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Monday, 27 July 2020

How I grew up, and why I'm not as proud of it as I used to be

So this is a difficult blog post to write.

I'll start from the beginning, because that's the best place to start.

Until the age of 6, I was brought up in a family house, with two of my older brothers and my parents. We lived in a fairly typical family home, surrounded by good neighbours.

My parents were part of a national sect called the Jesus Army, formed in collaboration with Oxbridge-educated minds and bikers/hippies who wanted a different way of life. It was a melting pot of different people of different sizes, backgrounds and mentalities. They practiced an Acts 2 Community lifestyle, sharing all their money, possessions and goods, and often living in big houses together, sharing meals and vehicles. The public facing gist was a Salvation Army style mission to reach out to the poor and needy is strong, helping everyone, helping people with drug and alcohol dependencies was common.

I went to a sect pre-school, the people who led it were big fans of hitting for misdemeanours. When I recently found a document from the early sect founding that centred on a particularly grim line:
"Children in Community are subject to their parents, and to the adults generally." That was addicts, ex-achoholics, "adults generally".

The move at aged 6 seemed like a no-brainer, looking back on it. We were to move to a Christian Community house in the same village, called New Creation Hall.
The details remained very much the same, no TV, no Christmas, no computer games, no takeaways, nothing that wasn't Christian. No competitive sport, limited mingling with the opposite sex, demons and their influence were very prevalent in the mind of this kid. You can see a 1991 governing document below:



Looking back, that's the weirdest thing to me. There was a real siege mentality, the church was seen as 'Zion on a Hill', and it could do no wrong. Others could, but it was impermeable.

There were a lot of gropey hugs from old men, there were a lot of very chewed up people, and there was a lot of weirdness. In my dissertation I analysed a lot of Jesus Army doctrine, and found a lot of holes, and found a lot of exploitable doctrine, that could easily be corrupted with a will to do so. There was a very busy structure, meetings most nights. I noticed from very early, that people who questioned anything were labeled as 'of the devil', or chased out of the church.

This is not to say there was no good. A desire to help other people was so so strong within the community, I could go into any city in the UK and have a room to stay in and a hot dinner.

So we moved in, and that is where my life began to get a little weird.

There was a lot of shouting, and a lot of anger, I remember that distinctly. My possessions were transient, I remember coming home from a meeting one morning to find my ipod (saved up for over months) was gone, and the main suspect returning the next week with a smile on their face.

I started to work weekends and holidays for a business the sect owned, for which I was paid half of minimum wage, the leader of the house would keep the other half of my salary for rent (which my dad of course paid anyway, in full).

When I was about 12/13 my Dad announced he had a terminal illness, and Doctors thought he had two years to live. By this point, my two brothers who I had lived with since birth had moved out, 7 and 9 years older than me respectively so that was no surprise. But I remained, because I had to, remember - "Children in Community are subject to their parents, and to the adults generally."  and it got worse.

The relentless meetings were more strenuous than ever, people assailed me asking how my Dad was doing, and that my Dad's illness was all in 'the Lord's plan'. Home life was worse than ever, my Dad who I'd spend a lot of my interactive time with was asleep generally, on heavy medication, and very ill. We built cardboard castles, we watched silly cartoons on his laptop (banned under sect regulations of course).
But I read a lot more, I stayed away from the house a lot more. My Dad wasn't there to protect in the same way that he was before, I hated it. Some of the weirdness was more exposed to me in those months than it had ever been before. I reacted by removing myself more than ever from the church I had grown up in. Before this, I had been baptised, and said all the right things about believing in God. It was the right thing to do at the time. I wanted to not go to sixth form, and I wanted to work for a church business, in a building merchant's yard.

My Dad didn't die in the end. And he's made a full recovery. But I'll never forget hearing from some well-meaning people about how great God was to save my Dad's life, the story of Job was mentioned several times. Fuck them.

I left as soon as I could. I moved out at 16 into a different community house with some friends, that was silly. I had never felt more alone or disassociated, so I moved back. Eventually I escaped to Cardiff for University. The community life and constant hubbub of people was not present there, but it was my own space, and no-one had heard of the Jesus Army.

Over time I have changed and become more and more uncomfortable with the way I was brought up in Christian Community, and how I was interacted with by others.

Historic physical, mental and sexual abuse has been uncovered.

Lots of cases are in the pipeline.

It seems as though the status quo of the Church Community has been irrevocably damaged. And I am increasingly learning not to worry. I am increasingly learning to value the friends I had within the Community, and to value my parents, who have since left, and are learning how to live.  I always used to say that my upbringing taught me incredible empathy, the ability to not stress out over anything. I'm only now exploring the other side of that. I was exposed to things I never should have seen or had to understand as a child.
The Salvation Army style mission created a petri dish for abuse and mistreatment.
I didn't realise that till recently.

Another end of the upbringing that it introduced me to a toxic form of a vengeful angry God. It taught me to fall over when people put their hands on your head, or they’d push harder. It taught me that if something was wrong, it was demonic, which of course removes personal responsibility. I very much struggle to remove God from the mess I have seen, I very much struggle to depersonalise God from that.

And that's how I grew up, and why I'm not as proud of it as I used to be.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Trustees Week 2019 - 4 Learnings from a Young Trustee


It’s Trustees Week 2019 – a week to celebrate the work the Trustees do for Charities across the world, and to learn from one another, share best practice, and, like all good trustees should, evaluate how we are doing.

My area of ‘expertise’, if I have one, is either cooking the best chilli con carne the world has ever seen (dark chocolate and half a pint of ale is the secret) or young trustees/youth volunteering/young people and governance. In this ‘short’ piece, I hope to talk a bit about lessons I’ve learned, and roadblocks I’ve encountered, and to finally encourage any organisations curious about what a young person as a trustee looks like for their organisation. “But they haven’t had 10 years’ experience of accounting!” I hear risk committees cry faintly. Well, quite.

I joined my first board as trustee of the British Youth Council in 2017, at the time I had just finished University and was determined to make something happen in Cardiff, so I stayed on and looked for work in the Charity sector. I was homeless- sofa surfing & living on friends’ generosity, and spent most of my time applying for jobs and volunteering. Once every few months I’d travel to London or *insert youth hostel here* and learn about how to be a good trustee.

(Plug starts) The board of the British Youth Council is all under 25, we believe in a world where every young person is empowered to create social and political change, and we recently won the Winifred Tumim award for good governance from NCVO. (Plug over)

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The first learning
If you want to recruit a young trustee, or indeed any trustee for that matter – pay their expenses. They are giving you their most valuable assets, their time, and their accumulated expertise.
I could not have been a trustee for the British Youth Council if the charity didn’t pay for my train to London, and offer me staff rate for subsistence for the journey. Granted, mine was an extreme case, but I would have had to choose between getting food in for the week or travelling to London for a weekend. Spoiler alert, I would have chosen my groceries, and I like to think the BYC would have missed out on some cracking knowledge and energy.
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Through a convoluted journey that I won’t bore you with, I got work in Cardiff, and threw myself into as much youth work as I could find, mainly at strategic level- funding panels and that sort of thing. I am the Communications Lead at Diverse Cymru, and a very proud trustee of Wales Council for Voluntary Action, both homed in Cardiff, both Wales-wide in their vision.
In my current job at Diverse Cymru I receive volunteering leave – 3.5 hours a month, and for the rest of my work I simply use my annual leave to get the most out of the opportunities that have been given to me.

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The second learning
If you’re a charity, accept requests for volunteering leave! At the least, allow staff to flex their working hours. (If you’re not a charity, also accept requests for volunteering leave, but I doubt you’re reading this) You will lose an employee for an hour or two a month, and they will go on a free training course in people skills, or in understanding how a charity runs, or how to handle a budget. They will talk to new people, experience new things, and probably be even be a happier employee (as research has almost always said that volunteering makes people happier). Then they will come back to your organisation with those free skills, and benefit the organisation with them.
It always baffles me when organisations that run by the time of volunteers, or by the charitable donations of others, don’t seem willing for employees to pass on that time and expertise.
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Something I’ve been bumping my head against for a while now, without much success, is how we as individuals engender real change to the ‘status quo’.

There are many answers I have hit upon.

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing straight white men talk about their answers – and there-in lies part of my answer. This isn’t a male/pale/stale bashing session, but systems set up by a subset of people will generally suit that subset of people.

This is true with law, this is true with politics, and this is true in the charity sector.

I really distinctly have in my mind’s eye a recent excellent youth conference – and two particular microcosms of interest there. It was held at the University of Birmingham, in an opulent building, with opulent high stairs and statues of great people looming over you. An incredibly rich white man stepped up to the beautiful podium, and spoke in his booming voice, about how his generation (I would have put him in his late 40s) were passing on the torch, and making space for new blood, to make decisions and solve the problems of the world.

The female chief executive of the charity that had organised the event then stepped up to the podium, and required a box to stand on to talk and be seen.

The podium was too high.

There was a second microcosm – we were discussing on our tables what it meant to be a leader of the future, for the next five years. The guy at the front talked about teaching people how to be leaders for tomorrow, learning debating skills, learning how to have those conversations in those corridors of power. I have talked about this enough, and kept my mouth shut and scribed for the group, jotting down their amazing ideas.

Something really jarred with me though.

We’re widely considered to be at point of political and social crisis in the UK at the moment. The rest of the world isn’t much better. Multiple countries are paralysed with riots, some rich people are richer than some of the world’s biggest economies, climate change might kill us all in 50 years.

Why on earth are we looking to train young people in how to look and act the same as ‘the man’? The ‘status quo’? The status quo clearly isn’t working right now, for 95% of people in the world.
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The third learning
Trustees right now are in a more important place than ever to steer change. It is ever more important for trustees to reflect the people they serve, so they steer change that best works for them.

But trustee boards don’t reflect the people they serve.

(It is a very important footnote here that I am not attacking the individuals who sit on trustee boards of charities. They are giving up their free time, their vast expertise, and working in incredibly tight times to steer organisations that do good for so many of the UK’s most under-privileged people. I am rather revealing the unacceptable statistics that exist alongside that.)

