techniques. Profits from their Fruit Bar will finance schools fees for a young Colombian and, if they wish, finance nutritional meals for another. “We take every opportunity to educate people about the reason why we are selling this product and to explain the story behind our company to people” the company’s founder tells me.
I know it’s all the rage to buy local and seasonal produce and not to add to the world’s climate-change problem by importing food products across vast distances. However, I somehow feel that if we can offset part of the damage done by the drug-trade by buying some of our five-a-day from Colombian farmers then that ought to be a good thing. I’ve never heard of anyone talking about “drug miles” so why should we have to introduce the Colombians to the concept of “food miles” at this point?
As Fruto del Espíritu’s founder shows me pictures of farmers growing her crops and young people benefiting from an education, to which her customers have contributed, she seems, understandably, proud. She is clearly delighted to have such an important cause to work towards “I’ve found something that I believe I was designed to do. It is completely fulfilling in terms of personal development, professional development, friends, drinks, recipes and finance. I could really never think of anything that I’d rather do and to find something that’s such a neat fit after many years of not finding it, is deeply satisfying and wonderful.” I can’t argue with that.
Have an idea and realise it
Last week I found myself in an unlikely situation; sitting on a Caribbean beach talking to Richard Branson. In recent years, the international entrepreneur and chairman of the Virgin Group has become closely involved in projects that explicitly try to make the world a better place. He has made significant financial commitments to battle climate change and Aids, and several years ago set up a foundation called Virgin Unite. I was delighted to have a chance to ask him about how to make a difference.
The occasion was the annual gathering of Virgin CEO’s and their guests on Necker Island. On the first night a beach party had been arranged on Mosquito, the island next door, which Sir Richard recently bought. It was a staggeringly beautiful setting. The sun was down, the beach was lit with flame torches, blankets and cushions had been laid out. Hot on the barbeque were beer can chickens and chilli chocolate turkey. It seemed that the only down-side, as the island’s name suggests, was the need for plenty of insect repellent.
I was impressed by the friendliness and openness of our host, who seemed genuinely interested when I raised the subject of “how to make a difference”. He was keen to talk about his work. Even though the party music was thumping in our ears, I managed to pick up on Richard’s passion to use entrepreneurship and business to resolve some of our toughest environmental and social problems.
In the run up to the Iraq War in 2003, Richard and his old friend Peter Gabriel came up with the idea to create a group of senior, influential and independent people who could work together to resolve global issues and alleviate human suffering . He wanted them to be “global elders of the global village” and hoped they may prevent unneccessary conflict. He started by approaching Nelson Mandela and his wife, human rights activist, Graca Machel. The couple loved the idea and Mandela agreed to become the founding Elder. Although bombing in Iraq commenced before they could play a role there, Richard continued to provide the support needed to get a larger group of Elders off the ground. Mandela and Machel recruited 10 further highly experienced players like Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. The Elders use their moral authority and connections to intervene and promote peace in tense situations. So far they have gone to work in Sudan, Cyprus and most successfully, according to Branson, in Kenya in early 2008.
I was keen to hear more about his commitment to invest all the profits of the transportation arms of his business over the next ten years (about $3 billion) into combating climate change; I also wanted to ask about the War Room in South Africa which aims to tackle diseases like Aids, TB and Malaria, but deafened by the sound system we had to postpone our chat until the following day when I was introduced to Jean Oelwang, CEO of the foundation, Virgin Unite.
Jean was inspired and enthusiastic about the work of Virgin’s foundation. She has a great job working with people to launch entrepreneurial projects which aim to have a positive impact on the world. This meeting was a reminder for me of why I started on my mission to find people who were making a difference. I worked as an environmentalist trying to influence Shell from the inside for five years and while doing so I became disheartened by the slow pace of change and wondered what better approaches there might be. Jean told me about how Virgin Unite uses the creative spirit of the Virgin Group, combined with its financial backing, to incubate world changing ideas and launch them. The conversation really made me feel excited again about the potential for business to resolve some of the world’s toughest problems. Maybe it was the beauty of Necker Island that surrounded us, but for the first time in ages I even started to imagine that I could work for a large organisation again. So long as it was as innovative and passionate as the one I was hearing about from Jean Oelwang.
We can’t all be billionaires or run our own foundations but I still found meeting Richard and Jean inspired me to work on my own world changing plans. As Richard says in his latest book:
“What matters is that you operate as a force for good at every scale available to you. An Aids policy rolled out across the staff of your business is as important as an Aids policy rolled out across the entire Virgin Group, or across an entire nation. The important thing is to have the idea, and realise it, however modestly.”
Use business profits to fund a good cause
I was quite nervous about meeting Phil Harvey. He runs Adam and Eve, the largest on-line store of adult merchandise in the United States. As someone who would blush at the thought of walking into a sex shop, the idea of interviewing the owner of America’s largest seemed intimidating to say the least. However, Phil Harvey has another side to him and that is what I was hoping to talk about. He also runs DKT International, a non-profit organisation which promotes family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention in the developing world.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at his office on K Street, Washington DC, on a chilly November afternoon. But DKT’s offices look just like any other international NGO and Phil Harvey’s own office was thankfully without evidence of his alter ego. However, without the profits from Adam and Eve, DKT might not exist. Phil donates a substantial proportion of the profits from his business to the coffers of the NGO.
So, I wondered, how did this relationship come about? Did Phil make his money first and then decide to donate it to good causes or was this always the grand plan? It turns out that Phil came, as he puts it “from the do-gooder side of the fence”. Having worked in India for five years for CARE International during the sixties, Phil came back to the US convinced that the best way to improve the lives of people in developing nations was not through shipping food around the world. “It was quite clear to me that fertility control, family planning, contraception, was a much more reasonable, logical, sensible way for the people of the wealthy countries to be of help to countries like India.”
Phil went to study family planning at the University of North Carolina in 1969. It was there that he met Tim Black, who later went on to co-found Marie Stopes International. “We were both just absolutely fired up” Phil told me. He and Tim wanted to find ways of providing family planning that were not dependent on the medical skills and infrastructures which were woefully lacking in rural areas in poor countries. “So we immediately focussed on the social marketing of contraceptives. Using the commercial infrastructure and using commercial techniques to brand contraceptives and get them into the market place like ordinary consumer goods. Advertise them very, very heavily and keep the price subsidised so that virtually anyone in the society could afford them.”
The two students decided to test their techniques by selling condoms by mail-order in the US. At that time the Comstock Law of 1873 prohibited the mailing of contraceptives as they were considered to be “obscene” materials. However, having received some assurance from the US Postal Service, the Tim and Phil went ahead and starting putting advertisements for condoms in college magazines. “Tim and I were working well into the evening wrapping up boxes of condoms and sending them off to fraternities or anyone who ordered them from the ads. We’d pay all our bills and at the end of the week there always seemed to be some money left over, and we looked at each other and said, “You know, hmmm, maybe there’s potential for a business here.””
So in 1970 the two men incorporated PSI (from which DKT became an offshoot in 1989) to social market condoms in developing countries and Adam and Eve, to sell contraceptives and other adult merchandise in the US. The relationship between the two organisations was never a formal affiliation but Adam and Eve was always a substantial donor. The company now gives away 25% of its profits to good causes, and provides 10% of DKT’s total funding.
The mid eighties were a trying time for Phil. While the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was adding urgency to the distribution of condoms, the US government decided to file charges against Phil as a result of Adam and Eve’s expanding trade and the mailing of so-called obscene materials. After seven years of legal battles the government agreed to radically change their approach to such obscenity cases, if Phil were to plead guilty to one of the charges they made against him. He did so and business has been booming ever since for both Adam and Eve and DKT. In 2007 DKT sold over a half-billion condoms, 55 million cycles of oral contraceptives, 12 million three-month injectables, and over 250,000 IUDs in 12 developing countries.
Phil is as passionate as ever about his chosen path. “My feeling about birth control is that it has an immediate and enormous humanitarian impact for the people who get access to contraception. It has a dramatic impact on infant mortality, it has a marked impact on maternal mortality and it certainly has an impact on family welfare. The ability to control ones fertility, especially for women, is a form of liberation, that I think in and of itself is very important. And in thirty five years of doing this I have never seen a down side.”
Put yourself at the centre of an issue
About ten years ago Julie Sumner decided to embark upon a personal experiment. “I wanted to see what it was like to put myself at the centre of an issue rather than to sit on the periphery.” Inspired by the birth of her own daughter and several years as a prenatal teacher, she took up the position of chair of the local Maternity Services Liaison Committee and started work to improve care during childbirth at her local hospital in East London. Julie, who brands herself as “working-class and from the North”, says she finds middle-class constructs like committees irritating and exclusive. The MSLC was no exception but nevertheless Julie stuck with it until last year. Progress was slow: “Without a major outside impetus, like a change in legislation, not much happens.” she tells me.
