All Of Our Dignity

It would be impossible to forget Antonio. His abandonment and isolation had been so complete, nobody even knew how old he was. We guessed about 8 or 9. He lay in a cot, lifeless and listless in a dark corner. The lack of animation was the not the outcome of his severe disability and blindness but rather caused by extreme neglect.  The institution “housed” around 150 adults and children.  It wreaked of human waste and human disregard.

My index finger gently brushed against his palm and he gripped it tightly as his face broke into semi-toothless smile.  He had lived a life cut adrift from love, attention or even basic human acknowledgment .

Antonio’s story inspired a shared effort by the government of North Macedonia and the UN to end placement of children in large scale institutions. Children like him would be provided with family-based care, connection and stimulation in community settings.

The plan was knocked off script when locals in the town of Timjanik angrily refused  a mayor’s request to accommodate some of the children . We went there with the minister to find out why. On arrival, we sustained a three hour volley of abuse and hostility from several hundred protesters.  People watching this back in the capital on livestream  were horrified. Pundits, influencers and activists began lambasting the protesters as primitive, callous and hillbilly.

We listened carefully. Their’s was a small town in decline. It could have been in Oklahoma or South Yorkshire.The townsfolk had previously been dependent on industry and agriculture. For generations their income and opportunities had been on a modest, upward trajectory. But they now feared their children would have a much more  precarious future. They had lived with years of unfulfilled promises to fix their roads, improve their schools and provide a pre-school. They longed for someone to give a voice to them, alongside the regular campaigns they heard from human rights activists for migrants, sexual minorities and people with disability.  Like Antonio, in their own way they felt abandoned.

But why did these two different forms of deprivation and abandonment compete with each other? Broadly speaking there are three catastrophic burdens in childhood  that drive lifelong inequality:

  1. Discrimination or Exclusion based on race, gender or disability  for example. It creates barriers that exclude one from opportunities, justice and often the basic safety that others take for granted.
  2. Income Poverty through  a lack of the basic means to survive, thrive and access opportunities to reach one’s potential.
  3. Emotional Poverty through the absence of the basic nurturing and protective parental relationships due to violence, neglect or other forms of dysfunctional parenting (also known as childhood adversity). This is often transmitted inter-generationally and unintentionally.

If you look at  Black Lives Matter, Hillbilly Ellergy and Good Will Hunting through the lens of identity, they seem so different to each other. When we look at them through the lens of fairness and dignity for all, they seem the same. It sometimes feels like we have forgotten a sense of ourselves as a whole, we are looking for the differences and barriers. This fragmentation polarises us into differing sides in a counter-productive culture war.

People in places like Timjanik perceive human rights champions  to be selective in the injustices they seek to address. Those living with rural and town poverty  feel both politically and economically abandoned. They are at the fag end of a painful transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy. This transition has concentrated opportunity in large cities at the expense of almost everywhere else. Those same champions scratched their heads as populists have hoovered up support in poor and abandoned communities. Despite their best intentions, they must bear part of the responsibility for the growth in populism and polarisation.

I felt this recently back home when I  took a group of young adult care leavers for lunch in London. They had each lived with all of the three catastrophic burdens described above. It is hard to think of a more deprived group in the UK.  We walked past a protest march urging us to support the rights of an oppressed minority in a far flung country. The comparatively wealthy looking protesters obviously felt that from our position of privilege we should all support this vulnerable minority oversees and that this was the most important human rights issue of the moment. But whose privilege is it? One of the young people in our group said he could not imagine the same protesters marching for kids in care. To highlight injustice, without acknowledging it is not the only injustice is itself an injustice.

Coming back to the story of Timjanik. The following day at an unrelated press conference  in the capital, we were asked by journalists about the events in the town. We were expected to join the public condemnation of the protesters behaviour. Instead we articulated the townsfolk’s grievances and their struggles and explained that we could understand them, though did not agree with them.

Within two hours our inboxes were flowing with warm messages from people in Timjanik. They had not expected that we would actually listen to them and tell their story. They had needed to be acknowledged and heard. To understand that we think they matter too. From a collective refusal to host the small group home just 24 hours prior, it was now back on.

From that moment on, we numerically balanced our public facing advocacy. We gave equal attention to the situation of the overall population and to those living with one or more of the three catastrophic burdens . If we did a public event on exclusion of Roma minority or children with disability one month, we made sure we also had an event on poverty or a  population-wide issue like education or health the next. This struck us as fair, just and effective.

A few weeks after the protest, the government agreed a strategy to transfer all children out of large scale institutions through family re-unification, foster care and small group homes. The government named the strategy “Timjanik” in testimony to what we had all learnt from these events.

On October 15th last year, the last remaining children were removed from large scale institutions. The situation may have improved for children in state care in North Macedonia, but there is still so much to do to prevent exclusion, poverty and adversity in the lives of children the world over. We can only do this when everyone finds their place in a shared story of justice and fairness. We need to “re-universalize” our human rights story.

