Finding strength in solidarity – Colin Falconer of InspireChilli reflects on how recent research conducted for the UK Listening Fund can help Advantaged Thinking in Australia.
This month sees the publication of a research report I was commissioned to write for the Listening Fund to explore how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on the ‘listening’ work of 11 youth organisations from the fund in England and Scotland, including the UK Foyer Federation. The report identified 6 findings, all of which have significance for Foyers:
- The ability to listen to young people improved how organisations responded to the crisis
- Organisations reacted quickly to the crisis by listening to young people first
- Organisations were able to sustain and grow their listening practices during the crisis
- Effective listening activity promoted increased solidarity with young people
- Young people were interested and able to influence their services and other stakeholders during the crisis, but were not always fully aware of this impact
- Funders and decision makers can actively support the listening work of organisations to respond to a crisis
The report’s title, ‘Strength in Solidarity’, characterises how organisations used what I identified as ‘listening first’ practices to respond to the crisis. A feeling of solidarity captured the positive, relational approaches consistently described by young people and practitioners during the research. It’s a concept which I think can support the Advantaged Thinking work of the Foyer movement in Australia too.
An emphasis on solidarity first came up in the research during a conversation with one of the participating practitioners, who drew attention to the connecting, caring way their organisation reached out to young people in lock down: ‘showing solidarity – that we hear and respect you, we are not trying to fix you’. It became clear that ‘showing solidarity’ signposted the four common enablers for listening demonstrated by the majority of organisations in the research, in terms of:
1) The person-centred approaches used to respond to individual needs
2) Increased frequency of contact and feedback loops focused on empathy and trust
3) Investment in codifying what had been heard in order to tailor personalised responses
4) Efforts made to understand and act on the social challenges people were experiencing.
These enablers tended to be rooted in the core ethos and culture of organisations. What the research found was that an organisation’s capacity to show solidarity appeared to be just as important for listening practice as a specialist listening post or procedure. In the words of a young person, ‘The way the organisation listens to me makes me feel like I have someone on my side. At a time like this, that’s been a great comfort to me’. For young people, knowing that an organisation was in solidarity with them during a challenging period had real value for their wellbeing.
To show solidarity feels a very natural, empathetic response to a crisis. We can see this reflected in the recent rise of mutual aid community supports and the international convergence of voices around Black Lives Matter. Solidarity carries historical resonance too, to past efforts to create social change by sharing power through collective action, and to work to promote a more relational model of charity, memorably described by writer Eduardo Galeano: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.’ (See ‘Louder than Bombs: interviews from Progressive Magazine’ by David Barsamian, 2004, p.146.). Linked to Galeano’s stress of the horizontal over the vertical, the research found that organisations dealt most effectively with the pandemic by applying highly personalised listening techniques that were more dependent on the strength of 1-1 relationships than top-down transactional survey approaches. Having a positive Advantaged Thinking ethos to support people really matters in a crisis
What also struck me in the research was how ‘solidarity’ offers a brilliant way to promote the best asset-based features of ‘Advantaged Thinking’. Referring to solidarity bypasses the need for labels such as ‘asset’, ‘strength-based’ or ‘person-centred’ that often limit people’s understanding when we try to communicate the virtues of Advantaged Thinking. In a more immediate way, showing solidarity expresses the humanity of seeing people in terms of strengths rather than problems; of working with young people, not doing to them; of involving young people in shaping their own solutions; of investing in young people’s capacity to thrive, not just survive. Looking at solidarity helps illuminate the key elements that make Foyers in Australia such great places for young people.
A focus on solidarity also really shines a light on Advantaged Thinking’s Test seven – why we need to take action to achieve social change by addressing the structural challenges young people experience in their lives. It’s no good trying to deliver Advantaged Thinking services without showing solidarity to tackle the social issues that disadvantage the young people who use our services. Addressing structural inequalities around mental health, access to education, employment and affordable homes, are all important for young people. Yet I’ve often heard organisations describe the challenge of influencing social change as too much of a distraction from fundraising activity or frontline support. That might be understandable, but through the lens of solidarity it becomes an unforgivable act of indifference. We all have responsibility to show up as Advantaged Thinkers.
A notable finding in the research is that young people really care about organisations being involved in campaign and influencing work, even though they are not always fully aware of it. We need to do more to rise to the campaign challenge – as well as close the feedback loop with the young people whose voices should drive our Advantaged Thinking communications. The truth is, not enough young people are always in positions to influence the action. This is something that the Foyer Foundation’s new Foyer Accreditation Framework seeks to respond to by putting a bigger focus on young people’s voice in the Foyer accreditation process.
For those wanting to lead an Advantaged Thinking approach during a crisis, a good place to start is to look at where and how a service shows increased solidarity with the people it seeks to benefit. I believe that requires what Karin Woodley from the UK’s Better Way network describes as ‘radical listening’ to really hear how well an organisation is directly connected to what matters most to young people. (See https://www.betterway.network/karin-woodley-radical-listening) The organisations in the Listening Fund offer powerful examples of how such ‘radical listening’ can be achieved, and the report details forty concrete recommendations for how we can all advance listening work in this area. Based on my experience from the research, I would certainly recommend that Foyers in Australia take time to reflect with their young people on how the pandemic period has worked for them, and what learning there might be to inform future services. Indeed, a number of organisations in the research identified that adaptions such as increased frequency of contact and alternative digital options will be worth sustaining longer term.
To encourage these next steps, the report introduces a ‘solidarity health check’ for organisations to reflect on the ten areas of listening practice most likely to nurture solidarity approaches. You can check out the full ‘Strength in Solidarity’ report at https://www.thelisteningfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/full-report-final-.pdf
or email me at [email protected] for a conversation about your listening practices.
What’s great about the Foyer network is the solidarity we can show each other. Let’s keep connecting through the Foyer Foundation’s Community of Practice to make Advantaged Thinking count.
Colin Falconer will be supporting the Foyer Foundation to launch the first Accreditation and Re-Accreditation cohorts using the new Accreditation Framework this October. If you would like to participate in these, get in touch with Katie Hooper at [email protected]