Little did she expect that ten years of dealing with committee politics and bureaucracy would prove so helpful for her next campaign. Having got used to being deeply involved in a debate she threw herself into another, when a community extremely close to her heart became threatened. This time there was a major external event that lead to an unwelcome change. The success of the London Olympic bid.
As Julie tells me her story, we’re sitting in her lush back garden, overlooked by her private yoga studio, sipping tea and eating chocolate biscuits. Looking around it’s obvious that Julie is a keen gardener. It was that hobby which lead her to become a plot holder at the Manor Garden Allotments. A community of largely working class, east-end gardeners, which she has fought to save for the past three years.
I didn’t visit the nearly 100-year-old allotment site but from the descriptions and pictures I’ve seen, it was a treasured oasis, hidden away in the midst of an intensely urban part of East London. The lovingly tendered plots have now been bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympic Park: specifically for a concourse that will only be used for the four week Olympic event. But the Manor Garden Allotments Society didn’t go down without a fight.
Julie is the driving force behind their three year old campaign and will continue to work to ensure that the allotment holders get to return to the Legacy Park in 2014. Why is it worth fighting for a few tomato plants and cabbages? “Some of the plot holders had been coming since they were children and some are well into their 80s and 90s. Lots of us have moved house but stayed at the allotments. For many, Manor Gardens was their community.”
As soon as London won the Olympic bid, the plot holders realised their future was in jeopardy. For many of the tenants their instinct was to give way to the authorities and accept whatever compensation they were offered. “People just went into self-preservation mode and were happy to get whatever they could. We’re talking about people who have had lots of upheaval in their lives. One couple had been evicted from their home five times already and for them, this was just another eviction.”
Julie is clearly passionate about the cause. “I just cannot tolerate people who are powerless being abused. It’s the same with mothers in childbirth. I feel very strongly about this. So I decided I had to do something.” Julie got together with a few friends: media savvy professionals, an architect and someone who knew about web design. They got some legal advice, and set up the Life Island Group. At first the group were hopeful they might convince the designers to incorporate the allotments into the Olympic Park. “Manor Gardens ticked all the right boxes: positive long-tem impact for the local community, food security, health and well-being and sustainability. But the LDA had a blanket policy that everything had to be removed from the site. They were given powers that were almost impossible to challenge.”
The campaigners were soon invited to the LDA offices in St Catherine’s Docks to discuss a compromise deal. “There was a ridiculous imbalance of power. Some of the members were even practising the journey to St Catherine’s Docks the week before. When we got there, we met in a smart board-room. Everyone from the LDA was wearing suits. It was very intimidating.” There was little doubt from the start that the Manor Garden plot holders would have to give in, but Julie was fighting to get them relocated as painlessly as possible.
The next time they met, the LDA came to Hackney Wick and hired a room there. While the Life Island Group worked hard and retained media interest, the LDA continued with regular meetings. “At first they were going to scatter us around Hackney. We wanted to stay together and that’s what we fought for.” It wasn’t easy. “Many of the plot holders didn’t know how to behave in meetings. I had to work hard to keep them on message.” With Julie’s support and encouragement the Manor Garden Allotments Society managed to organise relocation to a site in Leyton. The move hasn’t been smooth. There have been major problems with the type of soil that was put on the site and the promise to move plot holders sheds was reneged upon. But Julie is looking forward; “My focus now is on what is built in 2014 when we return to the Legacy Park.”
The plot holders recently had a meeting with the designers of the Legacy Park. They put into practise what they had learnt in this process to date. They invited the designers to have their meeting at the allotment. “We have no electricity, so we knew there could be no powerpoint!” Their guests were greeted with a spread of local and own grown food, an agenda and a presentation pack. This wasn’t what the designers were expecting and they asked if they could present first. “We refused because we wanted them to respond to our ideas rather than vice-versa.”
The meeting was a success but there’s still a long way to go and more frustrations to come. Julie tells me how she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she read a recent Guardian article where David Higgins, the chief of the Olympic Delivery Authority, said that the London Olympics Park was going to have “lots of vegetation and food”. But hopefully in six years time the Manor Garden Allotments Society will have a new site which was well worth the waiting. I should put myself on the waiting list!
Volunteer with Time Bank
Newington Green, East London, is not the place you expect to find a stunning urban oasis. Especially, at the end of an unpromising looking street, hidden next to a kids adventure playground. But to my astonishment, that is what greets me behind the shiny new gates where I have come to meet the broker of the Mildmay Time Bank, Peter Roberts. This is King Henry’s Walk Garden, a community garden established only a year ago. The rows of raised beds are abundant with wild flowers and vegetables. I make a note to myself that I must talk to the founder of this impressive garden another time.
For now, I’m here to talk to Peter about his branch of the national Time Bank Movement. They have a plot here among the well-tended beds. Looking after the Time Bank’s small piece of the garden is one way that local volunteers can earn credits and get involved. I examine some healthy looking tomatoes and herbs, but the bug chewed cabbages look like they could have done with a little more attention. Peter’s quick to point out that the most important aspect of Time Bank is the connections which it builds across the community. The tangible results don’t have to be perfect, for there to be a much wider benefit to being involved.
Mildmay Time Bank has about ninety members and with the help of Peter they contribute their time and skills and get Time Credits in return. These might be cashed in for other people’s skills or local services or they might never be cashed in at all, when volunteers find just getting involved is reward enough.
Peter, who set up the Mildmay Time Bank in 2003, is full of stories of people who have made useful and interesting new connections because of his organisation. He’s passionate about the need to build up social networks. “One of the biggest problems in London is loneliness. Young people who’ve moved to London for work and have no friends; Retired people who have lost touch with their work colleagues; Recent refugees who don’t know anyone, or those who’ve recently left prison can all take part and benefit from making new contacts. A Time Bank offers them a way to get involved with their local community, to learn new skills and to feel valued.”
Time-Bankers undertake every type of work imaginable. Whether it’s reading Spanish stories aloud to an elderly lady who is losing her sight or helping local children with their reading, tending local gardens or teaching arts and crafts, one hour of work is exchanged for another. Even rabble rousing for the right cause can earn you a credit from Peter. “Being in a Time Bank helps people to redefine what’s important work. It’s incredibly inclusive and helps to build self esteem by valuing each type of work equally.”
I can’t stay and hear as many stories as I’d like because I’ve got to rescue my bike across town. The key broke in the lock and I need someone with an angle grinder to shear it off. I feel pretty sure that a Time-Banker could have helped. I must become a member.
Become a midwife
Elke Heckel works unpredictable hours, often late into the night. Her job is messy and her actions can be a matter of life and death, but she probably has one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Elke is an independent midwife and she delivers about 20 babies a year, mainly in people’s homes. She is part of a team of four midwives called the London Birth Practice who operate all over London.
Here I must declare an interest. Elke delivered my second daughter in our living room in Hackney. She was an amazingly calm and competent presence who enabled me to have an incredibly relaxed and smooth birth experience. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is expecting a baby. There is a snag. The price tag of having a midwife who you know and trust deliver your baby, along with the several months of prenatal and postnatal care is £4000. But I strongly believe that Elke’s work has wider implications for childbirth in Britain and so does she.
Elke and I met for a walk on the Middlesex Filter Beds, one of her favourite places to take in the surprising amount of nature that Hackney has to offer. Our meeting looked like it might be prevented by a mother who was having intermittent contractions. “I don’t think anything will happen until this evening” Elke informed me confidently. Elke must get used to having her life interrupted like this.
Once a woman chooses an independent midwife like Elke, she will receive regular visits in her own home up until the birth. Most choose to have their babies at home, but where a hospital birth becomes necessary, Elke will also attend the birth there. The midwives visit the mother and new baby for at least a month after the birth.
“I feel like we [the London Birth Practice] have got the care that we give to women as near to perfect as possible. The way we work with women, our relationships with them, how much we work and our relationships with each other is pretty much perfect now. That has come not through reading books, but through experience” Elke tells me as we stride out into the open of Hackney Marshes.
I wonder if this perfect service isn’t all very well for those who can afford it, but what about everyone else? Elke agrees NHS maternity services need to improve dramatically and she spends a lot of time campaigning to make this happen. “If women don’t know what is possible, how can they ask for it?” she says.
As a student midwife and then for 2 years in the NHS after she’d qualified, Elke became very disillusioned by the practices she saw. “When you’re a student it’s like you’re invisible, so you really get to see what’s going on”. Elke realised that lack of continuity of care meant that women were usually meeting their midwife for the first time in labour and would most likely never see her again. The lack of a trusting relationship between women and midwives at this critical time is probably one reason why medical interventions in childbirth and caesarean rates are soaring. Women often feel totally powerless at the time when they could feel more empowered and proud than ever before.
