Hard Lives, extraordinary resilience: learning from those with least
As a child the news of people starving in other parts of the world upset me deeply, but I believed what I was told: that the scale of poverty and injustice in the world was beyond our help.
In the mid-1990s I found the Quakers, and my life changed. Here was a group of people who were making a difference, in small local ways, maybe, but it led me to think that maybe there was something I could do. Almost immediately I was asked to start a community centre in the East End of London and to co-ordinate the tea runs for homeless people that some London Quaker meetings were running.
I worked in publishing; I’d never volunteered in my life, and had no idea about homelessness or the East End. I was deeply shocked at what I found. My first tea run was an epiphany. When, instead of passing by a bundle in a doorway with embarrassment and guilt, I offered a young man a cup of tea, it was the beginning of a human relationship. I realised that that bundle in the doorway could have been me. And that there is no such thing as “the other”.
From then till about 2012, I was drawn to working with people on the margins in many different contexts. Work with rough sleepers led to an urge to work in prisons to address the issue of homelessness on release. I became a prison visitor. Sometimes I think that listening to someone in the privacy of their cell – a story that perhaps will never be told outside – is one of the most valuable things one can do. I was then fortunate enough to get six years’ work from the Prison Reform Trust with prisoners and staff in many English prisons.
At the community centre, confronted with the poverty that I found among the largely Bangladeshi and Somali women, it became clear that some kind of financial intervention was needed. I had heard of microcredit, a method of lending small sums of money to people (mostly women) to start up businesses, and won a Churchill Fellowship to go to Bangladesh and other countries to learn how to do it. That led to setting up projects in the East End, and then in three African countries.
As I stayed in villages in South Africa and Ghana, sometimes as the only white person, I understood my privilege, and it again emphasised how much I can learn from those that have least. The concept of “do-goodery” is so mistaken. The action, the result of any of this work is of mutual benefit. In anything I have done, my gain has been greater, I’m sure, than anything I’ve given.
Over the years this work led to writing books about the work I was doing, and the stories I was hearing. In 2010 I wrote Journey Home, asking people, often without warning “what is home to you?” From their gut responses was formed a book and then a boardgame that describe home as so much more than shelter. A similar approach led to The Failure of Success, and Small Change, Big Deal explored the whole issue of community finance.
As I became more involved in writing, and then in running workshops, I began to feel the lack of face-to-face engagement with people at the edges. I had a sense that there was a big project waiting for me, but, as so often, I didn’t know what it was. It turned out to be my most recent book, Let Me Take You by the Hand, an x-ray of the streets of London through the stories of those who live or work there. My aim was to give a voice to people normally ignored or even unseen; to paint a picture of inequality and poverty which would make people sit up and might provoke change. It is, perhaps, a summation of all I’ve done over the past twenty years.
As we see from stories from all over the world, stories told in private, in community, and collected on the Other Frontline website, hard lives are often accompanied by an extraordinary resilience. Dreams of a better, kinder future are everywhere to be found. What I have learned is that it is possible for anyone to make a difference, and that those who have least have most to teach us. Street homeless people, asylum seekers, prisoners – they are all part of community. Our community.
Let Me Take You By the Hand is published by Little, Brown