Tag Archives: Teesside

Speaking out against benefit sanctions

Today at 12.30pm I am going to be outside Middlesbrough job centre, speaking out about the benefit sanctions regime. It is part of a national day of campaigning called #no2sanctions. I thought I’d share with you why I am speaking out.

I used to run an organisation that worked with some of our communities most vulnerable people. We supported people to find a way out of poverty, sexual exploitation or addiction. I have always tried to be a voice for our service users. I first spoke out about benefits reform quite a few years ago. I was concerned because the new policy being developed looked like it was going to create a system that punishes those who can’t work, making life much harder for them. I questioned how this would help people into employment.

As the reforms developed, we saw correlating increases in poverty, depression, destitution and prostitution. We were told of families going without food, elderly people having to choose between heating or eating, a woman using a neighbours bath to wash as she had no gas for hot water, people turning to begging and in some cases, prostitution to just get by. We have always had poverty in Teesside but this was something else.

One of the specific problems was the amount of people who were being sanctioned. A sanction is where the job centre stops your benefits if you have failed to meet their requirements of “seeking employment”. People were reporting being sanctioned for really simple things like being ten minutes late, being ill and unable to attend their job seeker appointment and not getting through to anyone on the phone. People were giving up and dropping out of the system. This is what would bring them to our door. With nowhere else to turn, they began turning to charities and churches to find food, warmth and support.

I couldn’t believe this was the world we were living in. I grew angry at what I was seeing. Shows like ‘Benefits street’ and ‘Benefits Britain’ didn’t help. They added to the public feeling that there was somehow a “deserving poor”

progress Let’s just say this up front. No-one deserves to be poor, and they definitely don’t deserve to go without food, heating or electricity; particularly when they live in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. It is just not right. People are now catching on to how cruel our system has become and have begun speaking out. Churches, charities, political parties and trade unions have all being making a noise about what is happening in our communities and with our welfare system. Citizens advice produced the ‘Punishing poverty’ report which highlighted how people being sanctioned were driven to suicide attempts, scavenging out of skips and begging. The Church produced a similar report, calling on decision makers to urgently review the current sanctions system, stating one million benefit claimants had been sanctioned in 2014.

Today many of us will gather to say enough is enough. We are saying “No to Sanctions” whilst calling on the government to urgently review it’s welfare processes. We want people supported into employment, what we don’t want is them being punished when they can’t work. Follow the debate using #no2sanctions today!

Sharing honestly about self interest

I want to share really honestly with you this afternoon. My deepest concern for British society, above all other things, above domestic abuse, above crime, above loneliness and even above poverty is this… selfishness. That’s a bold statement I know, so let me unpack it a little.
Many, if not all other social and moral ills of the 21st century have their root in selfishness. To hurt another, steal from them, to fall out with them, to not share with them when we have more than we need, these are all because we put ourselves and our own needs before that of others.

I have spent a number of years, trying to help improve people’s lives. I used to do that through running a poverty fighting charity, I now do that through political and community activism. I love what I do. I love meeting the many amazing people that make up our society and community, from the homeless guy to the radio station manager, to the music promoter. I love hearing their stories, I like trying to understand their challenges or finding ways of walking with them on their journey, supporting them to get where they need to be. Something has been really troubling me though, it has for a while but I just feel like I need to air it.

Can our world, our society, our town or our region ever be all that it can be if we don’t tackle selfishness or self interest.

Can our world, our society, our town or our region ever be all that it can be if we don’t tackle selfishness or self interest. It affects everything – politics, business, family life, justice, welfare, public services, education, charity. We have become a deeply selfish generation. I am not trying to judge, I am just as much an offender as anyone else. I mostly put my own needs above that of others too. I grew up to believe this was progress. That this is how you got on. I’m beginning to wonder if I was wrong.

My friend is a music promoter. She has a huge heart for musicians and for Teesside. She is always trying to do her bit. She inspires me and I love her heart. She is more interested in the scene and in developing new talent and giving them a platform than she is about her own brand. She is rare. The music scene in Teesside is cut throat. People don’t work together. There are a lot of ego’s and a lot of cliques. This saddens me. A lot! I understand it though. It used to be the same in the voluntary sector, I saw it in the faith sector, I see it in the activist sector and the political sector. People are out to build their own empires, their own name, their own thing. They leave little room for the lifting up of others, for the giving away of some of themselves for the greater good. Some text books called it undeveloped or uneducated self-interest. But others say this is the healthy competition that is needed for society to progress, for things to get better. We achieve by being better than the person next to me. By going further.” This is what I am told. “Could Apple have achieved all that it did, if it wasn’t trying to be better than Microsoft?” they ask. “And where would we be without Apple?” Maybe sat with our families having a good old catch up and not reading this article but that is another conversation.


