“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” – Mark Twain.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Calouste Gulbenkian and I attended a small gathering at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for the launch of ‘Mr Five Per Cent’ a brilliant biography on the man himself by Jonathan Conlin. The event was thought provoking, posing some interesting questions; including how do foundations stay faithful to the intentions of their founders? Most of whom are (largely men) long since departed. How do foundations hold the balance between contemporary needs and the causes founders might have prioritised?
For me, these have been live questions since joining the Young Foundation at the end of 2017 and many of our friends and partners are aware of our emerging thinking. Michael Young’s field of interest was perhaps so broad – mirrored in the later charitable objects of the Foundation – to enable support for many different activities and strategies. And I have been trying to learn from all of my predecessors and those who worked with and around Michael Young, to best determine how to stay true to the spirit and ethos of his work while he was alive, as well as acknowledging that times, circumstances, priorities and contexts change.
I’ve heard (many!) stories from friends of Michael and continue to be inspired and in awe of what he achieved. And while the world we walk in today is different to his, the questions of how to align the Young Foundation’s work with the man himself is, in many respects, very easy. The issues he was concerned with throughout the second half of the 20th Century are as live today as they ever have been.
Meritocracy, a term Young both coined and railed against, is no less an issue and I’d argue is more salient now than ever before. The critical importance of networks of ‘mutual aid’ created through kinship and community, which Michael Young supported and wrote extensively about, are no less important. The only real difference is that the need has increased and the lexicon has shifted. Whether across Northern Ireland, Corby, Essex or Michael’s stomping ground in Bethnal Green, we continue to focus on building connections, capacity and social change in ways that Michael Young would have recognised well.
The importance Michael Young placed on amplifying people’s voices, stories, experiences and perspectives is no less needed; and arguably, if those who are in the business of surveying the population had paid as much attention to listening to people’s stories and giving credence to them, they might not have been so surprised by the result of the EU referendum.
And it is here, perhaps, that the most obvious opportunity to reimagine the central legacy of Michael Young’s work lies.
Michael Young was a great institution builder and it’s a continued source of amazement to me that our home in Bethnal Green, which birthed Open University, Which?, International Alert, University of the Third Age, Economic and Social Research Council, National Extension College, National Consumer Council, Open College of the Arts and School for Social Entrepreneurs is the same home where we still incubate and support new social enterprises and mission-driven organisations; as well as building on decades of support for young people in their education through The Young Academy, now in its sixth year.
In 1954, Michael Young set up the Institute for Community Studies, which combined academic social research and practical social innovation. This meant Young and colleagues undertaking research and using what was learned towards practical ends to meet social challenges.
The Institute for Community Studies was focused on undertaking social, ethnographic research; surfacing and amplifying the stories and experiences of different kinds of people and communities, and using that as a spur for change and innovation. The Institute privileged stories and experiences as a form of evidence – but was often criticised for doing so.
And today, not much has changed. ‘Big Data’ and ‘Data Driven Innovation’ are held in high regard; but strange, invisible forces seem to narrow our focus to quantitative data. There is an implicit – and sometimes explicit – down-grading of qualitative evidence – of stories. And there is currently far less capacity and interest in innovating models that seek to work with mass qualitative data sets. And why? Because it’s messy, more difficult, nuanced and has – dare I suggest – a certain, and different kind of power.
The field of Community Studies has, until relatively recently, been languishing slightly. The last decade did not see it as a particularly fashionable study, and despite some key moments of civil unrest in 2011, its questions were seen as more flickering than burning; and central government policy has often struggled (understandably perhaps) with coalescing the importance of community into a coherent policy agenda. And of course, there were the Cameron years; of which we need not say much.
How quickly times change. The increased volume of corporations, policy-makers, foundations, investors, intermediaries and philanthropists turning their attention to communities over the last three years has been there for all to see. And the need for us to collectively pay attention to how we are connecting and dividing along many different lines as a society has never been clearer, and more urgent.
More people and institutions are seeking to ‘support’ communities across the country. More communities are expressing their desire to be heard, to have more influence and control over the interventions and issues that affect them.
Those who hold varying forms of institutional power, or have various forms of influence over the well-being of a community hold the uncomfortable (if often unconscious) task of determining how to use that influence.
It is against this backdrop that the core work of Michael Young is still a central part of the Young Foundation’s strategy today; and why we are prioritising three key questions in our work to reimagine a new Centre for Community Studies:
- How can the views, stories and lived experiences of people in communities – particularly those whose voices are often unheard – better shape and influence the direction of different kinds of resources into communities?
- How can we systematically increase the legitimacy of people’s stories as valid form of ‘evidence’ – so it becomes an expected input into institutional decision and policy making?
- How do the many different actors and institutions (from all sectors) synthesise and share insights and evidence to learn from, develop and evolve their practices?
One of the key underpinnings of this work recognises that communities have lots of the answers, and they take action on issues that affect them. But unless institutions of all kinds listen – and support the mechanisms for listening well to what communities are thinking, feeling and experiencing – then we are unlikely to make much progress.
For many years our research has surfaced a persistently repeated message – people the length and breadth of the country feel they lack voice, agency and influence. Therefore the locus of our attention must be as firmly on businesses, government and other institutions, to develop better, more systematic ways to listen to what our communities are saying, as much as on the communities themselves.
If you’re interested in supporting, or getting involved in this work, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org