The challenges posed by current benefit changes, public sector cuts and wider economic recession have been described as a ‘perfect storm’. But do we, let alone politicians, really understand what that looks like to those living with the day-to-day reality?
Researcher Jane Perry has been working on a Sheffield programme being supported by Church Action on Poverty:
Two teams from Sheffield churches recently took up the challenge of listening more thoroughly to members of their communities. Even those who had lived and worked in their area for many years were surprised by the stories they heard and the difficulties people were facing in their everyday lives. They reflected that we very rarely give each other time and space to talk freely about the detail of our lives, and that most of us – particularly those living incredibly carefully on low incomes – are generally too proud to volunteer such information.
Sheffield Diocese’s ‘Listen Up!’ project aims to encourage and enable churches to listen to those most affected by changes to benefits and tax credits, to share their stories, and to inspire action. Through a series of careful one-to-one conversations with local people, information is collected about people’s lives and livelihoods, the resources they have at their disposal, and strategies they use to ‘get by’. Placed alongside a detailed understanding of the local context, these stories provide a powerful insight into the issues faced by local people, and the likely impact of welfare reform and wider economic change.
Even in the pilot phase, the discipline of listening carefully has produced immediate results. Participants reported feeling respected and clearly valued in a non-judgemental way. Community researchers described the privilege of hearing first-hand the reality of living with poverty: “the practical things that you only really see from close up”. Confirming what they had previously only suspected was happening in their community quickly signposted practical things that could be done response – in one area a social group for families who have children with disabilities, in the other the potential bringing together of single people who had reported feeling isolated and alone. And it doesn’t stop there – one local MP responded that he really needed to hear these stories, which he was honest enough to admit gave him a perspective on his community that he found very hard to gain in other ways. His local rector will now be only too happy and able to oblige.
Willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations also gave churches opportunities to build new relationships, bringing people from the wider community together to take action and challenge prejudice. Several community researchers talked movingly of the impact conversations had on them, reporting that whilst the stories they heard were often harrowing, the process overall had been incredibly rewarding. Their personal testimony, challenging misconceptions or glib statements about welfare recipients, in conversations with richer friends in their own lives, may be just as powerful as the most finely crafted research report.
‘Listen Up!’ is only at an early stage. Early findings from two churches are available here. Three more churches have embarked on the process, and we hope to have funding for three more. But already the process has enabled churches to forge new links with members of their communities, enabling them to bring respect to those who often only meet scorn, and in turn generating new awareness, connections and learning which will bring real change to what they do in the future.
We may aspire to walk in another’s shoes. But it might be better to just listen to them.
Jane Perry is a freelance social researcher, working in partnership with Sheffield Diocese and Church Action on Poverty on the Listen Up! project.
More findings from Listen Up! will be made available through this blog over the next weeks and months.
‘Listen Up!’ uses elements of our Sustainable Livelihoods approach to community development. You can click here to read or download our Sustainable Livelihoods toolkit, free.
If you’d like to know more about initiating a community listening project in your area through Church Action on Poverty’s ‘Partners to Close the Gap’ programme, please contact Liam Purcell.