What I want to understand is, is this competitiveness and unashamed selfishness really the only way to build a good and strong society? Is life better now than it was ten years ago, twenty years ago, forty or even fifty years ago. I am not sure, I wasn’t alive forty years ago, but what I do know is that ‘self-first’ makes life really difficult for a music promoter in Stockton trying to do her bit for Teesside. It makes life difficult for the new homeless charity that just opened up and can’t get support because they could be competition for funding. It doesn’t work for activists who find themselves a voice because they are threat to someone else’s power or position. Has this self-first made us a less caring, more lonely, more individualised society?

Suicide, alcoholism, mental health and addiction have been on the rise for the last thirty years. Is this the sign of a stronger and better society? At what point do we stop and take a step back and begin to wonder whether we need a better way?

I am afraid I don’t have the answers, but I guess all I wanted to do was begin to ask the question. Maybe you have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them.

Failure and Getting it Wrong

One of the most significant barriers to overcome when doing something in our communities is fear of failure and anxiety about getting it wrong

I have really struggled with this over the years. In part this has been my own problem but also we live in a society that doesn’t give much room for failure.

We only have to look at how much failure and mistakes, drives our media industry. We’re all it seems, queuing up at the newsagents to buy the papers that sensationalizes someone’s mistake and ridicules a person’s failure. Good news doesn’t sell they tell us, and they’re probably right. We all like to have a good gossip about our neighbours misfortune or what some evil, someone did to us. We are quick to tear down but less speedy to build someone up.

This, I believe creates a culture of fear. The worry of getting it wrong seeps into many aspects of public and private life. I work in politics half the week and there is a real sense of walking on a knife-edge sometimes. You are always just a tweet away from ruining yours or someone else’s career or being put on the front page of a newspaper. The more powerful we become, the more we raise our head above the parapet, the more likely we are to have it removed by a sniper of bad news.

If you have ever worked for a public sector organisation, you will probably have had to walk through this. Why isn’t there more innovation and creativity in public services, people ask? Well, it’s quite hard when every activity you do has to be risk assessed, three times over. These big institutions are accountable to you and there’s a sense that they can’t fail; and yes we do have to do all we can to safeguard against mistakes because failure could have terrible consequences but you know what, here’s the reality. Mistakes will ALWAYS be made. We are human and that’s just part of who we are, we make mistakes.

So what do we do about this? How can we still be brave, how can we step out if it means we may get it really wrong? How can we take risks and do something new or different?

Here some things you might want to think about

1) Stay small and under the radar: I have never been so free since leaving A Way Out. I’m running with all sorts of new ideas, new approaches and new ways of doing things and it’s having significant outcomes. But no one really knows about it. I haven’t set up a big organization. I don’t have big funders or a management board to be accountable to; I’m just getting on with it. I can make lots of mistakes every day if I like and it’s not that much of an issue.

2) Try failing.. a few times. Sometimes the best way to get over the fear of something is to do the thing you are scared of. I once went and held a snake at a snake farm even though I have a phobia of them. It worked for a while. Sometimes we need to fail. I love the Thomas Edison quote

“I have not failed, I’ve jut found 10,000 ways that wont work.”

Sometimes the only way we learn what works and what doesn’t is to fail and do something wrong, so go out and do something wrong, just try and learn from it if you can.

3) Never hold power too tightly. When we get power we have a tendency to want to cling to it. Don’t. Power can be just as dangerous as it is beneficial. Look how much we are seeing the abuse of power being exposed recently. We must handle power like I did with that snake, very, very carefully, understanding exactly what I was holding and being willing to give it back at any moment there was a sign it might turn on me.

4) Let go of yourself! We need a degree of self emptying to hold power and to risk it all. If we are too concerned with self preservation, we may never take the risks needed to step out. I like to snowboard, but if I’m too worried about hurting myself, I will never have the courage to throw myself down the mountain, it’s the same with taking risks and doing something new, sometimes we just need to let ourselves go regardless of the consequence. Let’s stop trying to save ourselves and just give ourselves away to something. What’s the worst that could happen?

Let me end with this quote from Micheal Jordan “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

I hope this blog encourages you to try something you didn’t think you could. Please get in touch or leave a comment if you want to talk more about this.

Discovering Teessides Cultural Scene

Teesside has creativity and culture coming out of its ears. But it seems only a few people know about it. Just like many other great things happening in the region, it is hidden, underground and away from the main-stream. This is probably one of its greatest strengths but also its biggest weakness. The sector has this gritty grassroots edginess, a non-commercialised character and a group of passionate people connected to it, giving their all and usually living off less than a minimum wage just for the love of it. But these people are also often on their own, unknown, undiscovered, disconnected and disillusioned. Our artists live down dark alleys, in empty office blocks, in the back of old pubs or the corner of some quirky coffee shop.