This situation is far from satisfying for the midwife too. That’s why Elke took the decision to go independent. “I don’t want to provide a poor service. If I could do it for less I would, but I can’t.” she explains. The success of her work hasn’t gone unnoticed at the local NHS Primary Care Trust in Hackney. Recently, they asked her to come and participate in a panel discussion for the hospital midwives, after they watched a film which highlights the work of independent midwives and home births in the US. Elke was there to share her experience and to help improve wider practice in the NHS.
This may become even more important if a proposed change in legislation goes through in 2010. The government want to make it illegal for a woman to choose to give birth with an uninsured independent midwife. Such insurance is currently unavailable in this country. Elke would have to either give up being a midwife, to rejoin the NHS or face legal action. It’s a tough decision. The primary care trust have shown some interest in contracting the independent midwives in, but that would likely remove much of the autonomy which makes the London Birth Practice what it is.
Elke and her colleagues have been campaigning hard to prevent this change which will remove her model of maternity care from existence and thus limit women’s choices further. “In the end the demand for change has to come from women themselves, not from the independent midwives. People just think it’s about us trying to drum up business. Which it’s not.” Elke concludes as we return to our walk’s beginning.
This sets me thinking and I decide to use an exhibition I’m planning, of photographs of women before and after they have their first child, as an opportunity to raise awareness about these issues even further. I feel that as a society we are underestimating the real impact to women of having power removed from them while giving birth. Elke has definitely inspired me to do something about it.
For more information about the campaign to save independent midwifery go to www.saveindependentmidwifery.org
Get arrested for civil disobedience
I met Bernadette Geller, a former nun who has been arrested more than twenty times for civil disobedience in Baltimore train station. Her neice had introduced us and she was happy to spend a few hours with me talking about some of the most remarkable turns in her life. Below is a transcript of some of the conversation we had.
After a year of delay by my family (they thought that number one I was too young and number two I was such a hell raiser that they were sure that the convent would throw me out) I entered the convent when I was nineteen.
When you’re training to be a nun they just use you to do the housework, so, we were doing the washing or the vacuuming or whatever, but I’d already have young people responding to me in my little grey habit. I’d think “Oh my God, this is so good. I’m God’s instrument now.” I’d get all caught up in this “It’s so wonderful that I had this calling.” I just loved that thought of being an American missionary. I didn’t want to do foreign stuff but this community of nuns did parish social work and were always forming lay apostle groups.
My first mission as a nun was as a teacher. I taught school in Phoenix City, Alabama. Reverend mother came for a visit and told me that she thought I would be good working with families. So that’s when she assigned me to Catholic Charities in the diocese of Greensburg in Western Pennsylvania. And I was there for three years, and then I was moved to the diocese of Trenton which had me in Red Bank, New Jersey. And I was there for three years. By then I was getting more awakened to the need for professionally trained social workers.
I was becoming more critical of the fact that the superiors in the house didn’t have Masters. They were making decisions about adoptive homes and where babies went. One of the families that I served were so happy to tell me they named their adopted baby after me, but I could see that the child was severely retarded and they didn’t seem to know that or have any information about that. So I started to question it, challenge it, feel I had to advocate on behalf of the couple. The nun who did the placement was telling me I wasn’t to say anything and I just thought that that was too unfair to them. So I called the couple and said “I want you take that child to a paediatrician immediately and have her tested, and I think that if they weren’t honest with you you need to think about returning her.” And that then of course started a level of trouble that had my superior report me to the mother house. Tough times. I remember the reverend mother saying to me “Fr Judge (who was the founder of our order), would be very proud of you, but we can’t have you rocking the boat.” I began to try and organise the nuns and I started to have meetings to try and see if the other social workers, sisters, had the same concerns and I guess some of them also reported that.
So the next thing I know is that I was on punishment mission to Philadelphia. It’s a big huge agency there, Catholic Charities. We had a visitation from the same reverend mother that had shipped me there. I said to her, “Hey I can’t go on anymore without my degree, I need to get my masters”, and she said to me, “Well sister if I let you go for your masters will you promise to be humble”. And I said to her, “You could send me to plumbing school and I can’t guarantee you that”.
I had heard that the Penn School of social work had the “Functional Approach” that was a very different experience. So I said I wanted that, and they said “we’ve never let a nun go” and so I said “Whatever you need to do, let’s do it”. So they had to write to the vicar for religious, I had to be interviewed that I’d still be good and holy and whatever, and I got to go to the Penn School of social work.
After I finished school and I was just kind of coming to grips with what my degree meant and what the whole place of racism meant, they ended up making me the chair of a task force on institutional racism. So we started to do some very radical things about institutional racism. On my own then I joined a group called Resist and I think I was really on a big roll, I did the Poor People’s March. I look back at my 1970 calendar and my God, I was at the Black Panthers, I was with the Resist group, I was all over, plus I was in Catholic Peace Fellowship and then we formed a social action group. I mean I was in everything. I was supervising staff, very nice young people, and I got them to do a questionnaire on institutional racism. They were starting to learn to question. I was doing draft sit-ins. I’d been to the communities council to say “We’ve got to live more poorly. We’re not living poorly enough. We’re not doing enough about the racism in the church” and they’re all saying to me, “Oh well, you know, you know, yes we believe these things but..”.
All of it conspired to have the diocese decide that they needed to get rid of me. I didn’t really know it, but I could tell things were not, you know. I wasn’t sleeping at night, and I realised I was getting into a clinical depression. I’m living with forty women, everybody kind of knows I’m going to be let go and nobody has said it to me. Finally one said, “Reverend mother’s been down here talking to the bishop, they’re going to move you. You’re going to be put out of here”. So, I went up and I said “I’m hearing that I’m being sent, and I cannot, this is my holy place, I cannot leave Philadelphia”, and she said “Well what can I tell you? They want you out”. I said “They needn’t tell me they need me out. You don’t have to support them.” Then the Monsignor called me into his office and said “Catholic Charities will do very well without Sister Bernadette Cronin”, and I remember thinking, he couldn’t even say “you”.
So, my peace friends all wanted to march around the building and protest, but believe me, I was on Valium barely keeping my head up, you know after 16 years in religious community. So I was fired in July of 70, but the reverend mother said that if I could find a job, I could stay in the convent. With the help of a couple of friends, I got to write a resume and go for job interviews. I was hired by the Children’s Hospital. I would leave the convent in the morning and go to work and no depression, happy, really glad, loved the place, come back home at night, feel down.
I had a cross that said, “Even Unto Death” on the back because that’s the words of your vows “I take them even unto death” and one day I looked at it and said, “I guess God there’s more than one kind of death and I don’t think this is where I need to be anymore.”
I wrote my letter and I still remember the opening, “I wish to be a minister of the word with optional celibacy and since you don’t offer that to the men of your church I’m sure you won’t offer it to the women of your church.”
I remember the superior saying to me, “Well you know what, you never bought the structures of religious life Sister”, and I said to her, “See how little you knew, I bought them lock, stock and barrel. I believe we are supposed to live the Gospel and you know it just didn’t feel like it happened here.” So, I left the convent.
I started getting arrested for civil disobedience when I turned fifty. It was like “Hey, if I don’t stand up and get counted now, by putting my body on the line, when will I?”. In 1976 my soon-to-be-husband (Bernadette married Laur Geller a Jewish Journalist in 1979) and I came upon the Brandywine Peace Community, when they were just forming and we’ve stayed with them. They’re the ones that I do my actions with. Civil disobedience on Martin Luther King Juniors day, Good Friday, and Hiroshima day. Those are the days that we walk on the property of Lockheed Martin at King of Prussia and say “Stop making nuclear arms”, and they arrest us every time and just process us for walking on property. They try to fine us and I say that I don’t care if they put me in jail or not I’m not going to pay the fine, and sometimes in that local place they just give you community service to do.
It was the Brandywine Peace Community that also formed the Iraq Pledge to Resistance, and I signed on that. So I was one of 107 that got arrested at the Federal Building in Philadelphia the day the Iraq war started. Subsequently, I did end up seven days in a federal detention centre. And I made the most of that, you know it was like, “Make believe it’s Cape May”. You’ve got to stand up and do what you do, and be faithful to it, and it was amazing to me that it was so easy to do that. I was with good folks and our spirit was great. I think I came to really understand that we were the freest in there; out here we are all captives of the systems that oppress us. The first time I got arrested in 72 when I was with my Laur, and they arrested me and they put me in jail it was like I couldn’t take it and I had to knock on the jail and say “get Laurence Geller and pay my fine”. So I now know I’m braver and stronger and I have less to lose.
I stayed in social work, working mainly for the City of Philadelphia until I retired in the October of 2000 and after essentially forty plus years in the field. I just noticed that I’m a good goodbyer. That’s to say I could leave religious life and not look back and I could leave social work and not look back and what I have taken to now is teaching in an adult ed programme.
Now I say, “I teach, I exercise and I get arrested”. You know that’s kind of like what my life’s come down to. I don’t have work to worry about. I don’t have other people that I have to worry about their health all the time, like my own children or grand children. I love that my free time now allows me a lot more prayer time. I find the more that I try to be centered in prayer the more I feel called to contribute to the healing of humanity.
