What does it mean for an organisation to be community-led? Who decides which voices count and how they influence campaigning and policy making?
The fact that Shelter Scotland is asking itself these questions makes it a particularly interesting time to work here.
I joined as Shelter Scotland’s Glasgow-based Community Organiser in March after five years with West of Scotland Regional Equality Council (WSREC). There, I facilitated community-led programmes to challenge prejudice. We worked with diverse community groups and partners across sectors to define concepts – sectarianism, Islamophobia, racism. We explored the impacts of discrimination as understood in different contexts. Using creative, participatory methodologies and methods – e.g. participatory photography and forum theatre – we explored ‘what works’ to challenge prejudice. We then identified collective solutions to feed into government policy.
Our approach was influenced by Brazilian educators Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal and popular education principles. Valuing lived experience and attempting to create a dialogue between ‘types’ of knowledge is central to this. Explicitly linking education to action for change is also key. This approach considers the power dynamics between lived experience as a type of knowledge and knowledge traditionally considered expert. Without discrediting this, it highlights societal values and norms underlying assumptions, therefore recognising education is not neutral. This approach facilitated spaces which encouraged people to voice their experiences and feel valued in doing this.
I also delivered advocacy support for people experiencing the sharp end of discrimination. For example, I supported refugee families living in overcrowded temporary accommodation who were dealing with racist hate abuse from neighbours. One case in particular involved a homelessness issue I felt unable to support my client with. I then found out more about Shelter Scotland’s reputation for challenging and overturning unjust decisions and achieving real change in policy and law.
Shelter Scotland’s Community Organiser Pilot role, now six months in, is based in the Glasgow Community Hub working alongside the Services teams. I’ve been speaking to staff, trainees and volunteers and hearing about the daily challenges they face. There is no doubt about the overwhelming demand for the advice and support services they provide. Across the board, services are over-stretched and will undoubtedly come under further pressure with the impacts of the continued roll-out of Universal Credit and Brexit. Speaking to others in the sector, the human impact of budget cuts to services has been disastrous. Some also say this has led to an increasingly competitive environment, which causes siloed working.
Another common theme is a perceived increase in the mental health support needs of those accessing services. Service providers say there are limited referral options and numerous barriers for those with complex and undiagnosed conditions. However, some health professionals say the evidence reveals an increase in stress-related issues rather than mental illness. Some mental ill health conditions could be understandable reactions to structural inequality, poverty and a housing crisis. Over the next year, we’ll work with local partners to explore options to better support people with their mental health.
For a number of years a significant priority for the Glasgow Hub has been that those facing homelessness are often prevented by Glasgow City Council from accessing their legal right to support. We have discussed this issue with politicians visiting the Hub over the last few months. Our protest outside Glasgow City Chambers brought this to the attention of the media and wider public. Our Public Meeting then facilitated space to hear from affected communities about collective solutions.
The night before the event, Glasgow Hub staff spoke to people bedding down. We offered assistance and invited them to the meeting. We spoke to 16 people and most of them had experienced gatekeeping by Glasgow City Council.
The event was participatory, and almost half of the attendees had experienced homelessness themselves. All of those with lived experience had encountered gatekeeping.
“It’s like a test. How bad do you really want it?”.
“Out of hours” means nothing when you’re homeless.
Most participants told us that there’s not enough awareness amongst the general public, those experiencing homelessness, or caseworkers of what the law says. There was also a general feeling that austerity has created a system which stretches services so far that there’s an almost unavoidable culture of complacency and contempt towards service users.
“There is a culture of hostility which comes from the top down and permeates social services across the board”.
In terms of solutions, participants felt that our July protest was a positive step and that we should continue to be bolder and to speak out about these issues with “a louder voice without fear of offending people” [Meeting participant]. People also told us they wanted to see local, visible rights awareness campaigns.
Shelter Scotland’s Time for Change programme is already doing amazing co-production work with people who have experienced homelessness. The challenge now is to embed the values and ethos underpinning this way of working within the whole organisation. As a start, we’ll now put the suggestions from our Public Meeting into action, representing another step towards shifting to a more community-led approach to our campaigning activities.
So it’s a challenging time with many housing, poverty and interconnected issues to work through, but there is a lots of energy and enthusiasm for change and that’s where I see real potential.