Shifting towards a conscious society – reflections on the Small is…Festival

4th September 2012 by

Yesterday I came back from the Small is… Festival organised by the amazing charities Practical Action and Engineers without Borders. The event was full of stimulating thought.  The overall theme asked: How can we empower people at the grassroots to tackle global issues like the energy crisis? Currently around 1.5 billion people are still living without modern energy while in the developing world we are consuming more than our planet’s-worth of resources.

People matter and must be engaged

The talks made me recognise the importance of engaging people in the things that matter around them and to become politically excited and engaged as agents.  Toby Kellner, for instance, spoke of a project to engage communities living on low income estates in Bristol by injecting some fun into a solar array project and building a solar tree installation.

Another salient point was about making sure energy technologies are intelligible – people need to understand the mechanics of where their energy comes from at a basic level.

Demonstration of a micro anaerobic digestion unit – it’s a great, simple technology to get your head around and is the sort of knowledge that needs democratisation

We must speak from the heart

The founder of International Peace Initiatives had a different approach to engaging people into action.  Karambu Ringera spoke truly to the heart – she emphasised going within and finding out who you really are and the importance of love as primary forces acting in change projects. Her project building an orphanage on a wasteland in Kenya in the face of opposition from the men surrounding her is testament to this philosophy.

Another technical fix isn’t enough

In actual fact, although we grapple with finding the right social and cultural projects to prevent rising energy consumption and climate change, a more technical fix is on the table. A friend recently suggested that a mechanism to tax carbon at the production side would solve our climate woes. Set highly enough so that only a limited amount of carbon would be emitted, it would effectively force the market to provide solutions and get to the crux of CO2 emissions reductions fast.

Job done? Hmmm, not really. If implemented carefully it may be a fix for climate change but what of social transformation – the reclaiming of our political, economic and social spheres away from the elites towards a commons? How do you engage those who have very little yet have the most to gain from change?

I don’t subscribe to a view that people who have very little materially aren’t interested in engaging in activism and radical themes but I do recognise that many who struggle just above the breadline may have less ‘headspace’ because of the pressure to get by. I think it’s about going to the places and hearths of people to strike up conversations and thoughts – be it stands at the supermarket, or banners on main roads.  The loss of spaces to socialise and meet people and talk about issues is making us more isolated. We need to claim these back in order to flourish. This will be an issue that will perpetuate with or without climate change and I think is fundamental to being tackled before we invent another way to damage ourselves collectively. The real question is how do we make the very workings of our society nimble and truly conscious?

Carla Jones is an Otesha cycle tour alumnus.

Failing forward

13th July 2012 by

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Nobody likes to fail, do they? (…do they…? Answers on a postcard please). At least, I don’t like to fail. When a project hasn’t gone to plan, or ground to a halt, it is very tempting to go erase your mind somewhere in a tub of ice cream or TOWIE. Maybe that’s just me. Either way, sweeping failures under the carpet doesn’t do anyone any good. Because if we can’t share where we went wrong, or what barriers we found, how will others learn who are planning similar projects?

This is where the concept of ‘failshares’ comes in. Over the past few years, organisations such as Givewell have got brave and laid out their shortcomings. People across different sectors have got together and hosted ‘FailFaires’. Engineers Without Borders now release Failure Reports every year and have set up the site Admitting Failure to ensure that the international development community ‘fails forward.’ They define failing forward as:

  1. Operating in a safe environment for testing risky innovative ideas
  2. Recognizing failures early
  3. Admitting failures open and honestly
  4. Learning from these failures
  5. Adapting actions based on the learning in order to improve upon risky innovative ideas

So, in the spirit of failing forward, let me share the story of a project we have been trying to make happen over the past few months – the East London Greener Jobs Pipeline. We aimed for the Greener Jobs Pipeline project to work in partnership with employers, training providers and support agencies to create pathways into employment for approximately 15 young, unemployed people who wanted to work in the green trades. We planned to do this by taking participants through a training programme that encompassed pre-employment skills, vocational skills, financial literacy, wraparound support services, environmental literacy, and an apprenticeship or work placement in trades such as solar roofing, insulation, horticulture and recycling.

About 6 months ago, I wrote of some of the barriers that we were experiencing in trying to make this project happen. The main one was that we were eager to find an employer who could guarantee a work placement or apprenticeship before we recruited for the young people – we figured that there were enough training courses out there that led on to nothing. However, the truth was, we just couldn’t find an employer. We talked to dozens of businesses, but there were no jobs, especially after the FIT cuts. This delayed the project by months, but when we did eventually find an employer – a small, social enterprise that specialised in energy efficiency – we found yet more barriers to do with recruitment. We needed 10 young people to run the training, but when it came down to it, only 3 young people managed to make the registration day. This was despite having met with nearer 20 young people and their key workers who were keen to join the course and who planned to enroll.

So, what went wrong?

  • We were limited to a 16-18 age range because of government funding constraints. This was a really difficult age to outreach for because many at this age were already in education or training (which also made them ineligible for funding). Sadly, we had a lot of interest from 19 year olds that we had to turn away. If our age range had been broader, ‘we would have smashed it’, as one local youth worker from the Prince’s Trust said.
  • The time of year wasn’t that great – some young people who were interested in the course were about to sit their GCSEs, so our training started too early for them.
  • Working with ‘NEET’ young people can mean things don’t always go to plan - on the registration day, four confirmed attendees were absent due to: broken ribs, being arrested, housing problems and family problems.
  • The reliability of key workers – we often found that communicating directly with the young people was more efficient than trying to pin down their key workers – not the way round you want it to be. A couple of key workers were supposed to escort their young people to the registration day, but didn’t pick them up.
  • ‘Not another short course…’ - there is a real sense that young people can be jostled from one low-level course to another and not gain a meaningful qualification. Although the pipeline participants would have completed some pre-apprenticeship course content they were not gaining the full qualification, due to time constraints.
  • Unsure work placement offer- the above point was overcome with the provision of a guaranteed work placement. However, at the last minute our employer changed their offer of paid work from 3 weeks to 1-2 days – not enough to pull in young people when other courses with higher level qualifications being offered.

With lessons absorbed about partnerships, age of participants and timing, we hope that roll-out will now take place in autumn 2012. In the meantime we have been providing a training and employment signposting service to the young people who showed interest. We have helped, signposted and offered advice to 12 young people and 4 youth workers on other training and employment options. 4 of the young people have now applied for recommended courses and we remain in contact with the others and continue to send opportunities when they arise.

Although the project didn’t go ahead as planned, we have learnt important lessons which can be used when tried again later this year. The most important lesson is that there is a real need for this type of project. There are many young people who have slipped through the net, and even this project – which aims to engage with young people facing barriers to employment – has built in requirements that have been barriers to their participation.

Next time, we hope to use this learning so that we can:

  • Increase the age range
  • Start at a more appropriate time of year
  • Ensure that we only partner with an employer who can be truly involved in the design of the process, and that has capacity to provide paid work placements or apprenticeships
  • Ensure our training offer includes meaningful accreditation and qualifications

So, there you have it. Not everything works out. But we feel it’s important to share, as there are other people out there working towards the same goal of creating green jobs and skills for young people. It’s inevitable that approaches will be duplicated, but that’s only a good thing if we know that those approaches work!

Taking the time to examine the successes and failures of different aspects of our work also acknowledges the complexity of what we are trying to do. If it was so easy, the world would be saved by now, and we’d all have green and decent jobs. Amirite? Complex problems need complex solutions, and I feel like we’re on our way to figuring some of those solutions out.


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