Bella Wheeler from the Brighton Unemployed Families Project spoke at the Nexus Network Urban Nexus workshop on 12 May 2016.
Neoliberal discourse puts emphasis on individual behaviour change as the solution to issues of poverty and sustainability but in an increasingly interconnected world, ideas of ‘the individual’ are inadequate for addressing what are understood to be systemic issues.
Bella asks how might we think differently about networks, relationships and ideas of community in developing alternative narratives?
Bella Wheeler, Presentation given to Nexus conference 12th May 2016 at the University of Sussex
I want to say a little bit about my research, some of the findings from my data and how they might relate to issues we are talking about today to do with environmental sustainability and the urban nexus.
My research was a collaboratively funded ESRC project and community university partnership taking place between me as a social work doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project (BUCFP).
The BUCFP are a community centre and charity of thirty years duration working in a deprived area of Brighton. They offer a crèche, low cost meals, education and language classes, access to computers and volunteering opportunities among other things like creative writing and art and music groups and classes. More simply, they offer a space for local people to gather. The Centre serves a diverse population consisting of many long term unemployed people some of whom are affected by mental health issues and might be described as having ‘complex needs’.
My research interests are in group dynamics; the role of creativity, art making and narrative formation as well as community organisations as facilitating spaces for creative and community engagement.
The Centre was interested in understanding more about how people in their community experienced food poverty so together we agreed to form a project using participatory and creative arts methods to explore this topic, a group of 20 Centre Users who self identified as experiencing food poverty took part. Fieldwork was carried out over a year and at the beginning of each month I held group interviews with the participants, each lasting two hours. Using narrative analysis I examined the ways that participants constructed meanings surrounding food poverty and how understandings changed (or did not) over time and through the process of participation.
One of the many things to have come out of the research was the realisation that there was a huge discrepancy between a governmental policy discourse that put emphasis on individual behaviour change as the solution to (and cause of) poverty and the way people actually lived their lives. What do I mean by this? Individualising discourses such as those contained in the Measuring Child Poverty (DWP 2012) or Troubled Families agendas (DCLG 2012) that essentially say “you have to change the way you behave” fail to look at the systemic and to address how infrastructure and the interplay between various ‘systems’ combine to create and perpetuate various situations; unemployment, education, geography, transport, housing and so on. As Lansley and Mack (2015) suggest of the Measuring Child Poverty document:
‘It set out to measure poverty by people’s individual behaviours and characteristics as opposed to their circumstances. The new ‘multi-dimensional’ measure they were seeking to develop aimed to downgrade the importance of income and living standards and instead concentrated on criteria such as parenting skills, parental health, drug and alcohol dependency and family stability. The approach posed bore no relation to any previous method of measuring poverty in this country or worldwide, either historical or present day. But the consultation document, like the ‘Troubled Families’ programme, gave clear insight into the governments central understanding of the causes of poverty – namely that it was down to individual behaviour’ (p.65)
The idea of individual behaviour change begins to appear increasingly inadequate when we look at how peoples live are actually constructed. Drawing on my data I want to demonstrate how interconnected participants lives are and how this sits in contradiction to ideas of individual behaviour change.
Discussing how they managed living in food poverty, in a brief passage four participants described a combination of growing herbs and some vegetables in their gardens or allotments if they had them, ‘hitting the reduced section in the supermarket’ when they had the money, and using the BUCFP for cheap hot meals in order to feed themselves:
Participant A: courgettes and…
Participant B: but I always go into Sainsbury’s along Lewes road about half past six and find everything that’s reduced
Participant C: good plan…that’s a good idea
Participant B: yeah
Participant D: when I’ve got money it’s hit the reduced section
Participant B: yeah
Participant A: [to participant D] what’s your diet like?
Participant D: the only time I eat healthy is when I’m up here…that’s all I’m saying.
