Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Children, Community & Sustainability in tough times (Part 1)

Here's a fuller version of my talk last week to the Christian Child Care Forum. (The link to the PowerPoint slides is here.)

This diagram, from Children England's recent report 'Perfect Storms', says so much. For those of us who work in the so-called 'voluntary sector', the interrelatedness of savage funding cuts, increased costs (for people and households, as well as for us as organisations), and increased demand for services creates a vicious spiral of intensifying needs and pressures.

As theologian David Ford puts it so well, we find ourselves living with 'multiple overwhelmings':

“the consequences of multiple overwhelming create more intensive overwhelming... The personal and the political interact, so do the local and the global, the economic and the cultural. It is like a vast, multi-levelled ecology in which everything is somehow related to everything else.” (David Ford, The Shape of Living [1997], p.xvi, xx)

We're living in a climate - economic, political, social - of scarcity, anxiety, and fear: for our organisations, for our children, for our communities, and for our society...

So how do we respond? I want to sketch out two possible responses: a first, instinctive response (shaped by the dominant language and ways of thinking within our society), and a second, counter-intuitive response (shaped by a reading of a central story within the Christian faith, concerning children, adults, and Jesus).

A first response: 'SUSTAINABILITY'

“In dystopian times we are driven not just further into ‘scarcity thinking’, but risk becoming entrapped in ‘survival thinking’, where the dominant perspective is that life is dangerous, with hyper alertness to danger and risk. The inclination, therefore, is to exercise defensive tactics with even more intensity and to resort to the anxiety-ridden tactic of accumulating resources.” (Ann Morisy, Bothered & Bewildered: Enacting Hope in Troubled Times, p.62)
Ann Morisy expresses so well that 'instinctive' response we have, within an 'economy of scarcity', that we imagine will enable us to be 'sustainable'. Scott Bader-Saye, in a challenging book entitled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, develops this theme into 3 dimensions, or 'core principles' of the 'fear business':
  1. ACCUMULATION: 'save for a rainy day'
  2. SUSPICION: 'don't talk to strangers'
  3. PRE-EMPTION: 'do unto others before they do unto you'
These are the 'mottos' of the 'fear business' - and it takes only a little self-reflection to see how much they govern our daily lives, our habits, our patterns of thinking and responding. They are deeply ingrained in each and every one of us - and in the way our organisations instinctively function.

A first response: 'COMMUNITY'

The 'economy of scarcity' also shapes the way we see and respond to our local communities - especially when we approach them as 'organisations' (or, indeed, as politicians). Communities like my own in Hodge Hill are all too often seen through the lenses of 'needs analysis' and IMD rankings (how deprived are you? what's lacking here? what are the 'service needs'?). We find ourselves described by politicians (and by those who unconsciously absorb, or are co-opted into, the political rhetoric) as 'broken communities', as embodying a 'dependency culture'. And even the best, most 'compassionate' organisations, articulate a deep concern for 'troubled families' (which all too easily slips into 'troublesome') and 'social exclusion' (while failing to ask who is doing the 'excluding'). When the Daily Mail describes my neighbourhood as the '7th most workshy estate' in the country, it fails to notice the vast numbers of my neighbours who depend on benefits because they work long hours for a less-than-living wage. When politicians describe my community as 'broken', they fail to notice that the fault lines of 'brokenness' run deep through our society as a whole.

A first response: 'BEING HUMAN'

At the core of the 'economy of scarcity', but largely unarticulated, is an understanding of what it means to be a human being. What it means to be valued as human, treated with full dignity as a fully 'included' member of society. The understanding seems to go a little like this...
To be fully human, you must be an individual (or a 'family'), who makes a net positive contribution to the country's economic well-being [thank you New Labour for the language here], a contribution which must be:
  • Financial (no other kind of contribution really matters) 
  • Direct (ignoring contributions which indirectly have a positive financial impact - e.g. caring for neighbours so that the state doesn't have to pick up the bill)
  • Current (you may have paid tax and NI for most of your lifetime, but if you're out of work now, you really don't count)
These contributions are made through:
  • Working (only paid work, obviously)
  • Consuming (you are more valuable the more you consume)
  • Tax-paying (for most of us, anyway - if you're really rich, then we'll let you off)
  • 'Investing' (a rather vaguely-defined option for those rich enough not to pay tax)
If that picture has some accuracy to it, what about those who don't fit into its description of 'fully human'? What about, for example, children...?

A first response: CHILDREN

Over the last couple of centuries (from the 18th through to mid-20th), we've been through a seismic shift in our understandings of childhood and children. This is no more than a sketch (and I owe much to American child theologian Bonnie Miller McLemore), but broadly it looks something like this:
  • ECONOMICALLY, children have moved from being seen as 'little adults' (if subordinate), 'workers' essential to the livelihood of the household, to 'little consumers', useless, if anything financially draining to the household (and at best 'commodities' to be 'invested' in)
  • EMOTIONALLY, this shift from 'necessity' to 'useless' has been accompanied by a corresponding 'psychological compensation' - children came to be seen as 'emotionally priceless' objects of love (at least within the private sphere)
  • SOCIALLY & POLITICALLY, children have shifted from being part of the sphere of adult activity (if perhaps 'seen but not heard') into a separate, privatised realm of home and school ('Children's Centres' being a great exemplar); and a sentimentalising of ones own children and child-rearing has gone hand-in-hand with an indifference to 'other people's children'
  • MORALLY & SPIRITUALLY, an old understanding of children entering the world bearing the marks of, and entangled in the distortions of, 'original sin' (albeit seen as something needing to be suppressed and controlled, but something shared with adults!) was replaced by a view of children as 'blank slates', morally neutral, even 'innocent' - and 'vulnerable', with responsibility pushed onto 'the world', 'consumerism', 'parenting', etc.
In recent years, I would suggest these trends have intensified...
  • ECONOMICALLY, we're now being told children are a burden on the state (witness proposals to limit child benefit for families with more than two children)
  • EMOTIONALLY, the 'fear business' is training us to see children as either 'at risk' (and therefore needing vast investment in 'protection') or 'antisocial' (which is defined as criminal, and therefore needs 'policing')
  • SOCIALLY & POLITICALLY, the contradictory impulses are just as sharp: on the one hand, the 'privatisation' of childhood is taken to its logical extreme, throwing schools to the mercy of market forces, where some (schools and children) 'win' and others are abandoned to lose; on the other hand, as in recent pronouncements from Liz Truss, a junior Education Minister, about pre-school provision, and Michael Gove's rewriting of the history curriculum, the state seeks, or demands, increasing control over, and structuring of, 'what children need' (to learn).
  • MORALLY & SPIRITUALLY, again there is a split by 'class' and socio-economic status: we are sold a dichotomy between 'good', 'hard-working' (well-paid) families, and 'troubled' (read 'troublesome' or even 'feral' (under-paid, under-employed) children and families. This is the return of 'original sin', inescapable by birth - with a crucial exception. It is no longer universal. It is only about 'them', and not about 'us'.
That's a sketch, a caricature perhaps, of where we seem to have got to - of our instinctive, media-shaped responses to children, to being human, to community, and to 'sustainability' for organisations that seek to work with children (and perhaps other '3rd sector' organisations too).

Part 2 will seek to shift our focus, and change our response...

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