On Friday 25 January 2013 people from all walks of life met in the Gorbals Parish Church for a conversation about life and poverty. The event, organised by the Poverty Truth Commission (PTC), is the first in a series of 6 ‘Poverty Truth Conversations’ seeking to bring together key decision makers and public figures with people who have experienced social and economic deprivation. The aim is to enlighten and allow those who have felt marginalised to tell their story about what life is like in poverty in 21st century Scotland. However, in addition to this, the conversations are about establishing relationships and building friendships which, due to artificial social and economic barriers, do not usually have the chance to develop.
Martin Johnstone, the Secretary of the Commission, introduced the event by reminding the audience that although Scotland in many ways has made large advances in the battle against poverty, there still remains many concentrated pockets of deprivation, particularly in Glasgow. Although some innovative strategies have been developed which have achieved partial success, we still overlook a key ingredient in our approach to tackling poverty. Those with the experience of the struggle, Martin highlighted, have rarely been at the table.
A key goal of the series of conversations is to break down the formal character usually prevalent in meetings and discussions about poverty. This was helped in no small measure by comedy from Blair Green, one of the PTC’s original commissioners. After just scraping past the PTC censor, Blair covered a range of topical issues from horsemeat to coverage of poverty in some newspapers. Intermingled in this, however, was the serious note that without comedy, Blair would have struggled to survive the despair of poverty.
Then followed a presentation from two long-standing PTC commissioners: Anne Marie Pfeffer (Buttle UK) and Donna Barrowcliffe. They talked of their positive experiences working with the Commission through developing positive human relationships between the marginalised and the powerful. Donna talked of the incredible reactions she has had from civil servants when telling them her story. She also talked of how, before participating in the PTC, she felt that her voice had never been heard. Anne Marie and Donna also showed how their speaking out had not only brought tangible success it had also brought the two of them closer and they have developed a strong and lasting friendship.
After that Elaine Downie of the PTC was in her element as the post-it notes were out and the audience were invited to become active participants, mingling with each other and telling their story of why they had come along. A variety of responses were produced, from specific policy issues such as kinship care and the living wage, to more general themes such as overcoming obstacles, establishing relationships and seeing how the work of the PTC will continue into the future. A similar exercise was then carried out asking what area of concern the audience would like the Commission to address. This generated interesting and diverse answers with many raising ideas such as child poverty, the vilification of those in poverty by the media, local empowerment and enabling the marginalised to have their voice rightly heard.
Then followed a film interview with Mari telling of her struggle to survive on the minimum wage whilst providing for her child. The film was introduced by Marie McCormack who talked of the difficulties in interacting with the job centre. In the film, Mari talked of her love for her job and her commitment to it but how she has received only the national minimum wage for 6 years and this has barely been enough to survive on. She has had to really on a caring network of family and friends in order to provide for her child. In a very matter of fact and modest manner she talked of the great personal sacrifices to ensure that her child did not go without.
A dynamic discussion then followed centred around the issues raised in the film. Fred, Mari’s brother in-law, spoke at length about how she was encouraged by the department of work and pensions to return to work but how she now feels trapped. Blair picked up on this point, saying he feels the Job Centre has lost its way and is now driven by statistics and not by treating the individuals they deal with as human beings. A good point was raised by Andrea Williamson, of GP’s at the Deep End, when she said the state is failing to realise the interconnectedness of the problem and how it seems to just shift the problem from one state department to another. The importance of early years development of a child was also addressed, with many crucial elements of this commented on, such as rising child care costs and poor provision for kinship carers. Welfare reform was also discussed with Jim McCormack from the JosephRowntree Foundation stating that we need a different way of looking at its role in society.
To round off the event was the first PTC film of 2013, a Dickenzian Tale of the two sides of Glasgow. This was a music video by the hip hop artist and new commissioner Ayesha Khan (also known as Deva One), expertly filmed by Elaine. ‘We’ve forgotten who we are’ she sang as she raised themes of the stark disparities in quality of life between those born in the deprived areas and the expensive areas of Glasgow. Ayesha herself has lived in a variety of different parts in Glasgow and has worked with Volition Scotland which tackles the alienation felt by many youngsters in deprived areas and seeks to steer them away from violence and find expression through music and other art forms.
Just before the audience departed Martin left them one challenge: to find another person in the room to arrange to meet up with independently of the commission. This was enthusiastically received by the audience as they quickly sought to build relationships and further the discussions of the day.
The Poverty Truth Commission would very much like to thank the commissioners old and new for their attendance and the enthusiasm which they brought to the event. The PTC is eagerly anticipating the next meeting on Friday, March 22.
Click here to view Ayesha's video