Young trustees make up a 0.5% of all charity trustees, “despite making up 12% of Britain’s population”. (Young Trustees Guide – Developing the next generation of charity leaders. Charities Aid Foundation.)

Put aside that we are largely governed by puffed up public schoolboys, in what other world would we think that is OK to submit our decision-making processes to such a one-sided view? All good leadership manuals tell leaders to surround themselves by people with entirely different lived experience to themselves. All good leadership manuals tell you that diversity of experience leads to better decision-making. (I know this, because I was lucky enough to go on Academi Wales’ Public Life Summer School, and was in the 0.5% of young people there, too)

And this is simply focusing on one of the protected characteristics, ‘age’, and not even getting into race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or religious belief. (Shock horror, there’s a bit of work to be done there too)
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I am fed up of being the young person to talk about the young person issue. There are other, better placed, different voices to my own that need far more air time and don’t get it.

It’s nearly as bad as organisations interpreting the Public Sector Equality Duty of talking to ‘a wide range of stakeholders’ as talking to three young people, who they always talk to about these things, presenting them with the finished article, and getting their “yes this looks great” as the bemused 17 year old looks at a 5 year Strategy or at a consultation document and away they go.

A second spoiler alert, that isn’t consultation.

I am tired of trustee boards that don’t represent the people they serve.

Also, don’t give me the “we didn’t want to patronise you by just having one young person here” – a seat at the table is better than sitting outside.

An excellent trustee colleague on the WCVA board with me said something to me that really stuck in my head at a conference earlier this year. She was talking about how the sector needs to work better together, how organisations need to collaborate in times of stretched resource.

And on paper, that sounds like something we can all agree with.

My fourth and final point isn’t quite a learning, but it is a challenge.

To you, if you’re still reading, to your organisation.

Reach out to the excellent organisations who have strong diverse boards. There’s quite a few of them.

Reach out to the excellent organisations who are doing proactive work to strengthen youth on boards, the Blagrave Trust springs to mind immediately.

Reach out to young trustees you know – you’re welcome to message me with any questions, queries or concerns; challenge your preconceptions.

And be prepared to flex.

Don’t put an advert out stating “we welcome applications from young people” and think your work is done. When your young trustee is in place, don’t set up your middle-of-the-day meeting and wonder why they don’t show up. They’ve got work, mate, and they can’t get the time off. After the board meeting, don’t wonder why they didn’t say anything – they didn’t know anyone in the room. Organise drinks or a meal with them, let them meet the other trustees in a less formal environment.

Support them.

-          - They might be awful. That is not an age thing, some trustees just are.
-          - They might learn a lot. That’s fantastic, young people getting passionate about the sector and learning about governance in the sector is a good thing, it makes the sector sustainable.
-          - You might learn a lot. They might change your view. They might bring energy, they might ask to do things differently.

I have finished with this before, but it’s still true, so I’ll finish with it again;
Young people are able if you are willing.

Happy 2019 Trustees Week.

Watch this excellent video from the Blagrave Trust for some thoughts that compliment and challenge.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

6:30AM Circuits - "Efficient to Exemplary"


Before I get all of my pages of thoughts and notes onto (virtual) paper, it's important to note that this isn't a traditional blog, there was too much and information digested for it to be that, and that information was too varied for a blog to make any sense. So read on!
Enjoy my disjointed but connected thoughts from an insane week of learning.

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So what was Summer School?

I was very kindly offered a bursary to attend a week away in Lampeter, for the Academi Wales Summer School, a week of learning, socialising, thinking, and challenging the status quo for the public sector, with a vast range of expertise and experience in the student body. At least that's what I took from the week.

I got a lift to Lampeter with someone high up in procurement in the health service, and someone in healthcare in Welsh Government. Any table you sat at could be next to a PhD or a Head of Service. That diversity and depth of experience leant itself to the week - The Great, the Good, and me.

Why Exemplary? Why not Efficient?

“We would rather be wrong than alone” – How often is the information there, the information is freely available, but nothing is done? That is wilful blindness. In overworked people, there can be a ‘make it go away’ approach. People want the alarm to stop, they want the problem to vanish, so they take the easiest approach to bring about that result.

Why am I talking about 'make it go away'? Well one of the problems of austerity has been cost-cutting leading to obedience. Things generally go wrong when people just follow the rules. The moral focus shifts at work, people stop wanting to be a good person, they start wanting to do a good job. These are fundamentally different things.

