Community Interest Incorporated: The Business of Managing Poverty
The Barn, with historical roots in the Gorbals for over 30 years, has experienced a 30% cut in its budget over the last 6 years. A ballooning poverty industry booms on the backs of the poor. Darren ‘’Loki’’ McGarvey reports.
“To many people youth work is either a great mystery, or a luxury, or a bit of a waste of time.”
As the low evening sun dips behind the high rise flats of Norfolk Court – tower blocks once pitched as New York style sky scrapers – now waiting to be condemned – a long shadow is cast on the strip of derelict land where her structural sibling, Stirlingfauld Place – now demolished – once stood. There is something futile about the two remaining towers as they leer, like two middle fingers, in stubborn isolation from the surrounding scenery. The post-modern buildings growing up around them, with their confident, trend ridden facades, seem perfectly normal by day. But like everything else in the Gorbals, they take on a new, shifty character depending on which way the dwindling day light hits them.
Gathered neatly on the tarmac in the foreground, a group of around 15 children wait patiently outside a local community centre. They seem cheerful for a Monday evening. As they rub their hands together, one may assume it’s to ward off the creeping winter chill, but it’s far more likely in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the youth workers who will soon open the doors of The Barn.
“Coming to The Barn geez me peace as it gets me oot the hoose” says Benji, with a precocious self-awareness unbefitting of a working class 12-year-old.
As the doors swing open and young people pour inside, a youth worker smiles before saying: “They’re at the door all the time. They come here right after school. But we don’t have the staff to keep the place open.”
Life in the Gorbals is in state of consistent transition. But unlike other parts of Glasgow, where progress occurs more incrementally – if at all – here on the quiet south bank of the River Clyde, change is far more palpable and dramatic. Here, regeneration has become a by-word for business and represents a ceaseless and lucrative commercial enterprise over which local people have very little authentic influence.
Like the shrill birds that hover above, scouting the area while shitting from a high height, before flying off with whatever scraps they can find; decision-making in the Gorbals is also a messy business. And one all too often conducted well over the heads of the people who live here.
In the Gorbals it’s created a fertile bed of resentment from which cynicism and apathy have grown.
Outsiders interpret that anger as self-defeating and futile; insiders DO NOT GIVE A FUCK what outsiders think.
Even the name, Gorbals, seems at odds with itself.
First, there’s the common street myth perpetuated by Glaswegians themselves, that it simply means Gory-Bells; symbolic of bells the lepers used to carry to warn off the uninfected. This may actually ring true, some believing Gorbals derives from the Lowland Scots word ‘garbel’ – meaning unfledged bird – perhaps reference to lepers once permitted to beg in the area in medieval times.
Alternatively, Gorbals may be rooted in Gaelic phrase, ‘Gort a’ bhaile‘; meaning ”the town’s field” or garden of the town. Most people only drive past the place, or through it. But to live there is to know poverty at a visceral level.
The young people in the Gorbals represent the silver lining on this most ominous cloud. So, what is being done to nurture their community spirit and thus change the fortunes of this former leper colony? Or. ‘New Leper Colony’ as it has been so graciously renamed.
The interior of The Barn is brightly lit and colourfully decorated. Life affirming slogans adorn the walls. One reads: “Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.” Situated in the middle on the main hall are brightly coloured couches where teenagers – who recently constituted their own youth committee – chat while the younger kids dart around between air hockey, table tennis, pool, snooker, baking, football and even a sectioned off computer room for X Box enthusiasts and soon to be social recluses.
In The Barn, local young people of all ages and abilities learn how to play, share and express themselves in a safe and affirming environment where being yourself is more than enough. But even something as simple and vital as this needs to be paid for. Which means all this good will and joy needs to be quantified, measured and justified every 12 months or it may become subject to ‘efficiency savings’.
Joe McConnell, the democratically recognised leader (not manager) of The Barn, is unusually frank in his assessment of the various interests operating in the area. According to him, top-down, micro-managed, target orientated, community economics can lead to potentially life changing work falling out of sync with grassroots needs and aspirations.
“We are working to combat the effects that inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people; the cycle of insecurity, miss-trust, lack of resilience, low self-esteem and confidence etc. It is holistic, long term, and multi-faceted work.”
He believes the opportunity for meaningful and lasting progress is often hindered – and even undermined – by the very organisations and institutions financed to empower deprived communities.
On the day-to-day hustle of cultivating personal self-esteem and a sense of community spirit in this ever-changing urban expanse, Joe said: “It can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and hugely rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector.”
The third sector – or at least the cross-section of the sector which is regulated – is comprised of over 45,000 voluntary organisations, employing 138,000 people while drawing on the altruism of over 1.3 million unpaid volunteers. Volunteers I’d be happy to guess, somewhat hazardously, likely reside in the area in where these services are being provided.
In short, the only labour many people have to offer their community is the act of helping other paid managers and employees deliver services. But, in many cases, volunteers have no real influence over the projects themselves.
The sector is industrial in scale with an annual turnover of £4.9bn; equal to the entire Scottish Creative Industries and four times that of the recession proof food and drink sector. Third Sector annual income has doubled over the last decade and rose by £300million in 2013. That rise alone is enough to fund The Barn for 6000 years.
Why do so many projects still struggle despite consecutive years of increasing investment?
Joe diagnoses the problem unambiguously, saying:
“There is funding out there for specific targets, outcomes and issues. However many of these are not relevant to the work we do. The identity crisis within the sector does not help this situation.”
