The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission launched in 2014 and brought together people living in poverty – testifiers – with civic and business leaders. Over a year they met regularly to confront and challenge issues around inequality that exist in the city. Here a testifier and council officer talk about the experience:
Steve Carey is the chief officer for welfare and benefits at Leeds council and Edric is one of our testifiers. They both talk about what they want to achieve from the Poverty Truth Challenge and how they have found the process.
Steve got involved after the Leeds City Council said that they wanted to tackle poverty differently. Edric was invited along to one of the meetings and thought he would benefit from meeting like-minded people and being able to form a strategy enabling people to move forward from poverty.
Edric’s story: Since the age of 14 I have been actively involved in doing community and voluntary work. I’ve got years and years of experience in doing supported housing and advocacy work. In the last three to four years I haven’t been able to get back into employment which is very frustrating. I am actively seeking employment. It’s got to the point now where one of the people helping me get a job was becoming more of an enemy and who would say to me: “How come you haven’t got a job yet?” and they’d threaten me with sanctions.
Steve, what is it about Edric’s story that you found interesting?
What came out strongly at the launch night was when Edric and others told their stories – they were all so different. At some point people needed help, and what they got wasn’t the help they needed. What they got would have been the system that the organisation was prepared to give, but on their terms. And that’s what I take from when Edric says: “It’s not about the money.”
Not providing the right kind of help when it’s needed is a problem, and not seeing a person as a someone with a problem, but seeing the person as a problem.
What would you like to see changing as a result of the challenge?
Edric: I want the opportunity to prove my worth because I know I’ve got the skills and the experience.
What have you learnt from the group?
Steve: I think the whole thing about the Poverty Truth Challenge and in the ‘Stigma and Perception’ group is it forces you to look at yourself. I think I’m pretty self-aware. For me it’s reflecting on things that sometimes you take for granted. I go away from these meetings usually feeling energised about the fact we can do something about this. Whether deep down I really believe we can tackle poverty in the city, I’m not yet at that stage where I think we can. I think there are things we can do and if we get our act together, and if we understand the system, I say that we have to work with it a little bit and I think we do, then I think we can make a difference. But it has been a journey.
How have you found the group process?
Edric: Interesting and enlightening. It allows me then to let out some of my feelings. One of the problems is these programmes that cover this is that they intellectualise it rather than dealing with it. If we can let more people in those situations be part of the process, making policies and decisions then hopefully things will get better.
Is there anything on a personal level that you have started to do differently?
Steve: It’s about looking into situations in a very different way. I’ve always been very sympathetic towards people’s individual circumstances. If I don’t mention Edric’s name, I quite often quote what he’s said to me in my personal life, it leaks in… I think that’s the beauty of this. I didn’t come here with a fixed position. You gradually absorb what others are saying, and you can really reflect that to the other people you meet in your personal life.
Edric: It creates awareness and can hopefully formulate a strategy to go forward. I am aware that some of the things we want to do aren’t going to be instantaneous but at least we can lay the foundations to create something good for the future as well.
What do you hope will come out of this at the end?
Steve: From a work perspective, there’s a very simple outcome for me and that’s if you’re working in a field of welfare and support, it should be all about supporting people and I think we’ve lost that. If you’re working in the benefits field, you need to have sympathy and empathy and you need to deliver the service so that you’re actually helping people. I think we’ve now moved quite some way from that and we need to come back to that.
- This article was first published on the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission website.
Clare Goff is former Editor of New Start magazine