Speaking truth
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The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission put people with experience of poverty in a room with the people who shape their lives

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In the wake of Brexit there has been a lot of talk about the need to engage with people living in poverty who have been left behind and feel failed by Europe. One project in Leeds is ahead of the curve in tackling the problem of how to go about it.

“I’m trying to build a stable life – and they’re doing everything in their power to make it unstable.”

Launched in 2014 – before the June EU referendum added a new urgency to concerns about marginalised voices – the Poverty Truth Commission is based on the premise that people who face poverty should be involved in decisions that affect their lives.

Taking its lead from Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission, it created a forum in which those living at the sharp end of poverty can engage with the city’s policymakers.  With its mantra of “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” it upends traditional power relations by affording 15 “poverty testifiers” the status of experts with knowledge that could be a vital resource in the city.

The first commission, which ran for 18 months until June 2015, focused on building the confidence of the testifiers, who included community activists, students, local entrepreneurs, job seekers and former asylum seekers. Testifiers met fortnightly for six months to build relationships, decide what aspects of their story they want to tell, and develop their analytical and communication skills.

City councillors, NHS officials, police officers and a representative of Leeds Chamber of Commerce – all of whose work affects people living in poverty – also took part, joining the process after the first stage was complete and hearing from the testifiers.

“It’s totally different when you are hearing something from a person who is sat right in front of you, especially when you have got to know them,” says one of them, Mary Brennan, who lives in Cross Green and runs a community garden on railway land. “I think the civic and business leaders really grasped the fact that people feel really ground down by what’s happening to them.”

Anger at benefit sanctions was shared by many of the testifiers. Yvonne Crowther, who runs the Me ’n’ U community café on the Cardinal Estate in Beeston, says the officials and civic leaders had little understanding of the harm that losing benefits, including free school meals and housing benefit, can have on people’s lives.

“They’re not eating very well, so they are becoming weak and unwell, but they still have to look for work,” says Crowther, who also runs a youth club and residents group. “How are they going to do that when they are feeling hungry, unwell, and, if it’s in winter, cold?”

Crowther says the commissioners were shocked when they heard how devastating sanctions can be, sometimes lasting for months on end, and imposed arbitrarily for minor lateness or missing an appointment.

“I was surprised at how emotional and moved to tears a lot of them were when they realised what people were going through,” says Crowther, winner of the Daily Mirror’s Pride of Britain award in 2011. “It’s important that the people who are working in the mental health services know what’s going on, because they are going to be dealing with the people who are affected.”

Zewdu Mangiste, director of Lucy Radio, the Leeds-based radio station for Ethiopians, was forced to leave his home country because of his journalism. Many Ethiopians in the UK live in overcrowded conditions and, like him, find they are excluded from applying for jobs because their qualifications are not valid. Being part of the Poverty Truth Commission helped him feel part of a wider community.

“Before I met this group, I was thinking these problems were only for refugees, or asylum seekers or foreigners,” he says. “When I became part of it, I realised that the problems are happening to the local people.”

Testifiers like Brennan have felt emboldened by their experience to do more. She now runs a lunch club and small food bank and has set up the community garden where residents grow produce that is free to pick.

“I’d been scared that people wouldn’t come, but then I thought it’s got to work,” she says. “We’ve got to see what we can do to stop people being isolated. It’s the human connections. They won’t solve everything, but are an important aspect when it comes to finding ways to work with people.”

The Poverty Truth Commission also aims to make a difference among the officials and civic leaders it works with – confusingly referred to as “commissioners”. Andrew Grinnell, part of the commission’s support team, says this was challenging for some of them, while one of the biggest markers of success was a commissioner turning up with his family at a housewarming party thrown by a testifier.

“The politicians sometimes struggled the most, because they were used to being Mr Fix it and used to playing a particular role, whereas with business leaders it tended to be more natural, because they built their businesses through building relationships, so they brought those more personable skills into the room,” says Grinnell. “The people who really got the most out of the process were those who were able to suspend their roles and say: ‘Look, I’m here to build relationships.’”

Mangiste says the opportunity to challenge the commissioners’ responses was important when it came to dealing with issues such as the way staff in the job centres were using sanctions arbitrarily and often seemed hostile to claimants.

“When we told the man from the job centre what was happening, he said: ‘This is the law – we can’t do anything.’ We told them about staff attitudes, and he said you have to complain to the manager. But the problem is that people don’t have the confidence to do that. If you have language barriers too, that’s a problem. How can you go to the manager?”

Leeds City Council’s revenues and benefits staff were shown a film of testifiers talking about their experiences and asked to adopt a different approach to dealing with claimants. “The head of revenue and benefits saying to all of his staff to use your heart and not just your heads is of huge significance,” says Grinnell.

The second Poverty Truth Commission, which got underway in June, will put more emphasis on supporting commissioners to make changes. Emma Stone, director of policy and research at the Joseph Rowntree Trust, which is partly funding the second project – and the Leeds team’s work supporting other commissions in the UK – says this has the potential to improve the way policy is drawn up.

“It’s things that you might know from research but, when you see it, when you hear it, it deepens your understanding,” she says. “I do think even though the end event was the solidarity it’s the relationships that matter.”

In Scotland, the impact of the Poverty Truth Commission can be seen at government level. A mentoring programme for civil servants has been set up, in which people who have direct experience of poverty coach senior policy leaders. The commission has helped to influence the manifestos of the two main political parties on poverty issues and was involved in shaping the Community Empowerment Bill of 2014. It also co-authored the official report Poverty in Scotland with the Scottish Government.

Grinnell admits that such influence is “still aspirational” in Leeds, but adds there are signs that leaders in the city are taking notice of the Poverty Truth Commission. “I guess if we’re looking for an outcome, it’s that whenever poverty is talked about in Leeds, or strategised about, or policies are being developed, there will always be people with direct experience in the room, helping to shape them. That will be job done for us.”

Newly commissioned

A new Poverty Truth Commission launched in Salford in July, with more planned in coming months. It had its launch in Eccles Town Hall in Salford, where 70 per cent of the population live in areas classified as highly deprived and over 25 per cent of children live in poverty.

Ellesmere Port, Blackpool, Morecambe Bay are among other towns in the north where Poverty Truth Commissions will be set up. One will also begin in Birmingham this month and another is planned for Wolverhampton.

Testifiers in Leeds met their counterparts in Scotland last year, and there are plans for an annual event that will bring together testifiers across the country. Andrew Grinnell, one of the support team for the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission, says: “I’m really excited about what happens if you build a movement of people who have direct experience of poverty and know how to build relationships that bring change.”

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