Joe and his team are just one of hundreds of groups operating across Glasgow, in extremely challenging circumstances, who attempt to tackle social issues fundamentally by forming meaningful relationships with the young people over a long period of time, before behavioural problems develop.
But according to Joe, this work is either misunderstood or undervalued by those who hold the keys to the kingdom and he believes the problem is increasingly structural, saying:
“There does still seem to be not a great deal of will for longer term investment in young people and the development of so called soft skills; there is a discrepancy, at Scottish government level, between the desires for the kind of society we want to live in and the resources that are allocated to help this happen and where they are directed.”
Glasgow City Council’s budget for the voluntary sector – a public document, buried in torturous managerial speak, details every organisations core budget and the ‘variances’ and ‘efficiency savings’ – cuts to you and me – over the next 3 years. The Barn, with historical roots in the Gorbals for over 30 years, has received a 30% cut in its budget over the last 6 years.
The total ‘efficiency savings’ made by Glasgow City Council for the next 3 years total just over £1.4 million. This was achieved by shaving relatively small amounts of funding from relatively small groups, which by definition, find the cuts harder to absorb than larger organisations.
To put this in context, MSP’s total expenses – on top of their salaries – have risen to over £13 million a year. You may feel the issues are unrelated but the people who live in these communities certainly don’t.
The debacle surrounding the demolition of the Red Road flats, for global entertainment, is a prime example of the increasing disconnect between a swelling political and managerial class and the communities they are paid so well to empower.
The Barn, a small project which aims to engage local young people through activities and the arts, is funded from the same pot of money as massive social and cultural institutions such as: Citizen’s Theatre, The Arches, Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera, Glasgow Housing Association, Police Scotland as well as programs in the Glasgow School of Art and many of Glasgow’s main colleges and universities.
These nationally recognised organisations, who can also apply for funding from other public bodies like Creative Scotland as well as the European Union – which has a subtle but decisive influence on the direction of social programs via directives attached to multi-million pound funding pots. Projects which adopt these directives, like regenerating disused land or combating sectarianism, stand a far greater chance of gaining and keeping their funding.
There is very little scrutiny of the sector beyond its own internal evaluations, making it relatively unaccountable to the communities it purports to serve. The dependency on funding approval leads to a self-censorship where criticism is concerned however, at The Barn they don’t seem afflicted by this structural apathy.
One community artist, who asked not to be identified, also spoke of a culture of ‘book cooking’. Driven by the necessity to meet funding criteria, project evaluations are often tweaked – or even falsified – to avoid a perception that the project was unsuccessful in some of its aims.
“I was brought into a project in Ayrshire by an arts organisation working with young people to build a community garden. When I arrived the project had been running for 6 months, but it was in disarray. This kind of dynamic is usually blamed on the behaviour of the young people. But a lot of the time it happens because the wrong people are employed to deliver the work. It had been mostly funded through EU money, nearly half a million pounds, but essentially it was the staff team who were actually doing the work. By work, I mean, actually building the garden. By the end, morale was pretty low. The Lord Provost for the area turned up on the opening day, as well as managing directors from the arts company, and we all took pictures for the local paper. Speeches were made in front of parents about how great the young people had been and what a brilliant community project it was. The public perception was that the project was a success. It was anything but.”
Within the Third Sector, a managerial-consultancy class seems empowers itself merely by talking vaguely in the language of ‘Social Justice’. The term itself is so subjective and like other common buzz words, such as, Social Capital, illustrate how corporate terminology has slowly permeated almost every aspect of our lives.
A ballooning poverty industry booms on the backs of the poor.
The academics are impotent and detached. Careerism stunts the development of any meaningful journalism on the subject and the blogosphere and ‘new media’ apparatus, designed to democratize knowledge and information, often cannot see beyond their own narrow self-interest and impenetrable esoteric social theory; opting, instead, to speak in the language of political resentment, misplaced idealism and subtle self-exaltation.
The Third Sector should act as a check and balance to Government oversight, however, the sector is mainly funded with public money. The sector publishes its own in-house paper which gives a clue as to how they seem themselves from the inside. There are no ulterior motives or dodgy intentions, simply a structural assumption they know what others need and that only they, in their educated wisdom can deliver it. Therefore, rocking the boat conflicts with self-interest; leaving vulnerable communities without any authentic representation.
Barry McLaughlin, a 25-year-old youth worker, employed at The Barn until last year, feels improving community self-esteem, and not simply employability, is key to authentic empowerment.
Refreshingly unguarded, Barry said: “The most important thing for us is the positive relationships you build up with the young people. If you don’t have trust then nothing can be achieved.”
“There’s a sense of apathy due to decisions being made in the Gorbals without consulting the people that live here. The Gorbals has a negative narrative that says ‘were no good enough’. We’re trying to change that by saying the Gorbals is an amazing place. The tools to fix the place are already here rather than parachuting government initiatives in who don’t understand the area. They want us to do work that looks good and sounds good; but isn’t always good.”
Barry, visibly concerned he may be neglecting the young people, merely by talking to me, said: “Impact is something we are asked about a lot by funders but it’s difficult to quantify. You can see it as soon as you walk in the door.”
He sighs, as if resigned to some immovable truth before smiling, hopefully: “In an ideal world we would get funded for building trusting relationships with young people.”