I need a strong faith-base from which to do my actions. I do it from a biblical basis, the bible says “serve the poor” over forty times. It doesn’t talk about abortion, or it doesn’t talk about homosexuality, it talks about serving the poor. So my sense is that every action I do is my effort to move to make the world a more equal place.
Laur and I, every other week, stand on a corner in Philadelphia with our sign that says “Get out of Iraq!” and before that we called ourselves Jews for Justice, and I’m fifty percent of Jews for Justice, where we said “Get out of occupied Palestine” because we feel strongly about that whole issue. We’re a couple that prays every day together, that our lives continue to contribute to the healing of humanity and we know that that includes that we be joyful people that we be happy people.
We don’t pray in order to protest, we protest in order to pray. I want the luxury of prayer and play and drink and laughter for everybody and somehow the world has not been evenly distributed and we need to keep working to having that happen. About ten years ago my therapist helped me see that I really was not basically an activist, I was really a contemplative, so now I’m back to daily mass and that’s been a lot of years, enough for my husband to say, “Jeez why don’t you become a nun?”, and I say “Oh well that wasn’t helping me be holy Laur, you’re helping me be holy, you’re better at that.”
Become a market gardener
Julie Brown lives in Hackney, a densely populated area of East London. She walks and cycles everywhere and has all the conveniences of urban living on her doorstep. No wide open fields or quiet rural life here. But Julie’s working life is dedicated to the cultivating of land for food. She is, however, no ordinary farmer.
I met Julie on a showery June morning in Stoke Newington at Allen Gardens. Almost invisible from the busy street, a narrow lane leads into what feels like a forest glade. Next to a small wooden play ground, is the walled garden which is one of Growing Communities’s three urban cultivation sites. As I peered through the gate I could see lettuces and leafy vegetables flourishing in neat raised beds. Jamie Oliver would be proud.
Julie arrived shortly after me, slightly breathless, on her bike and immediately started to enthusiastically explain how they came to be in Allen Gardens for a peppercorn rent. Having gone through a series of incarnations from “middle class commune” to community garden, the site had become neglected when Julie found herself needing to relocate. Their previous plot was being taken over by developers. They were invited to participate with the regeneration of the gardens. “We literally put our soil in wheelbarrows and wheeled it down here! It was the only Soil Association accredited organic land in London and we weren’t about to leave it behind!” This is a woman who clearly has it in her to move mountains.
Growing Communities, the organisation which she founded and directs, began life in the early 1990s when Julie started looking for places to grow food on her doorstep. At that time she was working with some friends to organise one of London’s early organic vegetable box schemes. They were selling produce from a farm in Buckinghamshire but Julie wanted to do more. She had worked for several years as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She understood the bigger environmental issues at stake and she wanted to use food as a practical example of how the world could work better. She wanted the food that she was selling to be even more local and she also wanted to use food as a way to strengthen and build communities.
Fifteen years on, Growing Communities has three Soil Association accredited sites in Hackney, giving them a total of 0.5 acres of land to cultivate. They sell their boxes, which combine their own produce with that of farms mainly within a 100 mile radius of London, to 450 individuals and families a week. Their customers come to collect their fruit and vegetables from one of five collection points around the borough. “We want people to be active in the way they get their food. Over ninety percent of our customers walk or cycle to their collection point. The collection point also encourages people to meet others and make connections within their community. We don’t want people to just be passive consumers.”
The third element of Growing Communities’ activities is the weekly organic farmers market which they manage in Stoke Newington. By being active at different points along the food supply chain, from producer to consumer, Julie has achieved something remarkable. Her business is environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. The holy trinity of the green movement is here, in action, in one of the most urban areas on the planet.
It hasn’t been easy getting this far. All three cultivation sites are connected to Hackney Parks and there’s always uncertainty about whether they will be able to remain there. “At one point we were given two weeks notice to move from a site. But what the council underestimated was that my colleague and I both came from campaigning backgrounds. We even got an article in the Guardian about it!” There’s also been a lot of fundraising necessary in order to make something out of the derelict sites that they’ve acquired. But now, a combination of the fees from farmers who have stalls at the weekly market, the mark up on the vegetables they sell in the boxes and the revenue from selling their own produce all add up to make Growing Communities a financially viable business.
Julie was way ahead of the curve when she first started Growing Communities. In recent years food has become a hot topic. People want to know where their food has come from. They are increasingly concerned about the environmental and health implications of intensive farming and global supply chains. There has been a massive growth in organic box schemes and farmers markets. This means much more competition, but Julie is confident that their scheme ticks many of the boxes that others don’t. They’ve already come up with solutions to many potential problems. They don’t air freight anything. Only their bananas come from outside Europe. Most of their vegetables are from the UK. They know that sometimes it’s better to import something from Europe than to heat a poly tunnel in the UK.
The next step is to replicate their model elsewhere. “It’s not about Growing Communities getting bigger, it’s about finding people who we can work with to create other Growing Communities elsewhere in London or in other urban locations. What we have is successful and replicable. This is an actual concrete way in which to make the world a better place.” “We also want to use our campaigning skills to try and influence the broader debate on food. Now we have an example of what is possible, we hope that others can learn from it.”
I found it so inspirational to find out what could be created within this urban space with land that is just there waiting to be cultivated. It made me want to go home and dig up my concrete courtyard and grow vegetables! We’re so dislocated in the cities from the seasons and food production, from this urban garden on a June morning I found myself seeing a glimmer of hope that people in cities can live a life which is truly in tune with nature.
Organise people around their broad self interest
“Go on Father, you’re here to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, so how’s it going?”. This is the kind of cheerfully awkward direct question that Neil Jameson tells me he likes to put to parish priests around London. He admits, “It’s a bit embarrassing and often we’re thrown out before we get to the cup of tea”. But when he finds priests who are willing to step back and grapple with the question of what influence they’re really having in their communities, they usually end up signing up for Neil’s Citizen Organising Foundation (COF). The COF brings together faith congregations, trade unions, student groups and schools to find issues of common interest and act on them.
I’m thankful that I’m being made a cup of tea before I’ve had a chance to ask any awkward questions. Neil jumped up to greet me and offered me a drink as soon as I arrived at the COF’s smart new offices in Whitechapel – so smart, I was surprised to be met at the door by the boss himself. But then I can imagine that Neil had lots of practice giving tea and biscuit hospitality in his former incarnation as a social worker. He still has the reassuringly unthreatening look of that profession, and after we have installed ourselves in a small meeting room, I ask him why he originally chose that path.
“I trained as a social worker because I used to think that that individual way of helping people would be good for me and good for them. Very quickly I discovered it was quite good for me because it paid my salary but it didn’t really do any good for them. At the worst, people’s problems were actually created by the professionals who try to help them.” Neil started to look deeper. “I got very interested in issues like poor housing, the lack of play space and why certain families always came up as being problems. I got to know the families as friends really, and realised that they wouldn’t have any problems at all if they had a bit more power and certainly a bit more income.”
Social work, he realised, was never going to tackle the root of the problems of the poor: “Throughout history, the only time people with low income and now moderate income got anywhere is when they organised around their broad self-interest.” But in the mid-eighties many such people were drifting away from the very institutions which could have given them a voice. “People were just withdrawing from politics, not voting, leaving the church, and trade unions were collapsing.” Neil became convinced that he had to get into the profession of organising. “By the time I got to forty, I was trying to find a job that would pay the mortgage and would keep my kids happy, and also tackle the two evils of power and poverty in a big way.”
In 1996, Neil brought to life the Citizens Organising Foundation, initially called the East London Communities Organisation. “We teach the ancient Greek approach to politics. If you organise and you’ve got a fair number of people and you’ve got a good argument and you’re democratic and you’re non-violent, then you can get things done. If you don’t organise, you sit and watch things on television, the world begins to fall apart, and the other lot win. Corporations organise, the business community organises, even criminals organise, but most community people don’t organise because they think that not having to negotiate with others makes them free. In fact it makes them weak.”
COF now has chapters in South London, West London and Birmingham as well as the original grouping in East London, which is made up of 35 institutions, through which about 60,000 people are represented. Delegations from each group meet monthly to work on campaigns. As I saw en route to Neil’s office, Whitechapel has a vibrant street scene with an amazing mix of race, age and social class, and the borough of Tower Hamlets is one of the most diverse in the UK. If it’s possible to achieve successful cross-community dialogue here, you would think, it should be possible anywhere.
“We try to get the folk who are in Pentecostal churches to see that it is in their interest to work with the folk in the Catholic church. And to see that it’s in their interest to work with the union branch around the corner. And, even more exciting, with the mosque around the next corner.” If they’re willing to get past the cup-of-tea stage, “People discover how magnificent it is to be in solidarity with others that hitherto they thought were weird, eccentric, off another planet, and you wouldn’t go into their building if somebody paid you. And then you discover they’re worried about their children like you are, they’re mugged by the same muggers and litter is the same problem for them as everyone else.”