Efficiency is NOT your friend.
Efficiency means there is no buffer for when things go wrong. When tasks are simple, the process can be simple. The process of checking a bag into the airport is relatively simple, for example. It's done as quick and safely as it can be, there are relatively few checks, it’s a simple activity. But when you board the plane, there are four different engines, all run by different software, and the pilot has visibility over hundreds of pieces of information, of which they may only use a very low number of during any one flight.
Why is that?
Because when things go wrong there, it is crucial for passenger safety to be able to fix it, as quickly as possible, with exactly the right tools. When things go wrong there, there’s big problems.
In complexity, austerity doesn’t help, efficiency doesn’t help.
Public services are barely surviving, they focus on efficiency. What happens when something goes wrong? Something doesn’t work? There’s not been time for asset integrity checks and maintenance? Things go wrong.
(Jargon buster - Asset integrity means maintaining and mending before something breaks. Do you practice asset integrity on yourself? On the people who work with and for you?)
Now it's important to remember here that public services aren't always about being efficient.
Money-centric public services toe a very dangerous line, and that's because public value does not exist in economics. Innovation and value are understood to be external to public administration.
By its very nature, the public sector deals mostly in very complex problems, problems with a simple solution have been monetised, and put into the private sector.
But innovation lies at the heart of good public services. For example, innovation is political, it must be understood and harnessed.
Examine congestion in London - the congestion charge reduced the number of cars on the streets in London by roughly 20,000.
Uber then came to London, and suddenly there were 40,000 more cars on the streets.

In a business, you sense, you seize, and you transform.
Whereas in the public sector you are doing elements of that, but you are sensemaking - understanding the political fit and re-framing value creation, you are building legitimacy - forming alliances, hacking bureaucracy to make it work for you, and delivering - handling dwindling resources, teams, and metrics.


How do we manage? How do we lead? 

Wisdom = Knowledge + Ethics + Action (Rowley 2006)

The recurring themes of ancient and indigenous wisdoms about what made a good leader are:
Responsibility;
Trusteeship;
Benevolence;
Contribution to society;
Community;
Acting in the common good;
The leader as the teacher;
Reflection - thinking then acting, being context-focussed.

Why the focus on seemingly internal goals? Well "Culture eats strategy for breakfast", you can have the best strategic plan in the world. If the culture isn't right, and if you're not playing your part in setting that culture, you've got no chance. 

The theme of stewardship permeates these goals, remembering the future, and seeing organisations as living organisms. "Holding the space" enables space for things to happen. The theme of the week was largely one of space, allowing sense-making time. The other theme was of a complex, constantly restricting world - which led us onto VUCA:


Volatility – the large scale, fast pace of change is impossible to react to
Uncertainty - not enough or too much learning
Complexity – Interconnections – new problems arise, and how do we solve problems now?
Ambiguity – Mixed meanings, making sense of what we see.

This state of reality for public services means that we can no longer 'predict and control', but we have to 'sense and respond'. Building in the opportunity to fail becomes essential - building in the space to learn from those mistakes equally so. And there doesn't need to be someone to blame!

Picture the scene. 

You arrive at the premiere of a film two hours late, (stick with me here) you run into the romantic comedy you have missed the bulk of, and see the two lead actors sharing a kiss over a bottle of wine, the camera pans out to show the beautiful sunset, the lapping waves. The director is weeping and applauding, the actors are congratulating themselves. 
The kiss means nothing to you, because you've watched none of the story, you don't care about the pay-off. 
Your indifference is picked up on by an actor, who sits you down and talks you through the entire story, from start to finish, because you must care! The story is excellent! How can't you care!

That's what the public sector does with strategic plans. 
We show people our strategic vision, maybe in a grand release, and expect them to be enthused, to buy into the story. When they aren't, we may explain the plan to them, which makes it even worse!

What happens when I'm stressed because things are going wrong?

Stress is a form of energy. “Anxiety is excitement without breath” – Noradrenaline reacts with the CO2 in the brain. We can affect our level of stress by deep breaths, associating the feeling of stress with four deep breaths, in and out. This works by increasing the amount of Noradrenaline in the body.

A female researcher stood in the middle of a rickety bridge hundreds of feet above a churning river in Vancouver and asked young men crossing the bridge to take part in her experiment. She asked them to write a short story in several minutes. She then gave them her contact details as a researcher would. She then carried out the same experiment on stable ground a little further down the river. About 70% more of the stories written on the rickety bridge involved sexual content, and many of the men writing on the rickety bridge contacted her asking for a date. Stress is a lot about how other people will react to you – and stress often has identical emotions to anger, arousal, and excitement, the context is all important – the physical symptoms are the same; dry mouth, fast heartbeat, churning stomach, sweaty hands.
Mentally shifting ‘Stressed’ to ‘Excited’. It has the same physical emotions, and as we see above, thinking differently brings about change.


Why are we overly stressed? Are we setting our goals too high? Or too low?





To the right side of the above optimal zone, the demands you have put on yourself are more than expected, hence the stress. The optimal zone is the goals sweet spot – too easy and too difficult goals defeat us. Successful people set moderate goals for themselves.

The body then releases Dopamine when you tick something off the to-do list. That is why, in a more ambiguous environment, writing ‘done’ lists is crucial – when you are doing those tasks that you are asked to do by others sporadically throughout the day, not tasks you are aware of until you are asked – the ‘done’ list then allows you to get the dopamine release that comes from mentally completing a task, as well as the physical completion of the task. This successful goal setting strategy can be supported by adopting shadow goals – a safe shadow goal is to stay out of the ‘Frazzle’ zone, this kicks in regardless of the main goal, and should involve self-care, having a shower, getting fresh air, eating something healthy, drinking water.


Talent x Effort = Skill.

Skill x Effort = Achievement.

Talking about successful people, you see heroes, you see mental toughness, you see strong characters.
Is this a good trait?
Well it can be.


