Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Choosing the fight

Polly Toynbee and Tom Miller write in defence of middle class lefties. It reminds me of a piece of research which deserves a wider audience.

About ten years ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded a project called the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power. The idea behind this commission was to bring together twelve people, six 'grass roots commissioners' and six 'public life commissioners'. The grass roots commissioners were people who had direct experience of living in poverty, and the public life commissioners were people who had academic or theoretical knowledge of poverty and its causes. The idea behind this was that both direct, practical experience and theoretical knowledge are vitally important in understanding a problem and knowing what to do about it, and neither is sufficient on its own.

The evaluation report (pdf) of this project is a really excellent piece of work. It is searingly honest about some of the challenges which the project faced, and has lots of recommendations about how this kind of approach needs to be developed in order to work effectively (for example, it needs a lot of resources, and plenty of time for people to get to know each other). It is also clear, however, that bringing together people with different kinds of knowledge and experience is a powerful way to get new insights and avoid many of the problems that traditional policies have encountered.

The evaluators asked the grass roots commissioners about what they felt about these academics who they were working with. There was one response in particular which cuts through the crap and gets to the heart of what's important, which I'll always remember:

'With poverty, some people were born into the fight, and some chose it; those in that fight really appreciate those who make that choice.'


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