Don’t the meetings degenerate into arguments over politics or which religion’s version of the Kingdom of Heaven they should be trying to create? Neil’s ensures they don’t by finding causes they can all rally around: “Once you get them in a room, you don’t talk about the ideology, you don’t talk Labour or Tory. You talk about: Who can help us? Who’s an ally? Where are we going to get the money from? What power have we got? What power have they got? And let’s just do it.” Neil has got the East London Mosque, several Unison branches, Stepney Green School and the Buddhist community in Bethnal Green successfully working together on campaigns including Whitechapel Watch, which aims to clean the streets of litter and drug dealers, and The Living Wage Campaign, which tries to get large companies to pay people a realistic living wage (at the time of our conversation, about £7.20 an hour in London), rather than the legal minimum wage (£5.35).
The Living Wage Campaign has already changed the payscale in four East London hospitals, and shamed numerous big banks in Canary Wharf and the City into paying their cleaners more, too. COF’s latest campaign is “Strangers to Citizens”, which is calling for a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. Many of these individuals, ignored by the state, look to their religious communities for solace and support. The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford are some of the most prominent supporters of the Strangers to Citizens Campaign.
Neil is passionate about the need for diverse groups to negotiate with others in order to get things done. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who isn’t seeking to bypass ageing institutions which are losing strength and membership, but to revitalise them. “We think these kind of institutions are primary building blocks of civil society. They’re the next level after family where people learn how to relate to each other. They go to a working mans club or they go to the women’s institute or they go to the unions, or the Methodist Church, and they have to “do” meetings, and they have to learn how to put up with Mrs So-and-So who goes off at a tangent every time. And that’s how you learn about democracy.”
Despite Neil’s best efforts, the decline of some churches and unions seems irreversible. But the kind of engaged citizens trained in leadership skills by the COF are perfectly placed to nurture new forms of grassroots community groups to step into the organisational breach. As Neil says, “there’s no end of campaigns we could do. It’s a great profession to come into.”
Open a Café
Venetia Strangwayes-Booth runs a café which is transforming a neighbourhood. Before Venetia started business selling delicious coffee, cakes and sandwiches on the Chatsworth Road in Hackney, London, the street was otherwise populated only with betting shops, fried chicken joints and pound shops. Opening such a radically different outlet in an area of social deprivation hasn’t been easy. Firstly, Venetia had trouble convincing a landlord that a smart café was what local residents wanted. Unlike Venetia, they hadn’t been chatting to parents in the local school playground who were crying out for somewhere to get a decent croissant and cappuccino. About a year ago, the determined Venetia cut a deal to rent a tiny shop which she has transformed into a coffee drinkers haven. Venetia’s is now usually bursting at the seams with eager customers.
I visited Venetia to take her photograph on a Sunday morning. By the time we met at about 9.30 the café was already buzzing. Venetia arrived with her two young toddler children and husband all in tow and was immediately organising her staff and readjusting her coffee machine. The grinds must be neither too fine, nor too coarse, she tells me as she times to the second the drips of espresso coming out of the machine. She offers me a second cup of coffee made with the correct sized grinds. Such an eye for detail may betray Venetia’s lawyer past, and is also the reason Venetia’s café is developing such a loyal following.
Venetia is candid about the challenges she faces running such an elegant eatery in a deprived area. Even having found a property to rent, it’s difficult to make a profit. She tries to keep her prices affordable, but clearly has to keep an eye on survival of the business. The hours are long and finding the right staff isn’t easy. She needs more space and plans to open the garden to customers in the summer. Venetia says she wishes she’d found financial backing before she started, but she’s learnt a lot on the way.
Her efforts are already having a knock-on effect on the rest of the street. About nine months after she opened shop a French delicatessen opened opposite her, selling high-quality cheeses and meats. The bookshop is moving to bigger premises and a toy shop is about to open. Local residents eagerly await further developments. A restaurant or two might be nice and Venetia herself is keen to capitalise on the recent popularity of farmers’ markets and get the Chatsworth Road street market up and running again.
What has surprised Venetia is how her café has become a focal point for the community. People come here to find out what’s going on in the neighbourhood she tells me. Venetia is clearly an important element here too, always ready with local information and news. She’s an antenatal teacher in her spare time, and much appreciated by the burgeoning population of pregnant women in the area. She’s also trying to set up a traders’ association so that she can save the street’s threatened Post Office. I wonder how she fits it all in, but perhaps a Sunday morning photo shoot with the whole family alongside indicates the answer. An expert multi-tasker who doesn’t take no for an answer, Venetia’s efforts are definitely the start of a fundamental change in this particular Hackney street.
Create a Tranquil Space
Kimberly Wilson sits comfortably as she talks, legs crossed on a bench decorated with polka dot pink and black cushions. We’re upstairs in the Washington DC yoga studio which she founded in 1999 and has been running ever since. “I think people have a desire to improve and change and grow but they have to have the means to be able to do that, and part of that is a creative and peaceful space where they can feel special. That’s what I hope Tranquil Space will always be.” She’s dressed in all black yoga gear, but isn’t short of glamour – appropriately for the author of a book called “Hip Tranquil Chick”.
Like many social entrepreneurs, Kimberly’s business idea arose from an unfulfilled need in her own life. “I wanted a place where people could come and really feel like they are special. I think of Cheers, where ‘everybody knows your name’. I think that’s so important.” In 1999 she couldn’t find such a place in her home town of Washington DC, so she set up Tranquil Space, with the aim of serving people who were also looking for a refuge through yoga. “The whole reason the business was created was to bring people together who I thought would connect and enjoy this type of a setting. We are here to help create a tranquil space within our society.”
She was propelled into social enterprise by dissatisfaction with her existing career. “I remember the Monday I came back to my job as a paralegal after spending two weeks having a fabulous experience learning to teach yoga in Santa Barbara, and crying. ‘This just isn’t me! I can’t do this anymore!’ I decided then that I’d just quit, live off my savings and teach yoga from my front room. It was scary. You go from getting a regular pay check and health insurance, to ‘Can I cover my rent and buy groceries?’” Family and friends were not entirely supportive, either: “‘What the hell?’ ‘Why did I put you through college?’ ‘What are you doing?’ That’s why I’m so proud of the success of the studio, because other people didn’t think this could happen.”
There’s no mark of those early fears on Kimberly’s face now, and she exudes the calm you’d expect from a experienced yogi. The success that enables peace of mind has come, as she puts it, in “baby steps. I’m a risk taker, but a baby risk taker. I’ve never taken out loans.” Her first baby step, when she reached her eighth student and could no longer fit them in her living room, was to rent a church hall. Now, although she insists “I don’t think I’ve got the full entrepreneurial spirit that I’d like to have”, her business occupies a bright and airy two-level commercial premises close to DC’s vibrant Dupont Circle and welcomes over 600 students a week. “You have to be profitable to survive or we wouldn’t be here,” she says, “but that’s not why the studio was created. I had no idea that we would make money, or that we would have this many students. No idea.”
Although evangelical about the benefits of yoga – “I think you walk a little differently when you leave class. People come to me and say that this place has really made a difference in their lives” – Kimberly’s horizons are broader. “ I think what we need so much in this world is to feel like we matter, that somebody cares, and that’s what I want people to feel like when they come here. I encourage the teachers to be as nurturing as possible – to touch every student, and learn their names – but also empowering and challenging. An overall theme of the studio is empowerment,” With that in mind, Tranquil Space runs regular “Trunk Shows”, which give local female creatives a chance to sell their own wares – “empowering women to create, to test the market and see if there’s a possibility for them to do this full-time.” There are also “creativity circles”, which “started in my living room, too. We have a lot of women do crazy things after it.” A fashion boutique and spa treatments presumably don’t harm the bottom line – “it’s really important to be a little indulgent here and there” – but are ancillary to the main purpose of “really helping, I mean honestly helping students to find a creative space. And also for us to translate this creative and tranquil space into society.”
It can’t have been an easy task to take to scale a business which is so firmly rooted in personal contact, but Kimberly appears to be pulling it off – the flask of tea and pile of cookies on a table crammed between brightly-coloured yoga mats continue a tradition that dates back to the home-made chai she served to her students after her first class. Her transparent lack of cynicism must be a major factor in avoiding a creeping corporate feel. This becomes apparent when I comment on the logos of four charities displayed on the wall as being the main beneficiaries of the Tranquil Space Foundation – trees, victims of domestic violence, female artists and animals – and compliment Kimberly on her marketing prowess in choosing a range of charities which will appeal to all her customers. “I never really thought about that,” she replies disarmingly. If it’s not for marketing purposes, then, isn’t it painful for a small and growing business to hand the money over? “There are times when we need more cash flow,” she admits, “but I’ve never thought ‘I wish I hadn’t given that thousand to the Humane Society.’”
