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Can charities help heal the divisions in society?

Barrow Cadbury Trust’s CEO Sara Llewellin was asked recently by New Philanthropy Capital to speak on a conference panel about how she thought charities could help heal divisions in society.  Below is an edited blog of her presentation.

It is impossible to do justice to a post-referendum analysis or to go beyond the ‘known knowns’ in a short piece, but for the purpose of this blog there are several key features we need to think about when developing a strategic approach to the coming several years.  The bloody nose given to the political establishment needs attention.  Firstly, although the salient political hook for the Leave Campaign was migration, this was in reality a proxy for being ‘left behind’ by globalisation.  People were sick and tired of being told they benefited from migration when they knew very well that they didn’t or didn’t much.  Most of us who lead charities do and that leads us straight into the heart of a paradox.  We want to heal the very thing we are part of creating.  Or put another way we want to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with other people.  Put like that it sounds pretty top down.

Secondly, it’s not as simple a binary as it first appears.  Lots of the prosperous south voted Leave, Liverpool voted Remain and let’s not even start to unpick the four countries question!  52%/48% is half and half more or less and the voting patterns show not whole areas of the countr(ies) voting one way but most areas voting relatively evenly.  So the divisions are not between places but within them.  Even within families.  Not to say there is no North/South issue, of course there is.  But as charities we are going to have to think much harder about how to be effective, for example, in place based work and what funders sometimes call ‘cold spots’.

Thirdly, and from a practical point of view very importantly for our sector, many of the EU funding streams such as the European Social Fund map right onto the strongest Leave areas.  What are the implications of that for the work of our social sector? I suggest bravery in refocusing should be on our agenda.

Immediately after the referendum we saw a spike in xenophobic and race hate crime.  The good news is that shortly before the referendum British Future polling showed that 67% of eligible voters thought that EU citizens already in the UK should be given permanent leave to remain in the event of a ‘leave’ vote.  Shortly after the Referendum in repeat polling we saw that figure go up slightly.  So we can deduce that the majority of Leavers do not endorse this kind of behaviour.  But we were perhaps complacent too soon.  Yes, the spike has abated but not returned to previous levels.

So the community sector should certainly have a role in ‘holding the line’ in a context where some people now feel they have a licence to abuse.  And we have to walk to the bit of a tightrope where we recognise people’s concerns, recognise they are not born of racism but also draw a line at what we might call ‘decency’.  There is a threshold beyond which it’s not okay to go.  Remainers and Leavers both.

Over the past eight years or so, we and several other foundations have been working together on public attitudes to migration, integration and British identity.  We set up British Future, a new organisation working solely on the issue of opening up dialogue and trying to build a narrative aimed at the ‘persuadable and anxious middle’.  We now have a considerable body of evidence which suggests that about a quarter of British society is actively hostile to migration and about a quarter actively supportive of it.  That half of the population is unlikely to change their views.  The other half are what are called the ‘anxious’ or ‘persuadable’ middle.  About half of those are economic sceptics – typically blue collar workers who are worried about job security, their children’s futures, wage stagnation and access to housing and public services.  The other half are cultural sceptics, worried that ‘this doesn’t feel like my country any more’ or ‘when I get on the bus I cannot hear any English spoken’.  Opening a dialogue with these two groups needs differentiated approaches.  And what we have found, among many other things, is that listening is more important than lecturing.  If you give people a diet of facts and evidence, it is not only ineffective, it is counter-productive.  We need much more of this more open dialogue because migration isn’t going away any time soon.

What makes people feel powerful, autonomous, in control?  This is a key question for our sector because the Leave Campaign’s greatest success was the slogan ‘Take back control’.  What are we going to offer people so that they feel they are getting that?  The only possible answer to that is ‘bottom up’ not ‘top down’ – communities organising and delivering their own visions.  There’s a lot of noise in our sector about enabling voice but it is a difficult thing to do well and is often more neglected than pursued.  And we would do well to hear in mind the disability movement slogan ‘Nothing about us without us’.

A lot of the best work welcoming newcomers has come from the faith communities and we would be wise to build on that.  In fact we would be wise to build on existing infrastructure in general because new initiatives take years to mature.  So we should be seeking and brokering alliances at the local level, while at the same time promoting good bridge building work on a national scale.  Last year we and others convened a meeting of funders to listen to key leaders in the migration sector about the refugee emergency.  What they told us was that the unprecedented outpouring of good will in this country would waste, evaporate and even sour if not harnessed.  So we set up a new, pooled fund for refugee and migrant welcoming work at the very local level.  It is managed for us by the UK Community Fund and so far is going very well.  Its focus is on the welcome given rather than the welcome received.

I have been convening and chairing a series of meetings with foundations in the UK and in Europe on the implications of the Brexit vote.  Some of the practical things to emerge are concerns about European Social Fund for example.  One of my reflections on that is – who is going to lobby for poorer people and communities when it comes to divvying up the UK cake?  The universities, the farmers and the scientific communities are all working their socks off on this already and have capacity to act.  I suggest this is one of our own sector’s responsibilities.

And finally, a word or two about putting our own houses in order, or as the young people would say, checking our privilege.  Much of the charity sector still reflects our patrician roots.  Certainly the charities of any size are suffering declining public trust such that we are less trusted now than the supermarkets.  I think that illustrates that we are part of the problem unless we consciously, deliberately and purposefully make it otherwise.  So for me part of what the Leave vote told me was to increase transparency and accountability and to beware of parachuting into other peoples’ realities without consulting them.

Of course there is good, solid community-building work in lots and lots of places.  But it is not unusual for different communities to be building their own social capital in parallel universes.  Where in the past we have thought of that in terms of race and ethnicity, particularly in some of the northern cities, should we now be turning our attention to broader bridge building and shared endeavours?  The Sustainable Development Goals do now offer a framework for this and I urge you all to take a good and considered look at them.  With the strapline ‘leave no one behind’ the major change from the Millenium Development Goals is an insistence that these goals are not only about the global south, they are about all people everywhere.  We have to start decreasing the gap in equalities in every place, not just between richer and poorer nations, if we are to heal the divisions which have been so sharply revealed.