Leeds Poverty Truth Commission launched in 2014 to explore the question: ‘What if people who have directly faced poverty were involved in decisions about poverty?’
I first got involved with Leeds Poverty Truth in 2016 as one of 20 or so business and civic commissioners. Being a commissioner with Leeds Poverty Truth is a year-long journey that involves monthly meet-ups and various other interactions with testifying commissioners who have lived experience of poverty. Sometimes the full Commission meets. Sometimes we meet in small groups or we meet spontaneously as individuals. Most meet-ups take place at Ebor Court in Leeds, followed by lunch. But meet-ups have taken place everywhere from Leeds Civic Hall and Leeds City Council Chamber to the offices of Victoria shopping centre and Leeds Business Improvement District. Other times there have been exploratory visits to places such as the Real Junk Food Project supermarket and LS14 Trust community cafe.
Being a commissioner is not only about meeting with others in places in and around the city. It is also about the changes that happen in and around us as individuals. When we started on this journey there was an emphasis on listening. And, in one of our first meet-ups, we learnt about four levels of listening: downloading, factual, empathic and generative, as defined by Otto Scharmer. Listening is important because the degree to which we listen is proportional to the changes that can happen. Here, some of us learnt that we sometimes don’t listen as well as we could.
Each year the Commission presents its findings and the findings of the 2016-17 commission will be presented this autumn. Individuals and organisations will then seek to embed the learning into their practice. Ahead of this, I have been reflecting on my own learning to date. Here are my top four takeaways…
1. Relationships are key to positive outcomes
Having spent time getting to know everyone, my first takeaway is about the importance of relationships. Notably, how relationships require trust and how trust builds over time. One time we did an exercise called Mapping Leeds which involves commissioners pairing up to explore the city through each other’s eyes. As we walked we talked about what we saw and how it made us feel. We noted our sense of place and any real or perceived boundaries. And we discussed our observations together as a group. The key learning was about the importance of empathy and recognising that relationships can change ourselves and our cities.
2. There is a place for structure and spontaneity
The journey of being a commissioner is structured into four stages: engagement, exploration, experimentation and embedding. Engagement sets the scene and tunes your senses for what follows. For example, we shared stories, poetry and visual art created by testifying commissioners. We set out a shared vision to collaborate and unite to explore solutions to poverty, locally. Exploration involves various exercises so that we can get to know one another and the issues. For example, we met with the DWP to share experiences and discuss services. We are now at the experimentation stage. This is about spontaneously testing things and failing fast in ways that we can build on. We have not yet reached the embedding stage but this will be essential to delivering positive outcomes.
3. Everyone is an expert with wisdom to share
Everyone involved with Leeds Poverty Truth has learning to offer, everyone is an expert. There is wisdom to share, everywhere. Sharing our stories, thoughts and our journey has brought us all closer together on a very human level.
A few favourite quotes heard during my time with the Commission include:
“We can do big things in a small way”
“Not everything starts with action, sometimes it starts with thoughts and ideas”
“It’s like a pyramid and people don’t know what’s going on at the bottom of the pyramid. One person cannot see it all…”
“People give a face to the facts”
From conversations between commissioners the following themes emerged:
- Poverty is no longer a thing you can keep quiet about
- Transactional to transformational
- Economy of hopelessness
- Individually tailored responses
- Confidence building
And from these themes, we have gone on to test several experiments.
4. It is powerful to prototype the future, together
My favourite stage so far is the experimental stage. We are now collaborating to prototype the future, together. Earlier in the process, we created a ‘living systems’ map of Leeds to explore what makes strong communities. This led us to understand that experiments must be flexible. They must happen in the right place. We learnt that fear separates and that institutions need to be more mobile. How communication can be a blocker and one-to-one communication is powerful. We learnt that communication is a two-way process, that it is often the ‘receiver’ of the communication who really communicates…
We are now working on three experiments: a jobs app, a vehicle to share stories, and a service design experiment. Other experiments being considered (pictured above) include college food banks, various ‘junk food’ type services, and co-creating communications using ways of working inspired by Leeds GovJam, as recently experienced by members of Leeds Poverty Truth. We do not yet know how these experiments will turn out, but they are already making us think, feel and act differently when it comes to the complex issue of poverty.
The lessons learnt and relationships developed at Leeds Poverty Truth will extend way beyond this blog and the term of this year’s Commission. So, I highly recommend being a commissioner if you get a chance. There are also other ways to get involved to help the movement.
Find out more about the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission