As educators, parents, carers and David Attenborough know, there comes a time when the penny drops. Whether it’s Marcus Rashford on child poverty, Black Lives Matter, Covid-19 highlighting social and economic inequality, or funders embracing core funding and speedy responses, recent shifts in the sector have undeniably provoked some fresh thinking. However, while lightbulbs are firing up they can resemble a frazzled set of Christmas tree lights, popping on and off sporadically, just not working or sputtering out after an initial flash.
As we enter what Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has called a “recession to end all recessions”, we have to ask: if not now, then when will be the time for bigger, bolder thinking? But thinking big can be overwhelming, so this could also be a chance to revert to the simple wisdom of toddlers.
Anyone who has spent time with young children knows that the simple and annoyingly persistent “why?” can floor the most articulate of adults. Yet in that simplicity lies a complexity that many organisations deftly swerve or simply ignore.
Let’s take recent analysis of the way in which Covid-19 has disproportionately affected black and Asian people. Initially, this was wrapped up in discussions about race and championed by those working for racial justice. They successfully forced the media and others to ask “why?”, to force them into a deeper analysis that could not simply be laid at the doorstep of a fudged simplistic genetic explanation. We saw the discussion graduate into prevailing social and economic conditions and again we asked “why?”, until the answer came: “structural inequalities”, “discrimination” and “racism”.
These issues all point to the importance of context and intersectionality. A fragmented sector cannot fully support people and communities if it continues to prioritise working in silos. Treating issues in isolation is ineffective: it wastes resources and fails to make connections. Organisations that can’t look through an intersectional lens are doomed to fail in achieving the best outcomes for, or with, their beneficiaries.
In essence, if we are truly engaged in trying to improve society, and we wish to treat the cause rather than the symptoms, then we cannot escape the question of “why?”. If you work in health, criminal justice, poverty, education, social justice, disability rights, communities and so on, are you asking “why?” the needs you address exist? Is it a policy choice, a political choice or a historical legacy?
Inevitably, those very issues are rooted in economic and social inequalities within our systems and societies, which demonstrates the importance of placing our work in the context of society as a whole. This means asking some harder questions about our society, our economic system and structural inequalities, and also in whose hands power lies.
One area to question is the impact of short-term interventions and “treats”, such as access to high-profile arenas. You might wonder what this has to do with inequalities? Well, while some of these are clearly well-intentioned and can be inspiring, they can also feed into the narratives of personal culpability and achievement. If they are not well considered, there’s a risk that we embody and support the notion that success is solely about individual drive without considering the barriers, structural inequalities and discrimination that operate to place us all at very different starting points.
As every good educator knows, differentiation is key. Many organisations are doing great work both internally and externally, challenging themselves and speaking to power, and many proudly spring from community action and campaigns.
The leaders who have the courage to ask “why?” will naturally look to collaboration, realising that no single organisation has the answer, the resources or the perfect insights into our collective humanity. These leaders have the humility and appetite to create real change, to step back and to mute or change some of the harmful power dynamics that continue to keep civil society, as wider society, fragmented.
If we are to support and unlock the agency of the people our organisations exist for, then our boards, leaders and teams need to better implement a radical agenda encompassing intersectionality and inequalities. Let’s start by asking: “why?”
Wanda Wyporska is executive director of the Equality Trust