Our artists live down dark alleys, in empty office blocks, in the back of old pubs or the corner of some quirky coffee shop.

Yes some of them make it to the what’s on guide of the Georgian Theatre or walls of Arc but for the most part they are hidden.

When I started my Teesside regeneration journey, I went first to the churches and then I went to the artists. I remember walking into a conversation in The Georgian Theatre organised by some cultural activists from Leeds. I was pleasantly surprised to find around 60 artists and cultural practitioners there, all passionate about our region, about culture and about creativity. For years they had been finding ways to exist and create and perform amongst the backdrop of recession, austerity and apathy.

I was excited about this underground world I had discovered and wanted to find a way to shine a light on it and to show them that Stockton loved them. I started a blog and social media movement called www.ilovestockton.me. Using on-line platforms, the idea was to celebrate the richness of our cultural and creative activities and get people talking about and engaging with it a little more. It began to take off; people started following us and liking and hashtagging us and a buzz began about our town. But in all honesty, there was too much to write about.

Currently there are so many activities happening that I could do with some help. Last month I discovered Keren & Bobbie, two Teesside Uni graduates students putting on art shows in unusual spaces. They’ve now opened up their own Gallery, ‘House of Blah Blah’ in Middlesbrough which launched its new exhibition last night. This month I met Laura from ‘Writers Block’ who supports writers to improve their craft and reconnected with Stephen Irving who is discovering new and emerging urban artists from around the region.


I know if the whole of Teesside gets behind our creatives, maybe we could really put these people and this place on the map. I’d like people to come with me on this journey of cultural discovery. Go visit an art gallery, book to see a play, buy some local art, take part in a poetry workshop. Use your facebook and twitter and instagram to big it up and maybe together we can make Teesside’s cultural light shine brighter.

What is in a name?

I remember in the early days of starting A Way Out, the charity I was a part of founding in 2002; we spent a long time working out what our name should be.  You see a name is important.  Without a name, you can’t register for a bank account, you can’t apply for funding, you can’t become a legal entity.  Your name is central to your brand, it becomes what you are known as, tells people who you are.  A Way Out was about providing a way out for women and young people from addiction, poverty and sexual exploitation; our name had to link to that.

It was also important in leading the charity to have the right “title”.  I needed my own name that gave me significance, a name or title that gets you through doors, gets funders or decision makers to meet you, gets you round tables, gets you invited to the right parties. Yes, there is a lot in a name. 

I didn’t realise when leaving A Way Out though, how difficult not having a name could be.  Ever since leaving A Way Out, people have wanted to know what I’m doing next.  I have started a new journey of place regeneration and community mobilisation, but for the moment, none of this is solid or formalised, it hasn’t got an agreed name and I haven’t got a title.  And that’s the problem.  You see, the world seems to want a solid thing, with a secure name.  It expects you to do something and to be something, and usually something of significance.  People want a nice neat box to put you in, something that says, “oh so that’s who you are” “so that’s what you do”. But without a name or a title, that is much more difficult. 

I am not sure if anyone heard my radio interview with John Foster last week.  You can listen on iplayer here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0217pwg for another few days I think (it’s 2 hrs in), but if anyone was listening, you will see how strongly this need for the tangible came across. “So what are you doing now?” was the question I was asked time and time again.  I tried to share about the journey I was on, the things I am getting involved with, the things that are capturing my heart, but he kept on questioning… “But what is it? What are you going to do next?” He wanted the solid. He wanted the box. And so in my interview, I gave him the something tangible that he was looking for.  I told him about my political hopes.  I had other beautiful stories I could have shared of communities coming together, local amenities being saved, festivals being planned, events being imagined, artists collaborating, movements beginning, ideas for area transformation being dreamed.  But instead, we talked about my journey into local politics.   I didn’t mind, I have lot’s to say on that subject too, but I found it interesting, that this was the path we took. 

All this, has now got me thinking though.  How far is the expectation to “be” and “do” something secure and significant, or to have a solid name or identity, actually affecting our society.  I wonder how many dreams are never dreamed or journeys never taken because the attachment to the solid is too strong or the expectation of the world around us, too great. I wonder how many people feel they are not good enough, because they are not doing enough, or being enough? 

I am really enjoying engaging more with artists at the moment, they seem to be the one group of people, who are finding an ability to stay in the “transient” and “fluid” spaces much longer than the rest of us, to create, to innovate, to imagine and to dream, without the expectation of going and being or doing something other than just being themselves.  I wonder what the world could look like, if a few more of us were allowed to live like this.  How many more new stories might emerge?  How many changes could we see, not just in society but in ourselves?  It’s an interesting question isn’t it but what are your thoughts? Are there expectations that are limiting us? Or is the solid and secure, the only way, really, in the end?