As Kimberly slips into some poses for me to photograph, I ask how she finds the time to do enough yoga to maintain her incredible flexibility and strength while managing a staff of sixty. “I’m having tea with a girl tonight, and I think she’s the only friend I have that’s outside the studio,” she says. People who I knew before Tranquil Space, I haven’t seen them in years. I haven’t had time. There’s been many a seventeen-hour day since 1999. It’s been rewarding, but I would never say it’s been easy. Never.”
What keeps her going is the satisfaction of making a positive difference. “Being in business is great. I think a lot of times being in business is looked poorly upon, as if it’s all about money, or power. But I think you can be in business and really doing very, very good work and that’s what I really strive for. And I’m constantly striving to find out how to do that.”
Make a business out of other people’s waste
Robert Egger is founder and CEO of DC Central Kitchen. The Kitchen is located behind one of the largest homeless hostels in the United States, in a run-down neighbourhood of Washington DC. I couldn’t find the entrance and the streetscape around was desolate and threatening. The few pedestrians were black and evidently homeless. As a seven-months pregnant white women, riding a bike and carrying a large and expensive camera, I desperately wanted to look like I knew where I was going. So I headed straight into the main hostel entrance, where the security guard was on the telephone. As I waited for him to finish, I realised he was talking about a homicide that had just taken place on site. Whoever Robert Egger is, I could tell already that he wasn’t someone who liked to change the world from an ivory tower.
Armed with the guard’s directions, I eventually found the loading bay which serves as the entrance to DC Central Kitchen. It was crowded with small vans. One of the men unloading food into the vast store-rooms showed me to Robert’s tiny, windowless office in the centre of the bustling kitchen. DC Central Kitchen, which feeds the homeless using left-over food from local restaurants, was opened in 1989 and now feeds 4000 hungry homeless people a day. It has also given culinary training to 450 unemployed men and women since 1990, to help them back into work. Fresh Start Catering – run from the same location – employs the Kitchen’s trainees to cater for private clients around the city, and its profits are ploughed back into the Kitchen’s charitable activities.
It was immediately clear that Robert was nowhere near as intimidating as his environs. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the United States non-profit sector, and it was easy to see why: he came across as dynamic, enthusiastic, thoughtful and caring. Not to mention talkative. Like a ball at the top of a hill, I found I needed only to give him a nudge and he would run for a very long time.
So, as a former nightclub owner, what had made Robert turn his entrepreneurial flair to satisfying lines of hungry homeless people rather than queues of eager clubbers?
One night Robert went out with a friend feeding homeless people on the streets of DC. “Did not want to go. Got kind of cornered by people. You know. ‘Come on! You’ve got to go. It’ll be great.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. OK, OK.’” Robert was shocked to discover that the organisation he was helping that evening was buying food, even though this was the mid-eighties, when extravagant receptions everywhere were leaving tonnes of left overs. He was also surprised to discover that nothing was being done to help these homeless long term. Robert reluctantly realised that he had the vision and the skills required to do a better job. “It was one of those moments where you get to a crossroads. In other words it was like: ‘If I don’t do it no-one will.’”
That evening made him look with new eyes at his community in DC, and he encourages others who want to make a difference to do the same: “There is not a business person in the world, nor a general that would go into a new business or a battle without a sense of ‘What’s my budget? What is my inventory? What do I have to work with?’ Start adding it up. Look again! Stretch! Think!” Robert could see – where others could not – how to pull together the resources he needed. “America throws away 25% of what it produces every day. Most people see that as trash, we see it as gasoline for this engine. Most people looked at the people standing in line to get food and thought ‘Woah! There but for the grace of God go I’ and we’re like ‘Those are workers’.” Always ready with a snappy sound bite, Robert sums up what’s necessary. “You got to get practical. Say what you’re going to do and do what you say. Nirvana was a great band but it’s a horrible mission statement.”
Drawing on his experience of promoting nightclubs, Robert cannily planned the Kitchen’s opening to coincide with the inauguration of George Bush senior, having persuaded the organisers of his first presidential party to donate the left over food. “I knew there was an urban myth about hotels not being able to donate food, and that was hard to dispel. What better way to shoot down that myth than to get the President of the United States to donate food from the inauguration?” Now the Kitchen has its homeless trainee chefs bake cakes for every presidential inauguration: “No media guy in the world can resist that,” he says with a smile.
Correctly suspecting that I may prefer not to sit still for too long in my heavily pregnant state, Robert offers to take me on a guided tour. The scene is typical of any large and busy catering operation: acres of stainless steel, chefs in whites and clouds of steam as ovens open and close and pans bubble. In between liberally showering his employees with praise – “amazing man”, he says of colleague showing the ropes to a bunch of student volunteers – he tells me how he went one better with George Bush senior’s successor in the White House, by actually persuading Bill Clinton to come to the Kitchen and volunteer.
The volunteers, he explains, are an essential part of the grand plan. “We do not need a single volunteer to get our job done but every year we bring in seven to eight thousand and that is how we fight hunger.” Why? Robert hopes that volunteering will help remove prejudices as it did with some doctors who volunteered alongside a homeless man called Joseph. “Joseph looked at them and I think he saw all the things he could never be, and it reinforced this notion of, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? You fucked up everything in your life, you’re just going to fuck up this.’ And in the doctors’ eyes here was this homeless guy with a knife. And so each side had these stereotypes that were affecting their ability to take the next step. But I came back fifteen minutes later and the big neat was that Joseph knew something they didn’t know. He knew how to julienne and cut a carrot. They didn’t. And when he realised ‘I know something they don’t know’ and vice versa, the walls came down, and that was one of those eureka moments at the kitchen. We call it the ‘calculated epiphany’.”
“My hope,” he continues, “is that these volunteers leave saying, ‘Oh my goodness, why don’t we do that? I didn’t think that was possible’”. Of bringing in President Clinton, he says: “I wanted people to wake up in Des Moines, Iowa saying ‘Hey, honey come and look at this. I didn’t know homeless people could do that.’ I don’t want people to watch and say, ‘Wow the Kitchen’s great. I’ll write them a cheque.’ That would be great if they did, but that’s not the point. It’s more important to liberate them from their old stereotypical mind frames.” Robert hopes that their work will keep sparking people into “calculated epiphanies” and bring them on-side. “I don’t want to tell people what to think. If I go out and say ‘you should la la bla bla’ they won’t hear me.” That’s why, when Fresh Start caters for an event, Robert insists that the organisers don’t mention to the guests that the food is made by formerly homeless people until after they’ve enjoyed it.
Robert’s calculated pursuit of epiphanies has paid spectacular dividends: there are now Campus Kitchens run out of dozens of universities around the United States, and a sister project called Community Kitchens in Schools. Back in Robert’s tiny office, I try to find out what drives the person responsible for these far-reaching achievements. He is charmingly self deprecating, insisting “I’m not smart. I barely graduated from high school. And I’ve always had good management here because I don’t run all this myself – I mean, I can do it, but I’m just not good at the day-to-day stuff. My attention span’s not that long. I’m not disciplined that way.”
When I point out that he nevertheless has an obvious knack for business and ask why he didn’t simply stay in the nightclub trade and make himself richer, it’s clear that he finds this as interesting a question as I do. “Over the years I’ve plumbed my soul on numerous occasions. You know, it’s not like I have some deep love for my fellow man, that I want to help the poor.” Music has had its influence on the way he views the world, judging by how often he reaches for quotes from his favourite bands – notably John Lennon’s acerbic view of mass culture in Working Class Hero: “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV / And you think you’re so clever and classless and free”. And although the catholic nuns who schooled him probably weren’t intending to produce a nightclub-owning Lennon devotee, they too had a deep impact on his psyche. “It’s probably a merger of that kind of weird, missionary, ‘save-pagan-babies’ ethos of catholic school,” he concludes, “with punk music and just rock and roll in general.”
If he’s not so sure about his motivations, one thing that Robert is sure about is how you work with the grain of today’s world to make it a better place. “The power of the last century was all built around people saying ‘don’t buy that’. I’m more interested in saying ‘no, buy that’. That’s the power of this century. How do you open the masses’ eyes today? Not with anger and boycott. No, ‘be happy and buy!’ That’s how you change the world. What we need is a capitalist Ghandi. Someone who will raise the bar.”
Although he’d be far too modest to apply that description to himself, Robert has already proved he has the capitalist part of the equation sorted. And a few months after I met him, Robert was in the newspapers for going on hunger strike to shame the DC government into stumping up for some of the meals his Kitchen delivers to their shelters. Ghandi would have approved.
