I’m involved in Birmingham’s Social Inclusion Process. I help on one of the key lines of enquiry – the one for People. So far I’ve made it to a number of meetings, a summit and we’ve also shown case studies of our work.
The process is led by the Bishop of Birmingham and as I understand it the aim is to understand what we need to change to make Birmingham a fairer city. I want to do just that, which is why I’m involved.
I think we need to be very clear about where we focus when we talk about social inclusion. From my experience there are three groups who sit above, on or below a (slightly grey) line:
- Above it are those that include me. The people I consider privileged. We have jobs, choices, education and in a lot of cases some disposable income to spend or save.
- On this (wide) grey line are a large proportion of the population in Birmingham. They have just enough, are working or learning, have shelter, food and warmth – they are making ends meet, but there is none left over either to spend or save.
- Below the line are the remaining population – they’re struggling. They are are not working or learning, they don’t have a stable home life, in a lot of cases, they don’t have a stable home, they don’t have enough to make ends meet, enough food, warmth or shelter and the system is letting them down.
We work a lot with this third group and I consider them to be the socially excluded and where I think the social inclusion process should focus.
Our experience is that things change for the better for people below this line when:
- We start from where they are: we understand what they are experiencing every day and how debilitating it is to live with an endless round of personal/family knock backs exacerbated by blockages and bureaucracy in the system that is supposed to help.
- We are very practical: It can be absurd how difficult it is to do simple things. In one case I read this week one of our keyworkers helped someone find training in a distant part of town simply by looking up the bus routes. It can be that simple
- We take care not to judge: The people we work with have values. I get tired of hearing that “they” don’t love their kids or don’t want to look after them. I do expect people to take responsibility for their own lives, but we find that happens faster when we listen and help.
Overall breaking down social exclusion at this level is a very pragmatic process. I’d like Birmingham’s Social Inclusion process to be the same. I will, of course, write more on this and what it might mean – but any thoughts?
Vicki, An interesting post. I’ll be honest — I have always had something of a difficulty with the concept of social exclusion. It is such an amorphous concept — and means different things to different people, depending (as your post suggests) where they are in relation to that wavy grey line.
Personally, I always felt that the displacement of ‘poverty’ (and for that matter of ‘class’) by the notion of social exclusion was a sleight of hand intended to sanitise the debate, reducing disadvantage to a somewhat less threatening and less intractable issue of who is — or isn’t — ‘socially excluded’.
Your suggestion that social inclusion focuses on small practical steps that make a tangible difference to the quality of people’s lives is an interesting and pragmatic one.
But I think it still leaves a key question unasked (let alone unanswered): what, exactly, are we seeking to fix when we talk about social exclusion?
If Bham’s social inclusion process can get closer to answering that then perhaps it will be a worthwhile and meaningful one.
I’m glad to know that people like you — who have direct experience of the practical consequences of exclusion — are involved in the process.
BUt there is another issue that the Bham process should be looking at too: whether small steps that ameliorate the worst effects of social exclusion will necessarily add up to a fairer Birmingham. I suspect they won’t. They won’t be useless — certainly to the people who gain from them — but will they challenge and change structural, entrenched inequalities of the kind exemplified by the current government and its policies? Are they intended to?
Really like your approach to try to keep it simple and practical. One of the key things for me is the interconnectedness – people face issues holistically, not on their own. The trouble is that our agencies and budgets are structured to create artifical boundaries. There is a massive tension between simplicity and the co-ordination of disparate services, but we need to break down the barriers if we are going to turn them into real positive social forces.
Whilst I absolutely agree with Vicki about the need to keep it simple and practical and I agree that the work that Gateway and many others do in this way can make a real difference to individuals, I have to support Alun’s comment about entrenched inequalities. For example, the stigma that continues to be endured by people with mental ill health. You can have a job, choices, education and disposable income and be above the grey line, and yet if you have mental ill health you can still be socially excluded.
I think I have to agree with Alan, the concept of social exclusion is so flawed that it will inevitably confuse any response to the extent that you will get unintended consequences.
Society, by definition includes the totality of the population and all interactions between them. Therefore people might not have an entirely positive experience of society but they inherently can’t be excluded from it.
I think that often, when these sort of topics come up, rather than exclusion from a homogenised view of society we are really talking about exclusion from the constituent domains of society.
I see these domains as being civic, economic and social.
People have an imbalance in their relationships with these domains and this serves to deliver their interpretation of how society looks to them.
The outline you have put above is eminently sensible and serves to practically address these domains. By helping people to navigate the system you facilitate their civic influence, through training you increase economic capacity and these very interventions define social interaction.
You also highlight that you’ve listed this in order to take a pragmatic approach. I would suggest you have done this because of the difficulty in trying to address something that by definition doesn’t exist.
I am suspicious that sometimes these things are created to be so nebulous that it would be difficult to conclude whether or not they have succeeded.
I like Vicki’s way of defining who is socially excluded, though I agree people can move in and out, or meet some but not all of the criteria she gives. And I support the message that simple, small steps starting with people “where they are at” can make a difference. Yet I also agree that it is necessary to work at 2 levels: get on with giving people the help and support they need, but also challenge the policies, structures and attitudes which exclude them. Taking food as an example, we can teach people to eat more healthily on a low income, but we should also challenge the fact that they do not have enough money to eat healthily without a lot more effort than we would expect to put in.
I think what you say about not judging is really important. If you judge somebody then it gives you an excuse not to try and understand them. I find it really disheartening the number of times I hear people in a professional position talk judgementally about decisions that the people they are supposed to be helping have made.
That’s all really. I liked the post, thank you.
I agree with you Erica many many people are socially excluded although, from what others have said, that term is not really helpful. The group I talk about are a place to start and focus, they are the group that I feel often receives condemnation and are the least understood. Many other groups have organisations specifically to fight their corner and argue their case, disability rights groups for example, this is not so for the group of people I refer to. My hope is that if there is a sharper focus – that something tangible might be achieved.
I think that you are right that starting a conversation is definitely the starting point. I think the point about the difficulty of simple things (the bus timetable thing) is really crucial to social inclusion – it highlights a form of cultural capital, in that I think people who are most marginalised within our culture don’t have the knowledge of the systems we use all the time that most of us take for granted.
I agree that practical steps are really vital, and also with the above comments that inequality is also endemic within the current system.
The Boys’Brigade and Girls Association have a service called “Urban Buddies” where children of parents who just have neither the time or money to take their children to positive activities,can be supported to have fun with us for free. We can provide all sorts of household items from our recycling warehouse where we are “growing jobs”.
Work experience and training are provided in many skills in a non-judgemental atmosphere. Agencies need to talk more to each other and share resources.
We have a good mix of policy ideas and some practical steps. I hope the discussion continues – I don’t think we can allow it to be so nebulous that it is not accountable and that is what I will focus on.
Ann we will be in touch – we might be able to do something together