Commitment

Confidence
Mental Toughness
Control

Challenge



Why don't we talk about the negative aspects of mental toughness? We talk about Tiger Woods as a mentally tough athlete, yet are somehow surprised at the plight of over-toughness.

Tony Blair was supremely confident in 2001, winning a landslide re-election. The hubris of that confidence was shown in the Iraq war and the beginning of the fracturing of trust between the populace and politicians.

After all that, how can I be a good leader? A good manager?

Too often in leadership it is doing stuff, quickly, better, which has resulted in us becoming very good at ‘doing stuff’. Leadership is truly about someone giving you their power to act in exchange for hope. It’s about asking yourself if you have made that person feel stronger and more capable? Not happy. Happiness is temporary, and happiness often doesn’t give the desired outcome. For example, wanting to drive a car. It requires learning how to drive a car. If driving a car makes me happy, but learning to drive a car would not, if I was focussing on happiness as an outcome I would simply not learn to drive the car, so I could never (legally) achieve my goal.

A few basic rules of leadership:
#1 – Know the basics
#2 – Know what you don’t know, but need to have an opinion on.
#3 – Be fluent in finance – understanding budgets, understanding turnover, understanding cash flow – if you aren’t, read “The four cornerstones of value” by Mckinsay. Not as the go to book for finance, but the go to book for understanding how the government views finance.
#4 – People want to work with you. 

Assorted other quotable nuggets which don't fit in the above narrative:
  • "What do we measure? Equally importantly, what don’t we measure? What are the unintended consequences of measuring what we do? For example, in education, it was requested that a certain percentage of A-Cs was obtained in schools. Suddenly teachers were coaching Ds to be Cs, not Bs to As, or the As to better themselves. They were suddenly ignored. The Es were ignored."
  • "With tumultuous world events like black death and small-pox, with increased knowledge, they have been eradicated. Will we see the same with obesity and climate change? Will our knowledge increase and eradicate them? Where is the difference?"
  • "You only make a difference by being different"
  • “Tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way… do not complain about illogical behaviour…”
  • "To make decisions as a group, you have to know each other as people – robust debate doesn’t happen without trust, which is a body contact sport."
  • "Are board papers split between Assurance and Improvement? Are board members prepared to be an awkward squad? Are members prepared to be strategic collaborators? The crucial split between how to stop bad things happening, and how to make good things happen."
  • "If you have to be driven somewhere by someone who is over the alcohol limit, or by someone who has not slept for 24 hours, choose the individual who is over the limit, they will gradually sober up! The response speed and reactions are similar!"
  • "When we check social media on our phones while driving, or talking, (doing another action), the average 42 year old has the mental capacity of an eight year old for other things occurring."
  • "Ask yourself – if I repeat today’s actions 365 times, will I be where I want to be in a year?"
  • "In the 3rd and public sectors, we naturally work toward the betterment of ‘our’ public, the public we know."

Monday, 1 April 2019

Paralysis

For my New Year's Resolution, I solemnly swore to blog more;
To do more; and
to stop titling my blogs with such hyperbolic 17 year old indie crooner song titles.

If you've been paying any attention to my blogging habits IN THE SLIGHTEST you'll know that I have failed spectacularly on the first one, and I can tell you now, breaking news, that I have failed on the second one, and you can read from this very title that I have also failed the third.
"Paralysis", what am I, a shitty Chris Martin wannabe?

My friend asked me, over a big gin on Friday, "Joe, why aren't you blogging any more? I used to enjoy them."

I have been thinking over that all weekend, really.

Why aren't I blogging any more, Joe?

I'll try and explain myself, to myself. Hope that makes sense.

When I was at university, I was in the here and now in a way it's really hard to be with a full-time job. I CARED about this and I CARED about that and I DID stuff and I had a bleeding HEART and that's all good and great and basically what university is for.

All of that really didn't work when I got a full-time job, and took on a second trusteeship, and two more involved volunteering roles, and began a NVQ. I didn't have the energy to CARE about this and CARE about that, and I certainly didn't have the energy to think enough to write about anything.

I hit a bit of a brick wall recently.

Work had another blip of hyper-busyness, Brexit was being particularly messy, there was a lot of personal shit rearing its head, and I just couldn't cope with the anxiety of choosing to do things. I wanted to get into bed and get into the fetal position and stroke my face against something soft for a few hours. I rang my Mum, and said: "MUM I've just been studying Maslow's hierarchy of needs and it isn't being met at any level for me right now, the world is horrible and dark, I just feel like everything everywhere is going wrong and I can't do anything about it".
My poor housemate came home with McDonalds as I agonised about having to cook food, and I nearly kissed him.

I am feeling that so so much, at the moment.
And I think it ties into why I haven't been sharing my blogs with the outside world recently.
My phone and my computer have created a world where I cannot escape from the mess that is everything at the moment. I am in a job and positions where I need to look at Twitter with regularity, I need to be 'on' all day, every day. (I installed Outlook for work emails onto my personal phone recently, I have made the executive decision that that is a terrible idea and I should delete it).
When news media profits on shock, everything in the news is negative. Everything on Twitter is negative.
Social media can be a fucking cesspool, Jesus Christ, it really can be.

