Debra Allcock Tyler: None of us can achieve alone what many can achieve together

It’s hard not to feel weak and scared when you feel alone, working at home, and can be easy to forget that your colleagues are alongside, also fighting for those you serve

Debra Allcock Tyler

I went to a tiny, girls-only state school in Dorset. There were only around 250 pupils in total, of whom 60 were boarders. One year we got snowed in and none of the day girls could come to school for two weeks – meaning no lessons or school uniform for them.

But the boarders were told we would still have lessons in our boarding house and would have to wear our uniform every day, which felt hugely unfair as the boarding house was basically our home.

Most of us were there because, as military kids, our parents moved a lot and were often abroad, and the MoD paid the school fees so that our education didn’t suffer. As such, we were generally not inclined to disobey orders!

But on this occasion, even though we were scared of being suspended or expelled, we were so incensed that we agreed to unite and rebel against this particular injustice by refusing to wear uniform, on the grounds that they couldn’t realistically expel all of us.

So we all rocked up at breakfast minus the school uniform – but with, in what turned out to be a significant move, a school tie worn somewhere about our person.

The consequences were exactly what we thought. We were threatened with suspension; expulsion; removal of privileges; being grounded for the rest of term. We were really, really scared.

But the tie helped. Its presence reminded us of our cause. We remained united, no-one broke line, and we won. It was agreed that, while we would have to attend lessons, we didn’t have to wear uniform. There were no expulsions.

So, aged 15, I learned the most valuable of lessons about the power of collective action. Power and privilege is partly enforced and retained by those who have it by stopping folk from acting in unison. If you can prevent people from uniting, then you minimise their power.

It’s hard not to feel weak and scared when you feel alone, especially when many of us are more isolated because we’re working on our own at home.

Sitting on the sofa on a Sunday night, worrying about the week to come, it’s easy to forget that you are not really alone – that your colleagues are alongside, also fighting for justice, equality, dignity and quality of life for those you serve.

When we act together we can create change that we couldn’t have achieved alone. And collective action doesn’t mean losing your independence.

My charity, DSC, is still clearly and independently DSC, even though we have been a proud and key part of the sector infrastructure groups’ collaboration during the pandemic (now formalised as the Civil Society Group).

Collective action is vital because none of us can achieve alone what many of us can achieve together.

Whether it’s a staff forum to help improve working environments, informal communities of interest, joint policy action, collaborative funding bids or just letting go of differences and coming together to put pressure on policy and decision makers – together we are strong. They can’t expel us all!

All we need is a tie.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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