"Above all, we heard that people believed that conversation made systems change possible."
Few could deny that these pandemic times demonstrate that taking risks is an unpredictable business. Leaders across the world are being called on to take quick and decisive action to change the systems they are in control of. Very few of them are being asked to take time to talk about the troubles we are all facing and the risks they are juggling.
And yet, if any world leaders happened to listen into The Robertson Trust Challenge Poverty Week event, I wonder if they might be convinced that taking the time to have a conversation may in fact be the key to ensuring impactful and effective systems change? I wonder if they might then agree that the risk of not talking is not worth taking?
The event itself was a bit of a risk. We chose to invite people along to listen in to a conversation about conversation. We delivered no presentations, we promised no solutions – we didn’t even formally introduce those who agreed to have their zoom chat eavesdropped on by nearly 70 strangers. Instead, we provided a space and a place for people to bring their different experiences and stories round the table. We asked them to chat with each other about what conversation around Hard Edges Scotland – the 2019 report into the reality of social and multiple disadvantage (SMD) in Scotland – meant to them and how that may inform and challenge us all about the need to change how the services and systems that support people experiencing SMD are designed and delivered.
What we heard was a rich blend of insights and experience that resonated with all who listened in. We heard of folk’s frustration with conferences where learning is one way from the podium rather than an exchange of insights and understanding. We heard of the discomfort that many feel when having to admit that others in their sphere of influence do not fully understood the experiences of the diverse community that they seek to serve. We heard of the challenges that arise from trying to prevent people falling into poverty and trauma rather than simply taking action to rescue them after the harm has been done.
Above all, we heard that people believed that conversation made systems change possible. What did that look like and how it could be achieved? Well, all agreed that while – sadly - there is no single magic bullet, conversation will help systems change to happen by providing a common language in which everyone can take part in order to reach their own solution. And that conversation needs to be driven by, with and for the communities that know the Hard Edges formed by living with poverty and trauma close at hand.
What did we learn while opening this space to others? Well, even though participants knew that they had time to take part themselves in conversation in this event, nearly a third of those attending chose to leave without talking to others in our breakout spaces. We learned to accept that if we practice what we preach, we need to accept this is absolutely fine. The alternative – forcing people to talk when they are not ready – is worse.
We learned that we want to keep the conversation going because we also believe in action. We understood from the conversation that unless we take the time to listen, hear and understand what communities are saying; unless we create the spaces where that interaction is safe, shared and accessible; unless we ensure that actions resonate and experiences shared then real, effective and welcome change to the systems that surround us will never happen. The risk is high – but the rewards for our community are so enticing, it has to be worth it.
Ishbel Smith of Heart In Mouth facilitated The Robertson Trust We Need To Talk event as part of Challenge Poverty Week. The conversation can be seen below.
The conversationalists were: Ann Wardlaw (Inverclyde Council); Carolyn Sawers (Corra Foundation); Dave Allan (Scottish Community Development Centre); Janet Whitley (Collective Leadership For Scotland, Scottish Government); Kevin Neary (Aid N Abet founder and peer mentor); Martin Boyle (contributors to the Hard Edges Scotland report) and Shonaig MacPherson (The Robertson Trust)