I know that I personally need that "I can do something about the world in the job/role/work that I do. I can leave the world in a better position than it was when I joined it."
And I think I haven't blogged much recently because I haven't felt that recently.
I hate Politics! Our current politicians are some of the most incompetent we have ever had!
And for someone who needs the knowledge that there is a difference to be made, that has been really difficult to get my head around.

So what have I done about it?

I have stopped trying to have eureka moments, that was a real eureka moment.

No, I try and tell members of my family that I love them, at least once a week.
I've got into small scale, little 'p' politics.
I've started dancing in my room in the morning, to stupid music (in my headphones, I'm painfully British).
And I am trying to keep off my phone! Away from 'Fear of missing out', away from cesspool trolls on Twitter, away from doom and gloom podcasts.
I have read loads more, as well.
Love me a book in bed.
It's a bit of a journey, really. Understanding that things aren't always OK, and that's OK. Simon Amstell says in the excellent 'Ways to Change the World' podcast with Krishnan Guru-Murthy that he is learning to "Find the joy in sadness." Now that sounds disgustingly religious to me, and that instinctively turned me off to the concept, but at the root of that is a knowledge that it's OK to feel like shit sometimes, and not taking that to mean that the world is caving in, or that it's unsolvable.

And even if the world IS caving in, that there is still good, that there is still promise, there is still hope and people who love and love to love. There are Pringles to eat, and friends to unload on.

The world doesn't need someone to worry about it, some days, and that's OK. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Young People and Brexit - An hour with Mark Drakeford AM

As Eisteddfod rushes on apace, and MP's rest up, Mark Drakeford, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government and AM for Cardiff West since 2011 took an hour to talk to us at Wales Council for Voluntary Action's headquarters, on Brexit and Young People.

This blog aims to pull out the key messages from the discussion, and raise any interesting points.

Brexit will be an act of self-harm for all in the UK, the ones it will affect the most are those already in poverty. This impact could be greater or lesser, depending on how the leaving process is handled. The Welsh Government is not currently focusing on the journey of leaving, rather the positions which they must take, and hold, in order to safeguard what the UK holds dear.

Drakeford highlighted that the damage of Brexit has already begun, with a hit of 2% on the UK's economy corresponding to approximately £905 per household in the UK. Less money to pay taxes results in lower taxes, which result in less public services, an area which, especially around young people, is already in crisis mode. A hard Brexit would be even more detrimental, a hard Brexit which is much more likely than it was 6 months ago. Theresa May's ability to negotiate with the EU is weak, due to the reputation of her government, and her ability to negotiate within the House of Commons to reach an agreement on Brexit is even weaker. The UK is not yet in this position, an agreement is the most likely option, but the risk of Theresa May being unable to reach any majority in the House of Commons is high. This follows the theme, the main blockers for a deal on Brexit are in London, not in Brussels.

Drakeford posited 3 potential results of the next year:

a) The House of Commons could take ownership of the situation, this is the opinion of Hillary Benn, that the House of Commons will take the agenda from the executive to the legislator. It could be possible to have a majority in the House of Commons, and if the government fails to persuade the House of Commons, they can ask for a new agenda.
b) A referendum on the agreement, a People's Vote. He warned, if this was to happen, to be prepared for a bitter, grim battle, in which the lies of 2016 would look tame in comparison.
c) If there is complete disagreement within the House of Commons, there could be a general election, requiring votes over Christmas.

His summary of the current situation was that the UK is incredibly divided. Half of the population feel as though their opinion is being ignored, while elements of the other half feel that anything but the hardest of Brexits is a betrayal.

Erasmus+ is often discussed in London, the funding stream for this finishes in 2020, and there are a number of people involved in negotiations who support the access of future EU funding pots of this form. Drakeford also highlighted the two way nature of the funding, that it means young people will come to the UK, and must be welcomed, where it is clear in recent surveys of young people that that is not the case. In the report I helped to create as a UK Young Ambassador with the British Youth Council, we pulled out statistics that demonstrate that hate crime toward LGBTQ young people and young people of colour has increased after the referendum in 2016, which supports work done by research for LSE to show a similar conclusion. Our report showed that half of young people we surveyed feel that the world is changing for the worse after Brexit, and this sense of divide can be seen in Ipso MORI's new report on 'Beyond Binary: The life and choices of Generation Z', which shows young people have a historically low concern about immigration, which is definitively incongruous with other age ranges in the UK. Being part of funding streams such as Erasmus+ requires a two-way relationship, and it seems like Brexit has damaged the preexisting one.

Mark Drakeford also highlighted that it was important for the Welsh Government to use the networks they already have to help the vulnerable on the ground who may be harmed by the rise in hate-crime.

The final message was that we are leaving the EU, not Europe - and it is more important than ever to build strong relationships within Europe with those who are willing to work with the UK, to make good contacts, as this is the only way Brexit will actually work.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Charity Sector and Me - A short story

As a quick disclaimer, this is a blog on 8 months of unemployment in Cardiff, looking for work in the charity sector. I have been umming and aahing about writing a piece on my unemployment for a long long time. I am of several minds about my position on it, would I potentially jeopardize future job opportunities? Would it sound like sour grapes? Or could this writing be vaguely useful to other graduates, young people, looking to get into the charity sector? 
The last point has eventually won out, but don't deafen me with "he's just bitter", cause I'm not. 
So there.

