Thrive is a project in Stockton-on-Tees, which was set up by Church Action on Poverty (CAP) and is one of its ChangeMakers projects but which is now in the process of becoming an independent, locally-run community organisation. Thrive gives people in poverty the power to change their situation by using a unique combination of two approaches.
· The ‘Sustainable Livelihoods’ model helps isolated and excluded people to make better use of the assets they have.
· Community organising enables them to take practical, public action for change.
Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam’s UK Poverty programme to explore whether a Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) could be adapted to the UK context from overseas to tackle poverty. We have been operating since November 2004.
Earlier, a Church Action on Poverty project had worked in Teesside on initiatives such as Local People, National Voice. There was a lot of good work done and routes into the local area that could be built on. There were also some links to local churches in the area.
Teesside areas suffer from high unemployment, high levels of debt and social exclusion and a lack of people taking part in decision-making structures. Church Action on Poverty wanted to use innovative approaches to address these issues.
Recently, Thrive has completed major pieces of work focusing on health, wellbeing and financial inclusion as well as the ‘Rip-off TV’ campaign documented below.
· It is participatory and people-centred: people are really involved in understanding and developing solutions. The initiative works with people instead of merely consulting them.
· It is holistic because poverty isn’t only about money, it’s about a lot of other challenges too; good health, access to services, a decent lived environment and good social networks and support mechanisms. Taking people as a starting point and looking at their strengths, instead of needs, you can start to highlight the ‘gaps’ between a household’s situation and services at different levels.
Then we became involved with the Gamaliel Foundation from the United States, bringing trainers here to work with us. Gamaliel use Alinsky Faith-Based Community Organising as an approach to transformative ministry. The livelihoods information and projects provided the perfect platform to conduct actions on the issues the research had identified.
A journey from identifying debt problems to campaigning on doorstep lending
Thrive has detailed research on financial exclusion – a problem that blights the lives of poorer households in the area and means that they pay a ‘poverty premium’; through higher charges for utilities and credit, such as doorstep lending and hire-purchase products. Thrive places volunteers, including medical students from Durham University and a former Inland Revenue bailiff and Citizens’ Advice Bureau advisor, in low-income households to mentor and support them and gather detailed research on how people ‘get by’. We found one doorstep lending company to be a particularly prevalent in the area. Customers typically reported that:
· they often received no statements of their account;
· as a result they had no idea how much they owed or over what period;
· if they did receive a statement it was not clear what items they were paying for and when they would own those items and stop paying for them.
Customers were also concerned about the level of interest rates (40-50% annual percentage rate), and about the aggressive behaviour of some doorstep collectors.
One customer, ‘Louise’, a single mum from Thornaby with 3 young boys, earned £30 per week from her job as a dinner lady from which she derived great satisfaction and dignity. However, from her modest earned income, £10 comes back out of her benefits and the other £20 goes into the coin meter on her TV to pay for essential goods. As a result of compound interest on the account, she is paying approximately £1,000 for a reconditioned washing machine for the family.
The community organising training proved to be a catalyst for focusing the local group’s determination and giving them the confidence to campaign for change. They gathered more information about people’s experience of ‘Buy to View’ then Thrive used a range of ways to raise the profile of the issue. Firstly, we supplied the Sunday People with case studies and information exposing the company in the national press. A spoof video, featuring ‘our unhappy customers’ was made to lampoon the situation. We agreed to be filmed by the BBC who were interested in following our story. We got several hundred members of our sister organisation Church Action on Poverty to call and email the firm concerned, outlining our concerns. The result of this activity was an agreement by the firm to meet with our leaders. Four senior managers flew up from Newport, South Wales, to meet with Thrive at Teesside Airport to negotiate change.Once the issue was raised with them, the firm responded very positively and agreed to come to arrangements with Thrive on the following key areas:
· Statements would be sent to customers regularly.
· Statements would identify clearly what items were still outstanding on loans and the remaining load period.
· Customers would own their goods, no matter what, after 5 years. (Previously customers could have been with the company 20 years and not owned anything.)
· Good customers (which all of Thrive’s customers were) would benefit from tapering interest rates.
· The firm would talk to the staff who were aggressive.
Most importantly, the firm agreed to work with us to try and change financial regulations to ensure that customers using non-prime credit facilities would be able to build up a recognised good credit history which would enable them to access mainstream financial services as one strategy for escaping a cycle of debt.
Thrive is currently brokering meetings in London between five non-prime credit companies, including Provident Financial, the biggest player in the Home Credit Sector, and the Office of Fair Trading. In these meetings, chaired by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, we have begun negotiations which could have hugely beneficial repercussions for the hundreds of thousands of customers in the £7.5bn Home Credit sector.
An initial pot of funding for a full-time worker was raised. Since then the initiative has had to come up with additional projects to run and against which to raise money. Subsequent funding has come from charitable trusts, including the Church Urban Fund, and from the local Primary Care Trust. A service level agreement with the PCT recently finished. We have had a few small donations and we make small charges for training but generally we make a loss on it. The project requires funding for the project worker and on costs.
The project is heavily reliant on a variety of volunteers. Around 20 volunteers are involved with the project at various levels and significant amounts of the funding for the project are raised against delivering volunteer-based activities. They give around 30 hours per week, which calculated on the basis of the minimum wage amounts to a contribution of c £180 pw.
We are financially secure for 12 months.
Church Urban Fund finance and have had lots of help from volunteers from churches in the action research and recruiting for training or meetings and occasionally churches have let us use their premises.
Other voluntary and community sector groups have been supportive, such as the local residents groups, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, Five Lamps organisation and Sure Start. We also have a strong partnership now with Durham University. Nationally, there has been collaboration with Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme, Community Links and lots of other partnership opportunities.
It would be good to have more involvement of the churches locally but this has proven difficult and to have more support at national level on living wage and credit reform.
www.vimeo.com/17332265) documenting this process.
· The innovative use of sustainable livelihoods analysis – getting a different dataset of people’s lived experience as opposed to superficial ‘tick box’/surface scratching consultation.
· The charity’s unique ability to ‘refresh the parts’ other initiatives don’t reach.
· The good fortune and planning to be able to raise money and keep the project going for 6 years: things don’t just happen overnight.
· The training in community organising and mentorship for senior staff from the Gamaliel Foundation.
· Opposition/initial hostility from key players like local authority.
There are many more areas of opportunity to organise around on social justice – living wage, crime, transport, sanctuary . . . and so on!