Very quickly it was possible to see the interdependent and systemic nature of how people manage their lives. Participant D described how living in a bedsit without a proper kitchen “a baby belling cooker that burnt everything”, extortionate private rent and cuts to his Disability Benefit meant that he had to rely on a combination of the food bank (largely tinned and dried food), volunteering or favours in exchange for food, and very cheap supermarket or fast food and how this had impacted his health contributing to the development of type II diabetes and demonstrating the interconnectedness between, in this case, housing, rent, food and health.
Discussing later the ‘seven-a-day’ narrative, a public health initiative discourse largely driven by health professionals and the media, the same participant scoffed and dismissed it saying:
Participant D: I don’t think it makes that much of a difference really…
Participant A: But that’s it…it’s the media telling you…and like the media writing about food poverty but actually what does it mean…?
Participant D: They’ve just said that it extends your…if you eat more than you should…your life just gets extended a little bit longer.
Participants D’s response led me to wonder if, unable to access the narrative, he had developed a sort of ‘devil-may-care’ attitude leading to the consideration of how alternative narratives are developed in relation to dominant discourse and being structurally excluded from the ‘mainstream’.
With no way of accessing the ‘seven-a-day’ narrative he had to develop an alternative narrative (and identity) that made such exclusion bearable, hence the seemingly nonchalant attitude when I suspect that like most people he would probably rather in fact ‘live a little bit longer’. While Participant D had built an alternative arguably as a way of protecting himself from the feeling of exclusion, there was also a sense that such exclusion was experienced as a personal failing. If we understand people’s lives to be interconnected, interdependent and systemic we need to enable spaces for narratives to develop accordingly from within communities and as such these would be accessible and inclusive. This demands – among other things – a space for them to develop.
We might then ask where such spaces in our communities are for the emergence of narratives that are accessible, inclusive and sustainable. The increasing appropriation of charitable, third sector and civil society organisations as agents of statutory service delivery arguably robs them of their ability as non-partisan spaces to develop alternative discourse, as Macmillan (2010) suggests:
‘Under the aegis of new public management, voluntary and community organisations were regarded as little more than ‘alternative providers’ in efforts to diminish the state or as ‘service agents’ for the delivery of government policy. The sector’s roles in community action, campaigning and policy making were sidelined’ (p.06).
The reason I’m drawing on examples of the ways that lives are very interconnected at the local level, on the ground, and reliant on all sorts of networks, formal and informal, is to highlight that if we do not think properly about the ways in which we are dependent on multiple systems and how they sustain us we cannot think properly about the interconnectedness surrounding ecological and environmental sustainability either.
Thus the question becomes how do we shift the conversation, narrative and policy away from the onus being on ‘the individual’ and towards a better understanding of the systemic and interconnectedness of people’s lives in order to address issues of poverty and sustainability?
In light of questions around the urban nexus I would like to highlight the importance of spaces within the community – non-prescribed and self directed – for ways of thinking counter to current individualising governmental discourse.
These spaces would enable us to shape narratives collectively at the local level, be responsive to local complexity and context in ways that are acceptable and are not experienced as berating or dictatorial, indeed are sustainable through their capacity to think systemically.
Department for Communities and Local Government (2012) Troubled Families Programme.
Department for Work and Pensions (2012) Measuring Child Poverty: a Consultation on Better Measures of Child Poverty.
Lansley S. & Mack J. (2015) Breadline Britain: the Rise of Mass Poverty (Oneworld Publications, London).
Macmillan R. (2010) the Third Sector Delivering Public Services: an Evidence Review (Working Paper, University of Birmingham, Birmingham UK).
Wheeler B. (2016) Spaces after Modernity: A Systems and Narrative Based Analysis of Environments for Creativity, Health and Cohesion (unpublished doctoral thesis).
The Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project is a registered charity in 1994 and is run by the unemployed for the unemployed. The project provides practical support, education and recreation for those in poor housing, claimants, unwaged people and those on low incomes.
You can see the full programme on the Urban Nexus workshop page.
Image credit, with many thanks to Nathan Oxley at the STEPS centre.