Cherry Underwood: Is it time to shift the compass?

We know about deprivation only too well, but we also do our best to focus on the positives, writes the chief executive of the Renewal Trust

Cherry Underwood
Cherry Underwood

We’ve just had a call from another national journalist looking for stories from "the front line" for yet another documentary on poverty. We always say no to these kinds of requests, for the simple reason that we don’t want the areas we work in to be defined solely by broad-brush definitions such as "deprived neighbourhoods" or, worse still, the skewed perceptions fuelled by so-called poverty porn.

The voluntary sector knows only too well what people and communities are facing thanks to years of austerity, and we’re no exception. But we’re working hard to break down the issues fostered by stereotyping and stigmatising communities as "poor".

Yes, increasing poverty and inequality are having a huge impact, but if we focus solely on the challenges and barriers we’re missing the incredible resilience, capability and creativity inherent within individuals, communities and neighbourhoods. That’s why we’ve shifted the compass to design services and strategies that focus on the positive, rather than the negative. Tapping into, empowering and celebrating the positive can bring incredible results, giving people confidence and a sense of control over their lives and the places where they live.

A huge aspect of this is about aiming high. From national charities to local community groups, the voluntary sector can play a huge role in dispelling the negative perceptions that people in so-called "deprived" areas have to battle.

Why not raise the bar and do extraordinary things, instead of settling for "acceptable"? Whatever we do, we try not to do it by halves. So, for example, when we launched our new sports programme, we included everything from football and cricket to dance, archery and wrestling, and partnered with major sports clubs to give talented young people a way to progress all the way to the top. Similarly, we didn’t just give young people the chance to discover dance with Birmingham Royal Ballet, but we also gave them the chance to choreograph and perform their own ballet, at Nottingham’s biggest venue.

High-profile, high-quality projects like this, designed with the community, rather than for them, help to give individuals and communities confidence and a raised platform to talk from, as well as opening doors to more opportunities.

A sense of place is important too, if we’re to free areas from the negative labels associated with postcode poverty. One of the areas we work in, St Ann’s, is home to one of the largest urban allotment sites in the world – but, unbelievably, many people in the city didn’t even know it existed, let alone those further afield. We’ve worked with the Heritage Lottery Fund and raised £4.5m to restore the site to its former glory, giving local people a place of national importance they’re a part of, a place that contributes to their everyday lives.

Aiming high is also about being brave and giving things a go, even if you don’t know if or how they’re going to work. We could have just delivered our employment support contract, but instead we partnered with Nottingham Trent University to find out what help people really needed, training and employing local people as community researchers. The upshot is that we’re completely redesigning our employment support service so it delivers not just a contract, but the support that’s actually needed.

In the current climate, it’s tempting to think OK is enough – but it’s not. As a sector, we shouldn’t be afraid to raise the bar, enabling people to thrive and meet their potential. Finding a better way of doing things is often about taking the time to listen to communities. It’s a simple thing, but it’s got us a long way. And that’s where funders have a big part to play in helping organisations to focus on the positives. It takes investment, in time and in relationships, and that’s something we’d urge funders to consider.

Cherry Underwood is chief executive of the regeneration charity the Renewal Trust in Nottingham 

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