Learning, connection & slowing down

A reflective blog on the personal impacts of the third Leeds Poverty Truth Commission from Civic and Business Commissioner Eve…

As we approach our closing event this week (January 2021) each commissioner has been asked to offer our personal reflections on the third Leeds Poverty Truth Commission. Some have chosen poems or videos, I’ve chosen to write because it requires me personally to think deeply and with care. Being part of the commission, particularly through 2020 will stay with me forever.

In June 2019 I was approached to join the third Leeds Poverty Truth Commission as a civic commissioner. In my role at Leeds City Council I have the privilege of working with a wide range of businesses, networks and key institutions across our city and beyond. However, my role in leading the delivery of our Inclusive Growth Strategy involves acting for everyone in our city.

Thanks to the Inclusive Growth Commission we know that 38% of the productivity gap between core cities and the UK average is associated with deprivation – or as I prefer to refer to it disadvantage. If we closed that gap we could deliver a further £24.4BN to the UK economy. So, it is not just a matter of compassion to ensure that we understand and address poverty but there is a strong economic argument too.

The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission has the strapline ‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us’. So, how could I not take up this chance to work with community and civic commissioners across Leeds to explore poverty and how we tackle it?

The process involves bringing together commissioners from the community who have lived experience of poverty with civic commissioners to firstly explore what it is like to live in poverty and then to consider what we might do together to try and tackle poverty in Leeds. Before the Covid-19 pandemic we met in person and our meetings always involved sharing a delicious meal as way to establish strong relationships. Since March we have met virtually through zoom, it has been much harder to sustain relationships remotely but we have still achieved a great deal together.

When I step back and consider my own reflections on the process and our work there are three things that really stand out for me:

  • Wicked problems like poverty require you to slow down, to listen and consider them properly.
  • Even small actions can make a huge difference. We don’t need to change  the world all in one go.
  • The value of the understanding I have built and the friendships made is as important to me as my professional education and training. 

Poverty is a wicked problem – wicked problems are defined as social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

What the Poverty Truth Commission has taught me is that to begin to try and tackle poverty you need to recognise this and then commit the time to listen and understand. I was a little worried about the time that we were asked to set aside at the start of the commission, most of my Friday morning running over lunch? I don’t even give that much time to my team meetings apart from once a quarter. To begin with it seemed really slow because my daily work day is so fast paced. And yet, after one or two sessions I began to appreciate the process, the time we took to ground ourselves at the start of every session, the time taken to hear from each commissioner across our time together, to eat together. It served to build our relationships and our shared understanding. Only by committing to the full 18 months and our meetings throughout that time have we built a better understanding of poverty through our shared perspectives. Being part of the commission has reminded me that we must think and act both fast and slow if we are to really tackle the wicked problems we face and that it is only by revealing many perspectives that we can begin to understand.

In my role at the council I help make connections for people all the time. That could be connecting one part of the council with an external partner, helping organisations who choose Leeds (like Channel 4) to connect into the networks and activities going across the city, or bringing people together to work on shared areas of interest (like some work we did recently on Legal Tech and Innovation). This is something I brought to my time as part of the Commission, making connections for one of my fellow commissioners – Kidi – to our 100% Digital Leeds team at the council. To me, this was just a natural thing I would do, but what Kidi made me realise is that making those connections for her had 10 times the impact. My intention is to ensure that I continue to make those connections beyond my day to day networks – it is rewarding for both parties and can make a big difference. Never underestimate how a small thing for you can be really significant for someone else. 

I’ve been lucky enough to access some great training and education throughout my career, but I can honestly say that I hold the learning and understanding I have built up through this process in the same regard as the best of them. No masters or leadership programme could ever have taught me what I have learnt from my fellow commissioners, my friends. If someone is reading this as they consider participating in a commission in their locality or in our city I would say, commit yourself to this process and you will be touched by it in ways that can’t be predicted at the start.

Finally, thank you to everyone involved in the organisation of the third Poverty Truth Commission, without you it wouldn’t have happened. You persevered and kept us going through Covid-19, overcoming the digital divide for our community commissioners, and supporting civic commissioners that were working through an emergency – you are all fantastic.

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