And the children in the story? Antonio is out of the cot, living in a small group home with adequate care and stimulation and for the first time in his life, he is enrolled in school. Today in Timjanik, the locals visit with cakes and play with the children at the small group home.  Just ordinary people in an ordinary place with the extraordinary courage to reimagine a better tomorrow in a world that protects all of our dignity.

 

 

 

 

 

That British Class Thing

On top of the things James Brown said were great about “Living in America”, an additional one for me is the outsider’s perspective it gives on my own country.  Interest in the UK is now fuelled by lockdown binges of Peaky Blinders on the one hand and Downton Abbey on the other.  A confused American friend recently asked “So where do you come from on this British class thing?”

In his 1960s infamous and groundbreaking  comedy sketch  John Cleese ridiculed our class system. It feels like an awkward subject today as it did then.  Many of us just wish class had retreated along with black and white TV, outside loos and coal sheds. So I reformulated the question in my head to the less awkward “which type of community did you grow up in?”  After that pontification, my answer was : “poor, urban and multicultural”

I wrote about the poverty bit before, We were so far at the bottom of the ladder, we didn’t even make it onto the Cleese class sketch. I spent my formative years in inner city  South Birmingham and North London. Without any fuss, we grew up with a diversity which was as influential as class in shaping our identity . Many of our school mates were only second or third generation British. Their grandparents had arrived in the migration waves that followed the second world war, forged ties across communities and faced down the duel struggle of poverty and racism.

There were rites of passage for all teenagers . First kiss, first football game…and in those days first smoke. But poor, urban kids like us had specific obsessions: Music, fashion and navigating trouble.

You could hear all types of music in our neighborhood, but Reggae was the main soundtrack and everyone wanted to be a DJ. In those days this was usually through a “sound system” with wobbly speakers piled on top of each other, booming out fresh imports from Kingston at neighbourhood parties. The average age of first buying a vinyl record would have been around 11 or 12.

Reggae and punk had been the most subversive music of the previous teenage generation . Back then, punk bands had no DJs to spin tunes between performances, so they hired reggae sound systems.  The Punk and Rasta collaboration that followed was celebrated in Punky Reggae Party by Bob Marley and inspired a uniquely British, urban sound. It can be traced from the The Specials and the Beat and through to UK streetsoul collectives like Soul II Soul and Massive Attack and on to Amy Winehouse and even Stormzy. We loved Jamaican Reggae and US R& B, but we also had a sound that came from our own communities and reflected our experiences. It was political, but not ideological. It reflected our anxiety about violence and unemployment. The teenage toaster of the Beat, Ranking Roger sang of “Love and Unity”. Community and shared struggles above hatred and racism.

Despite our poverty, we were also irrationally obsessed with style. The precise geometry of where a trouser hem ended and a shoe began  and the colour of the socks in between.  The nurturing care of a pair of Brogues, High Tops or Nikes. The shame of being turned out in something below par. We were not peacockish. You just had to hit a certain standard and then you could go about your regular business.

The diversity affected the way we held ourselves and spoke. It was completely normal for someone of say Irish or Indian heritage to curse with a Yiddish word in a Jamaican patois accent….or the other way around.  . We were poor, but our style and music was our source of dignity.

There was also a whole heap of trouble. It was not like The Wire. There were less crack dens and guns. Communities like ours could be vibrant and aspirational-with the music, Asian food, Irish pubs. But just beneath the surface, it seemed like an assault course of gangs, violence and drugs too. Joining a gang and dealing drugs were easy-access compared to healthier options. Poor kids like us did not go to university.   Those with strong, united families tended to navigate better than those from broken or dysfunctional homes. For many , our futures hung by a thread. I was a proper tearaway, kicked out of multiple schools and in trouble with the law. I was eventually rescued by the influence and care of a wonderful teacher

It was a blessing to grow up with so much diversity. As Ezra Klein wrote in “Why We Are Polarised”: research shows how super-diversity with multiple identities and influences sets you up well for co-existence. Difference only becomes divisive and polarising when there are just two sides facing off across a single fault line. This is worse when bad politicians amplify identity above ideas and hate above hope. That type of politician is not faring so well in this pandemic. When difference is cut across multiple lines, it is a strength.

Covid 19 exposes the inequities of class and race, but it also shows how much we yearn for community, not tribe. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote”Community is based on mutual affection and tribalism on mutual hatred”. In this pandemic we are now united by our shared vulnerability and dependence on the same public systems and low pay delivery workers. Even our conservative Prime Minister acknowledged that our National Health Service is powered by love. Its workforce is radically diverse and disproportionately hails from similar streets to the ones I described above.  Thats where I come from in the “British Class thing” . Here’s to Love and Unity.