I am reading the report while sitting in our community wellbeing centre where people have been making lanterns for next month’s Christmas parade. The centre, Toynbee Hall, is tucked in between ever growing towers of concrete and glass that have come to dominate our area here in east London, but is warm and welcoming for older people from every background.
We’re a long established space – in a place which has changed rapidly. But despite the apparent wealth that surrounds us, far too many people here have missed out – and face huge challenges just to make ends meet. We try to be there for them, as we have been for over 130 years. Recently we’ve become more focused on trying to create space for people to shape the services we provide, and amplify their voices through us. The process of redeveloping our historic home has given us the opportunity to rebuild connections, and created a realization that we need to be more accountable to those we are here for.
Reading the reports it is clear that very many organisations – and even more informal groups within communities – are on the same journey. They – and we – are undoubtedly making life better within those communities (nb to those who might challenge this with ‘where’s your evidence?’ , I’d just invite them to ask the people making lanterns if their lives are better or worse for the time they now spend socializing and doing interesting things in each other’s company, and listen to the responses). The report is full of optimism and the belief that civil society IS innately powerful and relevant.
And yet the reports don’t shy away from the fact that we’re up against huge tides. Economic and social deprivation, leading to poverty, isolation, cynicism and disengagement. So I like the way they challenge us not only to demand change – but to BE that change; challenge ourselves. To take risks, be open, listen – even if it is uncomfortable – and find solutions together. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the struggles that our predecessors have fought and won – the progress that has been made. At Toynbee Hall our history is something we’ve over the past few years really began to see as a huge asset as we’ve sought to open ourselves up and rebuild connections we might have lost. We can learn from the past, in taking on today’s struggles. We can inspire a better future. It won’t be easy – it never has been. But civil society does have power. It is enormous in terms of its scale, for one thing. So if we can each make change on a local, community or even individual level each, we’ll have made a significant difference. This isn’t about limiting our ambition. It is the opposite: fulfilling it. We’re up for it. Thank you for articulating the challenge.