How can civil society tackle loneliness, address job insecurity, and create fairer cities? A focus on power, accountability, connections and trust can help.
Ivan, Mariana and Yasmin were sitting round a table in Toynbee Hall, reflecting on their ambitions for the future. They were celebrating with their friends their achievement in completing an English as a Second Language course. One said ‘It will help me get a better job’. Another felt that she would be better able to talk with her son’s teachers. And a third woman felt it was simply going to help her make new friends. By taking practical steps to do better themselves, the students were confident that they would make a much bigger difference to their families and the community, and change London for the better in their own small way.
The celebration took place a few days before my team at Toynbee Hall met with some of the City Insights team from the Greater London Authority to hear about the new Survey of Londoners findings. In the context of trying to be better connected, and more relevant to the community around us, we wanted to explore how our own learning and insights could add to the picture of London it paints. Based on responses from over 6000 Londoners the survey gives the most in-depth and insightful view of what ordinary people within the capital are concerned with, hopeful about and involved in. It should give a really strong evidence base for civil society organisations and others who also want to make London a city everyone can feel part of.
In many ways, London is an amazing city, full of opportunity and diversity; and the survey showed that many people are proud to live in the city and enjoy it every day. One of the most positive things the data showed was the strong appetite Londoners have for getting involved in positive change within their communities with friends and neighbours. More than half of Londoners do ‘informal volunteering’, with 28% calling themselves formal volunteers; and almost a quarter have been involved in some kind of civic action, such as local campaigns or shaping local services on a voluntary basis. As a small example, we’ve had a great response from local people – including some of our language course students – who are helping us design and develop a new community garden outside Toynbee Hall to bring welcome shared green space to a busy, built up part of London.
Building on enthusiasm this is crucial if we are to make London feel to everyone like a place that they can enjoy, and where they can prosper.
Because the Survey also highlighted some very real, practical concerns that too many Londoners face: a staggering 400,000 children and over 1m adults in London experience food insecurity. According to the survey this might include not only foodbank usage but also ‘for instance, running out of money to buy food, cutting the size of meals or skipping them, and not being able to afford balanced meals’.
The survey also revealed the extent of loneliness in London. It is a significant factor not only for older people, but for young people too: 32% of 16-24 year old Londoners say they feel socially isolated. The extent of problem debt and insecure employment – often affecting those with few places to turn to – are laid bare by the survey. And, while lots of Londoners interact in a positive way with our neighbours, are proud of their local neighbourhood, and enjoy diverse friendship groups, there are still large numbers who currently don’t feel included, or trust that our city is fair.
So there are challenges for all of us. We’ve been talking with our friends at the Young Foundation, and want to have more conversations with other organisations and institutions across East London to see if we can build on local collective strengths to better meet those challenges. Last year’s Civil Society Futures report asked organisations like ours specifically to change the way we think about power, accountability, connections and trust, if we are going to meet those challenges. Using this lens there are three areas where we think we could do more in relation to some of the things the Londoners Survey highlighted:
Firstly, we need to genuinely put Londoners with lived experience in the lead: so that they can make their voices heard, and feel supported to tackle the challenges they face. That means trying to ensure that more and more of the work we do is led by people with lived experience. As examples, we are working with young people to try and help them articulate what they need from the private rented sector and have productive dialogue with landlords, so that the overall experience of housing is better. And with older people to help them design and define what a safe community looks and feels like, and how they can have a better experience of public transport. This work has since led to our local authority reflecting on local provision of welfare advice services and its transport strategy. But there is plenty for us still to do. We need to be constantly aware that we are not the experts – and be genuinely facilitative and collaborative with other organisations locally. In this way we can build up trust, strengthening the community as a whole.
Second, we can operate ourselves with strong and clear values. NCVO’s Almanac estimates that of the almost 866,000 people who work in the voluntary sector, 36% are in London and the South East. That means up to 300,000 Londoners may work for charities; and millions of us volunteer. So there is huge potential for us to make tangible change to our city: not only as providers of services and opportunities, but also as employers. We should strive to create progression routes for people with lived experience, be fair to our people, and offer volunteers real, meaningful opportunities; as advocates, we should be collaborative and driven and informed by the communities we work with. We should model the ways that will make London work better, and reduce the numbers of people who still feel excluded. Again, we have some way to go, but the new ACEVO / Institute of Fundraising leadership commitment to diversity, and in London the new Good Work Standard from the Mayor give us something to aspire to and build on.
And thirdly, of course, we need to influence, together. We don’t control the levers of policy. But charities do have assets: money, buildings, people, and perhaps most of all connections. I’ve been struck recently with the appetite for collaboration on policy – helped by initiatives such as JRF’s ‘talking about poverty’ campaign, and collective voices shaping London Challenge Poverty Week. As a result we should be collectively better equipped to drive change. We need to work together to create the space for those with lived experience to articulate the kind of London they want to see. We can help policy makers get beyond the data – to understand why some people don’t find our city a fair place; why they are lonely; and the impact of debt and financial insecurity; what will make them feel safer. Better policy will surely come if it is driven by people themselves.
Civil society’s strong roots in the community give us the foundations and vital connections to be facilitators of real change. Let’s play to this strength, let those within the communities we serve do the talking and the shaping, and do what we can to support the positive changes they demand.