If you follow my social media output elsewhere, you will know that my situation has recently changed, from an “all-clear” from Cancer, to a position where it has now spread and is incurable. I don’t yet know how long I’ve got, or what I will be capable of doing, and for how long for. But what this kind of diagnosis does do is to concentrate the mind about some of the big issues I have grappled with in my life and career, and what could be done actually to make a lasting difference, rather than a short-term fix.
So, this is the first of a series of blog posts in which I am going to set out some of the lessons I have learned from my life and career. A particular theme will, I think, be the blockers and gate-keepers I have met in my life who have frustrated my aim to assist people with low incomes to live life to its fullest potential.
Just about everything I have done in my career, and also in a lot of my so-called “spare” time, has been driven by my conviction that we live in a painfully unfair society which blocks off opportunities to live a good life for so many of our citizens. A big chunk of my career, particularly the early days, was spent in activities designed to encourage local communities to build their own capacity to improve the living conditions of themselves and their neighbours by creating job and training opportunities and stimulating economic activity in areas where there was currently little or none.
This was when I first came up against the gate-keepers and blockers. I never had any training in Community Development or related techniques, and I approached those disciplines in what I saw as a fairly self-evident way. I always saw it as my role to secure support and resources which might help the people I worked with achieve some of their ambitions and then act as a back-seat-driver who had some access to the levers of power which might be pulled to smooth the way. The first kind of blockers I came across were the trained Community Development Workers, some of whom looked down on me because I didn’t speak the same language as them, which was a dead giveaway that I hadn’t had the training they had had. The point of view I came up against time and again was the idea that I didn’t understand how powerless these people were, and I therefore shouldn’t be challenging them to take risks or do anything outside their comfort zones, because I would be setting them up to fail. My view was that most of the problems faced by disadvantaged people were down to money, or rather, lack of it. That’s why I worked to try to generate economic activities which would put money in local people’s pockets and keep that money re-circulating around local economies. But the Community Development blockers told me that there is no way the people in those communities would ever be able to take such bold steps and the priorities should be to help them campaign for better housing conditions, increased benefit payments, and local play areas, etc. While I wasn’t in any way opposed to those kind of actions, it was the way this was presented to me as a binary choice which was so frustrating. I always thought it obvious that people’s life choices are improved by increasing their income and increasing the prosperity of the areas they lived in, but, in the beginnings of my journey, at least, I was constantly being told that all that was a step too far, and I should stop distracting community members from the quest to persuade the local and national state to put resources into improving the housing. What was particularly frustrating was that these particular blockers used the language of empowerment while seeking to shield the people they worked with from any kind of economic improvement.
My worldview is a million miles away from Thatcherism, but the community development blockers were always ready to throw “Thatcherite” as an insult at me, because I dared to introduce economic development into the equation. That hurt me a lot, and I struggled to understand why they couldn’t see that being poor is at the heart of the problem. What I wanted to do was to establish mechanisms whereby local people could generate their own local economic activity, control who was employed in the enterprises and ensure that money stayed in the local area as much as possible. Apparently, this approach went against everything that the community development workers I encountered at the time had been trained to do. It made every improvement I sought to pursue all the harder to achieve.
I was initially diagnosed with cancer in February 2020. In July 2020 I was told I was Cancer-free. One month later I was told that the cancer had spread to my spine and would be incurable.
There are a small (but growing) number of lovely people who have been providing me with some financial assistance to help me and my family get through this situation, which is obviously made worse by the current pandemic. I won’t say who they are because I am not sure they want me to publicise it; but I am extremely grateful.