Build a website
“Don’t underestimate the challenge of making a free to user website stack up financially” That’s the advice Jamie Wallace would like to give anyone who wants to follow his footsteps and use the internet to make the world a better place. Jamie is the founder and director of walkit.com, a route planner for city walkers. The website will draw you a map between two locations, giving you a choice of the most direct or a less busy route. In central London you can even opt for a less polluted route. You are also told how long the journey will take, depending on your speed, how many calories you’ll burn and how much carbon dioxide you’ll prevent from being emitted.
I have known Jamie for a long time. We studied Environmental Technology together at Imperial College in 1996/1997. In about 2000 Jamie started talking about the walkit.com idea as a way to encourage more sustainable lifestyles. In the early days Jamie worked on the site alongside working for a sustainability charity called Forum for the Future. Since April 2007 Jamie has devoted himself to walkit full-time. With no other income to rely on, this has made the financial sustainability of the site even more critical. 50,000 unique visitors come to the site every month and generate 110,000 routes in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Gateshead. Soon the people of Leeds, Glasgow and Aberdeen will also be able to create walkit routes and several other cities are in the pipeline.
By encouraging people to walk like this, Jamie is not only contributing to the reduction of climate change, he’s probably making the commuting lives of thousands of people much more bearable. Not surprising then that the walkit team have won several awards already for their work and that their user numbers keep soaring. For the time being, the focus of Jamie and his team is to get as big as possible. “Everyone says if you’re huge you can make it work financially. But how do you get huge? You can’t get there until you’ve brought in the money.” It’s a Catch 22 but Jamie is not dispirited. He clearly loves the independence of working on his own project and with so much positive feedback on the site, it’s hard to believe that they won’t succeed. A big injection of cash would help, but for now local governments around the UK are a solid source of income. The site is a wonderfully practical idea so hopefully walkit will continue to help to relieve our streets of traffic for many years to come.
Start a cult
I met Danny Wallace, the accidental hero who inspired the social phenomenon “Join Me!” that’s become known as “guerrilla benevolence” and the “Karma Army”, in a busy Covent Garden café. He was fresh from BBC Broadcasting House and had an hour to kill before he was due on Richard and Judy. I had no problem recognising him as he arrived wearing the same T-shirt and parker as on the front cover of the book that describes how he created this curiously inspirational movement.
Danny Wallace, for want of a better label, is a professional prankster. Before “Join Me!”, he’d been around the world with a friend called Dave Gorman, looking for other people called Dave Gorman, which resulted in a humorous book called “Are You Dave Gorman?”. When that project was over, and a jobless Danny was “sitting around in my pants watching daytime TV”, he came up with the random idea of posting an advert in the free London paper, Loot, that said simply “Join Me!” and requested a passport-sized photo. When the first reply dropped through his letterbox, he arranged to meet the sender, “as much intrigued by why he would answer the ad as he was about why I would place it.” After a night of “boozing and curry” with someone who he wouldn’t have otherwise met, Danny decided to set up a “Join Me!” website and print some leaflets. “More and more passport photos arrived and they were all joining someone without knowing who they were joining, or what they were joining or why they were joining and I didn’t know either.”
As the story goes, some initial “Joinees” arranged to meet up and demanded a purpose. But Danny was nervous of meeting them. He thought, “They’re going to imagine this sort of bloke in big long purple robes, making amazing speeches, and women stroking his legs and they’re going to be left with a bloke who looks like one of the Proclaimers.” Instead, he sent some disposable cameras and a Dictaphone with this message: “It is I, the leader – go out and make an old man very happy. Take a picture. Send it back”. They did this and had a brilliant time.
Five years on, Danny spends more time appearing on daytime TV than watching it. Calling himself a “modern day cult leader”, he now commands all Joinees to commit random acts of kindness every Friday. “Thousands of people around the world, every Friday, do my bidding. Friday, is just so that I can call them Good Fridays and so I can make them sign the Good Friday Agreement. I could do Ten Commandments but that would be a bit too much for people. ‘Hit and run kindness’, I call it. You just go up, you do something, you leg it. It’s not going to solve all the world’s problems, but it will improve someone’s day for ten seconds, which might rub off.”
So what sort of things do Joinees do? “If you go up to an old lady whose been looking at a pot plant and then walked away and not bought it. You just think, “Well I should buy it”. You go up and say, “I bought this for you” and you’ve bewildered someone with kindness.” The initial idea of random acts of kindness, Danny explains, came from his love of practical jokes. Presenting an old lady with a pot plant is actually a lot like “sticking a ‘kick me’ sign on her back. You get the same buzz but actually the victim benefits and you feel great..”
Join Me! clearly started as a joke, a humorous idea to sell some books, and stumbled into becoming something altogether more substantial than its creator expected. But although it’s no longer only a joke, the joke ethos remains central. “Doing these acts of kindness is the same mentality as doing a prank, because you need to get over that embarrassment barrier and treat it like a joke. The vast majority of society want to do something nice, but are afraid to. It’s this weird social barrier where you might see someone struggling with some heavy shopping but you won’t go and help them, because they’re going to think you’re mental. Join Me! has become an excuse to do something nice. Everyone always says you shouldn’t need an excuse, but you know, bollocks, sometimes you do.”
Danny is full of stories about the happiness that Join Me! has brought to people’s lives. Like the 83 year old granny in Edinburgh who joined to raise her spirits after the death of both her husband and son within a fortnight. Danny sent her a postcard telling her that he was planning to be in town and would try and pop by. He then gathered together a group of local Joinees and turned up on her doorstep with flowers and chocolates. “It was great because there were all these 18 year olds, and it was the first time they’d done something this weird. We brought her all these gifts, and not one of us left with a dry eye. She was brilliant, a real character.” Even just hearing about Join Me! has helped some people. “One guy wrote to me recently and said he’d read about it just after his marriage had broken down and it had re-instilled his faith in people.”
Even though he got there more by accident than design, there’s a lot Danny can teach someone who wants to motivate large numbers of people to have a positive impact on the world. He came up with a simple idea that can capture people’s imagination. He put the internet to great use by getting people to share their experiences and arrange meetings in their local pubs. And he realised that personal contact is key – a lesson he learned from a vicar in Inverness, who contacted him with this piece of advice, to which Danny responded by hopping straight on a plane to meet him. “I flew up to Inverness and I stayed at his vicarage, and he’s a Joinee for life now.” The more his Joinees get together, Danny says, the more enthusiastic they become. “Suddenly it’s got proper, physical meaning, because there are other people doing it.”
Grown-up people doing good turns, like oversized boy scouts, is certainly a rich vein of humour. But, as Danny philosophises, “I’ve always thought that the most important way of getting a message across is through humour. So whatever you do you should, if you can, make it a bit funny. World peace, stop hunger, stop all wars, all that sort of stuff. I think most of it would be slightly alleviated if you just lighten up a bit. Have a cup of tea, have a sit down.”
Run a shop
Since Organic and Natural opened around the corner from my house about two years ago, it has made a big difference to my life as well as countless others in the neighbourhood. Abdullah Solak is the entrepreneur behind the idea. He spotted a growing appetite for organic goods in Palm 2, the supermarket which he’s been running for 14 years on the Lower Clapton Road. So, when a friend who was running a Turkish men’s club in the site that is now Organic and Natural told him he was struggling, Abdullah saw an opportunity to expand his business and took over the lease.
When it first opened in August 2006 the shop stocked little more than a few dried goods and some cosmetics. On the counter was a box asking for suggestions and Abdullah, and his assistant Miranda, who runs the business day to day, have listened very carefully. Now, the shop is packed with delicious organic goods and fresh vegetables, there’s fresh bread daily, you can refill your Ecover goods, buy green nappies and even have an organic cappuccino.
Although the profits aren’t huge, Abdullah believes they will come and is happy to be patient. Palm 2 took a year or so to get going and is now hugely profitable. Organic and Natural is making money slowly but Abdullah is delighted with the other positive effects he is seeing from the business. “All my family eat better since we’ve opened this shop”, he tells me. He even connects his brother giving up smoking with his business. “The customers are really friendly” and don’t make trouble unlike some of the clientèle of his other shop, which he adds, sells a lot of alcohol.
I love the genuine and unpretentious nature of this business. When I asked Abdullah what the philosophy of his business was and how they decided what to stock, he said that he trusted his customers to tell him what to sell. At the same time, simple touches like using energy saving lightbulbs in the shop, recycling fridges and shop furniture, collecting used carrier bags and offering them to customers rather than new ones, make the whole operation seem to be concerned with protecting the environment. They also do their best to undercut the competition on prices, rather than trying to milk as much as they can out of ethically minded consumers. I really do love this shop!
What’s the message for others who want to make a difference like this? It’s not a way to make fast money but Organic and Natural is helping many people to live healthier, more environmentally responsible lives and because of this, it’s very rewarding for those in charge.
