Tackling poverty from the bottom up

Do we treat people in poverty as an undeserving underclass, hapless victims, or potential agents for change and transformation? As we are discovering in our work at Church Action on Poverty, ordinary people can do extraordinary things…

Contrary to the growing view that people on low-incomes are dysfunctional, dependent shirkers and skivers, Church Action on Poverty’s experience over the last 30 years has proved again and again that people in poverty not only understand the root causes of their problems, but are highly effective at creating lasting solutions to them.  Instead of imposing policies or top-down solutions, we use radical, participatory tools that help people in poverty access power and education, creating a network of grassroots social change that continues to grow.

Sarah: An inspiration for others

sarah

Sarah Whitehead: An inspiration to others. Photo: Helen Clifton

A 29 year old single parent living a life on benefits in Salford, Sarah Whitehead seemingly had little going for her.  Like many ordinary folk, she had some hopes and ideas for improving her neighbourhood, but little idea of how to about making things happen.  But she was encouraged to sign up with our Community Pride programme in 2010. Over the next few months, with a group of other ordinary folk from Salford, Sarah developed the skills and confidence to transform her rubbish-filled alley into a community garden, inspiring others to do the same; she also helped create the Weaste Area Forum, who have set up a jobs centre, community gym, and cafe.   Sarah is now, in turn, running a Community Pride training programme for ex-offenders in Salford.

She said: “Other people have come to me and said, ‘You’re an inspiration’. When you can see what you can do when you get involved, it makes people really want to do it. I want to be heard and have my say. Church Action on Poverty have helped me create changes with my voice. And that just proves to me that I can do it, and I should continue to.”

Kath: Champion of responsible lending.

Kath Carter: Living life to the full

Kath Carter: Living life to the full

As well as enabling local people to make changes within their communities, Church Action on Poverty’s approach has achieved success nationally. With support from Church Action on Poverty, women from Stockton-on-Tees have successfully negotiated a code for responsible lending with three major national high cost lending companies, benefiting more than 300,000 low-income customers.

Kath Carter is now a leading stalwart of Thrive in Stockton on Tees and a trustee of Church Action on Poverty. But things were not always so rosy for Kath. In her own words:

“I was the carer for my husband and son and still am, also looking after my grandchildren on weekends and school holidays. I had lost all connection with the outside world watching it go by through the barriers of a window and a TV screen. Thrive has allowed the dormant me to blossom again, even though the problems of life have not changed I feel valued and confident enough to enter full life again.”

Through Church Action on Poverty’s Powered by People UK programme, Kath has trained as a community leader. She has been trained to be powerful.

Last year, with others involved in Thrive, Kath uncovered huge dissatisfaction amongst customers with the actions of a high cost lending company, Buy As You View (BAYV) – high credit charges, poor customer service, lack of transparency in what customers owed and so on. Based in Cardiff, BAYV sells TVs and other household appliances to over 100,000 people, and something of a poor reputation for customer service.

Most local projects would respond by encouraging customers to get help from the local CAB and seek redress on an individual basis. Not so, Thrive. Having been trained in Community Organising, Kath’s response was to seek to challenge the way the company itself operated – at the very top – by seeking a meeting with the boss of the company, Graham Clarke.

With assistance from our project local worker, Kath and colleagues produced a spoof TV advert for BAYV highlighting the issue, which was watched by over 1,000 people on YouTube. When Mr Clarke refused Kath’s request for a meeting, several hundred Church Action on Poverty supporters in churches across the country emailed Mr Clarke, demanding that he meet with Thrive to respond to their concerns.  In response to polite pressure, the company agreed to a meeting.  When the meeting was called off at less than 24 hours notice, we emailed our supporters, asking them to phone Mr Clarke and ask why.  Church Action on Poverty’s chair, Lewis Rose, was one of those who responded – leaving a personal message on Mr Clarke’s answerphone.  Lewis was surprised on the following Saturday morning to receive a call from a Cardiff number he didn’t recognise – it was Mr Clarke ringing him up personally, to say that the emails and phone calls had got through:  He would now fly his senior management team from Cardiff to Stockton, to meet with Kath and six of his customers.

Having in Graham’s words ‘thrown rocks at him’ to get him to the meeting, far from finding confrontation, he accepted the concerns of some of his most long-standing customers, and acceded to all of Thrive’s demands. Not only that – he agreed to work with Thrive to bring together a roundtable of high cost lenders along with the Office of Fair Trading to find a way forward. This roundtable, chaired by the Bishop of Ripon, has spent the past few months developing an industry wide code for responsible lending, which when it is signed, will benefit up to 325,000 customers of high cost lending companies.

Maureen, is another of Thrive’s community leaders, who has been directly involved in negotiating with Buy As You View and other major high cost lenders over the past 18 months.  In her own words: “At the beginning I joined Thrive to get me out of four walls. I just carried on because it was something to do. Then we started talking about the bad boys of doorstep lending; loan sharks. Then I realised it was about companies that I was with. Buy As You View have actually lowered their interest rates. They’ve also started the ball rolling about sharing information on credit ratings. It does work. If I’d have realised that doing this sort of thing would have empowered me and others, then I would have done it a long time ago.”

The message is clear: People power does work. The power of ordinary people; trained, encouraged and supported to challenge the practices of powerful institutions in society; to reclaim power.

To find out more about the work of Church Action on Poverty visit www.church-poverty.org.uk

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Guardian’s Northerner blog.

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