Leaders with lived experience: Joe Baden, founder and director, Open Book

In the second of five pieces on leaders who used their experiences to set up voluntary organisations, Jude Habib speaks to someone who was once involved in crime

Joe Baden (Photograph: Julian Dodd)
Joe Baden (Photograph: Julian Dodd)

Baden grew up in a working-class family in south-east London. At school he was considered a bright pupil, but didn’t see education as relevant to him. He got involved in crime and was later arrested. Hoping to reduce his sentence, he attended a bespoke education college, where he was inspired by the people he met.

He went on to study for a degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, working for the education project he had come through at the same time. But he became concerned that it didn’t reflect the potential of the people coming through the project.

Seeing education as a way for people to change their circumstances, in 2004 he founded Open Book, which aims to break down barriers that discourage people from entering higher education. "There was a very middle-class, academic perspective on what working-class people needed," he says. He adapted Open Book based on his experiences of dealing with statutory services and, as more people came on board, he has adjusted its approach based on their shared experiences.

Baden believes the relationship between the worker and the participant
is underestimated. "It’s about trust and equality, and not being an expert in anyone else’s life," he says. "Open Book is about providing a service that caters for the needs of those coming to it".

Fifteen years on, funding remains a challenge. Baden says you have more chance of getting funding if you’ve got "glossy literature" than if you have really good engagement with beneficiaries.

Too often, he argues, charities tailor their work to meet funders’ needs, rather than to meet the needs of those they support. Open Book refuses to go down that route.

Last year the charity worked with more than 100 people who came to education from "non-traditional" backgrounds. Many of them have gone on to Level 3
and degree programmes.

Baden believes that Open Book has had a huge impact on people’s confidence and provides them with an understanding of their place in the world. The challenge now is to "go out and convince the world".

"I hope that one day people who have got their qualifications can be in positions of influence, where they can have an effect from genuine understanding, rather than a scientific understanding," he says.

Baden says he believes that leaders with lived experience are invaluable
in a sector that supports people with complex needs.

"Even though I keep up to date with most of the reports and studies, none
of them comes close to the unspoken understanding between, for example, me and another addict and our shared dark places," he says.

 "I’m often told by people working in our arena about what ‘these people’ need. Well, I’m one of ‘these people’."

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