Tim Crozier-Cole and Cathy Hough
Tim Crozier-Cole and Cathy Hough are a partnership with no shortage of energy. Their laughter is infectious and their spirits are irrepressible. Maybe this is attributable to the way they spend their work lives. At the office, the couple spend their time saving a different type of energy. The stuff that usually comes down wires. Tim and Cathy both work for Energy for Sustainable Development, a consultancy which advises businesses, architects, property developers, community groups and governments how to save energy and therefore reduce their environmental impact. They’ve worked for the company where they met for eight years or so, during which time it has grown from 25 people in a “barn in Wiltshire” to about 200 people worldwide.
Tim, who trained as an engineer, works with property developers, helping them to make crucial energy saving decisions, early on in the design of their projects. Cathy is working with non-governmental organisations, business and government to try and stimulate energy saving measures in existing housing stock in the UK. With climate change looking increasingly threatening, their work is in big demand. Growing interest in a low-carbon future has kept their jobs stimulating and challenging.
Like any couple who work together they have to be careful not to let work take over their home life. A bit of seepage is inevitable though. There’s a discernibly high awareness of energy use around their house and Tim even admits to having calculated the carbon budget of the home births of their two daughters. Their young children are the main consumers of this couple’s energy right now, so it’s even more impressive that they are able to contribute to conserving our planet’s limited resources through their work lives. These two are definitely an electric combination.
Inspire others to be green
When I arranged to meet Trewin Restorick, I did not expect to be interviewing him in an extravagantly teak-panelled room in the heart of Lincoln’s Inn, the home of some of London’s most highly paid lawyers. But this, it turns out, is where Global Action Plan UK – the organisation Trewin founded and directs – rents its offices from the Furnishing Trade Benevolent Association. The lavish hardwood surroundings are especially incongruous given that, GAP exists to tackle environmental destruction. It works by educating individuals and spurring them into action.
Trewin seems equally surprised to be here, not because of the teak panels but because he is self-effacing enough that he can’t quite believe I am interested in what he has to say. But this is a man who’s got thousands of school children, office workers and ordinary citizens to reduce their environmental impact over the past fifteen years. I think it’s worth finding something out about anyone who can achieve that.
GAP works to provide people with the information they need to become civically engaged. They run a variety of structure programmes: “Ecoteams” bring together groups of households to work out what they can do to reduce their domestic environmental impact; “Environmental Champions” help people to set targets and improve workplace environmental performance; and “Action at School” focuses on bringing environmental education into the curriculum.
“We advise the Ghandi philosophy of every long journey starts with a small step,” Trewin says. “Look at your lifestyle and make whatever changes are feasible and practical for you to make. When you start to meet obstacles like lack of public transport or lack of decent labelling, then start voicing those frustrations in a political context.”
Trewin discovered his passion early on. Student activism led him into a first job on recycling schemes in Devon – “I met some really inspiring people who were running practical initiatives and giving local employment” – and he used that experience to get a job at Friends of the Earth. But he found himself and his employer growing apart. “Back then, Friends of the Earth was very much about looking at solutions as well as campaigning – the velvet glove around the iron fist. But they’ve taken the velvet glove away now, they’re very much a campaigning organisation, and that’s not where I come from at all”
In 1993 Trewin decided to leave the security of Friends of the Earth so that he could spend his time motivating people to take personal action on the environment. He accepted the job, for “virtually no money”, of setting up Global Action Plan in the UK following its successful foundation in the US three years earlier. Since 1993 nearly 200 schools, about 100 businesses and 2500 households have been involved in GAP UK’s projects. “We try not to be ‘thou shalt’-ish, because that doesn’t really work.” Instead, they teach people about the issues so that they can work out themselves how to set targets and achieve them.
By its nature, individual action yields incremental results, and Trewin admits to getting frustrated by the slow pace of progress: “I know we achieve change but it’s changes on the margin.” Is campaigning for legislative change not the way forward after all, then? “You have to remember that legislation isn’t enough if you don’t also have education. If you brought in legislation which made everybody’s home fantastically energy efficient, but you don’t educate people, they might still go out and buy a great big SUV. I think we need an engaged and articulate electorate, so that their level of education about the issues can keep pace with legislative change.”
Trewin clearly doesn’t believe in quick fixes. But the frustrations he encounters when contemplating the long journey ahead are outweighed by the immense personal satisfaction of inspiring people to make small steps. “Seeing an organisation grow, and working with a group of really nice people in a very positive and friendly atmosphere is incredibly rewarding. As is meeting people who’ve done something and feel really good about it, and who realise that environmentalism is not that cranky and strange after all.”
When I got home, I searched the internet for the Ghandi quote Trewin had used and discovered he was actually quoting the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Beneath it happened to be another piece of wisdom from Lao Tzu, which seemed to me to sum up Trewin’s approach perfectly: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Write a letter, come to a meeting, go to a rally
The first thing that strikes you about Gene Karpinski is how fast he talks; three decades of representing the public interest to the US government must hone your skills in getting your message across as speedily as possible. The next thing that strikes you is that he radiates happiness. “If I ever step back and say ‘What’s the perfect job for me?’”, he explains – though it’s hard to imagine this is someone who spends much time stepping back –, “This is the perfect job for me.”
I met Gene in his cramped office in the shadows of the seat of US government on Capitol Hill, from where he directs the US Public Interest Research Group. US PIRG is an umbrella organisation which works on behalf of many state-based public interest organisations. “There are 15 advocates that work for me and they’re working on everything from saving the Arctic Refuge to trying to fix the health-care system, to trying to fight the banks, to trying to clean up our air pollution from power plants. We want to get involved where we think there’s a clear public interest versus a special interest angle.”
This kind of public interest campaigning is particularly relevant in the US, where large – often corporate – donors with special interests have a significant influence over politics. Gene got into this line of work immediately after law school, when he became an intern for organisations battling corruption and nuclear power. “I definitely sensed, ‘this is great and it’s what I want to do’ and I’ve been working in public interest work ever since.”
Gene became director of US PIRG in 1984. There can’t be many people who retain his obvious levels of enthusiasm after being in the same job for over twenty years. One reason, he says, is there’s always something new cropping up on his very wide agenda: “We should protect our environment, we should protect consumers and we should have a clean, open government. Those are broad principles, big-picture concerns”. Another, no doubt, is the long list of victories; some recent ones include fighting off proposals for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, helping to pass a bill to reduce subsidies to polluting industries, and preventing the Bush Administration’s attempts to remove protections for roadless areas in national forests. “When you’re involved in a set of issues nationally and an even broader set of issues state by state, there’s always some place you can point to where there’s positive change, literally that day or that week”.
How have they managed to achieve such impact without the enormous financial backing that most lobbyists enjoy? Thorough investigative research – “research is our middle name” – enables them to mount well-targeted media exposés and litigation. But the key is educating people and inspiring them to campaign. Gene makes full use of the internet, but he still also swears by more traditional methods. “We do a lot of door-to-door knocking and talking, ‘Hi, we’re here from PIRG. We want to talk about Clean Air issues. Did you know that President Bush is trying to weaken the Clean Air Act? Well here’s what that’s going to mean in your community and we’d like your support.’”
US PIRG devotes much of its energy to knitting together grassroots coalitions formed from diverse sectors of society. “We build the largest group possible of allies. It might be labour unions in one case, it might be the religious community in another case, it might be the fishing community on a particular issue or it might be physicians on a health-care issue.” He’s seen how ordinary people really can make an impact: “Write a letter, come to a meeting, go to a rally, be active, and the more folks are active on these issues the more we’re gonna win!” And he points out that, although special interests have many other advantages, grassroots organising is one battlefield on which they find it hard to engage. “They can’t organise masses of people through the internet by saying ‘We want to keep dumping toxic chemicals. Please tell them not to make us clean up.’”
Gene has a tangible grasp of his impact: he can actually point to numerous bills passed or stopped as a result of US PIRG’s campaigns. But he also has a more precise sense of the scale of the obstacles he faces. “We have the facts on our side, we have the truth on our side, we have the public on our side, so why aren’t we winning more?” It’s a rhetorical question. “Right now if you want to run for office in this country for the House of Representatives you have to raise a million dollars. Where are you going to find a million dollars? You have to go grovelling for it.”
But somehow, remarkably, he shows no sign of being daunted or discouraged. “Public interest advocacy is not for the short-winded. It needs to be a life-time effort to try and change society in positive ways. Any one issue can take years and years and years to resolve.” He’s brimming with optimism about the increasing numbers of people who are being attracted to a career in public interest work. “It’s both the professional side of it, actually seeing progress and making change, and the personal side, you know you’re working with close contacts and colleagues and friends who share your values and experiences and want to change society together.”
Much more than the varied nature of the work or the drip-drip-drip of morale-boosting successes, it’s obviously this fundamental aspect of his career which keeps Gene buzzing. “Whether you’re fighting the oil companies or the timber industry or the banks or insurance companies, you can bring your conscience to work every day on a set of causes that you believe in.” One wonders how many lobbyists employed by oil companies, the timber industry, banks or insurance companies could say the same.