I'll tell a potentially familiar narrative to get me to the crux of this blog, of how I got to unemployment in the first place.

I got involved with youth politics in my first year of university really, joining social action group UpRising, meeting amazing people and learning about what I thought. Second year fell into place, and I was successful in applying for a position as the UK Ambassador for Wales, with the amazing Arooj Khan. We killed it, had a lot of fun, represented a lot of young people. I started to slowly integrate myself into the Welsh Charity Sector, working out the assembly, and the key players. I networked hard, and made a few brilliant friends. Third year saw the continuation of the Ambassadorship, then a successful bid to become a trustee for the British Youth Council, and a chairmanship of Student Representatives in Cardiff University. I worked with Google, I went to international summits, I was in my absolute element.
I organised an internship in one of my favourite Welsh charities for the summer holiday after my graduation, and applied for a lot of student coordinator roles, a position often filled by early 20-somethings from a similar educational position as myself.

Then slowly the interview rejections came through.

By the end of the summer, I had had five interviews, and not got one. That feeling was to become a common one, but I didn't know it yet. I moved into friends' spare room in Cardiff, (to both I will be eternally grateful), and began unemployment.
I was devoted to finding a job in the charity sector, after enjoying it so much. I have worked a job since I was 12, it was an unusual feeling for me, not having one any more. Anyone who talked to me in those months, I pity. Because I talked about the application process, and interview techniques, and how much I was enjoying the work I was doing in the Welsh charity sector. I threw myself into whatever volunteering I could find, and I got up at 8am every day, and applied for jobs, and went to interviews, and failed in interviews.
This continued for eight months.

I have checked through my laptop storage, and I wrote over 60 job applications, and sent off many more CVs.
I attended 27 charity sector interviews.
I volunteered.
I failed 27 charity sector interviews.

On the whole, I was treated to a terrible recruitment process, one characterised by archaic Microsoft Word forms, bad salaries, bad hours, and a lack of any care for the candidate.

That was the thing that I think stood out to me.

I have not ever been under any illusion that the charity sector I have fallen in love with in Wales is 'kinder' than a normal sector of industry. It cannot be, or it would not exist. It is not charitable in nature, and nor should it be. If I didn't have the skills, then I didn't deserve the job. If I was not what they were looking for, then I was not what they were looking for. That wasn't my fault, the job simply wasn't a good fit for me.
But the lack of care I was shown as an individual baffled me at first, and then angered me.

Some gave feedback, most did not.
Some respected me, one rushed me through the interview because they clearly had an internal candidate in the works and the 2 hour journey on public transport I had made to get there for a 15 hour a week contract was in vain.
One rang me up, accidentally told me I had obtained the highest score in interview, and then informed me that I hadn't got the job. I later found out that it went to a returning to work parent, who wanted a bit of part-time work to keep them busy.

Two recurrent, interconnected themes came through in the feedback that some recruiters were kind enough to give me.

1) I was too young
They wouldn't say this. It was heavily implied over a drink afterwards, it was within the lines of the email, it was thought that I had no appetite to stick around and learn and work. My age worked against me, they wanted a mid-40s parent, no risk.
I understand this, to an extent. I know they largely didn't care that I cared about the industry, about the importance of charity, that I was a bloody hard worker with a good amount of experience. And the second interconnected theme;

2) I was a risk
I was told several times in feedback that I should be more ambitious in my job search, that their admin job wasn't up my street, and that they wished me the best. I get that they were trying to be kind, but honestly, telling someone that they're not ambitious enough when failing them in a bog-standard admin job is some cruel poetry.  
Again, part of me understands this. I know the oft-crippling pressure that charities can be put under, I know how tight money is. Hiring a graduate to a 15 hour a week contract and giving them any training at all would surely result in wasted money, when they upped sticks and left for a full-time job. But I have worked for several years now to get young people into volunteering, into non-executive roles, into trusteeships, to give free work, essentially, ever the idealistic student. When I finished my degree and actually began job hunting, I realised why people in their mid-twenties never aspired to the charity sector.

I aspired for the charity sector, and I still do. I strongly believe I'm taking the right steps to get back there in several years' time, and make my mark.
I have lost my naivety/innocence about it though.

I most of all want to go back, and shake up what I see as wrong. Leon Ward mentions in an old blog that young people are the next Chief Executives, Philanthropists, Guardians of the sector. But until the charity sector is bold enough to recruit them, then the experience that young people can gain is always going to be limited. The 'home-grown talent' goes to London, and stays there.

But I'm not going to end on that, because that's just a big old moan. Here's what I learned, from unemployment in the charity sector.

What did I learn about aspiring to work in the charity sector?
  • Get some thick skin, quick. You're going to be told you're not quite up to scratch for all sorts of jobs. 
  • Whatever skills you think you have, if you don't have basic admin skills, minutes taking, that sort of thing, don't bother. Charities are stretched for money, they don't have the funds to give you Excel training. Get that from a big company, and go from there. 
  • This is more of a general point on work after university, but the sun does not shine from your nether regions. You are almost certainly not all that. It doesn't matter what title you have had. Demonstrate not that you can talk the most impressively or have a selfie with the most important person, demonstrate that you can work hard, demonstrate that you can master simple things.
  • The charity sector will surprise you in its ability to not give a hoot about you. Focus on the individuals who do, and get their feedback, learn from them. Get a mentor. Listen. 
  • Don't be disheartened. The sector is still bubbling away, there's more opportunity than ever to get involved with non-executive roles, young people are more than ever listened to. Volunteering is constructed better than it ever has been, so many charities are getting on board with the volunteering journey. 
My final recommendation would be: Never stop trying to expand your experience. The charity sector is better than any other for diversity of experience and learning scope, but it can be a hell of a lonely place. Get in there, get learning.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

The Fourth Option

Life is absolutely exhausting isn't it. When I get home from work every day I'm lucky if I can read a chapter of a book before the urge to examine the backs of my eye-lids kicks in. I've noticed I'm worse at keeping in touch with people, with having the motivations to do the things I care for and about - I haven't written a blog for months - that's definitely indicative. I've thought about writing a few times recently, as it's one of my favourite creative things to do, but just not felt the passion.

Things I care about are still continuing. There's still plenty in the news to get angry at, I just haven't worked out how to get that care back. I haven't worked out how to rage on paper again. I end up accusing myself of slacktivism, what does an angry blog achieve anyway? But that's the passivist's way out, I end up with no outlet, no creative piece, and a BA in cynicism to take my collection of useless BAs to two.
And cynicism is just the worst.
No-one likes a cynic, with good reason. Cynics aren't proactive, cynics bring down. Cynicism is the enemy of creative thinking. But yet it is such an easy trap. That empty smugness is to die for. It makes me feel like a soccer mom who's got her first prepubescent McDonald's employee sacked for forgetting darling Timothy's Happy Meal toy.
It's an addictive feeling.
But McDonald's workers across the globe, have no fear.
For I am writing again.
Look at me write.

The main gist of this blog is learning to run fast enough to do more than stand still. I've been playing a game of stuck in the mud, stood stationary as my job and my volunteering commitments play rock paper scissors for my energy. It's a convoluted metaphor, but the job has discovered the fourth option, dynamite, and is building an impressive win-streak.

One of my favourite cartoons as a kid was a Broons cartoon, featuring Granpaw at the pub with his drinking friends, telling them how the wind was so fierce on his way to the pub that every step forward he took, he was blown back two steps.
"But Granpaw", his friends cry, clearly more au fait with rudimentary physics than their bloodshot eyes would suggest, "how did you get here then?"
Granpaw sighs, probably tired of voting to leave the EU, and grins.
"I just turned around and headed for home, boys, and here I am!"

Now while my taste in classic comedy has somewhat evolved since then, it's an interesting point to illustrate my current dilemma. It is so so difficult to get to where you want in life (ie. the pub), because everything seems to conspire against you. And it's so easy, when you're battling to get somewhere, to settle. Halfway up the hill becomes really comfy, and before you know it, halfway up the hill was actually your goal all along, remember? I am a naturally sedentary individual, and it's easy to convince a tired body to not do more work at the end of a day. Cause I'm only 22, one day it'll magically happen, I'll just be where I want to be, with all the experience I want... only, as you know, discerning reader, that's not how life works.
If I just did my job for the next five years, in five year's time I'd have earned five year's wages. I'd have a bit more training, I'd be really good at minute-taking, but in terms of personal progression, in terms of long term goals, I'd be nowhere.
In fact, I'd be worse than nowhere.
My contacts in the charity sector, the skills in digital and communications that I've worked so hard to get would have faded. Now as it happens, I enjoy my new job a lot, so if I want to keep those skills and learn some new ones, it looks like I need to crack this problem sooner rather than later.

Now that sounded like a very 'me'-specific paragraph, so I'll summarise the main point in a impersonal way:
"An expert has failed many more times than the beginner has tried" - Stephen McCranie
It is so easy to settle. If you ever feel like you haven't achieved life goals, it may be because those huge goals are not specific enough, and that's why you haven't achieved them.
If you have ever set business goals, you quickly learn to be micro-ambitious in what you want to achieve, Try applying that to personal goals.
Yes, you might be a whisky taster or drive dumper trucks for a living, so this isn't for you, you've reached your dream. But it's no use setting Z as the goal if you're at D. Being micro-ambitious, working out how to get where you want to go. Big goals that are steps away from your current ability are unreachable, by their definition. Maybe when you've worked that out, I'll have realised how to get where I want to be, and we can laugh in our slippers and dressing gowns with big glasses of Gin and Tonic.
(That's my life goal, don't know about you).

This is a most unusual Joe blog, because it isn't going to end with a glib one-liner with just a hint of pretension, no. This blog shall finish as it started, by recognising the exhaustion of living, and by commending those who have the energy to keep changing the world in their little or big way, however that looks.
If it were easy, everyone would do it.